The most memorable volcanic eruption in the history of civilization began about noon on 24 August 79 A.D. The mountain of Vesuvius awakened with unimaginable force 17 1/2 years after the devastating earthquake of 62 A.D. There had been no real warning of the explosion, though wells suddenly went dry 10 days earlier and the cows grazing on the slopes of Vesuvius were behaving strangely. Ironically, a pagan feast was celebrated annually on 23 August to Vulcan, the god of subterranean fire.
Thanks to eyewitness accounts, we know a great deal about what happened the day that Pompeii was destroyed. A 17-year-old, later known as Pliny the Younger, made a record of what he observed from across the Bay of Naples. He was living at Misenum with his uncle Pliny the Elder, a celebrated military leader, scholar, and historian who served the emperors from Claudius to Titus. Pliny the Elder dictated notes to his scribe while he attempted to rescue by sea some of the residents who lived near Vesuvius. They found the coastline and harbors to be mysteriously unrecognizable near Vesuvius. On the day after the eruption began, the dusty air south of the volcano was apparently the cause of death for the asthmatic 56-year-old Pliny the Elder.