Lonely Port

Chapter 4

West of Pompeii   

A fleet of oar-powered war galleys commanded by a Roman officer, Gaius Plinius Secundus, was based at the small town of Misenum on the westernmost point of the Bay of Naples when the inferno exploded to the east of them.

This commander is better known in history as the famous scholar and historian, Pliny the Elder.

His nephew, Pliny the Younger, was only eighteen years old when the holocaust came. But in answer to a letter from the historian Tacitus, the young man told how Pliny the Elder had boarded a ship and sailed right into the heart of the destruction.

"On the 24th of August [A.D. 79], about one in the afternoon, my mother desired him to observe a cloud which had appeared of a very unusual size and shape. He had just taken a turn in the sun, and after bathing himself in cold water, and making a light luncheon, [had] gone back to his books.

"He immediately arose and went out upon a rising ground from whence he might get a better sight of this very uncommon appearance. A cloud, from which mountain was uncertain at this distance, was ascending, the form of which I cannot give you a more exact description of than by likening it to a pine tree, for it shot up to a great height in the form of a very tall trunk, which spread itself out at the top into a sort of branches. It appeared sometimes bright and sometimes dark and spotted, according as it was either more or less impregnated with earth and cinders.

"This phenomenon seemed, to a man of such learning and research as my uncle, extraordinary , and worth further looking into…

"As he was coming out of the house, he received a note from Rectina, the wife of Bassus, who was in the utmost alarm, at the imminent danger which threatened her; for from her villa at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, there was no way to escape except by sea. She earnestly entreated him therefore to come to her assistance. He accordingly. .ordered the galleys to put to sea, and went himself on board with an intention of assisting not only Rectina, but the several towns which lay thickly strewn along the beautiful coast."

The youth had stayed at Misenum with his mother when his famous kinsman set off across the bay to rescue those in danger at Herculaneum and Pompeii. But the elder Pliny never returned from his mission, for going ashore at Stabiae, just south of Pompeii, he was asphyxiated by a smothering blanket of ash and gases and perished in the holocaust.

Meanwhile, his nephew and sister stayed on at Misenum until the next day, when the narrative continues:

"Though it was now morning, the light was exceedingly faint and doubtful; the buildings all around us tottered, and though we stood on open ground, yet as the place was narrow and confined, there was no remaining without imminent danger; we therefore resolved to quit the town.

" A panic-stricken crowd followed us, and. .pressed on us in dense array to drive us forward as we came out. When we had gotten away from the house, we stood still, in the midst of a most dangerous and dreadful scene.

"The chariots, which we had ordered to be drawn out, were so agitated backwards and forwards, though upon the most level ground, that we could not keep them steady, not even by supporting them with large stones. The sea seemed to roll back upon itself, and to be driven from its banks by the convulsive motion of the earth; it is certain at least that the shore was considerably enlarged, and several sea animals were left upon it.

"On the other side, a black and dreadful cloud, broken with rapid, zigzag flashes, revealed behind it variously shaped masses of flame ..Soon afterwards the cloud began to descend and cover the sea. It had already surrounded and concealed the island of Capri and the promontory of Misenum ..I looked back; a dense dark mist seemed to be following us.

 'Let us turn off the main road,' I said, 'while we can still see. If we should fall down here, we might be pressed to death in the dark by the crowds following us.'

"We had scarcely sat down when night came upon us—not such as we have when the sky is cloudy, or when there is no moon, but that of an enclosed room when the lights are out. You might hear the shrieks of women, the screams of children, and the shouts of men; some calling for their children, others for their parents, others for their husbands, and seeking to recognize each other by the voices that replied; one lamenting his own fate, another that of his family; some wishing to die from the very fear of dying; some lifting their hands to the gods; but the greater part convinced that there were no gods at all, and that the final endless night of which we have heard had come to the world. .

"A heavy shower of ashes rained upon us, which we were obliged every now and then to stand up and shake off, otherwise we should have been crushed and buried in the heap."

The young Pliny tells us that they waited there in "the belief that the whole world was dying and I with it," until a yellowish sun finally brought the morning–and revealed a landscape "buried deep in ashes like snowdrifts."  

 It was the latter part of August, 79 A.D, The end of the world had indeed come—to the inhabitants of Herculaneum and Pompeii.

Founded in 80 B.C., Pompeii was the commercial, agricultural and maritime center of the Sarnus Valley in south-central Italy, and had a population of about twenty thousand.

Pompeii had the palatial country estates of many of the wealthy of Rome. Mount Vesuvius had not erupted for several centuries, and no one suspected that the cooling breezes from the Bay of Naples would that summer turn into a fiery, smoking besom of destruction.

We have no record of the death of any Christians at Pompeii when Vesuvius exploded, but of course this is possible. Herod Agrippa I is mentioned in the Bible in Acts 12, t when he killed the Apostle James and tried to kill Peter, before he, himself, was killed by an angel (Acts 12:1-3,19-23). This Herod had three daughters, one of whom was named Drusilla. When she was grown, she married Azizus, king of Edessa. But it was not long until Claudius Felix, the procurator of Judea, asked her to leave her husband and marry him. This she did. During his rule, he came to Caesarea with Drusilla, and the Apostle Paul was brought before them to be examined.

A warning to flee from a terrible doom was given by Paul to both, as he spoke of righteousness, temperance and the judgment to come. Felix was terrified, and answered Paul: "Go thy way for this time; and when I have a convenient season, I will call thee." (Acts 24:24-27).

Felix died a terrible death and left his wife, Drusilla, and her son behind.

Drusilla and the boy were at Pompeii that summer in 79 A.D. when Vesuvius belched fire and ash. Both of them died as the suffocating heat, smoke, and fine dust poured over the city.

The location of both Herculaneum and Pompeii was forgotten in the centuries that followed. In 1738, diggers trying to find antique treasures for the king of Naples accidentally discovered Herculaneum. Pompeii was found ten years later.

On the walls of Pompeii were scribbled curses and vile love notes that give indication of the kind of people destroyed in the eruption that summer.

But beads of sweat broke out on the foreheads of the archeologists as they stepped back from the writing on one wall:

"And three words were found that seem to turn the destruction of Pompeii into a divine judgment-three simple words that even 2,000 years later make us thoughtful: 'Sodom and Gomorrah.' "Ivar Lissner, "The Living Past, " page 402.

And yet, one hundred and thirty miles north of the flames and sulphurous rain over Pompeii was to be found yet another Sodom.