Survivor’s Story of Vesuvius (Aug. 24)

Survivor’s Story of Vesuvius
(Pliny witnessed eruption of Vesuvius, Aug. 24, 79 A. D.)
The eruption of Vesuvius that demolished Pompeii and buried
thousands of people was witnessed by Pliny. He describes his
panic-stricken flight with his mother from the doomed villa
through falling ashes and sulphurous fumes. His famous uncle,
the elder Pliny, lost his life while investigating the eruption and
aiding refugees.
Read from Pliny’s LETTERS Vol. 9, pp. 284-291

You were not present at a very singular occurrence here lately:
neither was I, but the story reached me just after it had happened.
Passienus Paulus, a Roman knight, of good family, and a man of
peculiar learning and culture besides, composes elegies, a talent
which runs in the family, for Propertius is reckoned by him amongst
his ancestors, as well as being his countryman. He was lately reciting
a poem which began thus:
"Priscus, at thy command"—
whereupon Javolenus Priscus, who happened to be present as a
particular friend of the poet’s, cried out, "But he is mistaken, I did not
command him." Think what laughter and merriment this occasioned.
Priscus’s wits, you must know, are reckoned rather unsound,1
though he takes a share in public business, is summoned to consultations,
and even publicly acts as a lawyer, so that this behaviour of his
was the more remarkable and ridiculous: meanwhile Paulus was a
good deal disconcerted by his friend’s absurdity. You see how necessary
it is for those who are anxious to recite their works in public
to take care that the audience as well as the author are perfectly sane.
YOUR request that I would send you an account of my uncle’s
death, in order to transmit a more exact relation of it to posterity,
deserves my acknowledgments; for, if this accident shall be celebrated
by your pen, the glory of it, I am well assured, will be
rendered for ever illustrious. And notwithstanding he perished by
a misfortune, which, as it involved at the same time a most beautiful
country in ruins, and destroyed so many populous cities, seems to
promise him an everlasting remembrance; notwithstanding he has
1 Nevertheless, Javolenus Priscus was one of the most eminent lawyers of his
time, and is frequently quoted in the Digesta of Justinian.

himself composed many and lasting works; yet I am persuaded, the
mentioning of him in your immortal writings, will greatly contribute
to render his name immortal. Happy I esteem those to be to whom
by provision of the gods has been granted the ability either to do such
actions as are worthy of being related or to relate them in a manner
worthy of being read; but peculiarly happy are they who are blessed
with both these uncommon talents: in the number of which my
uncle, as his own writings and your history will evidently prove, may
justly be ranked. It is with extreme willingness, therefore, that I
execute your commands; and should indeed have claimed the task if
you had not enjoined it. He was at that time with the fleet under his
command at Misenum.’ On the 24th of August, about one in the
afternoon, my mother desired him to observe a cloud which appeared
of a very unusual size and shape. He had just taken a turn in the
sun,1 and, after bathing himself in cold water, and making a light
luncheon, gone back to his books: he immediately arose and went out
upon a rising ground from whence he might get a better sight of this
very uncommon appearance. A cloud, from which mountain was
uncertain, at this distance (but it was found afterwards to come from
Mount Vesuvius), was ascending, the appearance of which I cannot
give you a more exact description of than by likening it to that of a
pine-tree, for it shot up to a great height in the form of a very tall
trunk, which spread itself out at the top into a sort of branches;
occasioned, I imagine, either by a sudden gust of air that impelled it,
the force of which decreased as it advanced upwards, or the cloud
itself, being pressed back again by its own weight, expanded in the
manner I have mentioned; it appeared sometimes bright and sometimes
dark and spotted, according as it was either more or less impregnated
with earth and cinders. This phenomenon seemed to a
man of such learning and research as my uncle extraordinary and
worth further looking into. He ordered a light vessel to be got
1 In the Bay of Naples.
2 The Romans used to lie or walk naked in the sun, after anointing their bodies
with oil, which was esteemed as greatly contributing to health, and therefore daily
practised by them. This custom, however, of anointing themselves, is inveighed
against by the satirists as in the number of their luxurious indulgences: but since we
find the elder Pliny here, and the amiable Spurinna in a former letter, practising
this method, we cannot suppose the thing itself was esteemed unmanly, but only
when it was attended with some particular circumstances of an overrefined delicacy.

ready, and gave me leave, if I liked, to accompany him. I said I
had rather go on with my work; and it so happened, he had himself
given me something to write out. As he was coming out of the house,
he received a note from Rectina, the wife of Bassus, who was in the
utmost alarm at the imminent danger which threatened her; for
her villa lying at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, there was no way of
escape but by sea; she earnestly entreated him therefore to come
to her assistance. He accordingly changed his first intention, and
what he had begun from a philosophical, he now carries out in a
noble and generous spirit. He ordered the galleys to be put to sea,
and went himself on board with an intendon of assisting not only
Rectina, but the several other towns which lay thickly strewn along
that beautiful coast. Hastening then to the place from whence others
fled with the utmost terror, he steered his course direct to the point
of danger, and with so much calmness and presence of mind as to
be able to make and dictate his observations upon the motion and all
the phenomena of that dreadful scene. He was now so close to the
mountain that the cinders, which grew thicker and hotter the nearer
he approached, fell into the ships, together with pumice-stones, and
black pieces of burning rock: they were in danger too not only of
being aground by the sudden retreat of the sea, but also from the
vast fragments which rolled down from the mountain, and obstructed
all the shore. Here he stopped to consider whether he should
turn back again; to which the pilot advising him, "Fortune," said
he, "favours the brave; steer to where Pomponianus is." Pomponianus
was then at Stabiar,3 separated by a bay, which the sea, after
several insensible windings, forms with the shore. He had already
sent his baggage on board; for though he was not at that time in
actual danger, yet being within sight of it, and indeed extremely
near, if it should in the least increase, he was determined to put to
sea as soon as the wind, which was blowing dead inshore, should go
down. It was favourable, however, for carrying my uncle to Pomponianus,
whom he found in the greatest consternation: he embraced
him tenderly, encouraging and urging him to keep up his spirits,
and, the more effectually to soothe his fears by seeming unconcerned
himself, ordered a bath to be got ready, and then, after having
3 Now called Castelamare, in the Bay of Naples. M.

bathed, sat down to supper with great cheerfulness, or at least (what
is just as heroic) with every appearance of it. Meanwhile broad
flames shone out in several places from Mount Vesuvius, which the
darkness of the night contributed to render still brighter and clearer.
But my uncle, in order to soothe the apprehensions of his friend,
assured him it was only the burning of the villages, which the
country people had abandoned to the flames: after this he retired to
rest, and it is most certain he was so little disquieted as to fall into
a sound sleep: for his breathing, which, on account of his corpulence,
was rather heavy and sonorous, was heard by the attendants outside.
The court which led to his apartment being now almost filled with
stones and ashes, if he had continued there any time longer, it
would have been impossible for him to have made his way out. So
he was awoke and got up, and went to Pomponianus and the rest
of his company, who were feeling too anxious to think of going to
bed. They consulted together whether it would be most prudent to
trust to the houses, which now rocked from side to side with frequent
and violent concussions as though shaken from their very foundations;
or fly to the open fields, where the calcined stones and cinders,
though light indeed, yet fell in large showers, and threatened destruction.
In this choice of dangers they resolved for the fields: a resolution
which, while the rest of the company were hurried into by their
fears, my uncle embraced upon cool and deliberate consideration.
They went out then, having pillows tied upon their heads with
napkins; and this was their whole defence against the storm of
stones that fell round them. It was now day everywhere else, but
there a deeper darkness prevailed than in the thickest night; which,
however, was in some degree alleviated by torches and other lights
of various kinds. They thought proper to go farther down upon the
shore to see if they might safely put out to sea, but found the waves
still running extremely high, and boisterous. There my uncle, laying
himself down upon a sail-cloth, which was spread for him, called
twice for some cold water, which he drank, when immediately the
flames, preceded by a strong whiff of sulphur, dispersed the rest of
the party, and obliged him to rise. He raised himself up with the
assistance of two of his servants, and instantly fell down dead;
suffocated, as I conjecture, by some gross and noxious vapour, having

always had a weak throat, which was often inflamed. As soon as it
was light again, which was not till the third day after this melancholy
accident, his body was found entire, and without any marks of
violence upon it, in the dress in which he fell, and looking more
like a man asleep than dead. During all this time my mother and I,
who were at Misenum—but this has no connection with your history,
and you did not desire any particulars besides those of my uncle’s
death; so I will end here, only adding that I have faithfully related
to you what I was either an eye-witness of myself or received immediately
after the accident happened, and before there was time to
vary the truth. You will pick out of this narrative whatever is most
important: for a letter is one thing, a history another; it is one thing
writing to a friend, another thing writing to the public. Farewell.
THE letter which, in compliance with your request, I wrote to you
concerning the death of my uncle has raised, it seems, your curiosity
to know what terrors and dangers attended me while I continued at
Misenum; for there, I think, my account broke off:
"Though my shock’d soul recoils, my tongue shall tell."
My uncle having left us, I spent such time as was left on my studies
(it was on their account indeed that I had stopped behind), till it
was time for my bath. After which I went to supper, and then fell
into a short and uneasy sleep. There had been noticed for many days
before a trembling of the earth, which did not alarm us much, as this
is quite an ordinary occurrence in Campania; but it was so particularly
violent that night that it not only shook but actually overturned,
as it would seem, everything about us. My mother rushed into my
chamber, where she found me rising, in order to awaken her. We
sat down in the open court of the house, which occupied a small
space between the buildings and the sea. As I was at that time but
eighteen years of age, I know not whether I should call my behaviour,
in this dangerous juncture, courage or folly; but I took up Livy,
and amused myself with turning over that author, and even making

extracts from him, as if I had been perfectly at my leisure. Just then,
a friend of my uncle’s, who had lately come to him from Spain,
joined us, and observing me sitting by my mother with a book in my
hand, reproved her for her calmness, and me at the same time for my
careless security: nevertheless I went on with my author. Though it
was now morning, the light was still exceedingly faint and doubtful;
the buildings all around us tottered, and though we stood upon
open ground, yet as the place was narrow and confined, there was no
remaining without imminent danger: we therefore resolved to quit
the town. A panic-stricken crowd followed us, and (as to a mind
distracted with terror every suggestion seems more prudent than its
own) pressed on us in dense array to drive us forward as we came
out. Being at a convenient distance from the houses, we stood still,
in the midst of a most dangerous and dreadful scene. The chariots,
which we had ordered to be drawn out, were so agitated backwards
and forwards, though upon the most level ground, that we could
not keep them steady, even by supporting them with large stones.
The sea seemed to roll back upon itself, and to be driven from its
banks by the convulsive motion of the earth; it is certain at least the
shore was considerably enlarged, and several sea animals were left
upon it. On the other side, a black and dreadful cloud, broken with
rapid, zigzag flashes, revealed behind it variously shaped masses of
flame: these last were like sheet-lightning, but much larger. Upon
this our Spanish friend, whom I mentioned above, addressing himself
to my mother and me with great energy and urgency: "If your
brother," he said, "if your uncle be safe, he certainly wishes you may
be so too; but if he perished, it was his desire, no doubt, that you
might both survive him: why therefore do you delay your escape a
moment?" We could never think of our own safety, we said, while
we were uncertain of his. Upon this our friend left us, and withdrew
from the danger with the utmost precipitation. Soon afterwards,
the cloud began to descend, and cover the sea. It had already surrounded
and concealed the island of Caprear and the promontory of
Misenum. My mother now besought, urged, even commanded me
to make my escape at any rate, which, as I was young, I might easily
do; as for herself, she said, her age and corpulency rendered all
attempts of that sort impossible; however, she would willingly meet

death if she could have the satisfaction of seeing that she was not
the occasion of mine. But I absolutely refused to leave her, and,
taking her by the hand, compelled her to go with me. She complied
with great reluctance, and not without many reproaches to herself
for retarding my flight. The ashes now began to fall upon us, though
in no great quantity. I looked back; a dense, dark mist seemed to be
following us, spreading itself over the country like a cloud. "Let us
turn out of the highroad," I said, "while we can still see, for fear that,
should we fall in the road, we should be pressed to death in the
dark, by the crowds that are following us." We had scarcely sat
down when night came upon us, not such as we have when the sky
is cloudy, or when there is no moon, but that of a room when it is
shut up, and all the lights put out. You might hear the shrieks of
women, the screams of children, and the shouts of men; some calling
for their children, others for their parents, others for their husbands,
and seeking to recognize each other by the voices that replied; one
lamenting his own fate, another that of his family; some wishing to
die, from the very fear of dying; some lifting their hands to the gods;
but the greater part convinced that there were now no gods at all,
and that the final endless night of which we have heard had come
upon the world.1 Among these there were some who augmented the
real terrors by others imaginary or wilfully invented. I remember
some who declared that one part of Misenum had fallen, that another
was on fire; it was false, but they found people to believe them. It
now grew rather lighter, which we imagined to be rather the forerunner
of an approaching burst of flames (as in truth it was) than
the return of day: however, the fire fell at a distance from us: then
again we were immersed in thick darkness, and a heavy shower of
ashes rained upon us, which we were obliged every now and then to
stand up to shake off, otherwise we should have been crushed and
buried in the heap. I might boast that, during all this scene of horror,
not a sigh, or expression of fear, escaped me, had not my support been
grounded in that miserable, though mighty, consolation, that all
mankind were involved in the same calamity, and that I was perishing
with the world itself. At last this dreadful darkness was dis-
1 The Stoic and Epicurean philosophers held that the world was to be destroyed
by fire, and all things fall again into original chaos; not excepting even the national
gods themselves from the destruction of this general conflagration. M.

sipated by degrees, like a cloud or smoke; the real day returned, and
even the sun shone out, though with a lurid light, as when an
eclipse is coming on. Every object that presented itself to our eyes
(which were extremely weakened) seemed changed, being covered
deep with ashes as if with snow. We returned to Misenum, where we
refreshed ourselves as well as we could, and passed an anxious night
between hope and fear; though, indeed, with a much larger share
of the latter: for the earthquake still continued, while many frenzied
persons ran up and down heightening their own and their friends’
calamities by terrible predictions. However, my mother and I, notwithstanding
the danger we had passed, and that which still threatened
us, had no thoughts of leaving the place, till we could receive
some news of my uncle.
And now, you will read this narrative without any view of
inserting it in your history, of which it is not in the least worthy;
and, indeed, you must put it down to your own request if it should
appear not worth even the trouble of a letter. Farewell.


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