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Mount Vesuvius

Mount Vesuvius as seen from Pompeii, which
was destroyed in the 79 eruption.

Mount Vesuvius is a volcano east of Naples, Italy.

The volcano is currently active, even if no eruption is expected for the near future.

One of the four active volcanos in Italy, and highly interesting both from its historical associations and the frequency of its eruptions. It is situated on the coast of the Bay of Naples, about six miles to the eastward of the city and at a short distance from the shore. It forms a conspicuous feature in the beautiful landscape presented by that bay, when viewed from the sea, with the city in the foreground.

On April 7, 1906 Vesuvius erupted and devastated nearby Naples.

Origin of the name

Mount Vesuvius was in ancient times held sacred to the deified hero Hercules, and the town of Herculaneum, built at its base, was named after him. So also is the mountain itself, though in a more round-about way. Hercules was the son of the god Zeus and Alcmena, a Theban lady. Now one of the names of Zeus was Υης {Ves}, which was applied to him as being the god of rains and dews -- the wet divinity. Thus Hercules was Υησουυιος {Vesouuios}, the son of Ves. This name was corrupted into "Vesuvius."

Former condition

Vesuvius was not always an active volcano. It was for many ages a very peaceable mountain. Ancient writers describe it as having been covered with gardens and vineyards, except at the top which was craggy. Within a large circle of nearly perpendicular cliffs, was a flat space sufficient for the encampment of an army. This was doubtless an ancient crater; but nobody in those times knew anything of its history. So little was the volcanic nature of the mountain suspected, that the Roman towns of Stabiĉ, Pompeii, and Herculaneum had been erected at its base.

Eruption of 79 CE

In the year 63, the mountain shook violently, and a good many houses were thrown down. But soon all became quiet again, and the people set about rebuilding the houses that had fallen. They continued to live in apparent safety for some time longer. But on August 24, 79 the volcano became spectacularly active.

Pliny the Elder was that day in command of the Roman fleet at Misenum, which was not far off. His family were with him, and, among others, his nephew, Pliny the Younger, who has left an interesting account of what happened on the occasion. He observed an extraordinary dense cloud ascending in the direction of Vesuvius, of which he says: -- "''I cannot give you a more exact description of its figure, than by resembling it to that of a pine tree; for it shot up to a great height in the form of a tall trunk, which spread out at the top into a sort of branches. It appeared sometimes bright, and sometimes dark and spotted, as it was either more or less impregnated with earth and cinders.

On seeing this remarkable appearance, the elder Pliny, who was a great naturalist, resolved to go ashore and inspect more narrowly what was going on. Steering towards Retina (now Resina), a port at the foot of the mountain, he was met, on his approach, by thick showers of hot cinders, which grew thicker and hotter as he advanced -- falling on the ships along with lumps of pumice and pieces of rock, black but burning hot. Vast fragments came rolling down the mountain and gathered in heaps upon the shore. Then the sea began suddenly to retreat, so that landing at this point became impracticable. He therefore steered for Stabiĉ, where he landed, and took up his abode with Pomponianus, a friend.

Meanwhile, flames appeared to issue from several parts of the mountain with great violence. Pliny nevertheless went to sleep. Soon, however, the court leading to his chamber became almost filled with stones and ashes; so his servants awoke him, and he joined Pomponianus and his household. The house now began to rock violently to and fro; while outside, stones and cinders were falling in showers. They, notwithstanding, thought it safer to make their way out from the tottering mansion; so, tying pillows upon their heads with napkins, they sallied forth. Although it was now day, the darkness was that of night. By the aid of torches and lanterns, however, they groped their way towards the beach, with a view to escape by sea; but they found the waves too high and tumultuous. Here Pliny, having drunk some cold water, lay down upon a sailcloth which was spread for him; when almost immediately flames, preceded by a strong smell of sulphur, issuing from the ground, scattered the company and forced him to rise. With the help of two of his servants he succeeded in raising himself; but, choked by some noxious vapour, he instantly fell down dead.

Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum

Nor was he alone in his death; for although many of the inhabitants of the cities were able to effect their escape; yet, so suddenly did the overwhelming shower of ashes, cinders, and stones fall upon them, that not a few of them perished in their dwellings or their streets. As for the cities themselves, they were utterly buried completely out of sight. For many centuries they remained entirely forgotten.

Appearance of the mountain before and after eruption

Vesuvius had undergone a great change. It was no longer flat on the top, but had formed for itself a large cone, from the summit of which dense vapours ascended. This cone was composed entirely of the ashes, cinders, and loose stones, thrown up during the eruption. It had become separated by a deep ravine from the remainder of the former summit, which afterwards came to be distinguished by the name Monte Somma. The whole of the forests, vineyards, and other vegetation, which had covered that portion of the sides of Vesuvius where the eruption took place, were destroyed.

Since the eruption of 79, Vesuvius has had many fits of activity with intervals of rest. In 472, it threw out so great a quantity of ashes, that they overspread all Europe, and filled even Constantinople with alarm. In 1036 occurred the first eruption in which there was any ejection of lava. This eruption was followed by five others, the last of which occurred in 1500. To these succeeded a long rest of about a hundred and thirty years, during which the mountain had again become covered with gardens and vineyards as of old. Even the inside of the crater had become clothed with shrubbery.

Discovery of remains of Herculaneum and Pompeii

Of the buried cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii no traces were discovered till the year 1713, when some labourers, in digging a well, came upon the remains of Herculaneum about twenty-four feet underground. Little attention, however, was paid to the discovery at that time; but in 1748 a peasant, digging in his vineyard, stumbled on some ancient works of art. On sinking a shaft at this spot to the depth of twelve feet, the remains of Pompeii were found. This discovery led to further researches, and the exact positions of the two cities were erelong ascertained. The work of disinterment has continued with little interruption from that to the present time.

Formation of Monte Nuovo

In this interval, however, there was an extraordinary eruption -- not of Vesuvius itself, but at no great distance from it, in the Bay of Baiĉ, on the opposite shore of the Bay of Naples. The whole of this neighbourhood is a volcanic country, and was anciently named the Phlegrĉan Fields. It contains a crater in a state of subdued activity, called the Solfatara; an extinct volcano having a large crater called Monte Barbaro; and Lake Avernus, also supposed to be an extinct volcanic crater. Between Monte Barbaro and the sea, there was formerly a fiat piece of ground bordering on the Lucrine Lake, which is separated from the Bay of Baiĉ by a narrow strip of shingle. On September 29, 1538, the flat piece of ground above mentioned became the scene of a great eruption, which resulted in the throwing up of a new elevation to the height of four hundred and thirteen feet, and with a circumference of eight thousand feet. It received the name of Monte Nuovo.

Later Eruptions

In 1631 there was another dreadful eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which covered with lava most of the villages at the foot of the mountain. To add to the calamity, torrents of boiling water were, on this occasion, thrown out by the volcano, producing awful destruction.

There have been since that time numerous eruptions, two of them are worthy of notice. During an eruption in February 1848, a column of vapours arose from the crater about forty feet high, presenting a variety of colours; and a short time afterwards there arose ten circles, which were black, white, and green, and which ultimately assumed the form of a cone. A similar appearance had been observed in 1820.

In May 1855, a great stream of glowing lava, about two hundred feet in breadth, flowed towards a vast ravine nearly a thousand feet in depth. The first descent into this chasm is a sheer precipice, over which the lava dashed heavily, forming a magnificent cascade of liquid fire.

The latest eruption came in March 1944.

Ascents of Vesuvius

Mount Vesuvius rises rather abruptly from the plain on which it stands. The circumference of the base is about twelve miles, and the height of the summit above the level of the sea about three thousand feet. This latter measurement, however, alters from time to time, owing to the variable height of the cone. Its moderate elevation, and the ease with which it may be approached, have induced many travellers to ascend the mountain; and not a few have recorded their experiences. So frequent are the eruptions of the volcano, however, and so much do they change the aspect of the crater, that any description remains correct for only a limited time.

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