Vesuvius: A Biography

Vesuvius is a European geological icon par excellence. There are many books about this wonderful volcano and most people will know of its connection with the destruction of Pompeii. However, this book is as much about its social history, as it is about geology. Over the centuries, the fertile volcanic soils of the region have created a productive local economy and a beautiful place for the rich to live. The periodic destruction of the farms and villages by the volcano seem to be quickly forgotten and forgiven by the inhabitants, as they moved back to exploit the soils and environment after each explosive disaster. And this has created society that seems to accept the periodic abuse, with populations of cities like Naples merely faithfully parading holy relics through the streets, rather than (surely a more sensible course of action) running away forever.

And, of course, the volcano also saw the birth of a new science – volcanology, with geological luminaries such as William Hamilton (of Lady Hamilton fame), the local eighteenth century British envoy, spending considerable time studying the mountain and recording its behaviour in letters to the Royal Society in London.

All of this is covered by Alwyn Scarth, who studied geology at Cambridge University and in France, and has now produced a number of books on volcanoes. His style is easy to read, with his private opinions (especially about aristocratic ridiculousness) being allowed to sneak through in amusing ways. The book discusses both the geology of volcanoes generally and provides fascinating descriptions of Vesuvian eruptions since prehistory, including the one that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum. Indeed, it is the details of this famous eruption that provides some of the most compelling narrative and it is a fascinating thought that the first detailed – almost scientific description – of a volcanic eruption was made by a Roman, giving rise to the term “Plinian eruption”.
The final chapter of the book deals with the current, somewhat shambolic plans for next “big” one. There are many good reasons to read this book. But, if one is to make us realise that this eruption will have catastrophic effects, then not only will it be a great read, but some real good may come of it as well.

Vesuvius: A Biography by Alwyn Scarth, Terra Publishing Harpenden, Hertfordshire (2009). 342 pp., hardback, ISBN: 978-1-903544–25-9