Discovery of New Worlds - M. B. Synge

The Destruction of Pompeii

"Those streets which never, since the days of yore,

By human footstep had been visited."


In the days of the Emperor Titus a catastrophe, among the most awful in ancient history, occurred under the still smoking mountain of Vesuvius. For suddenly, without note or warning, two entire cities—Pompeii and Herculaneum—were wiped from the face of the earth. They were buried alive, and the people perished as they were pursuing their daily work and pleasure, by the eruption of the volcano in their midst. "Day was turned into night and light into darkness: an inexpressible quantity of dust and ashes was poured out, deluging land, sea, air, and burying two entire cities, while the people were sitting in the theatre." So writes an old historian.

Pompeii was an old town near the sea-coast of southern Italy, in a beautiful region under the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. It had been a Greek colony in the old days, when the Greeks occupied most of this part. But at this time—79 A.D.—it had been a Roman colony for some twenty-four years, and was a favourite resort of the Romans. It was a miniature Rome, with its tiny palaces, its forum, its theatre, its circus; a miniature Rome, too, in its luxury, its indolence, its very corruption. Crowded in the glassy bay outside were ships of commerce, and gilded galleys for the pleasure of the rich citizens, while the tall masts of the Roman fleet under the command of Pliny could be seen afar off.

It was the 23rd of November, and the afternoon was wearing on, when from the top of Vesuvius rose a lofty column of black smoke which, after rising high into the air, spread itself out into a cloud in the shape of a giant pine-tree. As the afternoon advanced the cloud increased in size and density, while the mountain cast up ashes and red-hot stones.

Panic-stricken, the inhabitants fled from the city, knowing not which way to turn. By this time the earth was trembling beneath them, and shock after shock of earthquake rent the ground. Darkness now came on, and all through that long black night the terror-stricken people must have made their way towards the seashore and along the coast. The account of these days has come to us, vivid in detail, from the pen of Pliny, who was an eyewitness of the whole thing, and whose uncle, commanding the Roman fleet at the time, died, suffocated by the vapour and flames from the burning mountain.

"Though it was now morning," says Pliny, who was with his mother some fourteen miles from the doomed city of Pompeii, "the light was exceedingly faint and languid. The buildings all around us tottered, and there was a great risk of our being overwhelmed. Then at last we decided on leaving the town. The mass of the inhabitants followed us, terror-stricken, pressing on us and pushing us forwards with their crowded ranks. When we got beyond the buildings we stopped in the midst of a most dangerous and dreadful scene. The sea seemed to roll back upon itself as if driven from its banks by the quaking of the earth, while a black and dreadful cloud, broken by zig-zags of flame, darted out a long train of fire like flashes of lightning, only much larger. The ashes now began to fall upon us. I turned my head and observed behind us a thick smoke, which came rolling after us like a torrent.

"Meanwhile the cloud descended and covered land and sea with a black darkness.

" 'Save yourself,' now begged Pliny's mother, thinking this was the end. 'I am old and content to die, provided I am not the cause of your death too.'

" 'I will only be saved with you,' answered young Pliny, taking her hand and urging her onwards."

Another shower of ashes and a dense mist now closed them in, and soon night came on. They could hear the shrieks of the women, the children crying for help, and the shouts of the men through the darkness. Ashes and fire still rained down upon them, until at last the dreary night was over. Day dawned; the sun shone faintly through the murky atmosphere, showing the whole country lying under a thick coating of white ashes, as under deep snow.

Though a great number of people escaped, some two thousand were buried by the ashes that completely covered the whole town. For the next fifteen hundred years the buried cities lay wrapped in sleep, their very existence forgotten, their site undiscovered.

Then, in the sixteenth century, a great Italian engineer built an aqueduct right through the ruins of Pompeii. But it was not till two hundred years later that any real discovery took place. Then, by royal orders, men began to dig out the buried ruins of the old towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. From that day to this digging has gone on at intervals, until now we know just what the old town was like. We can walk over the old streets along which the Romans walked before ever this terrible catastrophe came upon them.

Here, to-day, may be seen the old buildings, houses and villas with paintings on the walls. They are as fresh as if done but yesterday: here are their pavements of mosaic, their baths, their shops, their temples, and the eight gates by which the old city is entered. The streets are very narrow, and it is clear that only one chariot could pass at a time. Still may be seen the marks of the chariot-wheels, crossing and recrossing each other in the few broad streets, but worn into ruts in the narrow ones.

But perhaps most startling of all the strange things to be seen in this old city of the dead past are the very old Romans themselves. Overtaken suddenly in the midst of life, they were covered with the burning ashes, which hardened on them, encasing the human figure and preserving it through the long ages.

So we see them, lying in the museum which stands at the entrance to the town. Mostly they lie in attitudes of terror, some with a hand across their eyes as if to hide out the dreadful sight, some on the point of flight, having hastily taken off their outer clothing. One girl has yet a ring on her finger, while there is a dog still lying as he lay seventeen hundred years before. As a German poet has said—

"The earth with faithful watch has hoarded all."

The unearthing of Pompeii has revealed much of the ancient habits and customs of the Romans of old in their pleasure-loving days. It has taught us about their houses, their amusements, their clothes, their food. Here are their bake-houses, their loaves of bread, their money, their ornaments; and as we stand in the now deserted streets, looking up to the treacherous mountain above, and away to the blue bay on the other side, we can realise what the old Roman life must have been.