Author: Pliny the Younger

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Pliny the Younger VI 16, 20

Pliny the Younger on the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius

[79 A.D.]

Your request that I send you an account of the death of my uncle, in order to give a more exact narration of it to posterity, merits my acknowledgments; for, if the glorious circumstances of this accident be celebrated by your pen, the means of his death will be made forever illustrious. I am persuaded that the mentioning of him in your immortal writings will greatly contribute to making his name eternal.

At that time he was at Misenum with the fleet under his command. On the 24th of August, at about one o’clock in the afternoon, my mother urged him to observe a cloud which seemed to be of a very unusual size and shape. He had just returned from enjoying the rays of the sun, and, after bathing in cold water, and having a bit of food, had retired to his study. He immediately got up, and went out upon an eminence, from which he might view this singular phenomenon more clearly. One could not know at this distance from what mountain this cloud issued, but afterwards it was found to be from Vesuvius.

I cannot give you a more exact description of its figure other than to compare it to a pine-tree. It shot up to a great height in the form of a tall trunk, which spread at the top into what appeared to be branches. This was caused, I imagine, either by the force of the internal vapors which forced the cloud upward and decreased in strength as it advanced; or by the cloud, being pressed back by its own weight, expanding itself in the manner I have mentioned. Sometimes it appeared bright, sometimes dark and spotted, since it was either more or less impregnated with earth and cinders.

This unusual spectacle excited my uncle’s philosophical curiosity to seek a closer view of it. Accordingly, he ordered a light vessel to be prepared, and offered me the opportunity, if I thought it proper, to go with him. I chose rather to continue on with the work in which I was engaged; for it so happened that he had given me a certain writing to copy.

As he was proceeding out of the house with his tablets in his hands, he met the sailors attached to the galleys stationed at Retina, from which they had fled in abject terror; for that port being situated at the foot of Vesuvius, they could not escape by any way except by sea. They begged him not to go on and expose his life to imminent and inevitable danger. In accordance with their advice, he altered his original plans, and, instead of satisfying his philosophical spirit, he renounced it to the more magnanimous principle of helping the distressed. With this in mind, he gave orders to put the fleet immediately to sea. He himself went on board with the aim of assisting not only Retina, but also several other towns along the beautiful coast.

Hastening to the spot from which others had fled with the utmost terror, he steered a direct course to the point of danger. He did this with great calmness and presence of mind, in the meantime making and dictating his observations on the appearance and progress of that awe-inspiring scene.

He was now so close to the mountain that the cinders, which became thicker and hotter as he advanced, fell upon the ships. Pumice-stones and black pieces of burning rock rained down. The crew was in danger not only of running aground because of the sudden retreat of the sea, but also from the huge fragments which rolled down from the mountains and obstructed the shore. Here he stopped to consider whether or not he should turn back. The pilot advised him: "Fortune," he said, "befriends the courageous. Steer to Pomponianus!"

Pomponianus was then at Stabiae, separated by a gulf which the sea . . . forms on that shore. Pomponianus had already sent his baggage on board. Though he was not at that time in actual danger, he was determined to put to sea as soon as the wind changed. It was favorable enough, however, to carry my uncle to Pomponianus, whom he found in the greatest consternation. He embraced him tenderly and encouraged and exhorted him to maintain his spirits. As a means of dissipating his fears, he ordered his servants, with an unconcerned air, to carry him to the baths. After having bathed, he sat down to supper with great, or at least (what is equally as heroic) with all the appearance of cheerfulness.

In the meantime the fire from Vesuvius burst forth from several parts of the mountain violently. The darkness of the night made the spectacle even more visible and dreadful. But my uncle, in order to calm the fears of his friend, assured him that it was only the burning of the villages which the farmers had abandoned.

After this he went to bed, and it is most certain that he was so little disturbed as to fall at once into a deep sleep. He was somewhat corpulent and he breathed hard; the attendants in the antechamber actually heard him snore. The court which led to his apartment was now almost filled with stones and ashes. It would have been impossible for him, if he stayed there any longer, to have made his way out. It was thought proper, therefore, to awaken him. He got up, and joined Pomponianus and the others, who had been too concerned to think of trying to sleep.

They consulted now as to whether it would be prudent to trust the houses, which shook from side to side with frequent and violent concussions, or to flee to the open fields, where the calcined stones and cinders, although powdered, nevertheless fell in showers and threatened them with instant destruction. Distressed, they decided upon the fields as the lesser of two evils. My uncle embraced this decision after cool and deliberate consideration although the others were hurried into it by their fears. Tying pillows on their heads with napkins, they went out; this was their entire defense against the hail of stones which fell about them.

It was now day everywhere else, but there a darkness deeper than the blackest night prevailed. The darkness was indeed somewhat dissipated by torches and other kinds of lights. They thought it best to go down further upon the shore, to ascertain if they might safely put out to sea. But they found the waves still high and tempestuous.

My uncle, having drunk a draught or two of cold water, laid himself upon a sail-cloth which was spread out for him. Suddenly the flames, preceded by a powerful odor of sulphur, dispersed the rest of the company, and caused him to rise. He raised himself up with the help of two of his servants, but instantly fell down dead—suffocated, I believe, by some terrible and poisonous vapor. He had always had weak lungs and he had frequently been subject to a breathing difficulty.

As soon as it was light again, which was not until the third day after this sad accident, his body was discovered entire, without any marks of violence, just as he had fallen, exactly in the same posture, looking more like a man asleep than dead.

Permit me only to add that I have faithfully related to you what I was either an eyewitness of myself, or learned immediately after the accident happened, and before there was time to vary the truth.

In the meantime I continued the work which prevented my going with my uncle. At that time I was but eighteen years of age and I do not know whether I should call my behavior in this dangerous moment courage or rashness; at any rate I took up Livy and amused myself by making extracts from that author as if I had been perfectly at ease. In the morning we resolved to leave the town.

Advancing to a convenient distance from the houses we stood still in the midst of a most dreadful scene. The carriages for which we had sent, although standing upon level ground, were thrown from side to side, and could not be kept still even when supported by large stones. The sea seemed to roll back upon itself, driven from its shores by the convulsive moving of the earth. A large portion of the shore was uncovered, and many marine animals were left exposed. Landward a black and dreadful cloud rolled down, broken by great flashes of forked lightning, and divided by a long train of fire which resembled lightning but was much larger.

Soon afterwards the cloud seemed to descend and cover the whole surface of the ocean, hiding the island of Capri altogether and blotting out the promontory of Misenum. My mother conjured me earnestly to make my escape, saying that her age and corpulency made it impossible for her to get away, but that she would willingly meet death if she were certain that she had not been the cause of mine. But I absolutely refused to leave her, and taking her by the hand I led her on.

The ashes now began falling on us, though as yet in no great quantity. I turned my head and saw be-bind me a dense cloud which came rolling after us like a torrent. I suggested that while we still had light we turn off the high road, lest she be trampled to death in the dark by the crowd that followed us.

Just then darkness closed in upon us, not like the darkness of a cloudy night, but of a room when it is shut up, and all the lights have been put out. We heard the shrieks of women, the cries of children, and the shouts of men; some calling for their children, some for their parents, others for their husbands or wives, and recognizing each other only by their voices. Some called for death only through the very fear of death; others lifted their arms to the gods; but most imagined that the last and eternal night had come, and that the gods and the world were being destroyed together. Among these were some who added imaginary terrors to the real danger, and persuaded the terror-stricken multitude that Misenum was in flames.

At length a glimmer of light appeared, which we imagined to be the forerunner of an approaching burst of flame (as in truth it was). But the fire felt at a considerable distance from us. Then again we were immersed in thick darkness. A heavy shower of ashes now rained upon us,


so that we were forced from time to time to shake them off, otherwise we would have been overwhelmed and buried in the heap.

I might boast that, during this entire scene of horror, not a sigh or expression of fear escaped me, if it had not been that I believed myself to be perishing with the world itself —a miserable consolation but a powerful one.

At last this terrible darkness was dissipated by degrees like a cloud of smoke. The real day returned, and even the sun appeared, though very faintly, as if there were an eclipse. Everything that appeared before our eyes (which were weak and trembling) seemed to be changed, being covered over with white ashes as with deep snow.

We returned to Misenum, where we refreshed ourselves as well as we could, and passed an anxious night between hope and fear. There was indeed a much larger share of fear, for the earthquake still continued and many frantic and crazed people ran about predicting awful horrors.

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Chicago: Pliny the Younger, Epist., ed. Pliny the Younger in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris (Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Co., 1951), Original Sources, accessed December 1, 2023, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=LBL8JWZRZAJDZN3.

MLA: Pliny the Younger. Epist., edited by Pliny the Younger, Vol. VI, in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, edited by Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris, Harrisburg, Pa., Stackpole Co., 1951, Original Sources. 1 Dec. 2023. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=LBL8JWZRZAJDZN3.

Harvard: Pliny the Younger, Epist., ed. . cited in 1951, History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. , Stackpole Co., Harrisburg, Pa.. Original Sources, retrieved 1 December 2023, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=LBL8JWZRZAJDZN3.