Pliny the Younger (61–113 CE), an author and a lawyer, was a direct witness of the eruption of the Vesuvius in 79 CE. Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae were covered by ashes as a result of the eruption. Pliny wrote several letters to Tacitus about this terrible event. His uncle Pliny the Elder (23–79CE) died during the eruption. Pliny the Younger, his nephew tells us how in a letter addressed to Tacitus:
LXV — To TACITUS
Your request that I would send you an account of my uncle’s death, in order to transmit a more exact relation of it to posterity, deserves my acknowledgments….
On the 24th of August, about one in the afternoon, my mother desired him to observe a cloud which appeared of a very unusual size and shape. He had just taken a turn in the sun, and, after bathing himself in cold water, and making a light luncheon, gone back to his books: he immediately arose and went out upon a rising ground from whence he might get a better sight of this very uncommon appearance. A cloud, from which mountain was uncertain, at this distance (but it was found afterwards to come from Mount Vesuvius), was ascending, the appearance of which I cannot give you a more exact description of than by likening it to that of a pine tree, for it shot up to a great height in the form of a very tall trunk, which spread itself out at the top into a sort of branches; occasioned, I imagine, either by a sudden gust of air that impelled it, the force of which decreased as it advanced upwards, or the cloud itself being pressed back again by its own weight, expanded in the manner I have mentioned; it appeared sometimes bright and sometimes dark and spotted, according as it was either more or less impregnated with earth and cinders. This phenomenon seemed to a man of such learning and research as my uncle extraordinary and worth further looking into. He ordered a light vessel to be got ready, and gave me leave, if I liked, to accompany him. I said I had rather go on with my work; and it so happened, he had himself given me something to write out. 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 carries out in a noble and generous spirit. He ordered the galleys to be put to sea, and went himself on board with an intention of assisting not only Rectina, but the several other towns which lay thickly strewn along that beautiful coast…
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 round 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 farther down 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. As soon as it was light again, which was not till the third day after this melancholy accident, his body was found entire, and without any marks of violence upon it, in the dress in which he fell, and looking more like a man asleep than dead.
LXV — To TACITUS
Pliny the Younger Letters of Pliny (Translator: William Melmoth. Online at Project Gutenberg)
If you want to read more about the earthquake, Pliny wrote another letter about it to Tacitus: Letter LXVI.
There is presently an exhibition on Pompeii at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. The pictures in this gallery were taken there.
Hélène Emeriaud is a retired teacher. A Community TA for HeroesX in v3, v4,and v5, she enjoys being a participant in Hour 25.
Photos: H. Emeriaud