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The Terrible Last Hours of the Pompeii Residents

Ravi loves writing within the realm of relationships, history, and the bizarre—where boundaries are blurred and possibilities are immense.

The Eruption of Vesuvius, 1771. Artist Pierre-Jacques Volaire. (Photo by Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

The Eruption of Vesuvius, 1771. Artist Pierre-Jacques Volaire. (Photo by Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

What Is the Worst Way to Die?

There can be many answers to this question. Getting eaten alive by a shark, being burned at the stake, drowning, beheading, or if you are adventurous, crucifixion. The possibilities are endless.

Ok, how about getting your blood, boiled, brains turned into tough glass due to intense heat, ‘heat-shocked’ into a sort of instant rigor mortis, and slowly getting ‘baked’ and asphyxiated by volcanic ash and toxic fumes for a period of time. And all of this happening simultaneously on your body.

Gruesome? isn’t it?

That is what happened to the residents of Pompeii on August 24, 79 AD, one day after the Roman holiday of Volcanalia, dedicated to the god of fire. At noon Mount Vesuvius erupted, spewing ash hundreds of feet into the air for 18 hours straight.

Eventually, a deadly flow of blisteringly hot volcanic lava and gas surged down, enveloping the city, filling courtyards, blocking doors, and collapsing roofs. As Pliny the Younger, the Roman historian reported about the incident,

“…the buildings were now shaking with violent shocks, and seemed to be swaying to and fro as if they were torn from their foundations. Outside, on the other hand, there was the danger of failing pumice stones, even though these were light and porous; however, after comparing the risks they chose the latter. As a protection against falling objects, they put pillows on their heads tied down with cloths. “

He then brings out the chaos and the misery of the people suffering in vivid detail.

“You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore.”

The common historical interpretation of that horrific event was that the toxic gases and thick chunks of ash released from the volcano choked every single inhabitant to death instantly. However new studies conducted by British and Italian scholars prove that some residents had died a very painful death by slowly getting ‘baked’ and suffocated by the fumes for a long period of time.

It would have been one of the most horrifying ways to die in history.

Destruction of Pompeii', 1833, (1939). 'The Last Day of Pompeii', depiction of people fleeing the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Italy in 79 AD. 'The picture is based upon the Younger Pliny's story of the destruction of Pompeii.

Destruction of Pompeii', 1833, (1939). 'The Last Day of Pompeii', depiction of people fleeing the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Italy in 79 AD. 'The picture is based upon the Younger Pliny's story of the destruction of Pompeii.

Pompeii Residents Were Wealthy

Pompeii was home to many wealthy Romans, who build grand villas filled with lavish decorations and works of art.

The lavish city boasted of many things including a large public market, a palaestra, or a sports ground, two theatres, an amphitheater, a gymnasium with a natatorium, or a swimming pool, temples dedicated to deities, and at least four public baths.

The city also has the Pistrinum, a mill, the Thermopolium, which was a fast food place that serves both food and beverages, multiple cauponae, or cafes, the Lupanar or the brothel where prostitutes plied their trade, and large hotels on the outskirts of the city.

On August 24, 79 CE all hell broke loose as a massive volcanic eruption from Mount Vesuvius spewed ash and white pumice over Pompeii at a rate of 4-6 inches/hr. Soon the pumice heated the roofs to immense temperatures as a 20 mile (32 km) high eruption cloud sends pyroclastic surges of gas and rock fragments into the city. The temperature of this cloud is estimated at 430-500° F (220-260° C).

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Victims covered in ash, Pompeii

Victims covered in ash, Pompeii

Plaster Casts Victims Of The 79 A.d. Eruption Of Vesuvius That Buried The Ancient Pompeii

Plaster Casts Victims Of The 79 A.d. Eruption Of Vesuvius That Buried The Ancient Pompeii

The Residents Died Horribly

At such high temperatures, archaeologists expected that the people would have died instantly sparing them the misery of death. But unfortunately, that was not the case as a new study captured the last miserable hours of the Pompeii residents.

The study conducted on more than 150 skeletons concluded that while the majority of the people died instantly from the heat, the less fortunate ones suffered slowly as their bodies began to cook in the heat. Their skin and muscles swelled, driving moisture from soft tissue inward toward the bone. As the team who conducted the research says.

“This slow heat searing would have baked the skeleton without burning it.”

Pierpaolo Petrone, a physical and forensic anthropologist at the University of Naples also argues that some bodies elsewhere in another nearby city Herculaneum also show signs of dramatic thermal trauma.

As per him, a few of the skulls had fractures radiating from a central point. These fractures are evidence proving that the skulls of the people exploded due to the blinding heat as their brains boiled over as pressure built up inside their skulls.

And in some cases, a black, hardened substance was found inside the skull. As per Petrone, the black substance was hardened glass that was created by the solidification of a person’s molten brain after cooling. The people died a rather tragic death as Petrone says.

“I never saw [anything like this] before in 25 years of excavation and study of this site: It’s astonishing,”

An archaeologist, near the skeleton of the last fugitive, the last person who was trying to escape from Herculaneum during the eruption of the volcano Vesuvius, which in 79 AD. destroyed the cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii.

An archaeologist, near the skeleton of the last fugitive, the last person who was trying to escape from Herculaneum during the eruption of the volcano Vesuvius, which in 79 AD. destroyed the cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii.

Post Eruption

The eruption destroyed the city completely as Pliny the Younger wrote.

"Broad sheets of flame were lighting up many parts of Vesuvius; their light and brightness were the more vivid for the darkness of the night... it was daylight now elsewhere in the world, but there the darkness was darker and thicker than any night."

Pompeii was buried under 82 feet (25 m) of volcanic ash and pumice. Despite robbers making off with gold statues from temples and marble from walls, the city was almost entirely forgotten until 1592 when it was first discovered by workers digging a channel to divert water from the river Sarno. It was covered back forgotten again.

It took another 400 years for archaeologists to bring to light its magnificent opulence. Today Pompeii is declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is host to 2.5 million visitors annually.

And while we appreciate its stupendous opulence, let us also spare a thought to the unknown people of Pompeii who suffered for hours as their world crumbled to dust around them. Nature can be really cruel at times and the Pompeii disaster is nature at work at its furious worst.

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Ravi Rajan

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