The lively city of Pompeii was located at the foot of Mount and Volcano Vesuvius in a rich and fertile place. Its 20,000 inhabitants were not aware of the tremendous danger looming over them. (Interestingly in Latin there is not a specific term to designate volcanoes; they call them “mons sulfureus”= “sulfur mountains” or with some similar name).
On August 24th 79 AD, heralded by some earthquakes, the volcano erupts after more than 1,500 years of inactivity. In just 20 hours Pompeii was destroyed and at least 5,000 of its people died as they were asphyxiated by the ash and toxic gases, especially carbon dioxide, which fell on them.
The eruption began at around one in the afternoon with a huge roar; a huge column of gas quickly reached fifteen kilometers up and became visible across the bay; like a huge pine, it darkened the sunlight. During endless hours tons of pumice stone were dropping, porous and lightweight which were covering the city. Many people ran away, but others remained in their homes, where they found the end of their lives.
During the night a huge explosion launched the so-called "pyroclastic flow" (from the Greek πῦρ "fire" and "κλαστός" "broken, piece" or burning cloud mixture of gases and rock moving at ground level and that carbonizes everything it finds in its way). It did not get to Pompeii, but devastated the neighboring town of Herculaneum and buried it under twenty- five meters of rubble.
Pumice and ash go on falling on Pompeii and a huge toxic cloud kills every living breathing beings. It is estimated that the Vesuvius Mount threw more than 10,000 millions of tons of rock and pumice.
The city was sealed by the ashes like a huge sarcophagus. 1500 years later the city was rediscovered and impressive findings allow us to largely rebuild the life of this city. On another occasion we will talk about it, especially about the imprints or molds that living bodies, men and also animals, left on cinder blocks.
Today we will reproduce the written document that describes us with remarkable detail the end of Pompeii. Across the bay, in Misenum, was Caius Plinius Secundus (AD 23 – August 25, AD 79), better known as Pliny the Elder, admiral and passionate naturalist. He led the squad in relief mission to Pompeii. The winds pushed him a little bit further down, towards Stabiae.
He spent the night there; the next morning he wanted to find out in detail what was happening. The toxic gases killed him and ended with his life and scientific curiosity. His nephew, also called Caius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, born Gaius Caecilius or Gaius Caecilius Cilo, (61 – ca. 112), better known as Pliny the Younger, who didn´t accompany him and stayed in Misenum doing his school assignments, collected shortly after the story told by those who accompanied him. His story and description seemed so extraordinary to his contemporaries and successors that they did not believe him, but today we know that eruptions as described are real. They take place according to scientists every two thousand years or so. Will it happen again? Perhaps some of today's readers can inform, but most will no longer be here.
Pliny the Younger actually has left us two letters with regard to this event; in the first he recounts the destruction of Pompeii and his uncle´s death; in the second he tells his personal experience, that is, how he and his family lived it, also with risk. I will present today the first letter and perhaps on another occasion I´ll gather the second one, also full of interest.
Pliny the Younger, Epistle 6, 16
C. PLINY to his dear Tacitus, health
You ask me to describe the death of my uncle in order to be able to transmit it to posterity more truthfully. I thank you, for I see that his death will have an immortal glory if it is remembered and told by you.
Because, although he died in the destruction of some fantastically beautiful lands and he is going to live forever like the people and cities of memorable destination, although he himself achieved many and everlasting achievements, however the immortality of your writings will greatly increase his perpetuity.
Certainly I consider blessed those to whom the gods have given as a gift or do things worthy of being written or write things worthy of being read, but I think the most blessed of all are those who have been given both. Among these is my uncle, not only because of his books but also because of yours. For all this I am more willingly and assume with great pleasure, I even sue myself, what you ask me.
He was in Misenum and ruled the fleet with his authority. On August 24, almost at the seventh hour (13:00 p.m.) my mother tells him that it´s appearing a cloud of unusual size and shape.
He, after having been basking in the sun and then having had a cold bath, had taken a bite lying and was working; he asks for his sandals and goes up to a place where that wonderful phenomenon could be seen better. It was emerging a cloud, not remarkable for those watching from afar from which mountain, it was later revealed that it was Vesuvius, whose likeness and shape of tree was none other than that of a pine tree.
As it was projected upward like a very long trunk, and some branches spilled, because I think the strong wind pushed it at first and then it stopped by the decreasing wind or also overcome by its own weight, it dissipated across, sometimes of white color and others dirty and stained as if it carried dust or ash.
He considered, as the very educated person he was, that it was something great and worthy of being known more closely. He orders to prepare a “liburnian or liburna” * (light battleship); he gives me the chance to go with him, if I wanted; I replied that I preferred to study, because also happened he himself had given me something to write.
* A liburnian or liburna was a type of small galley used for raiding and patrols, particularly by the Roman navy.
He was leaving the house when he receives a message from Rectina, Tasco’s wife, scared by the danger that threatened her, as her house was placed underneath (under the Vesuvius Mountain), and there was no other way out but by boat: she begged him to be rescued of such a big problem.
So he changes the plan and what had begun with only curious interest in a first place will now be faced with the greatest effort by him. He takes several quadriremes (Latin: quadriremis; Greek: τετρήρης, tetrērēs) (warship or boat with four rows of oars) and leaves Misenum to carry his help not only to Rectina but to many others, because the niceness of the beach made it was very crowded.
He goes running there where others run away and stays straight course and rudder into danger, fearless to such point that he dictates and writes in a list all the variations and all the forms of that disaster as he saw it with his eyes.
Ashes already fell on the ships, hotter and denser as they went closer, and then black pumice stones fell over them, burned and broken by fire; then there is a sudden low background and the beach becomes inaccessible by the collapse of the Mount. He hesitated for a moment if he should turn back, but immediately he told the pilot that he warned it was done this way: "Fortune favors the brave: go to Pomponianus´s home".
He was in Stabiae, away from the center of the Gulf, because the sea penetrated imperceptibly in the rounded and curves coasts. There, the danger was not approaching yet, though it was still evident and grew closer if the eruption increased. There he had brought the equipment to the ships, sure of the escape if the contrary wind slackened. Pushed my uncle for this favorable wind, he hugs, comforts and encourages (Pomponianus) who was shaking, and to reduce the fear of him with his own safety, he orders to take him to have a bath; once he is washed and feels clean, he sits back and has his dinner, happy or pretending to be happy (which is also great).
Meanwhile, from Mount Vesuvius very large flames and high fires shone in many places, whose brilliance and clarity was accentuated by the darkness of the night. He, to remedy the fear, repeated each time that what were burning were the fires, which had been abandoned in their haste by the farmers, as well as the abandoned villages and houses with no one inside. Then he went to rest and certainly he rested with a very deep sleep, because his breathing, which was somewhat heavy and noisy due to the size of his body, was heard by the people who were at his door.
But the courtyard from which you accessed the room, already full of mixed ash and pumice, had risen so much that, if the stay in the room was extended over time, there would be no exit. Once he is awakened, he gets up and goes to meet Pomponianus and others who had remained vigilant.
They deliberate in common if they should stay into the house or leave to go to open field, as the house was moving with frequent and large earthquakes and seemed that, torn from its foundations, it went back and forth from one side to another.
Outdoor again they were afraid of the pumice stones fall, although light and consumed, so the comparison of the dangers made them choose; and in his case ( my uncle´s case ), a calculation beat another calculation, in the case of the others, a fear overcame another fear. They take pillows and place them on their heads tied with bandages: this was their protection from what was falling on them.
Elsewhere it was already daylight, but what was there was the blackest and closest nigh of all nights, cleared however by many torches and various luminaries. He decided to reach the beach and watch closely what chance offered the sea in that moment; but it still remained inaccessible and adverse.
Lain there on a spread cloth, he asked for cold water again and again and drank it. Then the flames and the smell of sulfur, announcing the flames, put to flight the others, and they make him get up.
Relying on two young slaves, he stood up and immediately collapsed, as I suppose, because of his breathing, which was probably obstructed by the higher density of the cloud, and also due to the fact that his esophagus closed, because, moreover, he naturally had a weak and narrow esophagus and often with usual burnings.
When the light came back (it was the third day since I had last seen him) his body was found intact, with no wounds or injures and covered as he had dressed. The body appearance was more like a person resting than a corpse.
Meanwhile at Misenum my mother and I … but this does not matter to the story, or you don´t want to know anything else about his death. Therefore I´ll finish.
Only I´ll add that I have told you everything I intervened in and all the things I heard immediately, that it's when people remember things more true. You will select the most important things; one thing is to write a letter and another to write the story, one thing is to write to a friend and another to write for everybody. Goodbye.
C. PLINIVS, TACITO SVO S.
Petis ut tibi auunculi mei exitum scribam, quo uerius tradere posteris possis. Gratias ago; nam uideo morti eius si.celebretur a te immortalem gloriam esse propositam.
Quamuis enim pulcherrimarum clade terrarum, ut populi ut urbes memorabili casu, quasi semper uicturus occiderit, quamuis ipse plurima opera et mansura condiderit, multum tamen perpetuitati eius scriptorum tuorum aeternitas addet.
Equidem beatos puto, quibus deorum munere datum est aut facere scribenda aut scribere legenda, beatissimos uero quibus utrumque. Horum in numero auunculus meus et suis libris et tuis erit. Quo libentius suscipio, deposco etiam quod iniungis.
Erat Miseni classemque imperio praesens regebat. Nonum kal. Septembres hora fere septima mater mea indicat ei adparere nubem inusitata et magnitudine et specie.
Vsus ille sole, mox frigida, gustauerat iacens studebatque; poscit soleas, ascendit locum ex quo maxime miraculum illud conspici poterat. Nubes incertum procul intuentibus ex quo monte (Vesuuium fuisse postea cognitum est) oriebatur, cuius similitudinem et formam non alia magis arbor quam pinus expresserit.
Nam longissimo uelut trunco elata in altum quibusdam ramis diffundebatur, credo quia recenti spiritu euecta, dein senescente eo destituta aut etiam pondere suo uicta in latitudinem uanescebat, candida interdum, interdum sordida et maculosa prout terram cineremue sustulerat.
Magnum propiusque noscendum ut eruditissimo uiro uisum. Iubet liburnicam aptari; mihi si uenire una uellem facit copiam; respondi studere me malle, et forte ipse quod scriberem dederat.
Egrediebatur domo; accipit codicillos Rectinae Tasci imminenti periculo exterritae, nam uilla eius subiacebat, nec ulla nisi nauibus fuga: ut se tanto discrimini eriperet orabat.
Vertit ille consilium et quod studioso animo incohauerat obit maximo. Deducit quadriremes, ascendit ipse non Rectinae modo sed multis, erat enim frequens amoenitas orae, laturus auxilium.
Properat illuc unde alii fugiunt, rectumque cursum recta gubernacula in periculum tenet adeo solutus metu, ut omnes illius mali motus omnes figuras ut deprenderat oculis dictaret enotaretque.
Iam nauibus cinis incidebat, quo propius accederent, calidior et densior; iam pumices etiam nigrique et ambusti et fracti igne lapides; iam uadum subitum ruinaque montis litora obstantia. Cunctatus paulum an retro flecteret, mox gubernatori ut ita faceret monenti 'Fortes' inquit 'fortuna iuuat: Pomponianum pete.'
Stabiis erat diremptus sinu medio, nam sensim circumactis curuatisque litoribus mare infunditur; ibi quamquam nondum periculo adpropinquante, conspicuo tamen et cum cresceret proximo, sarcinas contulerat in naues, certus fugae si contrarius uentus resedisset. Quo tunc auunculus meus secundissimo inuectus, complectitur trepidantem consolatur hortatur, utque timorem eius sua securitate leniret, deferri in balineum iubet; lotus accubat, cenat, aut hilaris aut (quod aeque magnum) similis hilari.
Interim e Vesuuio monte pluribus locis latissimae flammae altaque incendia relucebant, quorum fulgor et claritas tenebris noctis excitabatur. Ille agrestium trepidatione ignes relictos desertasque uillas per solitudinem ardere in remedium formidinis dictitabat. Tum se quieti dedit et quieuit uerissimo quidem somno; nam meatus animae, qui illi propter amplitudinem corporis grauior et sonantior erat, ab iis qui limini obuersabantur audiebatur.
Sed area ex qua diaeta adibatur ita iam cinere mixtisque pumicibus oppleta surrexerat, ut si longior in cubiculo mora, exitus negaretur. Excitatus procedit, seque Pomponiano ceterisque qui peruigilauerant reddit.
In commune consultant, intra tecta subsistant an in aperto uagentur. Nam crebris uastisque tremoribus tecta nutabant, et quasi emota sedibus suis nunc huc nunc illuc abire aut referri uidebantur.
Sub dio rursus quamquam leuium exesorumque pumicum casus metuebatur, quod tamen periculorum collatio elegit; et apud illum quidem ratio rationem, apud alios timorem timor uicit. Ceruicalia capitibus imposita linteis constringunt; id munimentum aduersus incidentia fuit.
Iam dies alibi, illic nox omnibus noctibus nigrior densiorque; quam tamen faces multae uariaque lumina soluebant. Placuit egredi in litus, et ex proximo adspicere, ecquid iam mare admitteret; quod adhuc uastum et aduersum permanebat.
Ibi super abiectum linteum recubans semel atque iterum frigidam aquam poposcit hausitque. Deinde flammae flammarumque praenuntius odor sulpuris alios in fugam uertunt, excitant illum.
Innitens seruolis duobus adsurrexit et statim concidit, ut ego colligo, crassiore caligine spiritu obstructo, clausoque stomacho qui illi natura inualidus et angustus et frequenter aestuans erat.
Vbi dies redditus (is ab eo quem nouissime uiderat tertius), corpus inuentum integrum inlaesum opertumque ut fuerat indutus: habitus corporis quiescenti quam defuncto similior.
Interim Miseni ego et mater sed nihil ad historiam, nec tu aliud quam de exitu eius scire uoluisti. Finem ergo faciam.
Vnum adiciam, omnia me quibus interfueram quaeque statim, cum maxime uera memorantur, audieram, persecutum. Tu potissima excerpes; aliud est enim epistulam aliud historiam, aliud amico aliud omnibus scribere. Vale.