Mount Vesuvius (Italian: Monte Vesuvio) is a volcano east of Naples, Italy, located at . It is the only active volcano on the European mainland, although it is not currently erupting. There are three other active volcanos in Italy, although not located on mainland Italy. Vesuvius is situated on the coast of the Bay of Naples, about six miles to the east of the city and a short distance inland from the shore. It forms a conspicuous feature in the beautiful landscape presented by that bay, when viewed from the sea, with the city in the foreground. The mountain is notorious for its destruction of the Roman city of Pompeii in AD 79; it has erupted many times since and is today regarded as one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world.
Origin of the name
Mount Vesuvius was regarded by the Greeks and Romans as being sacred to the hero and demigod Hercules/Heracles, and the town of Herculaneum, built at its base, was named after him. The mountain itself is also named after Hercules, albeit in a less direct manner. He was the son of the god Zeus and Alcmene of Thebes. Zeus was also known as Ves (Υης) in his aspect as the god of rains and dews. Hercules was thus alternatively known as Vesouuios (Υησουυιος), the son of Ves. This name was corrupted into "Vesuvius."
According to other sources, Vesuvius came from the Oscan word fesf which means "smoke."
Vesuvius is a distinctive "humpbacked" mountain, consisting of a large cone partially encircled by a large secondary summit, Monte Somma (actually the remains of a huge ancient cone destroyed in a catastrophic eruption, probably the famous one of AD 79). The height of the main cone is constantly modified by eruptions but presently stands at 1,281m (4,202ft). Monte Somma is 1,149m (3,770ft) high, separated from the main cone by the valley of Atrio di Cavallo, which is some 3 miles (5 km) long. The slopes of the mountain are heavily scarred by lava flows but are heavily vegetated, with scrub at higher altitudes and vineyards lower down. It is still regarded as an active volcano although its activity currently is limited to little more than steam from vents at the bottom of the crater. The area around the mountain is extremely densely populated, with more than two million people living in the region and on the volcano's slopes.
Vesuvius is a composite volcano at the convergent boundary where the African Plate is being subducted beneath the Eurasian Plate. Its lava is composed of viscous andesite. Layers of lava, scoriae, ashes, and pumice make up the mountain.
Vesuvius has erupted repeatedly in recorded history, most famously in 79 and subsequently in 472, 512, in 1631, six times in the 18th century, eight times in the 19th century (notably in 1872), and in 1906, 1929, and 1944. There has been no eruption since then. The eruptions vary greatly in severity but are characterised by explosive outbursts of the kind dubbed Plinian after the Roman writer who observed the AD 79 eruption. On occasion, the eruptions have been so large that the whole of southern Europe has been blanketed by ashes; in 472 and 1631, Vesuvian ashes fell on Constantinople (now known as Istanbul), over 1,000 miles away. The volcano has been quiescent since 1944.
Before AD 79
Well before the famous eruption of 79 which destroyed the Roman towns of Stabiae, Pompeii, and Herculaneum, Vesuvius had erupted violently and destroyed Stone Age and Bronze Age settlements as far back as 1800 BC. The remains of a settlement at Nola was discovered recently by Italian archaeologists, with huts, pots, pans, livestock and the remains of people buried under pumice and ash in much the same way that Pompeii was later destroyed.
The mountain subsequently went through several centuries of quiescence and was described by Roman writers as having been covered with gardens and vineyards, except at the top which was craggy. Within a large circle of nearly perpendicular cliffs was a flat space large enough for the encampment of the army of the rebel gladiator Spartacus in 73 BC. This area was doubtless an ancient crater, left from the last major eruption of Vesuvius. At the time, the mountain appears to have had only had one summit (of which the present Monte Somma is a fragment), judging by a painting found in a Pompeiian house.
By the time the Greeks and Romans settled the area, the nature of the mountain had entirely been forgotten. The area was, then as now, densely populated with villages, towns and small cities like Pompeii, and its slopes were covered in vineyards and farms.
Eruption of 79
The devastating eruption of 79 was preceded by powerful earthquakes in 62, which caused widespread destruction around the Bay of Naples. Earth tremors were commonplace in the region. The Romans, however, were entirely ignorant of the link between earthquakes and volcanism, and grew used to them; the writer Pliny the Younger wrote that they "were not particularly alarming because they are frequent in Campania."
This complacancy proved fatal for many on August 24, 79, when the mountain erupted spectacularly. It was recorded for posterity by Pliny the Younger, who observed the eruption and recorded it in a famous letter to the historian Tacitus. He saw an extraordinarily dense and rapidly-rising cloud appearing above the mountain:
I cannot give you a more exact description of its figure, than by resembling it to that of a pine tree; for it shot up to a great height in the form of a tall trunk, which spread out at the top into a sort of branches. It appeared sometimes bright, and sometimes dark and spotted, as it was either more or less impregnated with earth and cinders.
What he had seen was a column of ash, now estimated to have been more than 20 miles (32 km) tall. His uncle Pliny the Elder was that day in command of the Roman fleet at Misenum , on the far side of the bay, and decided to see for himself what was going on. Taking a ship across the bay, the elder Pliny encountered thick showers of hot cinders, lumps of pumice and pieces of rock, blocking his approach to the port of Retina. He went instead to Stabiae where he landed and took shelter with Pomponianus, a friend, in the town's bath house.
Pliny and his party saw flames coming from several parts of the mountain (probably a sign of superheated pyroclastic flows, which would later destroy Pompeii and Herculaneum). After resting for a short time in the bath house, the party had to evacuate it due to the torrential rain of tephra filling the courtyard leading to the building. Violent earthquakes shook the town, adding to the danger. Pliny, Pomponianus and their companions made their way back towards the beach with pillows tied on their heads to protect them from the rockfall. By this time, there was so much ash in the air that the party could barely see through the murk and needed torches and lanterns to find their way. They made it to the beach but found the water too violently disturbed from the continuous earthquakes for them to escape safely by sea. Probably as a result of breathing poisonous gases being vented from the volcano, Pliny the Elder collapsed and died. His body was found two days later, unharmed and untouched.
The eruption is thought to have lasted about 19 hours, in which time the volcano ejected about 1 cubic mile (4 cubic kilometres) of ash and rock over a wide area to the south and south-east of the crater. Pompeii, Herculaneum and many other towns around Vesuvius were destroyed, with about 3m (10ft) of tephra falling on Pompeii. Around 2,000 people are believed to have died in the town, the vast majority as the result of suffocation by volcanic ashes and gases. Herculaneum, which was much closer to the crater, was buried under 23m (75ft) of ash deposited by a series of pyroclastic flows and mudflows. Due to the lack of remains found in the town, it had been long thought that the inhabitants had escaped, but hundreds of skeletons were discovered in the 1980s in the former beach-side boatyard, where they had taken shelter. Many of the victims and other organic objects (such as beds and doors) were carbonized by the intense heat, which reached temperatures of up to 750°. In one of the more gruesome discoveries made in Herculaneum, many of the victims were found with the tops of their skulls missing — their brains had literally exploded in the intense heat.
The total number of casualties across Campania is unknown but is likely to have been upwards of 10,000 people. Pompeii and Herculaneum were never rebuilt, although surviving townspeople and probably looters did undertake extensive salvage work after the destructions. The towns' location was eventually forgotten until their accidental rediscovery in the 18th century. Vesuvius itself underwent major changes - its slopes were denuded of vegetation and its summit had changed considerably due to the force of the eruption.
Since the eruption of 79, Vesuvius has erupted around three dozen times. It erupted again in 203, during the lifetime of the historian Cassius Dio. In 472, it ejected such a volume of ash that ashfalls were reported as far away as Constantinople. The eruptions of 512 were so severe that those inhabiting the slopes of Vesuvius were granted exemption from taxes by Theodoric the Great, the Gothic king of Italy. Further eruptions were recorded in 787, 968, 991, 999, 1007 and 1036 with the first recorded lava flows. The volcano became quiescent at the end of the 13th century and in the following years it again became covered with gardens and vineyards as of old. Even the inside of the crater was filled with shrubbery.
Vesuvius entered a new and particularly destructive phase in December 1631, when a major eruption buried many villages under lava flows, killing around 3,000 people. Torrents of boiling water were also ejected, adding to the devastation. Activity thereafter became almost continuous, with severe eruptions occurring in 1660, 1682, 1694, 1698, 1707, 1737, 1760, 1767, 1779, 1794, 1822, 1834, 1839, 1850, 1855, 1861, 1868, 1872, 1906, and 1944. The eruption of 1906 was particularly destructive, killing over 100 people and ejecting the most lava ever recorded from a Vesuvian eruption. Its last eruption came in March 1944, destroying the villages of San Sebastiano al Vesuvio, Massa di Somma and part of San Giorgio a Cremano.
The volcano has been quiescent ever since. Over the past few centuries, the quiescent stages have varied from 18 months to 7½ years, making the current lull in activity the longest in nearly 500 years. While Vesuvius is not thought likely to erupt in the immediate future, the danger posed by future eruptions is seen as very high in the light of the volcano's tendency towards sudden extremely violent explosions and the very dense human population on and around the mountain.
Last updated: 05-07-2005 14:54:14
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04