On the afternoon of 24 August 79, the commander of the Roman fleet, Pliny the Elder, was at home in Misenum at the northern end of the Bay of Naples. He was working on some papers after a leisurely lunch when his sister noticed “a cloud of unusual size and appearance”, rising above the peak of Vesuvius. Pliny immediately called for a boat but, even before he had set out, a message arrived from the town at the foot of the mountain where residents were terrified of the looming cloud.
By the time Pliny had crossed the bay to the town of Stabiae, it was obvious that something terrible was afoot. Vesuvius now seemed ablaze, wrote Pliny’s nephew, known as Pliny the Younger, while “ashes were already falling, hotter and thicker as the ships drew near, followed by bits of pumice and blackened stones, charred and cracked by the flames”. With ash filling the sky, the unnatural darkness seemed “blacker and denser than any ordinary night”.
Barely three miles away on the volcano’s fertile slopes stood Pompeii. That wealthy town was no stranger to disaster – it had been damaged by an earthquake just 17 years earlier – but as the ash began to fall, it was obvious that this was far, far worse.
Almost certainly thousands were killed, though the true figure will never be known. Even at Misenum, where the elder Pliny’s relatives waited in vain for his return – he collapsed and died in the chaos – utter panic took hold. “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,” wrote Pliny’s nephew. It felt, he added, as though “the whole world was dying with me, and I with it.”
Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and presenter.