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Pompeii: the last day: one August afternoon, a mountain's rumblings caught the people of Pompeii by surprise. What would you do if a volcano erupted, and you had nowhere to run?.


Nearly 2,000 years ago, the Roman Empire was hit by the worst natural disaster to strike the ancient world. In less than 24 hours, the city of Pompeii (pom-PAY) and at least 2,000 of its 20,000 people were wiped from the face of the earth. Their killer was a volcano called Vesuvius (vuh-SOO-vee-us). The mountain had been quiet for 1,500 years--so long that people living nearby had no idea what a volcano was. It suddenly roared to life--on the last day of Pompeii.


Narrator A: The day--August 24 in 79 A.D.--begins like any other. About 10 o'clock that morning ...

Julius Polybius: How are you feeling, Julia?

Julia: Not well, Father. I couldn't sleep a wink.

Polybius: Well, that's natural--you're seven months pregnant.

Artist: Excuse me, sir. You wanted to see me?

Polybius: Yes. I'm running for office, so I want you to redecorate this room. Make it grand!

Artist: Before the election?

Polybius: Of course! I need to entertain my sponsors.

Narrator A: Meanwhile, at Stephanus's laundry ...

Stephanus: I must run some errands. Don't let our slaves goof off!

Fortunata: Me? I can't control them! Stephanus: Nonsense. You are the wife of Stephanus! When you speak, they will obey. I'll be back soon.

Narrator A: The ground is trembling, but no one notices.


Narrator B: At about 1 p.m., people are startled by an immense roar from Vesuvius.

Africanus: A huge column of something is shooting out of the mountain! Is it smoke? It's churning so much, it almost looks alive.

Celadus: It's nothing. Besides, we have things to do.

Narrator B: Across the Bay of Naples in Misenum [my-SEE-num], Pliny the Elder is watching the mountain with a scientist's fascination.

Pliny the Elder: Incredible. That column of smoke is rising several miles high! I must go over there to get a closer look. Nephew, do you want to come with me?

Pliny the Younger: You gave me so much to study, Uncle. I'd better stay and finish it.

Pliny the Elder: Very well. But you keep an eye on that cloud too!

Narrator B: That "cloud" is actually a foaming column of molten rock shooting into the sky. Eventually, the column reaches about 98,000 feet high. Winds drive the mass directly over Pompeii, making it dark as night.


Narrator C: Around 1:30 p.m., people get another shock. The molten rock, now high in the sky, starts to cool. Once solid, chunks of it plummet earthward at about 100 miles per hour.

Africanus: Why is everyone running? Hey! (Suddenly, he collapses.)

Celadus: He's been hit! Africanus, are you OK?

Narrator C: Nowlarger, heavier chunks of rock are falling. At Stephanus's laundry ...

Crispus: Mistress, I'm back.

Fortunata: Did you find my husband?

Crispus: No. The city gate is choked with people, carts, and animals. Bodies lie dead in the streets. All your other slaves have run for their lives.

Fortunata: But slaves are supposed to protect their masters' lives and property. For any slave who runs and is caught, the punishment is death!

Crispus: It doesn't matter, Mistress. The gods have decided to kill us all.


Narrator D: By midafternoon, Vesuvius has gushed more than 100 million tons of rock onto the city. About 2:30 p.m., a messenger finds Pliny the Elder returning home.

Messenger (rushing in): Sir, I have a message from your friends who live under Vesuvius.

Pliny the Elder: What is it?

Messenger: They fear for their lives.

Their only hope is to escape by sea. People are crowding the shore but can go no farther.

Pliny the Elder: It looks as if Pliny the scientist must give way to Pliny the admiral. (To a servant) Call out as many ships as can be manned for a rescue mission. Have them follow me to Pompeii!

Narrator D: In Pompeii, rocks are still falling, piling up everywhere. At Polybius's house ...

Epidia: Look at my garden. It's ruined!

Polybius: If this doesn't stop, we'll all be ruined! Just think of all the money I wasted on my election campaign!

Sabinus (helping Julia into the room) Julia fell off the bed!

Julia: I'm all right. Really!

Sabinus: What about our baby? Shouldn't we flee?

Polybius: Why? This house is strong.

Narrator D: But Pompeii's roofs were not built to support anything heavier than rain.

Epidia: Listen! The roof is groaning with the weight of the stones.

Polybius: Oh, great god Jupiter! Please forgive us! (To Epidia) Where can we go that's safer?


Narrator E: Around 5 p.m., Pliny the Elder's rescue fleet is passing Herculaneum [hur-kyuh-LAY-nee-um], another town near the mountain.

Pliny the Elder: Hold your course, men--toward Pompeii!

Sailor: Admiral, the air is too thick and dark. We can't see!

Pliny the Elder: We can't turn around, so steer toward the light. Let's head for the town of Stabiae [STAB-ee-eye] and seek shelter there.

Narrator E: The rock storm continues. Around 1 a.m., from Misenum, young Pliny witnesses a strange and sudden change.

Pliny the Younger: The mountain is shooting flames! The whole summit is alight! Every home on the bay is in danger now--including ours. Mother, we must leave!

Plinia: Not until your uncle returns!

Pliny the Younger: If he is anywhere near that horror, we'll never see him again. The column of smoke just collapsed and is rushing down the mountain!

Narrator E: The column's molten rock, hot gases, mud, and ash come tumbling down the mountainside. Five times hotter than boiling water, the wave wipes out people on the beach at Herculaneum. The rock flow stops before reaching Pompeii, but not the ash and poisonous gases. Fortunata is running through the streets, terrified. She meets Celadus.

Celadus: What are you doing here?

Fortunata: Seeking my husband! You?

Celadus: Seeking water. My friend is hurt. Come, hide with us.

Narrator E: In the gladiators' barracks, Africanus lies wounded. Everyone is gasping for air.

Celadus: The ash is sucking all moisture from the air. We're so thirsty! Yet each sip turns the ash in our throats to a thick, suffocating paste. We are doomed!


Pompeii and Stabiae were buried in about 23 feet of ash and rock; Herculaneum, by mudflow. Other towns near Vesuvius were also destroyed. That day, at Pompeii alone, about 2,000 people died, including the family of Julius Polybius. Poisonous gases at Stabiae killed Pliny the Elder.

Much of what we know about the disaster comes from two letters written by Pliny the Younger. For many years, people thought his descriptions had been exaggerated. They believed that all volcanic eruptions were lava flows. Today, however, scientists know that Pliny's accounts were accurate. He had witnessed a pyroclastic surge--a volcanic explosion resulting in a downpour of rocks and ash. It is also known as a Plinian eruption.

The ruins of Pompeii tell a story, too. Found in 1748 they are still being unearthed. The hot, dry volcanic ash preserved buildings and the shapes of human and animal remains.

Since that August day, Vesuvius has erupted many times. The most recent eruption, in 1944, destroyed two towns and parts of a third.

Today, more than 2 million people live near the volcano. When will the next disaster occur? Some people say an eruption at Vesuvius is overdue.


Narrators A-E

* Julius Polybius (puh-LIB-ee-us), a wealthy businessman

Epidia (uh-PID-ee-uh), his wife

Julia, their daughter

Sabinus (suh-BY-nus), Julia's husband

# Artist, a man hired by Polybius

Stephanus (STEFF-uh-nus), a businessman

# Fortunata (for-choo-NAH-tah), his wife

# Africanus (ah-free-KAH-nus), a famous gladiator

* # Celadus (KEL-uh-dos), a famous gladiator

* Pliny the Elder (PLIN-ee), a scholar, scientist, and Roman admiral

Pliny the Younger, Pliny the Elder's teenage nephew

# Crispus, a slave in the house of Stephanus

# Messenger


Plinia (PLIN-ee-uh), Pliny the Elder's sister, Pliny the Younger's mother

* Indicates major character. # Indicates fictitious character: Other characters, based on written accounts of the day as well as skeletons found, were real people.

Words to Know

* molten: in melted form

* summit: top of a mountain; the peak



1. Why didn't Pompeiians realize that Vesuvius could be dangerous?

2. Why do people still live near, and visit, Vesuvius? Would you? Why or why not?

WORLD HISTORY PLAY Pompeii: The Last Day, pp. 16-19


Students should understand

* Pompeii was a city in ancient Rome that was destroyed by a violent eruption of the volcano Vesuvius in 79 A.D.


Ask students: "Would you live near an inactive volcano? Why or why not?"


Last November, Italian authorities set up a relocation fund for residents living near Vesuvius. The program offers up to 30,000 curds (about $40,000) to any family wishing to move away from the volcano. Vesuvius, the only active volcano on the European mainland, last erupted in 1944; its lava flow destroyed some towns and killed 26 people.


COMPREHENSION: Why do you think many Pompeii residents were not alarmed when Vesuvius first erupted? (Because Vesuvius had been dormant for some 1,500 years before 79 A.D., people had no idea what a volcano was. No one understood the real danger they faced.)

NOTING DETAILS: How do scientists know what kind of volcanic eruption occurred at Vesuvius in 79 A.D.? (The hot, dry volcanic ash that spewed from Vesuvius preserved buildings and the shapes of the humans and animals that perished at Pompeii. Scientists continue to unearth and examine those ruins and remains today. Also, other details of that eruption come from the eyewitness accounts written by Pliny the Younger.)


SETTLE OR FLEE VESUVIUS?: Instruct students to write essays that encourage residents to either stay in or flee the area near Vesuvius. Encourage students to pose persuasive arguments, such as citing the agricultural advantages of settling near a volcano or describing the dangers posed by a volcanic eruption.



* People, places, and environment: How the ancient Roman cities of Pompeii, Stabiae, and Herculaneum were destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D.

* Time, continuity, and change: How Vesuvius's destructive power has not prevented people today from settling near the active volcano



* Balit, Christina, Escape From Pompeii(Henry Holt, 2003). Grades 6-8.

* Van Rose, Susanna, Volcano (DK Press, 2004). Grades 5-G.


* Pompeii-Unraveling Ancient Mysteries

* Volcano World
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Title Annotation:World History Play
Publication:Junior Scholastic
Article Type:Play
Date:Jan 24, 2005
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