One good thing about volcanic eruptions is that they rarely come without warning. Days or weeks of insistent rumbling, smoke pouring ever more energetically from the crater, followed by a few light drizzles of ash, are usually enough to ensure that all those with common sense, determination and some means of transport have fled to safety hours before the lava starts to flow or the pumice to rain. That was certainly the case in Pompeii in 79 AD. The ash incinerated the city in an instant, but several days of earth tremors and the appearance of a mushroom cloud above Vesuvius on the morning of the eruption had given a clear signal of what was to come. The notoriously ghoulish Pompeian 'corpses' (in fact, plaster casts of the dead made by the ingenious process of injecting plaster of Paris into the cavity left by the decomposing flesh) represent only a tiny minority of the town's population: the procrastinators; the fatalists; the unlucky; those in the wrong place at the wrong time (the richly dressed woman, for example, found in the gladiatorial barracks, her mind presumably on other things); the poor with no means to escape; the slaves with no option; the dogs still chained up at the doors. The most famous victim - Pliny the Elder, insufferable polymath and author of a vast encyclopedia of natural history - lost his life in a foolhardy attempt to get a better view of the catastrophe. The rest - and that was the vast majority of the inhabitants - had taken their valuables and left.
LRB 16 September 1999 | PDF Download