"On August 24, the last Tuesday that they would live in their town, the people of ancient Pompeii awoke to a typical hot summer’s morning. Four days earlier, a series of small tremors had begun to shake the area, but people were not very concerned. The region had been subjected to so many earthquakes over the years that residents had grown accustomed to them.
"What they didn’t know is that the region’s frequent earthquakes had been caused by nearby Mount Vesuvius. Roman writers had commented on the mountain’s strange appearance; one had compared it to Mount Etna, an active volcano in Sicily. A writer named Strabo even concluded that Vesuvius had once “held craters of fire.” But because Mount Vesuvius had been dormant, or sleeping, for over eight hundred years, no one realized that it was a deadly volcano and that the earthquakes were signs that it was building up pressure.
"That morning, Vesuvius provided a clearer warning that an eruption was beginning. Between nine and ten o’clock, the volcano shot a small explosion of tiny ash particles into the air. The ash streamed up and fell like fine mist on the eastern slope of Vesuvius. A woman named Rectina who lived at the foot of the volcano was so alarmed that she quickly sent a letter with a servant to Elder Pliny, the commander of Roman naval fleet stationed some 18 miles away, urging him to rescue her...."
Copyright © 2005 by James M. Deem. This excerpt is taken from Bodies from the Ash: Life and Death in Ancient Pompeii (Houghton Mifflin, 2005). All rights reserved.