The 24th August AD 79 is traditionally believed to have been the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that wiped out numerous Roman settlements including Pompeii and Herculaneum. Eyewitness accounts of the eruption have survived in the shape of two letters from Pliny the Younger, and the discovery of the astoundingly well-preserved settlements has provided astoundingly detailed evidence about daily Roman life.
It should be noted that there is considerable debate over the accuracy of this date due to archaeological discoveries and recent meteorological research, but the majority of scholars continue to favour the 24th August. This, by unnerving coincidence, was just one day after the annual Roman festival of Vulcanalia, which was held to honour the Roman god of fire.
It’s known that the eruption lasted for two whole days, and released thermal energy that was hundreds of thousands times greater than the atomic bomb. Beginning at around 1pm on the 24th August, Vesuvius sent gas, volcanic ash, and pumice into the stratosphere for up to 20 hours. This was followed by a pyroclastic flow, which carried gas and molten rock down from the volcano and which then buried the previously fallen ash.
It’s believed that the majority of the 1,500 people whose remains or impressions have been discovered died of thermal shock during one of the pyroclastic surges. Others may have suffocated, or been hit by falling rocks and collapsing buildings. There is still a lot of archaeological work to be done, especially at Herculaneum, but digging has been put on hold to focus on the preservation of the areas already uncovered.