Just after noon, an explosion like the crack of doom, louder than anyone had ever heard before, echoed across the Bay of Naples. Tens of thousands came onto the streets and looked towards the mountain. The great cone, green with vines on the lower slopes, grey and craggy towards the summit, loomed over the towns and villas along the shoreline and across the open plain to the south, huge and sinister from wherever you looked.
Public anxiety had been building for days. Aseries of tremors — reminiscent of the great quake of AD 62 — had already disturbed the autumn calm of the prosperous, genteel, somewhat smug communities of this Roman Riviera. Senators, equestrians, and nouveaux riches had their holiday homes here. Cohorts of trinket-makers, petty-traders, painters and decorators, confectioners, wine-sellers, and pimps made a handsome living. The more substantial farmers always found a ready market for any produce carted into town. Life was good in the shadow of Vesuvius. But those tremors. What did they portend? We know now: magma, liquid rock, millions of tons of it, was in motion underneath the Earth’s crust, rising from deep chambers towards the cone of the mountain, driven upwards by the squeezing of space as tectonic plates shifted and Africa moved ever so slightly closer to Europe. More ominous still had been some sort of explosion, either the previous night or earlier that morning, giving rise to a grey haze of fine ash on the mountain slopes. These had been the early warnings. Then came the big explosion, and now, gazing upwards at the mountain on that sunny afternoon, it was clear that something terrible was happening. The explosion had been followed by more, booming like the hammer of Vulcan at his forge. Vesuvius was changing shape, bits of the top blasted off, and a column of dense grey cloud was forming, unfolding upwards, rising ever higher, fuelled from below, as the mountain belched forth a gigantic spout of broiling ash and rock. The young Pliny, watching from his uncle’s house at Misenum on the opposite side of the bay, thought it looked like an umbrella pine, ‘for it rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches’. Norman Lewis, writing of the far more modest 1944 eruption, described it as ‘a great grey cloud, full of swellings and protuberances, like some colossal pulsating brain’. A later generation has compared the appearance of explosive volcanic eruptions to the mushroom cloud of the atomic bomb.
“Magma, liquid rock, millions of tons of it, was in motion underneath the Earth’s crust.”
Such was the force of successive explosions that some material was driven 10, 15, even 20 miles into the sky. But the bulk spread out into a vast cloud, several miles up — ‘sometimes white, sometimes blotched and dirty’ (Pliny again) — and this drifted, borne by a gentle wind, in the direction of Pompeii, seven miles to the south.
The Past | April/May 2021