Pliny the Younger
Letters to Tacitus (after A.D. 79) from Book 6, 16, 20.
Petis ut tibi avunculi mei exitum scribam, quo verius tradere posteris possis. Gratias ago ; nam video morti eius si celebretur a te immortalem gloriam esse propositam.
You ask that I write to you about the death of my uncle, so that you might be able to hand it down more accurately to posterity. Thank you–for I see that the everlasting renown of his death is established if he were honoured by you.
On the 24th of August, A.D. 79, Vesuvius erupted, disgorging it`s fiery contents from the deepest bowels of the earth upon the Roman town of Pompeii; covering it in a thick layer of volcanic detritus and wiping out it`s inhabitants. Pliny the Younger left us the most vigorous and vivid description of a volcanic eruption ever put to paper; some of his acute observations seemed so amazing and outlandish as to seem the work of intellectual whimsy rather than objective observation. It`s extremely doubtful whether anyone in the classical world had ever witnessed a volcanic eruption, and so Pliny was working from scientific base camp by seeing an unheard of event. His description of clouds of molten ash descending down the mountain upon the town like an engorged river and behaving as if it were liquid were seen until very recently, as a fancy of his imagination: only now can his observation be proved correct; pyroclastic flows are now a proven scientific fact of some eruptions of a particularly violent and singular nature, where a humongous ash cloud mimics the flow of water, albeit one which drowns it`s victims in white hot heat which strips a living body of it`s flesh and other soft matter in the blink of an eye.
Pliny`s uncle was Pliny the Elder, the naval commander of the Roman fleet stationed at the north-west extremity of the Bay of Naples at Misenum; he was probably the most well informed living Roman on the natural world, and the eruption was of great interest to him; it was his scientific interest to get up close and personal to the unheard of events unfolding before him which would ultimately cost him his life.
As he was coming out of the house, he received a note from Rectina, the wife of Bassus, who was in the utmost alarm at the imminent danger which threatened her; for her villa lying at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, there was no way of escape but by sea; she earnestly entreated him therefore to come to her assistance. He accordingly changed his first intention , and what he had begun from a philosophical, he now carried out in a noble and generous spirit. He ordered the galleys to be put to sea, and went himself on board with the intention of assisting not only Rectina, but the several other towns which lay thickly strewn along that beautiful coast. Hastening then to the place from whence others fled with the utmost terror, he steered his course direct to the point of danger, and with so much calmness and presence of mind as to be able to make and dictate his observations upon the motion and all the phenomena of that dreadful scene.
So what starts out as a scientific expedition turns into a major rescue mission, with uncle Pliny riding to the rescue; when he weighs anchor near his friends he makes sure that he exudes calmness to assure everyone that there is nothing to worry about and everything is in hand; so he decides to have a bath, followed up by a leisurely dinner while Vesuvius is erupting and shaking the building`s foundations. Uncle Pliny then retires nonchalantly to bed, but is woken up before dawn because debris had begun to bombard the building to such an extent, that if they didn`t leave immediately they would all be trapped.
They consulted together whether it would be most prudent to trust to the houses, which now rocked from side to side with frequent and violent concussions as if shaken from their very foundations; or fly to the open fields, where the calcined stones and cinders, though light indeed, yet fell in large showers, and threatened destruction. In this choice of dangers they resolved for the fields: a resolution which, while the rest of the company were hurried into by their fears, my uncle embraced upon cool and deliberate consideration.
They went out then, having pillows tied upon their heads with napkins; and this was their whole defence against the storm of stones that fell around them. It was now day everywhere else, but there a deeper darkness prevailed than in the thickest night; which however was in some degree alleviated by torches and other lights of various kinds. They thought proper to go down farther upon the shore to see if they might safely put out to sea, but found the waves still running extremely high, and boisterous. There my uncle, laying himself down upon a sail cloth, which was spread for him, called twice for some cold water, which he drank, when immediately the flames, preceded by a strong whiff of sulphur, dispersed the rest of the party, and obliged him to rise. He raised himself up with the assistance of two of his servants, and instantly fell down dead; suffocated as I conjecture, by some gross and noxious vapour, having always had a weak throat, which was often inflamed.
Uncle Pliny`s easily inflamed throat had probably been instantly incinerated by the white hot gases which preceded the most horrifying and terminal event of the day–a pyroclastic flow of immense proportions and ferocity was hurtling down the slopes of Vesuvius, drowning everything in it`s path. The gods of the underworld had been unleashed upon the world of the living in search of fresh souls to feed their dark appetites upon.
Although Pliny the Younger wishes to convey how heroically his uncle met his death, reading between the lines you can see that uncle Pliny had absolutely no idea what he was doing; but why should he? Never in the whole of recorded history up to this point had anyone seen a volcanic eruption: he doesn`t have a plan of escape after Plan A fails; the winds are pushing huge breakers onto the shore, preventing escape by ship, so he simply lays down on the beach and tries to have a nap.
Even today, Pliny`s account is highly thought of by vulcanologists because he gives an extremely detailed, and accurate observation of events; he not only provides an account of what happened to his uncle (quite possibly garnered from survivors of the experience), but also his own own story from his position across the bay, where he had a perfect observation platform of the awesome spectacle. Young Pliny is 18 at this point, extremely studious, and doesn`t accompany his uncle on account he had home work to catch up on; so uncle tells him to get on with his Livy reading while he heroically rides off on his white charger to rescue those in distress.
There was a lot of scepticism surrounding Pliny`s description of the eruption until very recently, because what he described was not the type of eruption that people had seen up to that point: it wasn`t until the Mount St Helens eruption in the 1980`s that people began to go back to Pliny`s letters and put two and two together. This man did not have a vivid imagination, he was actually acutely observant of a natural phenomenon.
Pliny decided to make a run for it as an impenetrable darkness descended……….
Soon afterwards, the cloud began to descend, and cover the sea. It had already surrounded and concealed the island of Capreae and the promontory of Misenum. My mother now besought, urged, even commanded me to make my escape at any rate, which, as I was young, I might easily do………The ashes now began to fall upon us, though in no great quantity. I looked back; a dense dark mist seemed to be following us, spreading itself over the country like a cloud. We had scarcely sat down when night came upon us, not such as we have when the sky is cloudy, or when there is no moon, but that of a room when it is shut up, and all the lights put out. You might hear the shrieks of women, the screams of children, and the shouts of men; some calling for their children, others for their parents, others for their husbands, and seeking to recognise each other by the voices that replied…..some lifting their hands to the gods; but the greater part convinced there were now no gods at all, and that the final endless night of which we have heard had come upon the world.
Pliny the Younger survived to tell his tale and immeasurably enrich the world of literature and natural science with his unrivalled descriptions of pyroclastic flows and surges which remain spot on, even after almost two thousand years.
Pliny loved to write; he wrote poetry and letters, as well as official state documents for various emperors, most notably Trajan in the early second century, when as governor of Bithynia he mentioned in dispatches an obscure religious sect beginning to cause problems–the Christians. He loved nothing more than sitting down and writing a good letter.
There is nothing to write about, you say. Well then, write and let me know just this–that there is nothing to write about; or tell me in the good old style if you are well.
He was a man who was probably a little bit gobby; he liked to talk, and regularly attended recitations, and berated any friends who didn`t keep up his own hectic schedule of readings. Pliny simply loved to communicate, whether by the written word, or by talking a good deal: he spread his love of language and the written word by every means at his disposal; and we have to be eternally grateful for his ardent love of letters for one of humanity`s greatest treasures of literature.