The Only Written Eye-Witness Account of Pompeii’s Destruction: Hear Pliny the Younger’s Letters on the Mount Vesuvius Eruption

Though my shocked soul recoils, my tongue shall tell. — Pliny the Younger

A great deal of what we know — or think we know — about the destruc­tion of Pom­peii and Her­cu­la­neum in 79 AD comes fil­tered through mod­ern mytholo­gies like the 1834 nov­el The Last Days of Pom­peii. Writ­ten by Edward Bul­w­er-Lyt­ton (the first nov­el­ist to start a tale with “It was a dark and stormy night”), the book’s Roman­tic fas­ci­na­tion with civ­i­liza­tion­al decay was one stream of think­ing that blames Pom­pei­ians them­selves, in part, for their destruc­tion. That blame man­i­fests as explic­it, or more sub­tle, sug­ges­tions of divine pun­ish­ment. Or it can look like chid­ing imprac­ti­cal res­i­dents who did­n’t get out in time or took the wrong route out of town to avoid the heavy down­pour of molten rock and ash, as though a vol­canic erup­tion were a traf­fic jam in a thun­der­storm.…

Blame is a reflex­ive defense against the hor­ri­fy­ing pos­si­bil­i­ty that the scream­ing fig­ures frozen in ash could be us. There’s lit­tle to counter our cer­tain­ty from Pom­pei­ians them­selves. Some­where between 10,000 to 12,000 peo­ple got out in time (approx­i­mate­ly 2,000 were killed), but there are no exist­ing accounts from the city’s for­mer res­i­dents-turned- refugees. If they had any­thing to say about it lat­er, we’ll nev­er know. We do, how­ev­er, have an eye­wit­ness account of the destruc­tion. Its author, Pliny the Younger, watched from a van­tage point above the imme­di­ate scenes of pan­ic and death: his vil­la across the bay of Naples in Mis­enum. He also hap­pened to be nephew to the great Roman nat­u­ral­ist and mil­i­tary cam­paign­er Pliny the Elder, and an adept writer and keen observ­er of nature him­self.

Pliny the Younger’s let­ters — pub­lished in 9 vol­umes dur­ing his life­time, 10 after­ward — hold more inter­est for his­to­ri­ans than their descrip­tions of Vesu­vius. In his long life, “he was a poet, a sen­a­tor, a pub­lic offi­cial,” Joan Aco­cel­la writes at The New York­er. He had first­hand knowl­edge of “cel­e­brat­ed crimes” among the Roman elite. But the destruc­tion of Pom­peii was for­ma­tive: his uncle died in an attempt­ed evac­u­a­tion of the city by sea, a major event for Pliny and for Roman arms and let­ters. While the Younger had been at leisure in Mis­enum, the Elder had been at work, “in active com­mand of the fleet,” his nephew writes in a let­ter to his friend, fel­low lawyer, and lat­er famed his­to­ri­an Pub­lius Cor­nelius Tac­i­tus. Pliny begins with an expla­na­tion, more or less, for why he’s still alive.

When his uncle saw the “cloud of unusu­al size and appear­ance” ris­ing over the bay, he “ordered a boat made ready, telling me I could come with him if I wished.” Had the cau­tious nephew accept­ed his invi­ta­tion, Pliny the Younger would prob­a­bly have died at the age of 18, some­thing he sure­ly med­i­tat­ed upon from time to time in lat­er life. In the let­ter, he styles his uncle as a “hero” for his res­cue attempts. Pliny was­n’t there him­self to see these events, but he imag­ines what his uncle said and did. He even describes Pliny the Elder’s dra­mat­ic col­lapse and death in Stabi­ae, sev­er­al miles away across the Bay. It’s hard to sift the facts from lit­er­ary embell­ish­ment, but Pliny’s descrip­tions of Vesu­vius itself are vivid and ter­ri­fy­ing. The moun­tain, he writes, was cov­ered in “broad sheets of fire and leap­ing flames… their bright glare empha­sized by the dark­ness of night.”

His obser­va­tions of the ini­tial erup­tion seem high­ly cred­i­ble giv­en his actu­al loca­tion:

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 by its own weight so that it spread out and grad­u­al­ly dis­persed. In places it looked white, else­where blotched and dirty, accord­ing to the amount of soil and ash­es it car­ried with it.

Pliny seems to want to write more about what he saw, but he oblig­es Tac­i­tus’ request to tell the sto­ry of his uncle’s death. “You will pick out of this nar­ra­tive what­ev­er is most impor­tant,” he con­cludes. “For a let­ter is one thing, a his­to­ry anoth­er; it is one thing writ­ing as a friend, anoth­er thing writ­ing to the pub­lic.” You can hear the let­ter read in full in the YouTube video above from Voic­es of the Past.

The line between pub­lic his­to­ry and pri­vate cor­re­spon­dence may not be so clear as Pliny imag­ined, espe­cial­ly when his let­ters are the only eye­wit­ness sources we have. In a sec­ond mis­sive to Tac­i­tus, per his friend’s request, Pliny describes the scene back in Mis­enum on the sec­ond day of the erup­tion. He and his moth­er had debat­ed what to do, and final­ly decid­ed to evac­u­ate. Here, writ­ing about events he expe­ri­enced first­hand, he strays from the nar­ra­tive con­ven­tions of his first let­ter, con­vey­ing the chaot­ic atmos­phere of ter­ror all around him as they left. The let­ter is har­row­ing, and worth quot­ing at length.

Though Pliny him­self, at the end of the let­ter, pro­nounces it unwor­thy of inclu­sion in Tac­i­tus’ his­to­ry, it remains the one first­hand account to which we can turn when imag­in­ing the expe­ri­ence.

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 put 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 the gods, but still more imag­ined there were no gods left, and that the uni­verse was plunged into eter­nal dark­ness for ever­more.

There were peo­ple, too, who added to the real per­ils by invent­ing fic­ti­tious dan­gers: some report­ed that part of Mis­enum had col­lapsed or anoth­er part was on fire, and though their tales were false they found oth­ers to believe them. A gleam of light returned, but we took this to be a warn­ing of the 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 and 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, but I admit that I derived some poor con­so­la­tion in my mor­tal lot from the belief that the whole world was dying with me and I with it.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch the Destruc­tion of Pom­peii by Mount Vesu­vius, Re-Cre­at­ed with Com­put­er Ani­ma­tion (79 AD)

The Last Morn­ing in Pom­peii & The Night Pom­peii Died: A New Video Series Explores the End of the Doomed Roman City

Pom­peii Rebuilt: A Tour of the Ancient City Before It Was Entombed by Mount Vesu­vius

Behold 3D Recre­ations of Pompeii’s Lav­ish Homes–As They Exist­ed Before the Erup­tion of Mount Vesu­vius

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Barb says:

    Eleven short years pri­or to Mt. Vesu­vius explod­ing, before exit­ing Israel and after years of inva­sion and harsh rul­ing, the Romans bru­tal­ly mas­sa­cred count­less inno­cent Jews, demol­ished to rub­ble the mag­nif­i­cent Tem­ple in Jerusalem and stole pre­cious arti­facts from Jerusalem which, to this day, remain in Rome. Also, the Roman leader ordered the severe beat­ing and exe­cu­tion of an inno­cent Man named Jesus, the Son of God.

  • Loagun says:

    I doubt that to be true at all giv­en that Vesu­vius destroyed the entire region from Europe to the Mid­dle East to North­ern Africa.

  • Trey says:

    It had to hap­pen. It’s Gods plan.

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