It was a warm day in August. Peasants were working among the vines and olives on the green slopes of Mt Vesuvius or piling their two-wheeled carts with fruit and vegetables to take to market in the city of Pompeii. It was a good market, too, for in that year of 79 A.D. the little seaside town that nestled at the foot of the volcano was a fashionable resort for wealthy Romans who fled to pleasant villas there out of the cities heat.
Up the steep from the harbor came sailors just on shore, and down the narrow highway flowed a steady stream of man with carts and donkeys taking their produce to be shipped away to other ports. The forum hummed with business. People were discussing elections and laying bets on the gladiators who were going to fight in the amphitheatre before ten thousand people; slaves were crowding the big meat shop to buy their masters' evening meal and lovers were offering sacrifices at the temple of Venus, the finest in Pompeii. There was no school on those hot summer days. The younger children played blind man's bluff and hide-and-seek, or rolled their large hoops, or fondled their clay dolls and toy soldiers. But the other girls were learning to spin, weave and sew, while the lads were taking lessons from their fathers or well-educated slaves in swimming, riding, boxing and all the arts necessary to fit them for military life.
The public baths were full. For the men would go to the baths as to a club, to stay long hours in the hot, cold or tepid water, where they idled away their time in games or gossip, or listened to a speech or poem. Old men played gravely at a game of "robbers" not unlike our checkers now. It was just like any other day to the pleasure-loving people of Pompeii.
And then a shadow fell upon the town. People jumped up, startled and rushed into the streets. Out of the top of Mt Vesuvius rose a great black cloud. At first it looked like a huge dark pine tree against the clear blue sky, but swiftly it rose and spread.
There were trembling and rumbling noises. The earth shook. The sea rolled back in a towering wave. The sky grew darker and darker, until it was as black as a moonless midnight, only now and then it was slashed by streaks of vivid green or blue or red.
Mighty explosions shook the houses. Ashes and cinders and small stones were showered from the great volcano, and people rushed frantically about, trying to look for safety. Some went down into cellars; others rushed to the sea and flung themselves into boats, rowing away as fast as they could from the terror that roared in the darkness. The heat was frightful. Suffocating gasses poisoned the air. Families searched for lost members and called to one another piteously: Gradually even those last sounds died away. The ash, falling slightly at first, increased in volume. Gradually, it piled deeper and deeper until it smothered the city in a thick blanket of ash. Relentless night fell upon the city.
Not till three days had passed did light dawn again. It found Vesuvius quiet and nothing, but silence, where Pompeii had throbbed with life. The city was gone; buried beneath the ashes that the majestic mountain had spewed forth!
By Merrie McKinnon