Along with the fact that glittery sneakers, purple hair and leggings seem to be in fashion in Europe these days, I can’t help but think that we never seem to show enough respect in the face of nature’s awesome powers. The Romans knew that Vesuvius was an active geologic area, but that didn’t stop them from building a metropolis in the danger zone — sound familiar? San Francisco, anyone?
An earthquake 15 years before the big eruption destroyed and damaged numerous buildings, many of which were still under repair when the mountain exploded in 79 AD. Accounts from the time by observers like Pliny the Elder acknowledged the quakes, but they didn’t seem to make the connection with the volcano. Read the Napoli Unplugged blog for more good Naples info …
It’s a bit ironic, since the Romans had a sophisticated system for predicting the future. Unfortunately for them, they relied on fundamentalist religious beliefs, waiting for signs from their gods. It reminds me of the present-day ideology of right-wing theocrats in the U.S. and around the world, who also look at the world through the prism of their beliefs, rather than being open to what the world wants to tell them.
Ideology aside, it almost seems like we’re drawn to these places, as if daring the Earth to take us down a notch. Today, about 3 million people live in the immediate vicinity of the mountain that exploded so cataclysmically, burying Pompeii and Herculaneum and killing an estimated 10,000 to 25,000 people. After that eruption, Vesuvius continued to seethe for 1,000 years, with regular eruptions occurring about every 100 years. According to historic records, the mountain then calmed down for about 600 years until 1631, when another 400 people died in an eruption.
Pompeii was re-discovered after the 17th century explosion, which occurred so suddenly that one of the city bakeries had 2,000 loaves of bread in the oven when a pyroclastic flow entombed the city. Archaeologists later uncovered the loaves during a series of excavations, along with hundreds of human victims. As the researchers carefully sifted through the debris, they found that many of them were clutching their jewelry and their money.
Lesson number two: You can’t take it with you.
Later that evening, I went looking for a pizza, Naples-style, with extra olives and plenty of fresh anchovies. While Leigh snoozed in the hotel, I ambled along the waterfront,watching vendors cut slices from hanging slabs of tripe and drizzle them with fresh lemon juice before dishing up the innards on paper plates.
It looked pretty good, but I was craving pizza and picked out a spot where I could see the hot wood coals glowing in a round brick oven. While waited for the pizza to bake, I asked Pepe, the waiter, what he thought about living in the shadow of Vesuvius. He shrugged his shoulders as expressively as only an Italian can.
“Life is good. Have a glass of red wine while you wait, and don’t worry too much,” Pepe said.
I took that as lesson number three. And he had a point. And it’s hard to think deep thoughts while sipping vino, so I concluded that it’s probably good that we don’t dwell on these things too much.
But what gets me is the whining afterwards; the expectation and sense of entitlement that everybody else will bail you out when the unthinkable happens. That just doesn’t seem fair to people who choose to live Des Moines, or Omaha.
Maybe full disclosure is the answer. Anyone who decides they want to live on the edge needs to be completely aware of what the risks are, and maybe even sign some sort of waiver releasing everyone but themselves from any responsibility. Even though I hate waivers, I’m only partially kidding. If you have it in black and white, taped to your refrigerator door where you can read it every day … it might make a difference.
Admiring the statues of notable Romans, I also thought about the fate of that empire, which forms the basis for so much of our modern civilization. Like some of today’s leaders, the caesars thought their era would last forever. I think it’s worth taking a look at that attitude and trying to draw some conclusions. The mightiest empires in history — every single one of them — all crumbled.
Basing an empire on military clout and economic power, even if it’s backed with reason, is not enough. It seems to me that moral values like kindness, generosity and sincerity might be more sustainable in the long run than pure might. But what do I know. I’m no historian, just a pizza-loving traveler.
For more information on Vesuvius, the only active volcano in mainland Europe, go to http://geology.com/volcanoes/vesuvius/.