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Could Pompeii Have Been Saved?

Karl Bryullov visited Pompeii in 1828 and made sketches depicting the AD 79 Vesuvius eruption.
Karl Bryullov visited Pompeii in 1828 and made sketches depicting the AD 79 Vesuvius eruption.

After the eruption of Mount Vesuvius 79CE, Pompeii was frozen in time. Upon learning of the city's fossilised citizens, a high concentration of whom were discovered along water-side boathouses at Herculaneum, one feels led to ask: could the people have been saved?


It can be argued that there was a relatively large time period during which the residents of Pompeii had the opportunity to escape to safer cities. Hereafter referred to as the “Omen Period,” this pocket of time stretches back to the first signs of volcanic activity in 62CE.


However, there was a point in time on the 24th of August 79CE in which all hope had been lost—to such an extent that Roman authorities could do nothing except calm those around them, as they watched the cities adjacent to Mount Vesuvius crumble. This will be dubbed the “Havoc Point.”


The Omen Period

 

The Omen Period has its knowable beginnings on the 5 February 62CE, coming all the way up until the day of the disaster itself.


The first sign of Mount Vesuvius’s reactivation took the form of an immense earthquake, striking the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca (Seneca the Younger) detailed the destruction in De Terrae Motu, the sixth book of his Naturales quaestiones.


He was credited with being one of Rome’s leading intellectual and political figures, and as such, it can be assumed that he would have reflected, to some extent, the thoughts of the majority at the time.


Seneca wrote that the earthquake “devastated all of the region and caused great destruction… what can anyone regard as sufficiently secure, if the world itself is shaken… this disaster spreads far and wide, inescapable…”


He refers to a series of aftershocks continuing for several days.


The death toll was likely in the thousands, and reconstruction would continue for years—through to the eruption itself.


Upon experiencing this, a significant amount of the population wisely fled the area. Many upper-class Romans had vacation houses in Pompeii, and as such it was a simple matter of not returning for a holiday. However, the town made repairs and, despite occasional seismic activity, life continued on as normal – the population remaining unperturbed for the most part.


But this is not what should have happened.


Vesuvius, Pompeii, Italy
Vesuvius, Pompeii, Italy

Roman Authorities Could Have Acted


One can be justified in taking the position that, during the Omen Period, Roman authorities should have acted to evacuate and relocate residents from the affected areas.


That this didn’t occur is evidence of the town's economic value as a flourishing trade centre and vacation location, and therefore also suggestive of Rome’s corrupt priorities. Seneca, in 65CE, echoes the arrogant mentality of the Roman people at the time when he writes, “When we are ignorant of the truth, everything is more terrifying… the causes of these phenomena deserve examination.”


Knowledge of the causes of the unknown entity would make the event no less horrific in 79CE. Based on this, one can be justified in claiming that the underlying assumption of Rome’s invincibility was what ultimately led to the tragedy at Pompeii.


Had priorities been different, and caution greater, Pompeii might have managed a tactical retreat, thereby having been saved.

 

There was more than enough time for Pompeii residents to move their business elsewhere, had they taken the 62CE earthquake seriously as the warning it was. Many people did, as discussed, and they evaded the eruption. However, many ignored the dramatic signs and found themselves unable to flee when it became necessary for them to do so.


Geologist Ann Pizzorusso wrote in an article that the strength of the earthquake was “comparable to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake which caused 3,000 deaths,” yet different in that Pompeii had a population of 20,000 at the time and was a compact city not built to endure earthquakes.


If this alone wasn’t a strong enough case for the danger of Pompeii’s location, the tremors that followed continuously should have sparked some revelation in the residents. In their book, Volcanoes in Human History, Jelle Zeilinga de Boer and Donald Theodore Sanders mention another warning quake that took place in 63CE, though it was minor in comparison.


LiveScience contributor, Mary Bagley, wrote that “seismic activity was so common in the area, citizens paid little attention in early August of 79 when several quakes shook the earth beneath Herculaneum and Pompeii.”


No one alive at the time was aware of any volcanoes in the area, as Mount Vesuvius had been dormant since the 8th century BCE. However, Mark Cartwright writes of noticeable strange happenings that occurred in the summer of 79CE:

“Fish floated dead in the Sarno, springs and wells inexplicably dried up and vines on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius mysteriously wilted and died. Seismic activity, although not strong, increased dramatically in frequency. Something was clearly not right.”

Very few took these signs to heart, with a vast majority of the population remaining unfazed over these events. Again, an argument can clearly be made in regard to the inaction of Roman authorities, who could have easily and safely assumed that another large and destructive earthquake was approaching that would merit evacuation.


A street in Pompeii
A street in Pompeii

The Havoc Point


Nothing could be done once the Havoc Point had set-in at midday.


The town and its residents were destroyed within 25 hours of Mount Vesuvius’ beginning to erupt. It has been estimated that approximately 2 000 Pompeian people died from the eruption of Vesuvius.


Two letters, written to historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus, give scholars today an account of the disaster as seen and understood by Pliny the Younger, the 18-year-old nephew of Pliny the Elder, who was 21 kilometres away in Misenum at the time, studying law. He can easily be considered a valid source, as he justifies himself in his first letter, adding that he was careful to rely on information that only he himself witnessed, or that which he received immediately after the incident.


In historical understanding, the reliability of a text increases as the time between the event and recording decreases, which is why it is valuable that Pliny gave this information.


In his first letter, he makes an account of his uncle receiving a written call for help from a friend, Rectina, who was distressed by the events around her, “for her villa lying at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, there was no way of escape but by sea.”


The navy commander ordered the galleys to be put out to sea, but as they approached the mountain, cinders “fell into the ships, together with pumice-stones, and black pieces of burning rock: they were in danger too not only of being aground by the sudden retreat of the sea, but also from the vast fragments with rolled down from the mountain, and obstructed all the shore.”


This passage in Pliny’s letter makes apparent that the people of Pompeii could only escape by sea, however the sea was not open to them as floating borders of pumice prohibited ships from travelling to and from the shore.


In his second letter, Pliny writes that the sea “seemed to roll back upon itself… and several sea animals were left upon [the shore].” This is best explained by a tsunami which was a likely result of the climax of the eruption.


In both accounts, the sea would not cooperate and was not an option for escape.


No Escape


The residents of Pompeii were trapped.

 

The morning of the 24th of August 79CE gave the residents their final warning with a thunderous bang, signalling, with fire and smoke, that magma had burst through the crater of Mount Vesuvius.


Very few people took their leave. By this point, it was too late for most people to leave—likely being too poor or were slaves/servants. Many of those who could have left but didn’t were local politicians.


Mark Cartwright, in his article, writes that the second explosion at midday, the time which one might consider the official Havoc Point, had a power that “has been calculated as 100,000 times greater than the nuclear bomb which devastated Hiroshima in 1945 CE.”


National Geographic explains that the citizens were suffocated by the toxic air full of ash, slaughtered by flying debris, and/or burned alive. According to The British Museum, by the next morning, every resident, that hadn’t successfully fled prior, would have been dead.


In Pompeii, most of the buildings collapsed under pumice stone, and the ash burial was five meters high. It was when ships could no longer dock that the Havoc Point was realised, and no Roman authority could take any action to save the citizens of Pompeii.


By Mentnafunangann - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35211316
By Mentnafunangann - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35211316

Could Pompeii Have Been Saved?

 

The people of Pompeii—and those in surrounding towns such as Herculaneum—had a decade of warning and opportunity to perform a tactical retreat.


The curiosity, corrupt priority and foolish resilience of the people living below and around Mount Vesuvius led to their demise. Had Roman authorities, after the devastation of the 62CE earthquake, taken the initiative to relocate the town to a more stable geographic area, the tragic result of nature’s volcanic eruption in 79CE would never have occurred.


In other words, Pompeii would have been saved.

 

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Originally published at The Walk.

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