T. A Schneer.

The history of Vesuvius from A.D. 79 to A.D. 1907 online

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A. F. Morrison




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FROM A. D. 79 TO A. D. 1907


X. A.

Nature glorious in beauty,
Terrible awful' in wrath,
Trembling in wonder before thee
Man in his impotence bends.

B. v. Stein - Nordheim.

Michaelsen' s Book-Store

2, Via Chiatamone, 2




FROM A. D. 79 TO A. D. 1907


T. A.

With numerous illustrations from ancient sources

Nature glorious in beauty,
Terrible awful in wrath,

P I * i I \ S ,*^ *** Trembling in wonder before thee
I ? Vo ' "W \ ,* Man in his impotence bends.

E. v. Stein - Nordheim





Copright by E. Delia Torre Portk-i Xapoli

Dedicated to the Memory of my beloved Mother
Baroness E. Schneer von Stein - - Nordheim.


5, Viale Principessa Elena
Naples 1907.


Plate 1.


This History of Vesuvius war begun by my belove-. mother
Baroness E. von Stein-Nordheim and finished by me witi. the ac-
count of the Vesuvian^activity of these last 16 years.



To King Ferdinand II of Naples belongs the honor of having
been the first to found an meteorological Observatory. As it was
imagined that the proximity of an active Volcano might have some
influence on the variations of the atmosphere a spur of Vesuvius
called i Canteroni was chosen at its site. It stands 600 metres
above sea-level, is one Kilometre distant from the Vesuvian cone,
and two from the centre of the great crater. The building of this
handsome edifice, designed by an engineer Gaetano Fazzini by
name , was begun in the year 1841 and finished in 1847 ; but
owing to the political troubles of the time , it was not opened
until 1855 in which year it was placed under the direction of
Professor Luigi Palmieri under which it remained till 1896 the
year in which Prof. Palmieri died. Prof. Eugenio Semmola was
his successor and had the direction till 1903 when Prof. R. V.
Matteucci took the direction of the Observatory. This illustrious
man, whose name has become a household word far beyond the
bounds of his native land has carried on his observations there
for these last 4 years with untiring zeal and energy. Lava floods
might threaten distruction to that outpost of research, showers of
stones, blinding ashes and suffocating vapours endanger his life,
but, in spite of all, this dauntless disciple of science, kept faith-
ful watch on the post entrusted to him , like a general on the
field of battle. With the greatest care and exactitude he has no-
ted every varying phase before during and after the eruptions of
Vesuvius. His notes and observations contribute many a valua-
ble corner stone to the edifice of volcanic theory.

The Observatory is rather short in funds. Nevertheless the
zeal of its directors has provided it with very valuable instru-


ments and every necessary apparatus. We call the reader's par-
ticular attention to. the electric: magnatic seismograph and the
bifiliar electroraetre (Palmieri's invention). The first of these
instruments notes with the utmost exactitude the slightest move-
ments of the ground , also the direction of the movement
and the time occupied by it. The other is used to measure the
electricity in the atmosphere a matter of special importance
during an eruption. There is also a valuable t library attached
to the istitution and it possesses a very interesting collection
of minerals and of all the various kinds of ashes fallen since
1855. There is also a laboratory for the necessary chemical

It has been ascertained thai hither to , during the various
eruption, 70 kinds of minerals have benn ejected. The collections
and seismical apparata are shown and explained to visitors, if
desired, in the. most obliging manner.

As in the following pages words and expressions not familiar
to the reader must of necessity be used, we subjoin a few expla-
nations not only of single words, but also of the ejecta from the
constantly recurring eruptions.

SMOKE. - - The smoke rising from the lava, and issuing with
it from the erupting mouths is frequently, especially at the be-
ginning and end of a conflagration, accompanied by sulphuretted
hydrogen, hydrochloric acid, and sulphurous anihydrid. Should
there be a heavy rainfall at the time , these gases unite with
the water and produce a destructive effect on every plant touch -
ed by it. When the eruption is at its height these gases di-

LAVA. - This is the principal element in the Vesuvian erup-
tions. It is a substance rendered fluid by the action of fire or
water and then ejected from an opening in an active volcano.
When first emitted, it has a heat of 1000 centig. It remains fluid
up to 700. At a red glow it is tough and pliable, and on cooling
down it becomes very hard and brittle. All volcanic lavas have
the same constituents, such as silicates, iron, aluminium, copper,
lead, gypsum, soda, etc. The only difference between them con-
sists in the various crystals they contain. The flow of the lava
is rapid or slow according to the violence of the eruption, the
degree of heat, the quantity of scoriae carried along with it, and
the steepness of the road it takes in descending.


LAVA-OANALS. - During 1 eruptions, fissures are formed in
the interior of the volcano, into which lava forces an entrance,
and then, according to the character of the cleft, (as, for instance,
if it opens to the outside) oozes out, or, if the fissure does not
get beyond the Interior of the mountain, cools inside, and thus
forms the so called lava-canals.

ASHES. - - The Vesuvian ashes are composed of the finest
dust-particles of various colours, frequently mixed with sublima-
tions. These latter are, however, soluble in water, and the ashes
remaining are then proved to be of identical substance with the
lava. Properly they might be called Lava-dust.

LAPILLI - - are infinitesimally small stones thrown out in
quantities by the mountain in eruption. Pompei, for instance, is,
for the most part buried under lapilli of the sort principally for-
med from fragments of pumice. The lapilli of later eruptions differ
from the Pompeian so called black lapilli, in colour as well as
substance. They are generally characterized as white lapilli, and
much used for filling up crevices in building.

PROJECTILES - - are red-hot pasty fragments of lava, some-
times of considerable size, projected from the crater during an
eruption, and appearing, at a distance, like glowing sparks amid
the smoke.

BOMBS - - consist of fragments of old lavas enclosed in new
lava. They are sometimes round, sometimes oval, and are often
shot up to a great height.

SCORIAE - are fragments of rough vesicular lava, that is to
say full of holes caused by air-bubbles.

FUMAROLE or smoke- funnels, are cracks in the lava from
which vapours escape. They form a link between the cooled sur-
face and the still glowing lava beneath. Their duration is shorter
or longer according to the depth or shallowness of the lava on
which they are formed.

They can go on smoking 'for weeks, months and even years.
These evaporations are at first neutral in character, but their
properties change according to the length of time they have been
going on. Hydrochloric acid appears first, then sulphurous acid,
and finally sulphuretted hydrogen. During the neutral period a


white deposit, namely commen salt, is found at the edges of the
fumarole^ as well as a black one, namely oxide of copper , and,
under certain conditions, sal ammoniac. As it would lead too far
to give a longer dissertation on the chemical deposits of the fu-
marole, we must refer the reader, anxious for more exact infor

tions, to the writings on the subject of various scientists.


MEPHITIC VAPOURS - - are exhalations of carbonic acid gas
which are fatal to respiration both in man and beast. They are
frequently found on the slopes of Vesuvius, especially after great
eruptions. When these vapours gather round the roots of a plant
it will wither and die.

Moss - The lichen Vesuvianum is a variety of moss which
forms on the lava, giving thus the first token of reawakening
fecundity in the soil below. It forms most plentifully on the sco-
riated lava which covers land formerly in a state of cultivation,
and is first seen from 5-6 years after the superficial cooling of
the lava.

Although this little work makes no pretence to having been
written for scientists, and is only a narrative of facts and events
which cannot fail to be ol interest to cultivated readers, still a
close study of the very extensive literature in connection with
Vesuvius, was necessary for its production. We therefore subjoin
a list of all the writings, in number over seventy, consulted by
us on the subject.




Who is there, visiting Naples for the first time, who does
not look eagerly forward to the moment which will bring him
face to face with Vesuvius, the only active volcano of the Euro-
pean continent. Solemn is the impression made on the distant
beholder when that moment arrives. Massive and grand, sur-
mounted by a pillar of smoke, Vesuvius stands out against the
clear sky, forming a dark and gloomy background to the blue
sea, the fruitful fields, and the gleaming city beyond, which lies
smiling at its feet as if in defiant mockery. Still more impressive
is the scene by night when we see flames rising and falling amid
the smoke, now shooting upwards like a sheaf of fiery darts, di-
sappearing with equal suddenness, then blazing up anew with
redoubled force, or remaining steadilx, for a time, like a crown
of fire on the mountain-top. When, in addition, a stream of glo-
wing lava flows slowly down, like a broad red banner, from a
rent in the mountain's side, there are few who will not contem-
plate with shuddering awe the working of those hidden forces of
nature which proclaim to us clearly, though in on unknown ton-
gue, the existence of that mysterious inner fire which burns on
for ever in the centre of our terrestrial ball.

Times without number has this mountain, as if in wrath,
spread sorrow and desolation over the surrounding country and
its inhabitants. We can trace back its history, by the help of the
authors and chroniclers of the different centuries, to the terrible
year 79 of the Christian era, when, as we learn from the wri-
tings of contemporaries, it awoke from long repose and, vomiting
rivers of fire, destroyed several flourishing cities, burying them
so completely that, even in Plutarch's time, there was nothing to
indicate where they had stood.

2 -

Whether on account of its form, or from tradition, it is cer-
tain that all the- ancient writers, such as Lucretius, Vitruvius,
Strabo, and Diodorus Siculus, unite in describing it as an extinct
volcano. Diodorus, for instance, who lived in Julius Caesar's time,
in his De Antiqui, lib. IV, says that Vesuvius, like Etna, belched
fire at one time, while Strabo, who lived in the time of Augustus,
describes the Vesuvius of his day as a mountain surrounded by
fertile fields; the upper part, mostly flat, being, however, quite
barren, of a dark ashen tint, and exhibiting crevices, caverns
and rocks blackened s- if by fire. One is quite justified there-
fore , he* ad'ds,'./ fti;A3'on Eluding that these parts were once all
ablaze .with .burning craters afterwards extinct for want of fuel .
. Tte^fornl '.of th6 nlo/ufetam, the materials of which it is com-
posed, the various kinds of lava which, like veins of ore, inlay
the walls of the ancient crater, all testify to the fact that Vesu-
vius was formerly a volcano. It must have been submarine at
that time, the fire making itself a path through the rocks at the
bottom of the sea, which would account for the sea-shells found
among the formations of Mount Sornma, and for the splendid
examples of metamorphosis often showing themselves in its erratic
blocks. It had evidently a prehistoric age of activity followed by
long repose, as distinguished from a historic or modern one re-
presen'ed by the Vesuvian cone and its lava. The seat of its
fires is, however, the same, and, as from the bottom of a crater
of Vesuvius, as at present existing, a new eruptive cone arises,
so r we may imagine that from the floor of the ancient crater of
Mount Somma the actual Vesuvian cone was heaved up at the
commencement of the historic era of the volcano's renewed activity.

It is interesting to know that the streets of Pompeii were
paved with Vesuvian lava, and that, among the ruins of Hercu-
laneum, some still more ancient remains have been found, justi-
fying the belief that a former city existed there and was destroyed
by the working of prehistoric eruption.

Mount Vesuvius, as seen from Naples, or from any point
whatsoever of the road leading to its base, and from thence to
the Observatory and crater, presents the appearence of a double
or bifurcated mountain. At the height of little more than 700
metres above the level of the sea this division into two summits,
takes place. The one to the right of the traveller has the form
of a cone of sand and lava from the upper part of which
smoke , often accompanied by fire, is almost always ascending.

This is. strictly speaking, Vesuvius, or the Vesuvian cone. The
other one, which looks towards -it, is formed of almost vertical
rocks surrounding' the cone aforesaid to half its circumference,
and running, on the north, from west to east. The outer side is
moderately sloping, and covered with luxuriant vegetation.

To form an idea of the configuration of this part, which is
called Mount Somma, let us imagine it without the Vesuvian cone.
Somma would then appear as in plate 3., where it is easy to re-
cognize a spacious crater open to the south and running from
west to east, from within which has arisen the present gigantic
cone. -

Mount Somma with the ample crater above indicated, repre-
sents the ancient Mount Vesuvius as described by Strabo, when
no longer burning: that is to say, the prehistoric volcano. The
upper part mentioned by the old geographer must have been its
almost level bottom, a large part of which was still remaining
as a sort of flat cincture round the new cone at the time of its
upheaval. To this cincture various names were given of which
we will speak presently.

The name of Vesuvius is probably derived from the Greek
word peaepios, Galen writes Bespius, evidently signifying its vol-
canic nature. That of Somma, according to an ancient tradition,
comes from Summanus, an obscure old god, ruler of night and

Several geologists, taking their stand on some expressions of
Dion's or rather of Xifilino's, who abridged his works, represent
the edge of the crater as being of an equal height all round. But,
apart from the many reasons which might be adduced to the con-
trary, it is enough to remember that Spartacus and his compa-
nions, B. c. 73, having descended by means of ropes made of
vine-suckers, would have found themselves, in that case, quite
shut in, and had "difficulty in sallying out to attack their enemies'
encampment posted on the slopes of Mount Somma.

Every thing induces us to believe the Vesuvian cone appear-
ed, though not in its present altitude, in the year 79 of the Chri-
stian era, when a new period succeeded to the prehistoric one.
This is why all the ancient writers speak of Vesuvius as of one
mountain only. It is only in later times that they mention the
double summit.



Plate 3.

G. Agricola in his book De natura eorum quae e terra,
writes in the year 1545: Verticis pars sinistra (Somma) altior
est et angustior dextra (Vesuvian cone) humilior et latior unde
proculeum aspicientibus apparet biceps esse. We see from this
that Vesuvius in 1545 was lower than Somma, whereas it is now
about 100 metres higher.

That first and well-known awakening forms a fitting com-
mencement to our story.

This famous eruption took place on the 23 rd of November A. D.
79, during the reign of the Emperor Titus. We have the testimony
of an eyewitness of the terrible catastrophe in the person of the
younger Pliny, nephew of the great geographer and admiral of
the same name, Pliny the elder, who, in the two following letters
to his friend Tacitus, gives a wonderfully graphic account ot it:


Plate 4.

Pliny' s letters to Tacitus.


You ask me to write you an account of my uncle's end,
in order that you may be able the more faithfully to transmit it
to posterity. I thank you, as I see that his death, if commemorated
by you, has an imperishable renown offered it. For, though he
fell amid the destruction of such fair regions, and seems destined
to live for ever - like so many peoples and cities - - through
the memorable character of the disaster; though he himself was
the author of many and enduring works; yet the immortality ol
your writings will add greatly to the uninterrupted continuance
of his fame. For my part I deem those blessed to whom, by fa-
vour of the gods, it has been granted either to do what is worth
writing of, or to write what is worth reading; above measure
blessed those on whom both gifts have been conferred. In the
latter number will be my uncle, bi virtue of his own and of your
compositions. Hence, I the more readily undertake, and even lay
claim to perform what you request.

He was at Misenum, in personal command of the fleet. The ninth
day before the Kalends of September, at about the seventh hour

6 -

my mother indicated to him the appearance of a cloud of un-
usual size and shape. He had sunned himself, and next gone into
his cold bath; and, after a light meal, which he took reposing,
was engaged in study. He called for his sandals, and ascended to
a spot from which this portent could best be seen. A cloud was
rising, from what mountain was a matter of uncertainty to those
who looked at it from a distance; afterwards it was known to be
Vesuvius whose appearance and form would be represented by
a pine better than any other tree. For, after towering upwards
to a great height with an extremely lotty stem, so to speak, it
spread out into a number of branches; because, as I imagine, having
been lifted up by a recent breeze, and having lost the support of
this as it grew feebler, or merely in consequence of yielding to
its own weight, it was passing away laterally. It was at one time
white, at another dingy and spotted, according as it carried earth
or ashes To a man of my uncle's attainments, it seemed a remar-
kable phenomenon , and one to be observed from a nearer point
of view. He ordered his fast-sailing cutter to be got ready, and,
in case I wished to accompany him, gave me leave to do so. I
replied that I preferred to go on with my studies, and it so hap-
pened that he had himself given me something to write out.

He was in the act of leaving the house, when a note was handed
him from Rectina. Caesius Bassus, frightened, together with the
people there, at the imminence of the peril (for his villa lay under
the mountain, and there was no escape for him except by taking
a ship), begged my uncle to rescue him from so critical a situation.
Upon this he changed his plan, and, having started on his enter-
prise as a student , proceeded to carry it out in the spirit of a
hero. He launched his four-ranked galleys, and embarked in person
in order to carry assistance, not to Rectina only, but to many
others, for the charms of the coast caused it to be much peopled.
He hastened in the direction whence every one else was flying,
holding a direct course, and keeping his helm set straight for the
peril, so free from fear that he dictated and caused to be noted
down, as fast as he seized them with his eyes, all the shiftings
and shapes of the dreadful prodigy. Ashes were already falling on
the ships, hotter and thicker the nearer they approached; and even
pumice and other stones, black, and scorched, and cracked by the
fire. There had been a sudden retreat of the sea, and the debris
from the mountain made the shore unapproachable. Having hesi-
tated for a moment whether to turn back, he shortly called out
to the helmsman (who was urging him to do so) ? Fortune favours

the brave ! Make in the direction of Pompon ian us . The latter
was at Stabiae, separated from him by the whole width of the bay,
for the sea flows in by shores gradually winding and curving
inwards. There, in view of the danger which, though it had not
yet approached, was nevertheless manifest, and must be upon
them as soon as it extended itself, he had got his effects together
on board ship, resolved to fly, if only the wind left off blowing
from the opposite quarter. My uncle, brought to shore by this same
wind, which precisely favoured him, embraced his trembling friend
consoling and exhorting him, and, in order to cairn his fears by
his own sang froid, bade them conduct him to the bath. After
bathing, he took his place at table, and dined gaily, or (wihich
was equally eroic) with an air of gaiety.

Meanwhile, from many points of Mount Vesuvius, vast sheets
of flame and tall columns of fire were blazing, the flashes and
brightness of which were heightened by the darkness of night.
My uncle, to soothe the terrors of those about him, kept telling
them that these wero fires which the frightened country people
had left to burn, and that the deserted houses were blazing away
all by themselves. Then he. gave himself up te repose, and slept
a perfectly genuine sleep, for his snoring (which, in consequence
of his fullhabit, was heavy and loud) was heard by those in at-
tendance about his door.

However, the courtyard from which this suite of rooms was
approached was already so full of ashes mixed with pumice-sto-
nes that its surface was rising, and a longer stay in the bedcham-
ber would have cut off all egress. On being aroused, he came
forth and rejoined Pomponianus and the others who had kept wat-
ching. They consulted together whether to remain under cover
or wander about in the open; for the walls nodded under the re-
peated and tremendous shocks, and seemed, as though dislodged
from their foundations, to be swaying to and fro, first in one di-
rection and then in another. On the other hand, in the open air,
there was the fall of the pumice-stones (though they were light
and burnt out) to be apprended. However, a comparison of dan-
gers led to the choice of the latter course. With my uncle indeed
it was a case of one reason getting the better of another; while
in the case of others fear overcame fear. They covered their heads
with pillows tied round with cloths : this was their way of pro-
tecting themselves against the shower. By this time it was day
elsewhere, but there it was night, the blackest and thickest of
all nights, which ? however , numerous torches and lights of va-

_ 8 -

rious kinds served to alleviate. It was decided to make for the
shore, in order to learn from the nearest point whether the sea
was by this time at all available. A huge and angry sea still
continued running. Here, reclining on a cloth which had been
thrown on the ground, my uncle more than once called for a
draught of cold water and swallowed it. Upon this, an outbreak
of flame and smell of sulphur, premonitory of further flames, put
some to flight and roused him. With the help of two slave -boys
he rose from the ground, and immediately fell back, owing (as I
gather) to the dense vapour obstructing his breath and stopping
up the access to his gullet, which with him was weak and nar-
row and frequently subject to wind. When day returned (the third
from that which he had looked upon for the last time) his body
was found whole and uninjured, in the dress he wore; its appea-
rance was that of one asleep rather than dead.

Meanwhile my mother and I at Misenum however, this has
nothing to do with history, nor did you wish to learn anything
except what related to his death. So I will make an end. This
alone will I add, that everything related by me has been either
matter of personal observation or else what I heard on the spot,
the time of all others when the truth is told. Do you select what
you choose. For a letter is a different matter from a history; it
is one thing to write to a friend and another to write for the


You say that the letter I wrote you, at your request, on the

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