In 79 AD Mount Vesuvius blows its top in a catastrophically destructive eruption. The Roman city of Pompeii and many of its citizens are obliterated. So too is the neighboring city of Herculaneum, where a massive library – stacked with scrolls from the ancient world – is carbonized by the intense heat. And as a result of the volcano, irreplaceable works of literature and philosophy are lost forever. Or are they?
Before we answer that question, let’s go back to that day in August. Even after the passage of centuries, we know plenty about what happened on that occasion and in that place. That’s because a Roman poet, Pliny the Younger, witnessed events and wrote down what he saw.
And there had been a harbinger of things to come well before Vesuvius erupted, as a major earthquake had caused extensive damage to areas around the mountain 17 years previously. But smaller earth tremors were commonplace in the Bay of Naples; when there were a series of them in late August of 79 AD, then, people didn’t pay much attention. That was a mistake.