Wednesday, August 24, 2005

THE VOLCANO AT VESUVIUS ERUPTED nineteen hundred and twenty-six years ago today. Since the hope of recovering more of the Herculaneum library has come up now and again this year, it seems worthwhile to touch on the story.

The only firsthand account of the eruption comes from two letters from Pliny the Younger to his friend the historian Cornelius Tacitus. The letters were written in the early second century CE and were intended as source material for Tacitus' Histories. Unfortunately, the relevant section of that work is no longer extant and is one of those lost books we should very much like to see.

In the first letter (6.16) Pliny reports that as a young man he and his mother were staying at nearby Misenum with his uncle, the renowned statesman and naturalist Pliny the Elder. The mother first noticed the mushroom cloud from the eruption. The Elder Pliny was preparing his ship to go make scientific observations of the phenomenon, when a distress message arrived from a friend close to the eruption and he realized that a disaster was in the making. Shifting purpose rapidly, he mustered a convoy of naval ships and led them straight into the maelstrom on a rescue mission, dictating notes as he went. They made it as far as a friend's villa at Stabiae, four miles south of Pompeii, but the wind that had sped them in was too strong to sail against, so they were trapped. Beset by falling ash and stones and in danger of asphyxiation from the poison fumes, they waited the eruption out for two days. Pliny himself went back down to the shore to monitor sailing conditions and was killed by the suffocating gases before the evacuation could begin, perhaps caught by the attenuated edge of the pyroclastic surge that incinerated the residents of Pompeii.

In the second letter (6.20) Pliny the Younger reports that he and his mother stayed overnight at Misenum until persistent earthquakes made the buildings unsafe. They waited outside for the uncle, then reluctantly decided to join the evacuation, by this time shrouded in thick darkness even though it was daytime. Outside the town they waited, shaking off heaps of ash so as not to allow themselves to be buried. Eventually the dark clouds cleared and they were able to make their way back to Misenum to wait for news of the Elder Pliny. The letter ends at this point.

This spring when my son was having a unit on ancient Rome in his Primary Four class, we got out the Penguin translation of Pliny's letters and read these two. It wasn't exactly Star Wars III, but it is a story about real people behaving heroically in a major disaster, and he thought it was pretty cool.

The cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried by volcanic ash, a process that preserved them remarkably well. They give us much of our knowledge about daily life in the ancient Roman world. An important library was carbonized at Herculaneum, but much material from it has been recovered and there is the hope of finding more.

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