Naples: Life, Death & Miracles  © 2002-2017       contact:     Jeff Matthews  
home & index 1     -->  2
eyes of

link to a Google search page HERE

main index   © Jeff Matthews   entry Feb. 2011

Mount Vesuvius: the Good Old Days

old print of Vesuvius

It has been a while since I peeked out of my window in the morning and saw a Vesuvius that looks like this. It's a reconstruction that shows the volcano before the eruption of 79 A.D. (That event is now called the "first eruption," but that should be understood in context: i.e. (1) before that eruption, the volcano was generally called something else [see this link ] and (2) it had merely been quiet for a long time. Such a reconstruction is based on historical descriptions that have survived from before that famous "Pompeiian" eruption.

(The print, above, and the texts of the historical descriptions set off below are from a charming book called Rambles in Naples, An Archaeological and Historical Guide by S. Russel Forbes, 4th edition enlarged, London. T. Nelson and Sons, Paternoster Row. 1893.)

If only the Greek historian and geographer, Strabo (64 BC-24 AD), had lived a while longer he might have seen that Vesuvius was not just an old dead giant "extinguished for want of fuel." He wrote in his Geography:
Above these places rises Vesuvius, well cultivated and inhabited all round, except its top, which is for the most part level, and entirely barren, ashy to the view, displaying cavernous hollows incineritious rocks, which look as if they had been eaten in the fire; so that we may suppose this spot to have been a volcano formerly, with burning craters, now extinguished for want of fuel.
We can't fault him for that. It looked like a hospitable place. Before the first "big one," you could treat it like any other mountain, which is, indeed, what Spartacus and his minions did in 73 BC when they climbed out of the not quite extinct crater on vines to escape a Roman ambush and come up on the enemy from the rear. Quite clearly, the Romans knew that Vesuvius had been eruptive at some time or another. The Romans did know about volcanoes. Pliny the Elder even wrote about them in his Natural History, but Vesuvius seemed so innocuous that his list of Italian volcanoes didn't even mention itthe volcano that ultimately killed him.      

In any event, later historians, such as Dion Cassius, (155 AD-c.230 AD) had the benefit of all that hindsight and wrote in a bit more detail. In his Life of Titus (book 56), he has a description of the great eruption. He writes from a "we now know" point of view and I include it here because of the brief reference to what Vesuvius was said to have been like before 79 AD.
During the autumn a great fire broke out in Campania. Vesuvius is a mountain on the coast near Naples, which contains inexhaustible fountains of fire; and formerly it was all of the same height, and fire rose in the middle of it (for the only traces of fire were in the middle), but the outer parts remain unscathed to this day. Hence, these continue, but the centre is dried up and reduced to ashes. the encircling crags still retain their ancient height, but the burnt part being consumed, in lapse of time has settled down and become hollow, so that, to compare small things to great, the whole mountain now resembles an amphitheatre. And the tops are clothed with trees and vines; but the circular cavity is abandoned to fire, and by day it sends up smoke, and by night flame, so that one would think all sort of incense vessels were burning there. This continues always with more or less violence, and often, after any considerable subsidence, it casts up ashes and stones, impelled by violent blasts of wind, with a loud noise and roaring, because its breathing-holes are not set close together but are few and concealed.

Such is Vesuvius, and these things take place in it almost every year. But all eruptions which have happened since, though they may have appeared unusually great to those even who have been accustomed to such sights, would be trifling, even if collected into one, when compared to what occurred at the time of which we speak. Many huge men surpassing human stature, such as the giants are described to have been, appeared wandering in the air and upon the earth, at one time frequenting the mountain, at another the fields and cities in its neighbourhood. Afterwards came great droughts and violent earthquakes, so that the whole plain boiled and bubbled, and the hills leapt, and there were noises under ground like thunder, and above ground like roaring; and the sea made a noise, and the heavens sounded, and then suddenly a mighty crash was heard, as if the mountains were coming together; and first great stones were thrown up to the very summits, then mighty fires and immense smoke, so that the whole air was overshadowed, and the sun entirely hidden, as in an eclipse. Thus day was turned into night, and light into darkness...

main index        Other entries on Vesuvius here in index under -V      to Ancient World portal