When Mount Vesuvius Blew

 

“Injustice, swift, erect, and unconfin’d,
Sweeps the wide earth, and tramples o’er mankind”

– Homer, The Iliad

 

Everything was just the way it was supposed to be in Pompeii on August 24, 79 A.D.  The gods had bestowed wealth and abundance upon the inhabitants of this Roman trading town.  Things were near perfect.

 

Frescoes in the so-called “Villa of the Mysteries” in Pompeii, presumed to depict scenes from a Bacchus cult (Bacchus is the Roman version of the Greek god Dionysus, essentially a party god, responsible for alcoholic supplies, fertility and the arts). He was thought to bring divine joy and ecstasy, but also blind rage (reflective of the dual nature of what happens when people get high on wine). Bacchus and his followers could not be fettered. The spread of Bacchus worship could be seen as a subtle sign of the increase in hedonism and debauchery that often becomes evident in high civilizations as they reach their zenith of power and prosperity. That was certainly true of Rome at the time these frescoes were created. Although the empire would eventually become even larger in terms of territory, it reached its cultural high point around the time Caesar and Augustus did away with its Republican form of government.

 

The lucky residents of Pompeii lived in large homes with elegant courtyard gardens and all the modern conveniences.  Rooms were heated by hot air flowing through cavity walls and spaces under the floors.  Running water was provided to the city from a great reservoir and conveyed through underground pipelines to houses and public buildings.

Fresh fish from the Bay of Naples were readily available in the Macellum (great food market) and countless cauponae (small restaurants).  Entertainment was on hand at the large amphitheater.  Life was agreeable, affable, and idyllic for all – and it was only getting better.  Everyone just knew it.  They could feel it.  They believed it.

 

Images from a typical party in Pompeii. Reportedly King Francis I of the Two Sicilies was so embarrassed by the erotic frescoes shown in the Pompeii exhibition that he issued an order to lock all artwork showing nudity and lasciviousness away in a secret cabinet. Access was restricted to “people of mature age and respected morals.”  Presumably officials in Naples had some kind of morals measuring rod with which the state of the latter could be ascertained.

 

By 79 A.D. Pompeii had experienced nearly uninterrupted advancement from its founding almost 700 years earlier.  That this would ever change was unthinkable.  On the morning of August 24th, who but a doomsayer would suggest there wouldn’t be another 700 years of progress?

Yet, just then, when things couldn’t have seemed more certain, Mount Vesuvius blew.  Nineteen hours later, where there had been life and a thriving civilization, there was silence for the next 1,669 years.

 

Mount Vesuvius in the process of erupting. Obviously, being close to it when that happens is not the best of ideas. This mountain is ruthless.

Photo via newsroom24.it

 

Praying for Death

Viewing events through the lens of history and hindsight is unfair to its participants.  Their missteps are too obvious, their vanities are too abundant, and their displays of inferiority too absurd.  They appear to be mere imbeciles on parade.

Was George Armstrong Custer really just an arrogant Lieutenant Colonel who led his men to massacre at Little Bighorn?  Maybe.  Especially when Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and numbers over three times his cavalry appeared across the river.

Were George Donner and his brother Jacob naïve fools when they led their traveling party into the Sierra Nevada in late fall?  Perhaps.  Particularly when they resorted to munching on each other to survive the raging blizzard. Still they were human just like we are human.  No smarter.  No dumber.  We’re not here to ridicule them; but rather, to learn from them.

In the case of Pompeii, the warning signs were evident to those who bothered to heed them.  Seventeen years before Mount Vesuvius erupted there was a massive earthquake that damaged many of the structures within the city.  Then, leading up to 79 A.D., frequent, but smaller quakes occurred.  Soon no one seemed to pay them any heed.

In the end, ignoring these warnings proved fatal.  Coincidentally, it was just one day after the Vulcanalia – the festival of the Roman god of fire – that Mount Vesuvius erupted.  A cloud of gas and ash spewed down on Pompeii, instantly killing its inhabitants and burying the city under 60 feet of ash and pumice.

 

The “Garden of the Fugitives” – plaster casts of the bodies of Pompeii victims. The bodies were extremely well preserved due to being buried in volcanic ash.

 

“You could hear women lamenting, children crying, men shouting,” was the account by Pliny the Younger, 61 A.D – 112 A.D.  “There were some so afraid of death that they prayed for death.  Many raised their hands to the gods, and even more believed that there were no gods any longer and that this was one unending night for the world.”

 

Warnings from Mount Vesuvius

This week it was reported that super-volcano Campi Flegrei, located just west of Naples, Italy, and not far from Mount Vesuvius, has reached critical stage.  An imminent eruption threatens 360,000 lives.  According to Dr. Christopher Kilburn of the University College London Hazard Centre:

 

“By studying how the ground is cracking and moving at Campi Flegrei, we think it may be approaching a critical stage where further unrest will increase the possibility of an eruption, and it’s imperative that the authorities are prepared for this.

“We don’t know when or if this long-term unrest will lead to an eruption, but Campi Flegrei is following a trend we’ve seen when testing our model on other volcanoes, including Rabaul in Papua New Guinea, El Hierro in the Canary Islands, and Soufriere Hills on Montserrat in the Caribbean.”

 

Outgassings (“fumaroles”) from the ground at Campi Flegrei (a.k.a. the Phlegraean Fields). The super-volcano has been dormant for a very long time (although it was also described as somewhat “restless” in recent decades), but lately it has shown signs of waking up and approaching critical stage.

Photo credit: Donar Reiskoffer

 

On Wednesday, another Mount Vesuvius of sorts released some warning ash into the atmosphere.  Specifically, U.S. stock markets let out an enormous belch.  At market close the DOW had dropped 1.78 percent, the S&P 500 1.82 percent, and the NASDAQ 2.57 percent.  What’s going on?

Did investors sell in May and go away?  Were they selling President Trump?  Should you buy the dip?  Should you sell the rip? Quite frankly, no one knows.  Perhaps this is a small exhale before the next big inhale to Dow 30,000.  Or maybe it is the dangerous rumblings heralding the next great big bear market purge.

 

One can never be quite certain if a sudden market plunge represents a genuine warning shot or just a meaningless wobble on the path to more bubble greatness.  Given that experts only affirmed on Tuesday that “nothing can derail the market”, it is only natural that everybody insisted on Wednesday that there is no reason to worry whatsoever .  Does anyone remember February of 2007? It was a quiet month overall, except for a single trading day at the end of the month, when the DJIA fell by 500 points, seemingly out of the blue. On that day, sub-prime lender Novastar Financial went bankrupt, but oddly enough, the financial media mainly blamed the selling on weakness in China. It didn’t take long for the event to be completely erased from the collective memory of the speculator community. In hindsight it turned out it was actually the warning shot – click to enlarge.

 

Whatever you make of it, you’d be well advised to heed Wednesday’s warning.  In fact, if you bend your ear just right, you can hear the cries of the ancients from 79 A.D. Pompeii.  “Get out while you still can,” they shriek.  “This is your final chance!

 

Chart by: StockCharts

 

Chart annotations/captions and image captions by PT

 

MN Gordon is President and Founder of Direct Expressions LLC, an independent publishing company. He is the Editorial Director and Publisher of the Economic Prism – an E-Newsletter that tries to bring clarity to the muddy waters of economic policy and discusses interesting investment opportunities.