Pliny the Younger and the Eruption of Mt Vesuvius

Gregory DiPippo

Yesterday and the day before, we marked the anniversary of the eruption of Mt Vesuvius with some excerpts from a letter which Pliny the Younger wrote to his friend, the historian Tacitus. This letter recounts the attempt of his uncle and namesake to rescue people from the town of Stabiae, a mission which ended in his death. At the conclusion of the letter, Pliny begin an account of the disaster from his own point of view, but then breaks off saying that he would omit that part, since Tacitus had only asked about his uncle’s fate. Tacitus’ reply does not survive, but we know from a second letter of Pliny (6.20) that he was anxious to hear the story from the latter’s point of view as well.

Pliny had stayed behind at Misenum, the headquarters of the Roman fleet where he lived with his uncle and mother. Following the eruption, which had begun early in the afternoon, the area was shaken with increasingly intense earthquakes. After passing a rough night in the courtyard of their villa, for fear that the building itself might collapse on top of them, they decided to leave the city. His description of a tsunami effect often observed in such situations, by which the sea retreats from the shore, is particularly interesting.

“Tum demum excedere oppido visum; sequitur vulgus attonitum, quodque in pavore simile prudentiae, alienum consilium suo praefert, ingentique agmine abeuntes premit et impellit. Egressi tecta consistimus. Multa ibi miranda, multas formidines patimur. … mare in se resorberi et tremore terrae quasi repelli videbamus. Certe processerat litus, multaque animalia maris siccis harenis detinebat. Ab altero latere nubes atra et horrenda ignei spiritus tortis vibratisque discursibus rupta, in longas flammarum figuras dehiscebat; fulguribus illae et similes et maiores erant.

(A satellite view of the bay of Naples. Misenum, where Pliny the Elder was stationed, and from which Pliny the Younger fled, as narrated in this letter, is at the bottom of the peninsula located on the north side of the bay, close to the island of Procida, and about 20 miles away from the crater of Vesuvius. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Then at last we decided to leave the town. There followed a stunned crowd, which, in its terror, prefers someone else’s judgment to its own as the closest thing to prudence, and in a huge mass pushed and pressed those departing. Once past the buildings we stopped; there we saw many astonishingly things, and underwent many terrors. … we saw the sea drawn back upon itself, and, as it were, driven away by the shaking of the earth. The shore had certainly widened, and many sea creatures were stranded on the sands. On the other side, a fearful black cloud of fiery vapor burst into long twists and zigzags, and gaped apart into long flames resembling lightning flashes, but larger.”

As Pliny and his mother continued their flight amid the crowd, she at one point urged him to go on without her, which he refused to do. They had just were then overtaken by a massive black cloud of ash, which fortunately was now at enough of a distance from Vesuvius that it had cooled, but had not thinned.

“Vix consideramus, et nox — non qualis illunis aut nubila, sed qualis in locis clausis lumine exstincto. Audires ululatus feminarum, infantum quiritatus, clamores virorum; alii parentes alii liberos alii coniuges vocibus requirebant, vocibus noscitabant; hi suum casum, illi suorum miserabantur; erant qui metu mortis mortem precarentur; multi ad deos manus tollere, plures nusquam iam deos ullos aeternamque illam et novissimam noctem mundo interpretabantur.

We were considering what to do, and (suddenly it was night), not like a moonless or cloudy night, but like closed places when the light is extinguished. You could hear the wailing of women, the screams of little children, and the shouts of men; some were trying to find their parents, others their children, others their wives, recognizing them by their voices alone. Some were commiserating their own lot, others that of their relatives; some even prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many were lifting up their hands to the gods, but more took it to mean that now there were no more gods, and that that night would last forever, and was the world’s last.”

(The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, ca. 1821, by the English painter John Martin (1789-1854), which seems to be based at least in part on these words of Pliny. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

At last even this dissipated, and “mox dies verus; sol etiam effulsit, luridus tamen qualis esse cum deficit solet. Occursabant trepidantibus adhuc oculis mutata omnia altoque cinere tamquam nive obducta. – soon (came) the real light of day, and the sun even shone, but blood-red as it usually appears at its setting. With eyes still trembling, we saw that everything had been changed, and covered with a deep layer of ashes, like snow.” Pliny and his mother returned to Misenum, and another anxious night filled with earth-tremors, but from the fact that he then breaks off the narration, it seems clear that the worst had passed. The news of his uncle’s death reached him the next day.

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