A Post Card from Pompeii

Nothing sends a stronger message than a written message from an eyewitness of an event, freezing the moment in time. Pliny the Younger did just that with two letters documenting the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD.

Typically, archaeologists excavate tombs of the important people, rulers with god-like status, and all the wealth in the world (literally). Cities, more often than not, are the remains of ruins already destroyed by conquering invaders or ravaged by erosion for eons of time. Human remains are limited to piles of bones at the bottom of graves or in sarcophaguses pillaged by grave robbers thousands of years prior to the excavation. Once in a great while, a find is made, like Pompeii, where the city is preserved, buried beneath twenty feet of ash in a matter of days, and then forgotten for 1500 years. Sealed in its tomb, it was undisturbed until 1599 by an Italian architect, who after uncovering a fresco, decided to rebury it, because of its lewd offensive nature. In 1748 during the excavation of Pompeii’s sister city, Herculaneum , Pompeii was officially rediscovered. Because it was sealed so completely, beautiful frescos, statues, villas, and temples were preserved in remarkable condition. Vesuvius was not selective in who it buried, so common people, wealthy merchants, and slaves all died together. Many left impressions, hollow cavities under the ash from which grotesque, plaster replicas could be cast, revealing their horrific final moments.

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Pompeii was a thriving seaport on the Adriatic that funneled goods into Rome. Of course today the ruins are seven miles from the sea, which has receded. I remember our tour guide claiming the city had a population exceeding 40,000. That would be twice the size of renaissance Venice. You would wonder how a city of this size could be lost so close to the modern era and I have never heard a reasonable explanation. Particularly with an eyewitness account of the disaster surviving in the writings of Tacitus. I can only suppose that scholars, reading the letters, assumed that the city existed, but was hopelessly lost to the world.

At the time, a magistrate, Pliny the Younger, watched the whole thing unfold from his villa at Misenum, a village across the Bay of Naples from Pompeii. He was several miles away, but watched the eruption with his uncle Pliny the Elder. His uncle mounted an expedition into the city to rescue the wife of a friend and died heroically overcome by smoke, fumes, and exertion. Evidently, slaves and companions made it back to Misenum because Pliny the Younger  recorded the events in two letters that survive to this day. He sent them to his friend the famous historian, Tacitus. The letters are short, but the descriptions are chilling.

This first letter was in response to Tacitus’ inquiry regarding Pliny the Elder’s death

"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 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.

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, telling me I could come with him if I wished. I replied that I preferred to go on with my studies, and as it happened he had himself given me some writing to do.

As he was leaving the house he was handed a message from Rectina, wife of Tascus 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. He was entirely fearless, describing each new movement and phase of the portent to be noted down exactly as he observed them. 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: then suddenly they were in shallow water, and the shore was blocked by the debris from the mountain.

For a moment my uncle wondered whether to turn back, but when the helmsman advised this he refused, telling him that Fortune stood by the courageous and they must make for Pomponianus at Stabiae. He was cut off there by the breadth of the bay (for the shore gradually curves round a basin filled by the sea) so that he was not as yet in danger, though it was clear that this would come nearer as it spread. Pomponianus had therefore already put his belongings on board ship, intending to escape if the contrary wind fell. This wind was of course full in my uncle's favour, and he was able to bring his ship in. He embraced his terrified friend, cheered and encouraged him, and thinking he could calm his fears by 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 he 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, came out and joined Pomponianus and the rest of the household who had sat up all night.

They 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 failing pumice stones, even though these were light and porous; however, after comparing the risks they chose the latter. In my uncle's case one reason outweighed the other, but for the others it was a choice of fears. As a protection against falling objects they put pillows 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. 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 by blocking his windpipe which was constitutionally weak and narrow and often inflamed. When daylight returned on the 26th - two days after the last day he had been seen - his body was found intact and uninjured, still fully clothed and looking more like sleep than death."
Passages from his second letter following up on the escape of himself and his mother.
"...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."
Allen, G.B. (editor), Selected Letters of Pliny, (1915); Maiuri, Amedeo,


Patg said...

Great article. I thoroughly enjoyed my tour through Pompeii, however I learned that there are several routes and we were only on one of them. Certainly makes me want to go back.

marja said...

Thank you so much for sharing these letters. I can't imagine what those poor souls went through. It's amazing that these letters survived.
Marja McGraw

Mary Ricksen said...

This blog was incredible!