Pompeii was destroyed on 24 August 79 AD. The last several years before Pompeii’s destruction were volatile in the Roman Empire. Just two months and one day before Pompeii was destroyed, Emperor Vespasian died. Six years before, the First Jewish War ended with the fall of Masada after a siege of several months. In 69 AD, Emperor Nero committed suicide plunging Rome into a yearlong civil war, which the Romans called “The Year of Four Emperors.” Most telling was an earlier eruption of Vesuvius in 63 AD, which caused extensive damage in Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum.
Pompeii was a city of 20,000, including the suburbs outside the city walls. A small city, right? But the world population is 35 times larger today. That is the relative equivalent of a city of 700,000 today. If Pompeii were a modern city in the United States with the same relative population, it would be a city of 700,000, and the 19th largest city in the United States. Pompeii would be larger than El Paso, Boston, Seattle, Denver, Baltimore, Portland, Atlanta, Cleveland and many more cities in the United States.
Pompeii was actually a large seaport city the Roman Empire. Pompeii was also a resort city where many wealthy Romans had second homes, even Nero had a villa in Pompeii (his wife was from Pompeii). Rome is about 150 miles from Pompeii. Goods were shipped all over the Roman Empire from Pompeii, and Rome had a major naval base in Misenum on the other side of the Bay of Naples, across from Pompeii. Pliny the Elder was a senior Roman official, the commander of the naval fleet in Misenum and had his own villa nearby.
Pompeii had many of the amenities of a medium to large size city; market places (grocery and retail stores) laundries (dry cleaners), amphitheaters (sports and entertainment), public baths (spa’s), palestra’s (gym), livery (transportation), restaurants, bars, bakeries, family owned and run businesses, hotels, and of course there was the forum (mall) as well as brothels (over 40 in Pompeii), and many more businesses we would recognize today. They also had many of the same problems of our modern cities including crime and graffiti.
On the morning of 24 August, Pliny the Elder saw a mushroom cloud rise over the mountains and decided to investigate. But before he could leave his villa he received a message asking for help in evacuating the danger zone. He immediately ordered the fleet to help in a rescue attempt and left with his ships. The eruption had been preceded by earthquakes, but thay had been so numerous no one gave them much thought. The volcano put so much debris into the sky that it blocked all sunlight. That night a pyroclastic cloud descended Vesuvius with such speed and heat that the people of Herculaneum died instantly, the flesh melting from their bodies. Pompeii was a few more miles away and by the time the pyroclastic cloud reached the city, the temperature had gone down enough that the people survived, this time.
The next day the people of Pompeii were not so lucky. The fourth pyroclastic cloud to descend the mountain was hot enough to kill the people instantly, but it left their bodies and even their clothes intact. Altogether six pyroclastic clouds rolled down Vesuvius. Today the volcano is still active. If the next eruption is strong enough it could even threaten Naples.