Pliny the Younger – The Eruption of Vesuvius (Letter 6.16)
To Cornelius Tacitus:
- My uncle, Pliny the Elder, died in a terrible incident which also left our region in ruins. Let’s hope that our talking about him will immortalize him.
- He was with the fleet he was commanding at Misenum
[Bay of Naples]
- On August 24th at 1 in the afternoon, as unusually large & strangely shaped cloud appeared.
- He was out for a walk in the sun, after having a cold bath. He had a light lunch & went back inside to read.
- The cloud came from the mountain, looking like
the shape of a pine tree – i.e. tall trunk with branches shooting out.
- I imagine a large gust of wind caused it to flow up & its own heavy weight pressed it back down.
- It appeared sometimes bright, sometimes dark – because it was full of earth & cinders.
- He ordered a vessel to be ready & invited me along. I said I’d stick around the house & do some reading.
- He was leaving the house when he got an urgent
message from the wife of Bassus that she was in trouble because her house was
right next to Mount Vesuvius & she had no way to get away.
- This made him spring into action, wanting not only to help her but many others who might be in harm’s way. He steered right for the danger very calmly.
- His boat came close to the mountain with cinders growing thicker & hotter as he approached. Burning rocks flew near the boat. They were not only in danger of running aground but also catching fire or bursting a hole in the ship.
- He stopped to consider to carry on or to turn around. He felt it best to be brave & head for Stabiae [Castellammare today].
- He picked up Pomponianus & moved out to sea, hoping for a helpful gust of wind. He went back to have a bath & some dinner, thinking that was the end of it. To him, the flames were just a few villages with small fires.
- That night he had trouble breathing, probably
thinking it was normal because he was so fat.
- The people staying with him were too nervous to sleep. He woke up & they debated staying or running out into the fields where rocks, cinders, etc. were still flying around. The houses might catch fire or crumble.
- They left the house with pillows strapped to
their head tied up with napkins to protect their heads from flying rocks. The
sky was illuminated even though it was as thick as night could be.
- They went down to the shore. My uncle lied down & asked for some water. But a fireball fell & dispersed their group. He rose with the help of 2 servants & fell over dead – suffocated.
- It was probably some toxic gas that killed him. He looked more like a man asleep than dead.
- I wasn’t there but I quizzed people who were with him.