24 August 2009

Mt. Vesuvius’s 1,930th anniversary

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears… (O amici, O Romani, O cives, audite me…)

During this decade, we’ve had the opportunity to celebrate or commemorate many thirtieth anniversaries of events from the ‘70s. The 1970s, to be exact, since the apostrophe before 70s implies missing digits, and we all assume we really mean the 1970s. For example, just this year we’ve had the thirtieth anniversary of the Shah fleeing Iran, the accident at Three Mile Island, Greenland getting home rule, Margaret Thatcher’s election, the SALT II agreement, the “Night Disco Died” at Comiskey Park, the death of John Wayne, the emergence of home video, the release of Alien and The Muppet Movie, and many other events both for good and ill.

But, today we can actually strip away that apostrophe, and stick a “one thousand nine hundred and” onto that “thirtieth anniversary.” Because today is the anniversary one of the most import events of the 70s. The genuine 70s: not the 770s, 1570s, 1870s, or 1970s. The 70s. (Okay, to be perfectly specific, 70s C.E. There’s also a 70s B.C.E. I don’t know if anything important happened on August 24, 79 B.C.E.)

Today is the One Thousand Nine Hundred and Thirtieth Anniversary of the notorious eruption of Mount Vesusvius (Mons Vesuvius) in Italy, which wiped out the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. A nineteen-hour rain of ash and rock and a pyroclastic flow followed, killing an estimated 30,000 people. Pliny the Younger and Pliny the Elder provide us with the only reliable eyewitnesses to this tragedy.

As horrible a disaster as it was at the time, the event’s greatest importance is what it offers for posterity: it left two Roman towns of the early empire preserved in ash and solidified magma for archaeologists to later uncover. The remains of the town, and the bodies preserved freakishly in ash (the image of the dead dog has always stayed with me), have provided an incredible amount of data about the daily lives of Roman citizens in the early Imperial era. These finds have ignited the imagination of many future historians, archaeologists, sociologists, writers, and geologists. It’s also brought in huge tourist dollars for Italy, since the sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum are major attractions in the country. It was a bizarrely fortuitous disaster for the distant future—although no comfort for the people and their pets who died then, certainly. But, as a former history teacher of mine said when I mentioned the anniversary to him: “a bad day for Pompeii, a pretty grand day for archaeology.”

My connection to the eruption of Vesuvius starts in elementary school. I lived in the Pacific Palisades at the time, a Los Angeles suburb near Malibu and the original Getty Museum, now known as the Getty Villa. That museum is a recreation of the Villa of the Papyri that was excavated at Herculaneum. This was the popular field trip destination for elementary school classes in the area, and I remember listening in fascination to the story of the volcanic eruption and the way the cities were preserved in the tragedy. Walking around the museum was my first “physical encounter” with the ancient world, and it merged with my growing love of Greek mythology. It also gave me a sense of the power of the earth, and gave me an understanding of the force of the recent eruption of Mt. St. Helens.

A thousand nine hundred and thirty years ago today…

By the way, the Getty Villa is currently displaying the famous Chimera of Arezzo. Don’t miss it if you’re in town.