The history of the Vesuvius National Park has always been influenced by the volcano. Its dominating size for those arriving by sea made it “the mountain” par excellence, a sacred mountain, a "Iuppiter Vesuvius". And it must have appeared even more so for the inhabitants living close to the volcano, along the coast and in the narrow district of the valley of the Sarno, enclosed between its slopes to the north and the dorsal of the sub-Apennine chain in Campania.
Volcanic activity in the area dates back to at least 400,000 years ago, the age of some of the lava found at a depth of 1345 m, and it has periodically erupted with great intensity. This explains the absence of any evidence of man’s presence in the oldest epochs. However, it is possible that the memory of similar catastrophes remained for a long time in the collective memory of the indigenous peoples and of the Greek and oriental merchants: the entire area was known as a land of fire by the first Greek colonies in the 8th century: here lies the forge of Efesto, here was the stage for the battles between the Gods and the Giants, and the name of burning plain (pedion Phlegraion) that Greek historians sometimes gave to the entire area of Campania is easily understood.
There is insufficient data to outline a reliable picture of the population of the territory of Vesuvius during the older periods. Its mythical inhabitants – according to Servio, Virgil’s commentator – were the Sarrasti, the ancient people of the Sarno that the poet from Mantua remembered as being subjugated by Ebalo, king of the Teleboi of Capri. The few pieces of archaeological information we have come from the necropolis of the “Gaudo culture” at Piano di Sorrento, from the mid Bronze Age village in Palma Campania and from the mid Bronze Age necropolis in the same area in Pompei.
During the Iron Age, there is evidence of settlement in a series of villages along the valley of the River Sarno: the remains found in the necropoli of San Marzano sul Sarno, San Valentino Torio and Striano enable us to understand the material culture of these people, probably of Oscan origin.
It is certain that from the mid 8th century BC, the villages nearest the delta of the Sarno were given the first features that can be reconnected to the Greek colonisation. However, it appears that there had already been some elements of acculturation which had arrived by a more ancient, better structured road which ran from Capua to Nola, encouraging the organisation of urban communities. Nocera, Pompei, Stabiae and Vico Equense appear to have been described from the end of the 6th century BC as Etruscan or Etruscanised settlements.
Little is known of the history of the settlements in these towns, with the exception of a few urban dynamics: it is known, for example, that the Etruscans, who founded Pompei at the end of the 7th century BC, had a very ambitious project. According to a design already used by the Greeks in Cuma, they took the ideas from an indigenous village, including, however, a larger area within the walls than was needed for immediate use.
A radical change in the occupation of the territory came as a result of the entry of Roman power in Campania with the Samnite wars. Until then, the Samnites and people of Campania had probably not altered the layout of the territory they had inherited from the Greeks and Etruscans. On the contrary, the Romans forced their model of organisation, founded on colonisation and re-colonisation.
The dormancy of the volcano, which was not believed to be active in that period, facilitated the anthropisation of the area. Urban centres flourished on the fertile plain, the mountain sides were covered with garlanded vineyards, whereas the upper slopes preserved woods full of wildlife.
However, volcanoes in this area typically have long periods of rest before catastrophic events. Thus, on 24 August 79 AD, the volcano became active once again after a period of dormancy that had probably lasted about eight centuries. It covered the surrounding areas in just over thirty hours with approximately 4 km3 of magma in the form of pumice and ash. The eruption destroyed the towns of Pompei, Ercolano and Stabia, involving an area within approximately a 100 km radius. It almost completely destroyed the existing volcano, Mount Somma, and began to form the more recent cone that is still visible, the Vesuvius in the strict sense of the word.
Subsequently, Vesuvius had another substantial dormant period, interrupted by the violent eruption of 472, which devastated Pollena. In the following years, there was a series of eruptions which were not catastrophic. The last of these in 1139 marked the beginning of a new dormant period, which led to the construction of settlements scattered across the slopes of the volcano and to the cultivation of the lands almost as far as the summit. Vesuvius re-awoke on 16 December 1631, with the most violent eruption in the recent history of the volcano. The pyroclastic flows from the eruptive column reached a height of 19 km and the mud slides due to the simultaneous heavy rainfall reached the sea and devastated all the towns between Pollena to the north and Torre Annunziata to the south-west.
From then on, there has been a further 18 eruptive cycles, separated by brief intervals of dormancy, never longer than 7 years and each ending in a violent, so-called “final” eruption. The strongest recorded were those of 1906 and 1944, the last time Vesuvius erupted, which almost completely destroyed the towns of Massa and San Sebastiano.