Vesuvius – The End of the World?
…and there came hail and fire … hurled to the earth; and a third of the earth was burned up and a third of the trees were burned up, and all the green grass was burned up … and something like a great mountain, burning with fire was thrown into the sea … and a third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed” (Revelation 8:7-9).
Romans luxuriated in this fertile paradise. The rich volcanic soil surrounding the mysterious Mt. Vesuvius overlooked the beautiful Bay of Naples. The land could and did grow almost anything: lemons, oranges, pomegranates, olives, grapes, a host of vegetables and grains. The attractive climate, lovely scenery, and abundance of natural hot and mineral springs brought visitors from all over the Empire to this spectacular spot. The picturesque towns of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Stabiae—along with the island of Capri in sight just off the coast, had evolved into a resort playground for the rich and famous. Palatial villas with spectacular views dotted the landscape on the hills and islands around the bay while the Roman Emperors utilized Capri as a summer escape from the crowds and heat of Rome.
But all that would change on the morning of August 24, 79 A.D. For several days, there had been strange signs that all was not well—odd rumblings in the earth; wells inexplicably dry; aqueducts no longer running; dead fish in the hatcheries of seaside villas; the smell of sulfur wafting through newly opened vents in the earth. And then it happened.
From the Roman naval base of Misenuem, due west of Vesuvius, the famous botanists and author of the world’s first encyclopedia, Pliny the Elder, looked out over the Bay of Naples. A thick, rising plume of smoke erupted across the iridescent blue of the Italian sky. Distant rumbling punctuated the calm August air. His unquenchable curiosity piqued, Pliny, as admiral of Rome’s fleet based in the Bay of Naples, ordered ships to sail at once in the direction of the billowing cloud. His intention was to study the phenomenon and to evacuate those in need.*
But Vesuvius had other ideas. The power of the mountain overwhelmed the study and rescue effort. Pliny the Elder died on the beach of asphyxiation. Many of his sailors were killed by falling debris and choking ash. And any who remained in or around Pompeii were burned alive the next day by what most viewed as a force from hell: a superheated cloud of fire that ripped along at ground level, sucked up all surrounding air to feed its fiery appetite, and incinerated everything its path.
This eruption shook that part of the world, both literally and figuratively. And even John the Elder, author of Revelation, appears to reference this cataclysmic event in his apocalyptic vision described in passage above from Revelation 8. As Halloween comes, it is appropriate that we consider what our faith might or might not expect regarding the end of the world.
*We have a detailed account of this horror from Pliny the Elder’s nephew, Pliny the Younger. He accompanied his uncle on this ill-fated excursion, survived, and recorded in detail the events of the entire several days of continued natural phenomenon surrounding the eruption. For his first hand account, see the May/June 2001 issue of Archeology Odyssey, p. 37: “The Day the Earth Shook.” There is also an excellent historical novel that brings these days to life better than any I’ve read: Pompeii: A Novel, by Robert Harris.
PRAYER FOR THE WEEK:
Lord, give me the wisdom that I need to be the kind of person that you would have me to be. Regardless of the time period, you are the same, age to age and always. You touch hearts and inspire lives today just as you did in the days of the early church. So allow me the courage to stand firm in my convictions. May I discover in myself this week a new perspective on your eternal work in and through ordinary people.
From my 2012 book, Approaching the Presence: A Year for Living Faithfully, pgs. 298-299. You may purchase a copy at the “Book Store” tab on the Home Page. Thanks for your support!