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.