What lies beneath

editor's pick


The destruction of the Ancient Roman city of Pompeii, in Western Italy near the Bay of Naples, is one of the most tragic and infamous natural disasters in human history. On August 24, 79 CE, Mount Vesuvius, a nearby volcano, erupted, shooting a scorching cloud of thick and heavy ash, toxic gas and burning cinders 20 miles into the sky, which, a survivor said, buried the city “as if it had snowed.”

Over the course of two days, thousands of people were killed. The Discovery Channel feature “Pompeii: The Last Day” established that residents died instantly of thermal shock after being “wrapped in a 900-degree Fahrenheit cloud.”

According to the Superintendence for Archaeological Heritage of Naples and Pompeii, Pliny the Younger, a lawyer and writer who witnessed the eruption, wrote that “a black and terrible cloud, rent by snaking bursts of fire, gaped open in huge flashes of flames” and covered the city. When night fell, he said it was not the kind of darkness common when there is no moon or the sky is cloudy, “but a night like being in a closed place with the lights out.”

The rest of the story is fairly well known. The city and its people lay buried for nearly 1,700 years until an archaeological expedition unearthed the site in 1748. Victims were found in a preserved state, some clutching their most treasured possessions.

Few, however, may be aware that before its destruction, Pompeii was a prosperous city filled with commerce, running water, luxurious crops, famous wine and a sizable population. On Saturday, Oct. 30, at the Penn Museum, C. Brian Rose, a professor of classical studies at Penn and curator-incharge of the Museum’s Mediterranean Section, discusses “Pompeii 79 CE: The Treasure of Rediscovery.”

The talk provides an overview of what Pompeii was like 2,000 years ago and considers the colorful lives of its 18thcentury excavators.

Originally published on October 28, 2010