Cloud Law up in the clouds


The End of Pompeii and Herculaneum (August 24-25, A.D. 79) Part 3 of 3

As the eruption grew more violent, the earthquakes grew stronger as written by Pliny the Younger: “But that night the shaking grew much stronger; people thought it was an upheaval, not just a tremor. My mother burst into my room and I got up. I said she should rest, and I would rouse her (sc. if need be). We sat out on a small terrace between the house and the sea. I sent for a volume of Livy (Titius Livius (59 B.C.-A.D. 17)); I read and even took notes from where I had left off, as if it were a moment of free time; I hardly know whether to call it bravery, or foolhardiness (I was seventeen at the time). Up comes a friend of my uncle's, recently arrived from Spain. When he sees my mother and me sitting there, and me even reading a book, he scolds her for her calm and me for my lack of concern. But I kept on with my book.”[45]

Yet despite the terror in Pompeii and Stabiae, Herculaneum remained relatively unscathed. The town, being “upwind” of the volcano was coated only in a light layer of ash – 8 inches compared to the 12 feet that covered Pompeii.[46] However things were soon to be different as the old day ended and the new day dawned. At about 11:30 PM the situation began to change “when the lower levels of [Vesuvius’] subterranean magma chamber, the gas-rich, volatile material that had sustained the eruption cloud”[47] were reaching the point of depletion, which occurred about one-and-a-half hours later.

By midnight, the volcanic cloud “reached almost 19 miles into the sky, [as the volcano was ejecting 150,000 tons of lapilli and ash per second][48] and torrents of lava [began to pour down] Vesuvius[49] [as magma violently tore rocks away from the side of the vent, creating a wide ‘caldera’].”[50] “Then came a smell of sulfur, announcing the flames…”[51] “It grew lighter, though that seemed not a return of day, but a sign that the fire was approaching. The fire itself actually stopped some distance away, but darkness and ashes came again, a great weight of them. We stood up and shook the ash off again and again, otherwise we would have been covered with it and crushed by the weight. I might boast that no groan escaped me in such perils, no cowardly word, but that I believed that I was perishing with the world, and the world with me, which was a great consolation for death.”[52] Back where Pliny the Elder was, “…the flames themselves, [while] sending others into flight… [revived] him. Supported by two small slaves he stood up, and immediately collapsed. As I understand it, his breathing was obstructed by the dust-laden air, and his innards, which were never strong and often blocked or upset, simply shut down,” Pliny the Younger wrote.[53]

Lapilli and ash poured down at a rate of about 6 inches per hour. Everywhere southeast of the volcano was covered in volcanic debris driven by the strong northwest winds. Roofs collapsed killing people sheltering indoors. Others fleeing through the streets were “struck down by rocks, [tephra], falling tiles [and slates] or collapsing masonry”[54] while still others, standing on the shores of the Bay of Naples desperately tried to protect themselves with their hands, cloaks, and other makeshift shields as “a group of priests… abandoned their… meal of fish and eggs…; some were struck down when a portico collapsed on top of them, while most others were asphyxiated in a building where they sought shelter.”[55] Some screamed in terror as they attempted to flee the deadly storm of falling tephra, rocks, and ash while the injured writhed in pain. With all hope lost, a mother made a feeble attempt to protect her child with her body. It was to no avail.

An hour later, at 1:00 AM on August 25, the top of Vesuvius was “blown off”[56] in a violent explosion. The “volcanic column” quickly collapsed “in an avalanche of boiling gases, pumice and rocks”[57] sending a lethal 900°F pyrrhic cloud (nuée ardente) into Herculaneum, the first of six surges to strike the town, killing all remaining inhabitants, almost all of whom were alive up to this point. It killed adults, some still clutching money, jewelry and other valuables, along with children and babies, and the gladiators who had been training at the amphitheater, within a fraction of a second. About 80 people cowered in a dozen beachfront chambers and storerooms and close to 300 hid under the vaulted archways of the town’s “public baths overlooking the sea”[58] – children tightly clutching their parents and brothers and sisters holding tightly onto each other, fearful of the molten lava and boiling mud that was pouring out from Vesuvius.

Elsewhere on a beach just outside of Herculaneum, Lupercus Augusti, an imperial slave, clutched a bronze seal with his name and status, as he stood among a number of people including a Roman soldier dressed in armor, a young man whose arm was draped around his girlfriend to comfort her, aristocratic women wearing their jewelry, people lying on the sand to get a few moments of sleep, and small clustered groups of people in discussion as they watched the “torrents of hot mud [that] were spewing out of Mt. Vesuvius.”[59] All were “killed instantly by thermal shock” without time to “display… self-protective reaction or agony contortions [or] any reaction” to their impending deaths.[60] Some were sent flying into a tangled, heap of bodies from the force of the pyrrhic cloud. “Even people sheltered from the direct impact” perished.[61] Within seconds a pyroclastic flow of glowing lava, rock, and ash covered the resort town.

Additional surges followed from 1:00 AM-6:00 AM with a second pyrrhic cloud hitting Herculaneum at 2:00 AM, and a third at 5:30 AM, after deflecting off the walls built to protect Pompeii from a military attack. An hour later, a small pyrrhic cloud reached Pompeii, “asphyxiating many who “breathed in [its] hot gas and incandescent ash.”[62] Among the victims was dog that had been “chained to a post and struggled for hours, ‘scrabbling upward as stones filled [the area]’ before succumbing… – ‘suffocating when it reached the end of its leash’”[63] and another dog that merely curled up and fell into an eternal sleep with little sign of suffering. Just north of Pompeii, a slave whose flight was hindered by a chain clamped to his leg and another person who likely tried to assist, also perished, overcome by the volcano’s “ash and toxic gases” as they progressed up a dirt road.[64] It was followed by several large earthquakes. By this time, “about [8 feet] of hot ash lay in the [town’s] streets.[65] It was the start of the volcano’s deadliest phase as “heavier magma from deeper down made its way to the surface.”[66]

As Vesuvius entered its deadliest phase, a group of 13 Pompeiians who had been hunkered down for the last 12 hours in a small portico that had been converted into a wine cellar, decided to attempt an escape when they noticed that it was becoming difficult to breathe. Initially, the group, which among them, included a pregnant woman and a young boy, had decided to ride out the eruption in this shelter, nicknamed, “The House of the Fugitives.”[67] While a rich person brought a meticulously packed wicker basket of silver dinnerware, others brought items for survival – amphorae (two-handled jugs) of water, ceramic lamps, and walnuts.

As they climbed the stairs, proceeding in a single file, the group came upon an endless wall of ash. Upon discovering that their shelter had been completely buried, they faced two choices – return to the wine cellar and suffocate slowly or take a chance to reach fresh air. The task though was impossible. As they held their breaths and struggled and groped their way up the stairs, they collapsed “one after the other”[68] and suffocated in the opaque endless wall of volcanic ash. Out of the group, only one person made it close to the roof – but he too, collapsed and died without reaching fresh air.

It was about this time that the people of Misenum decided to flee. With the earthquakes growing more violent, everyone decided to leave as recorded by the teenaged witness: “Now the day begins, with a still hesitant and almost lazy dawn. All around us buildings are shaken. We are in the open, but it is only a small area and we are afraid, nay certain, that there will be a collapse. We decided to leave the town finally; a dazed crowd follows us, preferring our plan to their own (this is what passes for wisdom in a panic). Their numbers are so large that they slow our departure, and then sweep us along. We stopped once we had left the buildings behind us.”[69]

Then at 7:30 AM, a huge intense pyroclastic surge ranging from 750°F-1475°F blasted through Pompeii’s walls “like a red-hot sandstorm… [that swept away] the nine-foot thickness of pumice that had previously fallen.”[70] It rolled into Pompeii instantly extinguishing all remaining life, among them a man who was resigned to his fate and “seemed to be sleeping, his head resting peacefully on his forearm [with] his eyes closed, [others with ‘agonized facial expressions’],[71] [the high-class prostitute], a beggar [who] lay beside the sack in which he had been collecting alms; on his feet were a pair of incongruously elegant sandals, no doubt a gift from some wealthy benefactor, a servant… as he [tried to lead] a mother and her two sons toward safety; in his hand was the bag in which he had salvaged provisions from the wreckage of the household, [an] individual [who] had sought refuge by climbing a tree… with the snapped branch to which he had been clinging still firmly gripped between his legs, and a “determined individual [who] had tried to fight his way out; he used an axe to cut his way successively through [a] building’s partition walls, only to meet his fate when he came up against an impenetrable barrier of lava,”[72] and a family of 12 who had sat in the darkness of their house hearing the “groans of the dying and shrieks of the terrified, noises from the mountain, [and] the sound of roofs collapsing” after their initial attempt to escape through the falling lapilli had failed.[73] It was quickly followed by “a pyroclastic flow of gas, ash, and rock” that took about 6 minutes to reach the town from the lip of Vesuvius’ crater as it “rolled, hugging the ground.” “Walls were thrown down, columns toppled, [tops of houses were sheared off], tiles shot… [through] the streets [and] …wooden timbers, doors and shutters [were carbonized].”[74] This surge was followed by subsequent surges throughout the day that also left “Stabiae and Oplontis buried in ash and pumice.”[75] By 8:00 AM Herculaneum and Pompeii lay in deathly silence. Herculaneum was buried under 65 feet of pyroclastic deposits, Stabiae under between 9-20 feet of ash and pumice, and Pompeii under 9 feet of pumice, another 6-10 feet of pyroclastic deposits, and about 21 feet of ash.

“…it buried two entire cities, Herculaneum and Pompeii; the latter place while its populace was seated in the theatre. Indeed, the amount of dust, taken all together, was so great that some of it reached Africa and Syria and Egypt, and it also reached Rome, filling the air overhead and darkening the sun. There, too, no little fear was occasioned, that lasted for several days, since the people did not know and could not imagine what had happened, but, like those close at hand, believed that the whole world was being turned upside down, that the sun was disappearing into the earth and that the earth was being lifted to the sky,” Dio Cassius wrote,[76] while Roman Poet Marcus Valerius Martialis (c. A.D. 40-A.D. 104) wrote in Epigram 4:44 in A.D. 91, “Observe Vesuvius. Not long ago it was covered with the grapevine’s green shade, and a famous grape wet, nay drowned the vats here. Bacchus loved the shoulders of this mountain more than the hills of Nysa [his birthplace], satyrs used to join their dances here. Here was a haunt of Venus, more pleasant than Lacedaemon to her, here was a place where Hercules left his name. It all lies buried by flames and mournful ash. Even the gods regret that their powers extended to this.”[77]

Furthermore, “as the discharge of magma cracked and collapsed the rocks overlying [the volcano’s] emptied chambers… shocks rippled across the bay. The sea was sucked back and hurled at the beaches in seismic [tsunamis].”[78] “Strange things” began to happen, Pliny the Younger wrote. “Many strange things happened to us there, and we had much to fear. The carts that we had ordered brought were moving in opposite directions, though the ground was perfectly flat, and they wouldn't stay in place even with their wheels blocked by stones. In addition, it seemed as though the sea was being sucked backwards, as if it were being pushed back by the shaking of the land. Certainly the shoreline moved outwards, and many sea creatures were left on dry sand. Behind us were frightening dark clouds, rent by lightning twisted and hurled, opening to reveal huge figures of flame. These were like lightning, but bigger. At that point the Spanish friend urged us strongly: ‘If your brother and uncle is alive, he wants you to be safe. If he has perished, he wanted you to survive him. So why are you reluctant to escape?’ We responded that we would not look to our own safety as long as we were uncertain about his. Waiting no longer, he took himself off from the danger at a mad pace. It wasn't long thereafter that the cloud stretched down to the ground and covered the sea. It girdled Capri and made it vanish, it hid Misenum's promontory. Then my mother began to beg and urge and order me to flee however I might, saying that a young man could make it, that she, weighed down in years and body, would die happy if she escaped being the cause of my death. I replied that I wouldn't save myself without her, and then I took her hand and made her walk a little faster. She obeyed with difficulty, and blamed herself for delaying me.

Now came the dust, though still thinly. I look back: a dense cloud looms behind us, following us like a flood poured across the land. ‘Let us turn aside while we can still see, lest we be knocked over in the street and crushed by the crowd of our companions.’ We had scarcely sat down when a darkness came that was not like a moonless or cloudy night, but more like the black of closed and unlighted rooms. You could hear women lamenting, children crying, men shouting. Some were calling for parents, others for children or spouses; they could only recognize them by their voices. Some bemoaned their own lot, others that of their near and dear. There were some so afraid of death that they prayed for death. Many raised their hands to the gods, and even more believed that there were no gods any longer and that this was one last unending night for the world. Nor were we without people who magnified real dangers with fictitious horrors. Some announced that one or another part of Misenum had collapsed or burned; lies, but they found believers.”[79]

Subsequently, when the eruption ended and the dark volcanic cloud began to dissipate at about 1:00 PM, Pliny the Younger wrote, “At last the cloud thinned out and dwindled to no more than smoke or fog. Soon there was real daylight. The sun was even shining, though with the lurid glow it has after an eclipse. The sight that met our still terrified eyes was a changed world, buried in ash like snow. We returned to Misenum and took care of our bodily needs, but spent the night dangling between hope and fear. Fear was the stronger, for the earth was still quaking and a number of people who had gone mad were mocking the evils that had happened to them and others with terrifying prognostications. We still refused to go until we heard news of my uncle, although we had felt danger and expected more.”[80] Two days later, they had their answer – “When daylight came [with ash and pumice covering 186 sq. miles of land around the volcano, having transformed the entire Sarnus Valley] … his body was found untouched, unharmed, in the clothing that he had had on. He looked more asleep than dead”[81] as did all of Pompeii and Herculaneum, when they were unearthed nearly 1700 years later.

“I sing these words to you… on the Cumaean shore where Vesuvius sends up a broken anger, upwhirling fires emulous of Etna. In a future generation, when crops spring up again, when this wasteland regains its green, will men believe that cities lie beneath?” Publius Statius asked in Book IV, Chapter IV of Silvae.[82] In the words of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 121-A.D. 180), Pompeii and Herculaneum were “entirely dead,”[83] abandoned and forgotten. Yet artifacts such as paintings, frescoes, and cavities where victims had perished and decayed in the ash, remained intact providing proof that at one time these towns were full of breath and life.


[45]Pliny Letter 6.20. 30 April 2006.

[46]Joan Jahnige. Eruption of Vesuvius. January 2004. 30 April, 2006.

[47]Bonnie S. Lawrence, Project Editor. Restless Earth. (Washington, D.C.: The National Geographic Society, 1997), p. 192.

[48]AD 79 – Vesuvius explodes. 5 of May, 2006.

[49]Rosella Lorenzi. The Long, Deathly Silence. 2 May, 2006. [50]AD 79 – Vesuvius explodes. 5 of May, 2006.

[51]Pliny Letter 6.16. 30 April 2006.

[52]Pliny Letter 6.20. 30 April 2006.

[53]Pliny Letter 6.16. 30 April 2006.

[54]AD 79 – Vesuvius explodes. 5 of May, 2006.

[55]Tony Allan. Secrets Of The Ancient Dead. (London: Duncan Baird Publishers, 2004), p. 92.

[56]Mount Vesuvius. 2006. 2 May, 2006.

[57]Joan Jahnige. Eruption of Vesuvius. January 2004. 30 April, 2006.

[58]Nigel Cawthorne. 100 Catastrophic Disasters. (New York: Barnes & Noble Publishing, Inc., 2003) 152.

[59]Rosella Lorenzi. The Long, Deathly Silence. 2 May, 2006.

[60]Rosella Lorenzi. The Long, Deathly Silence. 2 May, 2006.

[61]Helen Briggs. Vesuvius victims ‘died instantly.’ April 11, 2001. 2 May, 2006.

[62]AD 79 – Vesuvius explodes. 5 of May, 2006.

[63]Vesuvius, Italy. 5 May, 2006.

[64]Jason Urbanus. More Vesuvius Victims. Newsbriefs March/April 2003. 5 May, 2006.


[66]AD 79 – Vesuvius explodes. 5 of May, 2006.

[67]Mr. Sedivy. Historical Background: The Ancient City of Pompeii. Highlands Ranch High School (Highlands Ranch, Colorado) 8 May, 2006.

[68]Regio I Garden of Fugitives. 8 May, 2006.

[69]Pliny Letter 6.20. 30 April 2006.

[70]Bonnie S. Lawrence, Project Editor. Restless Earth. (Washington, D.C.: The National Geographic Society, 1997), p. 192.

[71]Bonnie S. Lawrence, Project Editor. Restless Earth. (Washington, D.C.: The National Geographic Society, 1997), p. 192.

[72]Tony Allan. Secrets Of The Ancient Dead. (London: Duncan Baird Publishers, 2004), p. 92.

[73]Rosella Lorenzi. The Long, Deathly Silence. 2 May, 2006.

[74]AD 79 – Vesuvius explodes. 5 of May, 2006.

[75]Joan Jahnige. Eruption of Vesuvius. January 2004. 30 April, 2006.

[76]Dio Cassius. The Eruption of Vesuvius that buried Pompei, “Roman History Epitome of Book LXVI” (A.D. 203) 2 May, 2006.*.html

[77]Marcus Valerius Martialis. Epigram 4 :44. A.D. 91. 4 May, 2006.

[78]AD 79 – Vesuvius explodes. 5 of May, 2006.

[79]Pliny Letter 6.20. 30 April 2006.

[80]Pliny Letter 6.20. 30 April 2006.

[81]Pliny Letter 6.16. 30 April 2006.

[82]Publius Papinius Statius. Silvae, Book IV Chapter IV “Epistula ad Vitorium Marcellum.” 1 May 2006.

[83]Marcus Aurelius. The Meditations. A.D. 167. 4 May, 2006.
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