It happened today - November 1, 2015
Don’t look now. But I think Vesuvius is smoking kind of hard. Or rather, it was on Nov. 1 of 79 A.D., when it erupted and buried Pompeii. Obviously that’s bad if you lived here. Because then you died there. But it certainly was a boon for archeologists, because the fact that all those people died suddenly beneath ash that tended to preserve everything told us what they did when they weren’t conscious of anybody watching them.
If you knew you were going to be frozen for posterity you’d comb your hair, put out the good dishes and dress up, I presume. (Or maybe nowadays take a last selfie and post it with “This is me looking doomed.”) But they were just captured in mid-stride, as it were.
It was also a boon for a certain kind of dramatist. Indeed Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the guy who infamously started a novel “It was a dark and stormy night” but also coined the phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword”, wrote an enormously popular novel The Last Days of Pompeii that I’m currently reading. It’s the ideal soap opera setting because no matter how tangled things get you can always just bring down an ash curtain and it’s all tied up.
Or a favoured few can flee the city, wipe the slate clean and start a new life. So that’s good melodrama.
The other thing about Pompeii, of course, is that it’s a momento mori. We all have plans that seem enormously important and intend to live to be about 150 to get them all done. But death comes like a thief in the night, or a volcano in the hills, and so it’s just as well to spend your time on things that really matter instead of playing a bit part in a Bulwer-Lytton novel and waiting to be dug up in an embarrassing pose.