Mount Vesuvius – Italy

Mount Vesuvius is a massive volcano overlooking the Gulf of Naples and several nearby towns.  Its eruption on August 24th of 79AD resulted in the death of thousands in the towns of Herculaneum, Pompeii, Oplontis and Stabiae.  Today, it is considered by many historians to be the most famous and important volcanic eruption in history.  There are two reasons for this:

  1. The eruption buried the towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii in volcanic ash.  The cities and the remains of the inhabitants were preserved in a remarkable way.  As a result, we know a great deal about 1st Century Roman life – and the culture of the world to which the Gospel was first brought.
  2. A Roman historian named Pliny the Younger witnessed and recorded the event.  He recounted in detail the volcanic activities that took place as the eruption occurred.   As such, it is the first thorough eyewitness (and scientific) record of what took place during such a phenomena.  

Ahead of the eruption in 79AD, there was a series of earthquakes.  In fact, the ones in 62 and 64AD resulted in enough damage to Pompeii and the environs, that repair work was still taking place at the time of the eruption.  In the weeks prior to the eruption, springs and wells began to dry up. The earth began to crack with fissures. The sea became increasingly turbulent, and animal life fled the area.

Around lunchtime on that fateful August day, Vesuvius began 19 consecutive hours of eruptions.  The mountain began to immediately spew out poisonous gas. It is believed that the toxic fumes killed the roughly 5,000 inhabitants of Herculaneum fairly quickly.  Subsequent lava flow would bury the town under 75 feet of molten material.  

While the resort areas of Herculaneum and Stabiae met their ends perhaps within minutes, the larger port town of Pompeii still had some hours to evacuate.   Many did not though.

For the next eight hours, volcanic ash and rock was dropped on Pompeii and collected as high as 13 feet deep.  Roofs collapsed and buildings caved in. At the time, the city is believed to have had as many as 20,000 residents.

Afterwards, the mountain began to produce a superheated stream of mud and lava.  It took as little as 4 minutes for the boiling mud to reach Pompeii – it is estimated to have traveled down the volcano at 60mph rate of speed.  Like Herculaneum, Pompeii was buried almost entirely under lava and ash.
Prior to the events of August 24th, Pompeii had a large port as a result of the Sarno River and the coastline coming in from the Gulf of Naples.  After the blast, the flow of the river was permanently altered and the port area was completely filled in with earthen material.

Historical Significance

As mentioned earlier, the Vesuvius event was the first well-documented volcanic eruption in history.  Pliny the Younger was a Roman naturalist and historian who resided in the town of Misenum at the time.  His uncle, Pliny the Elder, had reared him and brought him along when he took command of the Roman Fleet stationed there.

After the eruptions began, Pliny the Elder tried to organize an evacuation of the towns being pounded by the ash raining down on them. He lost his life in the process.   Shortly afterwards, a Roman historian named Tacitus, requested of Pliny the Younger an accounting of his uncle’s death. This record becomes vital to history and indeed, the study of volcanology.

“He (Pliny the Elder) was at that time with the fleet under his command at Misenum. On the 24th of August, about one in the afternoon, my mother desired him to observe a cloud, which appeared of a very unusual size and shape. He had just taken a turn in the sun and, after bathing himself in cold water, and making a light luncheon, gone back to his books: he immediately arose and went out upon a rising ground from whence he might get a better sight of this very uncommon appearance. A cloud, from which mountain was uncertain, at this distance (but it was found afterwards to come from Mount Vesuvius), was ascending, the appearance of which I cannot give you a more exact description of than by likening it to that of a pine tree, for it shot up to a great height in the form of a very tall trunk, which spread itself out at the top into a sort of branches; occasioned, I imagine, either by a sudden gust of air that impelled it, the force of which decreased as it advanced upwards, or the cloud itself being pressed back again by its own weight, expanded in the manner I have mentioned; it appeared sometimes bright and sometimes dark and spotted, according as it was either more or less impregnated with earth and cinders. This phenomenon seemed to a man of such learning and research as my uncle extraordinary and worth further looking into…”

Pliny the Younger, Letter of Pliny to Tacitus

Pliny the Younger describes in the course of his letters, the sequence of events associated with the eruption.  The detail is exacting and as a result, modern volcanology has born him out as an accurate historian.

The first phase involved dust, ash, cinders, and rock (materials referred to as “tephra”) being thrown high into the atmosphere.  This stage lasted for hours on Vesuvius. No lava initially flowed, but the amount of debris ejected into the sky was enormous. Pliny likens the mushroom cloud to a “pine tree”.

The plume rising from Mount Vesuvius is conjectured to have reached into the stratosphere to a towering height of 66,000 feet.  Today, volcanologists refer to this stage of eruption as the “plinian” stage – named after Pliny the Younger.

Next, Pliny describes what is tantamount to a superheated cloud of steam, poisonous gas, and mud that flew out of the mountain.  Today, we refer to what he was describing as “pyroclastic flow”.  These molten streams hug the ground and can travel along at great speeds.  The temperatures of such pyroclastic flows can reach nearly 2,000 °F.

Scriptural Significance

Pliny the Younger is significant because of the following:

  • He shows that Christ was a historical person in the 1st Century well understood by the Roman Government … he presumes the existence of Christ
  • He shows that Christians were persecuted by the Roman Empire in keeping with the accounts laid out in the Book of Acts