The story told by Pliny is the only one upon which we can rely. Dion Cassius, the historian, who wrote more than a century later, does not hesitate to use his imagination, telling us that Pompeii was buried under showers of ashes “while all the people were sitting in the theatre.” This statement has been effectively made use of by Bulwer, in his “Last Days of Pompeii.” In this he pictures for us a gladiatorial combat in the arena, with thousands of deeply interested spectators occupying the surrounding seats. The novelist works his story up to a thrilling climax in which the volcano plays a leading part.
This is all very well as a vivid piece of fiction, but it does not accord with fact, since Dion Cassius was undoubtedly incorrect in his statement. We now know from the evidence furnished by the excavations that none of the people were destroyed in the theatres, and, indeed, that there were very few who did not escape from both cities. It is very likely that many of them returned and dug down for the most valued treasures in their buried habitations. Dion Cassius may have obtained the material for his accounts from the traditions of the descendants of survivors, and if so he shows how terrible must have been the impression made upon their minds. He assures us that during the eruption a multitude of men of superhuman nature appeared, sometimes on the mountain and sometimes in the environs, that stones and smoke were thrown out, the sun was hidden, and then the giants seemed to rise again, while the sounds of trumpets were heard.
Not far from Vesuvius lay the famous Lake Avernus, whose name was long a popular synonym for the infernal regions. The lake is harmless to-day, but its reputation indicates that it was not always so. There is every reason to believe that it hides the outlet of an extinct volcano, and that long after the volcano ceased to be active it emitted gases as fatal to animal life as those suffocating vapors which annihilated all the cattle on the Island of Lancerote, in the Canaries, in the year 1730. Its name signifies “birdless,” indicating that its ascending vapors were fatal to all birds that attempted to fly above its surface.
In the superstition of the Middle Ages Vesuvius assumed the character which had before been given to Avernus, and was regarded as the mouth of hell. Cardinal Damiano, in a letter to Pope Nicholas II., written about the year 1060 tells the story of how a priest, who had left his mother ill at Beneventum, went on his homeward way to Naples past the crater of Vesuvius, and heard issuing therefrom the voice of his mother in great agony. He afterward found that her death coincided exactly with the time at which he had heard her voice.