Past Perfect: The Day the Earth Shook
One summer day in 79 A.D., the young Pliny watched as Mount Vesuvius began its reign of terror.
The earth had been shuddering for days, but nothing could prepare 17-year-old Pliny for the catastrophe that was about to unfold. On August 24, 79 A.D., an ominous column of gas and smoke rose high in the sky above Mount Vesuvius, just 18 miles across the Bay of Naples from the youth’s home in Misenum. There he lived with his mother and uncle, Gaius Plinius Secondus (23–79 A.D.), also known as Pliny the Elder. Pliny’s uncle, commander of the Misenum-based Roman fleet, courageously sailed off on a rescue mission to Stabiae, a town located near the base of the volcano. By the next day, he was dead—probably asphyxiated by dense, ash-laden air. Although he had led an active public life as a naval commander, procurator and advisor to emperors, Pliny the Elder had enjoyed even more renown as the author of Natural History, a 37-volume encyclopedia that claimed to set forth “all the contents of the entire world.” Several years after the polymath’s death, his nephew Pliny the Younger wrote a letter to the historian Cornelius Tacitus describing his uncle’s last hours. In a second letter to Tacitus, the younger Pliny describes how he and his mother narrowly escaped the fate that befell their neighbors in Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae. He later published these epistles along with enough other letters to fill nine volumes. A distinguished lawyer and orator, Pliny the Younger died in 113 A.D. while on a mission to northern Asia Minor for the emperor Trajan. His letters live on, however, transporting us back to that terrifying August day when the earth bucked, ash rained down, crowds shrieked in panic and the stench of sulfur filled the air.—Ed.
My uncle was stationed at Misenum, in active command of the fleet. On 24 August, in the early afternoon, my mother drew his attention to a cloud of unusual size and appearance. He had been out in the sun, had taken a cold bath, and lunched while lying down, and was then working at his books. He called for his shoes and climbed up to a place which would give him the best view of the phenomenon. It was not clear at that distance from which mountain the cloud was rising (it was afterwards known to be Vesuvius); its general appearance can best be expressed as being like an umbrella pine, for it rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches, I imagine because it was thrust upwards by the first blast and then left unsupported as the pressure subsided, or else it was borne down 038by its own weight so that it spread out and gradually dispersed. Sometimes it looked white, sometimes blotched and dirty, according to the amount of soil and ashes it carried with it. My uncle’s scholarly acumen saw at once that it was important enough for a closer inspection, and he ordered a boat to be made ready …
As he was leaving the house he was handed a message from Rectina, wife of Tascius whose house was at the foot of the mountain, so that escape was impossible except by boat. She was terrified by the danger threatening her and implored him to rescue her from her fate. He changed his plans, and what he had begun in a spirit of inquiry he completed as a hero. He gave orders for the warships to be launched and went on board himself with the intention of bringing help to many more people besides Rectina, for this lovely stretch of coast was thickly populated. He hurried to the place which everyone else was hastily leaving, steering his course straight for the danger zone … Ashes were already falling, hotter and thicker as the ships drew near, followed by bits of pumice and blackened stones, charred and cracked by the flames … [The Elder Pliny went ashore and] showing his own composure, gave orders that he was to be carried to the bathroom. After his bath he lay down and dined; he was quite cheerful, or at any rate pretended he was, which was no less courageous.
Meanwhile on Mount Vesuvius broad sheets of fire and leaping flames blazed at several points, their bright glare emphasized by the darkness of night. My uncle tried to allay the fears of his companions by repeatedly declaring that these were nothing but bonfires left by the peasants in their terror, or else empty houses on fire in the districts they had abandoned. Then he went to rest and certainly slept, for as he was a stout man his breathing was rather loud and heavy and could be heard by people coming and going outside his door. By this time the courtyard giving access to his room was full of ashes mixed with pumice stones, so that its level had risen, and if he had stayed in the room any longer he would never have got out. He was wakened, [and with] the rest of the household … debated whether to stay indoors or take their chance in the open, for the buildings were now shaking with violent shocks, and seemed to be swaying to and fro as if they were torn from their foundations. Outside on the other hand, there was the danger of falling pumice-stones, even though they were light and porous; however, after comparing the risks they chose the latter … As a protection against falling objects they put 039pillows on their heads tied down with cloths. Elsewhere there was daylight by this time, but they were still in darkness, blacker and denser than any ordinary night, which they relieved by lighting torches and various kinds of lamp[s]. My uncle decided to go down to the shore and investigate on the spot the possibility of any escape by sea, but he found the waves still wild and dangerous. A sheet was spread on the ground for him to lie down, and he repeatedly asked for cold water to drink. Then the flames and smell of sulphur which gave warning of the approaching fire drove the others to take flight and roused him to stand up. He stood leaning on two slaves and then suddenly collapsed, I imagine because the dense fumes choked his breathing which was constitutionally weak and narrow and often inflamed. When daylight returned on the 26th—two days after the last day he had seen—his body was found intact and uninjured, still fully clothed and looking more like sleep than death.
After my uncle’s departure I spent the rest of the day with my books, as this was my reason for staying behind. Then I took a bath, dined, and then dozed fitfully for a while. For several days past there had been earth tremors which were not particularly alarming because they are frequent in Campania: but that night the shocks were so violent that everything felt as if it were not only shaken but overturned. My mother hurried into my room and found me already getting up to wake her if she were still asleep. We sat down in the forecourt of the house, between the buildings and the sea close by …
[By dawn] … the buildings round us were already tottering, and the open space we were in was too small for us not to be in real and imminent danger if the house collapsed. This finally decided us to leave town. We were followed by a panic-stricken mob of people wanting to act on someone else’s decision in preference to their own (a point in which fear looks like prudence), who hurried us on our way by pressing hard behind in a dense crowd. Once beyond the buildings we stopped, and there we had some extraordinary experiences which thoroughly alarmed us. The carriages we had ordered to be brought out began to run in different directions though the ground was quite level, and would not remain stationary even when wedged with stones. We also saw the sea sucked away and apparently forced back by the earthquake: at any rate it receded from the shore so that quantities of sea creatures were left stranded on dry sand. On the landward side a fearful black cloud was rent by forked and quivering bursts of flame, and parted to reveal great tongues of fire, like flashes of lightning magnified in size …
Soon afterwards the cloud sank down to earth and covered the sea; it had already blotted out Capri and hidden the promontory of Misenum from sight … Ashes were already falling, not as yet very thickly. I looked round: a dense black cloud was coming up behind us, spreading over the earth like a flood. ‘Let us leave the road while we can still see,’ I said, ‘or we shall be knocked down and trampled underfoot in the dark by the crowd behind.’ We had scarcely sat down to rest when darkness fell, not the dark of a moonless or cloudy night, but as if the lamp had been out in a closed room. You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore … A gleam of light returned, but we took this to be a warning of approaching flames rather than daylight. However, the flames remained some distance off; then darkness came on once more and ashes began to fall again, this time in heavy showers. We rose from time to time 041and shook them off, otherwise we should have been buried and crushed beneath their weight. I could boast that not a groan or cry of fear escaped me in these perils, had I not derived some poor consolation in my mortal lot from the belief that the whole world was dying with me and I with it.
At last the darkness thinned and dispersed into smoke or cloud; then there was genuine daylight, and the sun actually shone out, but yellowish as it is during an eclipse. We were terrified to see everything changed, buried deep in ashes like snowdrifts. We returned to Misenum where we attended to our physical needs as best we could, and then spent an anxious night alternating between hope and fear. Fear predominated, for the earthquakes went on … in spite of the dangers we had been through and were still expecting, my mother and I had still no intention of leaving until we had news of my uncle …
From The Letters of the Younger Pliny, trans. by Betty Radice (London: Penguin Books, 1969).
The earth had been shuddering for days, but nothing could prepare 17-year-old Pliny for the catastrophe that was about to unfold. On August 24, 79 A.D., an ominous column of gas and smoke rose high in the sky above Mount Vesuvius, just 18 miles across the Bay of Naples from the youth’s home in Misenum. There he lived with his mother and uncle, Gaius Plinius Secondus (23–79 A.D.), also known as Pliny the Elder. Pliny’s uncle, commander of the Misenum-based Roman fleet, courageously sailed off on a rescue mission to Stabiae, a town located near the base of the […]