Thursday 23 August 2012

Pompeii - is today the day?

Meet the locals, two of Pompeii's residents
 before the eruption of Mt Vesuvius
Around three in the afternoon on August 24th 79AD residents of Pompeii saw a 30km column of ash and volcanic debris burst from the tall conical summit of Mt Vesuvius. Most (if not all of them) had no idea the mountain was an active volcano - in fact Mt Vesuvius had not erupted since 217BC (nearly 300-years earlier) and during the slave rebellion of Spartacus, the 25,000-year old caldera had been the slave army's early base of operations. Yet within six hours the cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Oplontis were buried in 70-feet of ash and pumice, killing around 16,000 residents - perhaps a third of the region's population at the time. Or did it?

There's no doubt the eruption happened, but the traditional date of August 24th - noted in a letter by Pliny the Younger - and mentioned in today's 'today in history' in newspapers around the world - appears to be off by a few months. For one thing, many of the preserved victims are wearing heavier winter clothing rather than something more comfortable for a steamy August day. The fresh fruit and vegetables on sale in the markets at 3 o'clock that afternoon would not have ripened until October, while the summer fruits were already being sold dried or as preserves. And I don't know if you noticed yesterday's first piece of graffiti - "Satura was here on September 3rd" - well, yes an untidy homeowner might have left the scribble there for a year, but if Satura wrote that in 79AD, he would have either needed a shovel or a different date for Mt Vesuvius' eruption.

The Mt Vesuvius eruption was more than a human tragedy -
a family pet left behind in the panic 

Needless to say, it's becoming increasingly apparent our traditional date for the Mt Vesuvius eruption is wrong, and in the future newspapers' 'today in history' will have to choose another day closer to winter. What will it be? Fortunately Pliny the Younger, can still help us. While one version of his letter dates the eruption as August 24th, another version gives us the date of November 23rd 79AD. Now we just need the newspapers to catch up.

Find out if Calvus knew anything about Mt Vesuvius

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