Resurrecting Pompeii

A new exhibition brings the doomed residents of Pompeii and Herculaneum vividly to life

"Last Days of Pompeii" depicts an artist's rendering of the catastrophic final hours of Pompeii as the citizens were buried alive in ash. (Karl Briullov)
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The exhibition includes a magnificent bronze helmet decorated with scenes of vanquished barbarians in high relief above the armored visor. (When losers were put to death, their bodies were carted off to a special room where they were relieved of their armor.) More than a dozen other such helmets have been unearthed in the gladiators’ barracks, along with assorted weaponry. Also discovered there were the remains of a woman wearing lots of expensive jewelry, inspiring speculation that she was a wealthy matron secretly visiting her gladiator lover at the time of Vesuvius’ eruption. More likely, considering the 18 other skeletons found in the same small room, she was simply seeking refuge from the deadly ash.

Nine miles northwest of Pompeii, the seaside resort of Herculaneum experienced Vesuvius’ fury in a different way. Here the enemy, when it came, was what geologists call a pyroclastic surge: superheated (1,000-degree Fahrenheit) ash and gas traveling with the force of a hurricane.

Herculaneum was smaller and wealthier than Pompeii. Roman senators built terraced homes here overlooking the Bay of Naples. The grounds of the sumptuous Villa of the Papyri, where Julius Caesar’s father-in-law may once have lived, included a swimming pool more than 200 feet long. Inside the villa, named for its immense library of scrolls, were frescoes, mosaics and more than 90 statues. Exhibition highlights from the trove include two recently unearthed marble statues: a regal standing Hera, queen of the gods, and a finely chiseled head of an Amazon warrior in the style of Greece’s Classical period, both on display for the first time.

Shortly after noon on August 24, the sky over Herculaneum darkened ominously. The wind, however, pushed Vesuvius’ ash well to the southeast. The vast majority of Herculaneum’s roughly 5,000 inhabitants probably fled that same afternoon and evening; the remains of only a few dozen people have been found in the city itself. Not long after midnight, a glowing cloud of superheated gases, ash and debris roared down the mountain’s western flank toward the sea. “Pyroclastic surges move quite rapidly, between 50 and 100 miles per hour,” says geologist Janney. “You can’t outrun them. You don’t even get much warning.” In Pompeii, the first to die had been crushed or buried alive. In Herculaneum, most of the victims were incinerated.

The younger Pliny witnessed the surge’s arrival from across the bay. Even at the comparatively safe distance of 15 miles, it triggered panic and confusion. “A fearful black cloud was rent by forked and quivering bursts of flame, and parted to reveal great tongues of fire,” he wrote. “You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men....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.”

Large numbers of Herculaneum’s residents fled toward the sea in hopes of escaping by boat. Along the seafront archaeologists in the 1980s discovered the remains of nearly 300 victims. Carrying satchels filled with cash, jewels and amulets, they crowded into boathouses on the beach. The sudden torrent of searing gas and ash must have caught them by surprise. The surge was so hot that a cache of bronze and silver coins in a wicker basket were fused into a solid block of metal. By the time it was over (there were 12 surges in all), the entire city was buried under 75 feet of rock and ash.

In Pompeii, the falling ash had let up by about 6 p.m. on the 24th. But as survivors ventured out into the streets on the morning of the 25th, a pyroclastic surge swept in, killing everyone in its path. Two more surges followed, but these covered over a silent, lifeless city.

After its rediscovery in the 18th century, Pompeii grew to a stature it never enjoyed in ancient times, as well-bred tourists, some with shovels in hand, took wistful strolls through its emerging ruins. “From the 1760s onward, the grand tour through Italy was considered by the aristocracy of Europe to be a necessary part of growing up,” says archaeologist Andrew Wallace-Hadrill.


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