August 24, 79 A.D. late afternoon – August 25, 4-6 am
The people who had survived so far wandered with difficulty in a land they no longer knew. The sound of the erupting mountain was deafening. The darkness which had turned day into night made seeing impossible. The dust and debris made breathing torturous. The crowds struggling with carts, animals, children and the elderly and infirm were all struggling to find safety. But instead, they found every avenue wrought with unimaginable perils.
The Pompeiians who had made their way out of the city hoping to escape by water soon found that this was impossible. The Sarno River, which was the river port of Pompeii in that era, was unnavigable due to the accumulation of floating pumice which, being full of air, did not sink, but rested on the surface of the water, making escape by boat impossible. Many of the fugitives who abandoned Pompeii and the immediate outskirts sought shelter in buildings used for storage along the Sarno River when they saw they could not escape by boat.
As the day wore on, the cities around the volcano were experiencing different phenomena and reacting accordingly.
*Herculaneum was plunged into darkness. Less than 8 inches of pumice had fallen on it, but it was affected by earthquakes and lightning. Its inhabitants, unnerved by noise and the violence of the eruption, started fleeing toward Naples.
*The areas east and west of the volcano suffered less than Pompeii.
The roads, trails, beaches and wharves were choked with people trying to exit Pompeii and the surrounding cities and villages along the coast. They wandered willy-nilly as no one knew which path was clear, secure or offered the best chance of survival. Those seeking to escape by sea found a myriad of problems, floating pumice, prevailing winds which caused the currents to be headed inland and even a tsunami which Pliny the Elder described in Latin as the “vadum subitum” (“the sudden retreat of the sea”). This retreat of the sea would be the cause of many fatalities in the ensuing hours. Those seeing that a sea route escape was impossible took shelter near the seaport in the area of present day Torre Annunziata.
It was around 2:30 pm when Pliny the Elder, still at Miseno, could not contain his fascination with the burning mountain across the bay. Having written extensively on natural history, he did not want to miss a moment of this once in a lifetime event. He ordered a Liburnian galley (a light boat with an elongated shape, narrowed at bow and stern, with two rows of oars) to be prepared and invited his nephew, Pliny the Younger to accompany him. His nephew declined, saying “he had homework to do.”
Just as Pliny was about to embark for Pompeii, an exhausted messenger arrived with a message from his friend Rectina, who lived in a villa possibly around Torre del Greco. She pleaded for his help, not only for herself, but for the many others who were stranded. The messenger told Pliny he had taken the land route around the Bay of Naples to reach Miseno as the currents in the bay, a result of the prevailing winds, were pushing toward the shore rendering it impossible for him to have come by boat. The messenger also recounted that several towns at the base of the mountain had no escape route but the sea. Pliny decided to expand his expedition and ordered a number of quadriremes be prepared to embark on a rescue mission. The prevailing winds would allow a speedy voyage to Pompeii.
As he made his way across the water, Pliny narrated his observations to a scribe who had accompanied him. He described the cloud from the explosion as resembling an umbrella pine, what we might call a mushroom cloud.
Arriving near Pompeii (most likely between Oplontis and Torre del Greco) Pliny could see the refugees on the beach crying for help. They were relieved to see the Roman ships coming in their direction and they waited in joyous expectation to embark and sail away from the inferno. To Pliny’s horror, he soon realized that he could not land. Not to help his friend Rectina or to rescue the masses crowding the shoreline. The problems were several: the ships were being pummeled by pumice and the sea had retreated.
In some places the depth of the floating pumice reached 3 feet. Not only was the sea filled, but the ships themselves were being loaded with pumice and burning volcanic debris. The weight of the material threatened to sink or burn the ships. At one point Pliny’s ship sank so low in the water that but for a fraction of an inch it would have been flooded and sunk. Trying to row in the pumice-filled water was useless, the blades flailed helplessly across it, and unable to bring any pressure to bear the ships started to drift aimlessly. The V formation in which the ships had sailed from Miseno disintegrated as they battled to save themselves. Attempts to turn back were futile; it was impossible to row, especially against the prevailing current.
Pliny and the crew were forced to take refuge below deck to escape the fiery bombardment. Once below deck, the ship was struck by lightning (a phenomena commonly associated volcanic eruptions). However, after a short time, the captain realized that they would be entombed in a mass of rubble if they did not try to free the ship.
They tried to open the hatch, but it was nearly impossible to move. With great effort they finally were able to reach the main deck and worked furiously to rid the ship of as much debris as possible. Meanwhile the crew struggled to free the ship, using every ounce of power they had left to lift the oars.
Miraculously, the current nudged the foundering ship in the direction of Stabia. Since Pliny could not go back because of the winds, and could not disembark, he decided to follow the coastline and make landfall at Stabia (14 km. south of Vesuvius) where he could stay with his friend Pomponianus. The landing was not easy, because even here the sea was filled with pumice and burning cinders.
Stabiae, View of a harbor town, 1st century BC – 1st century AD Fresco, Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli
Finally, Pliny was able to disembark at Stabia and make his way to his friend Pomponianus’ villa. There, he bathed and had dinner. He noticed several flashes of fire on the slopes of Vesuvius and explained them as farms burning. He bid his hosts good night and retired as if nothing were amiss. During the night however, falling debris was accumulating on the roof. Pomponianus awakened Pliny as he was afraid the roof would collapse. Everyone tied pillows on their heads; scant protection as they made their way out to the nearby shore. The short trip proved perilous as the air was thick with dust, gas and burning cinders. Pliny, being corpulent, found it hard to continue. He asked to rest and lie down on the ground for a moment. And thus, in an instant, Pliny shared a fate that many had experienced that day, he was immediately asphyxiated by the toxic gases which had accumulated close to the ground.
While Pliny’s life was over, thousands of wandering people wondered what would happen to them. Little did they know that the worst was yet to come.
Read Pliny the Younger’s letters describing the eruption and death of Pliny the Elder.
Ann Pizzorusso is a geologist and Italian Renaissance scholar. After many years of doing virtually everything in the world of geology (drilling for oil, hunting for gems, cleaning up pollution in soil and groundwater) she turned her geologic skills toward Leonardo da Vinci. See her work on Leonardo’s Geology. You can find Ann on Facebook at Leonardo da Vinci Virgin of the Rocks and on Twitter @VirginoftheRock.