August 24th was a busy day in Roman history. In 49 BC, the Second Battle of the Bagradas was fought, in which the Roman forces lost. In 410 AD, the Visigoths started pillaging the city of Rome itself--a festival of plunder and rape that would last for three days.
However, neither of those are why we're here today. Today marks the one thousand, nine hundred and thirty first anniversary of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which buried the cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae. Of the three, Stabiae suffered the least, while Herculaneum was history's red-headed stepchild in that it was completely forgotten until archaeologists began poking around the site where Pompeii had been and found another city. Research then revealed that the city's name was Herculaneum.
Now, here's a bit of irony for you. Vesuvius went up on August 24th. August 23rd was the day set aside on the Roman Calendar to celebrate Vulcan, the Roman god of fire, both beneficial and harmful. He was associated with Haphaestus, the Greek god of fire and smithworking. As such, he is considered a fertility god, because ashes provide fertilizer when worked into the fields. He is also a bit of a war god, because you can use fire to subdue your enemies. Along with all of these, he is a master smith, who keeps his forge beneath Mount Etna.
Apparently, Vulcan was none too pleased with the natives as they celebrated his special day.
As I mentioned before, his festival is the Vulcanalia, which was celebrated on August 23rd, was an offering up to Vulcan to prevent fire from harming the wheat crops which were nearly ready to harvest at this time of the year. Typically, the late summer was the dry season, so crops of all kinds were especially threatened to be ruined if anything sparked a fire, so it's best to appease the fire god to keep these kinds of things from happening.
Since Vulcan was a fire god, his temples were typically located outside of the cities, so that celebrations for Vulcan would not destroy the entire town. As you might imagine, a lot of the religious rites surrounding Vulcan's worship involved open flames.
And, yes, we derive the word "volcano" from Vulcan's name, since his smithy was underneath Mt. Etna. He was married to Venus, and it was believed that whenever she was unfaithful to Vulcan (which is to say, a lot), he would get pissed and hammer out his frustrations in his forge. Sparks would fly from him work, which would be visible coming out of the top of Mt. Etna. Kind of like this:
Now that's some nature blowing some shit up, my friends.
Mount Etna is located on Sicily. However, Vesuvius is located down the coast of the Italian peninsula from Rome, sort of in the "ankle" region of the boot. The thing about Vesuvius is, it started smoking and billowing ash on Vulcanalia of 79 AD. It wasn't until the next day that it went up, destroying the three cities.
The area around Pompeii and Stabiae was a very popular resort for wealthy Romans, and August was the time when most of the Roman families would have gone south to their villas for vacation. This means thousands of people were killed in the volcano's explosion and eruption that ensued. Famed historian Pliny the Elder (that's pronounced "Plinny") was in the area when Vesuvius erupted. Pliny commanded a fleet of ships, and he decided to take a closer look at the volcano as it erupted, because Pliny was famous for writing about the natural world. This wasn't just a grab for further fame, however, as Pliny did command his ships to sail across the bay to Pompeii and Stabiae in hopes of saving some of the people who were stranded there.
Unfortunately, this was the last thing Pliny would do. Pliny died on August 24th, 79 AD, but we know that his attempts to save people were successful because survivors escaped to tell Pliny's nephew, Pliny (this one being "the Younger"), that the Elder had saved them.
In Pliny's honor, the tall pillar of smoke and ash that spews forth from a volcano is referred to as a "Plinian cloud" and any volcano which does this is said to be undergoing a "Plinian eruption". Something like Krakatoa exploding is referred to as a "super-Plinian eruption". I'll bet he's so happy.
Pompeii and Herculaneum were not rebuilt. Instead, this paved the way for an ancient Greek city, Neapolis ("New City"), which was now under Roman control, to thrive as the major port in the area. It has grown up today to be known as Naples. Naples still sits in the shadow of Vesuvius.
And to add just a bit of doomsday cachet, Vesuvius is not a dormant volcano. In fact, recent seismological studies have shown that the magma chamber beneath the volcano is filling once more. In other words, you might want to put off that trip to Naples for a while, lest you end up like Pliny the Elder...but you'd have to put one about two hundred pounds before that happens.