“Though my mind shrinks from remembering, I will begin.”
Pliny the Younger quoting Virgil’s Aeneid
Pliny the Younger and his mother, Plinia Marcella, watched with trepidation as the Roman navy sailed away from Misenum. Plinia was a widower. Her brother had taken her in and adopted his seventeen-year-old nephew as his son and heir. Now, the man of the household was heading into unknown peril. Yet his family back in their villa would also face great danger, as they watched ash cover Misenum and debris rain over the countryside.
Immediately following his uncle’s departure, Pliny tried to go about his regular routine. It may have been the believed indestructibility of a teenager or it may have been to allay his fears. He spent the remainder of the day studying his books. In the evening, he bathed, dined, and went to sleep as usual. Violent shocks and tremors woke him as the eruption worsened, and he decided to wake his mother. He met her in the hall, coming to fetch him for the same reason. They went to sit in the forecourt of the house. Pliny called for a copy of his book on Livy, and settled down to continue his reading. He says himself that he does not know whether it was due to “courage or folly.”
A friend of his uncle’s reproached them both, but they did not stir until the house began to rock so violently that they feared it would collapse. They decided then to leave town for safety, pressed behind by the panicked household who followed their lead. As they came out of the city, they were shocked to see that the sea had been sucked back by the volcanic activity. It had happened so suddenly that a large number of sea creatures lay stranded on the sand. Their friend once again begged them to run, but Pliny and Plinia insisted they would not leave until they knew the fate of Pliny the Elder. He pleaded with them again. “If your brother, if your uncle is still alive he will want you both to be saved; if he is dead, he would want you to survive him – why put off your escape?”
Thoughts of Escape
Seeing that he could not convince them, he finally fled himself. Pliny and his mother remained on the outskirts of Misenum, watching carriages move inexplicably as the ground rocked, and bursts of flame flash through the black cloud over Vesuvius. The cloud eventually fell and spread, covering the sea and crawling towards them. Plinia finally grew truly afraid, though in true Roman style, not for herself. She begged her son to leave her behind and to run. She was older and unfit, and would only slow his progress. She “could die in peace as long as she had not been the cause of [his] death too.” A loyal son, Pliny flatly refused. He took his mother’s hand, urging her along and helping her to speed up her pace.
Ashes began to sprinkle down, and the dense cloud, black as night, was approaching. Fearful that, in the darkness, the panicked crowds would knock them down and trample on them, they sat down alongside the road. Moments later the blackness engulfed them, as suddenly and totally as switching off a light. “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 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 forevermore.”
Pliny and Plinia remained by the road, standing on occasion so that the falling ash wouldn’t bury them. Finally, just as Pliny had decided it was the end of the world, the darkness began to lift. A dim, yellowed sun spread light on a changed landscape. Ash covered every surface, piling like snowdrifts. Pliny and Plinia returned to the villa at Misenum. The following day and night consisted of dreadful fear and moments of hope. Earthquakes continued and some hysterical individuals predicted still greater doom. Pliny and his mother still stayed, unwilling to leave without news of Pliny the Elder. It was at least two days from the eruption before searchers found his body, and they learned of his tragic death.
Pliny went on to be among the most famous individuals of Roman history. His published letters have given incredible insight to generations of historians. Some twenty-five years after the eruption, Pliny’s friend Tacitus, the Roman historian, asked him for the details of his ordeal. The two letters that he wrote are an incredible treasure, an eyewitness account of the tragedy. The type of eruption he described is still known as a Plinian Eruption. It is characterized by a huge column of gas and volcanic debris that’s shoots powerfully upward as high as the stratosphere.
Source and all quotations: Pliny the Younger, The Letters of the Younger Pliny, 6.20
This article was written for Time Travel Rome by Marian Vermeulen.
It may have a rich, intriguing history, but time has not been kind to Misenum. Little of its ancient past remains except its remarkable Piscina Mirabile. But for those interested in the wondrous feats of Roman engineering this site is worth visiting just for this. Built during the Augustan Age, it constitutes the largest cistern in antiquity, which long served the fleet at Misenum. Thankfully it has long since been drained so can now be navigated on foot.
To find out more: Timetravelrome.