History's First and Only Eyewitness Account
Roman senator and writer, Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus otherwise known as Pliny the Younger, who was seventeen years old at the time of the eruption, had witnessed the Vesuvius eruption of 79 AD from the home of his uncle in Misenum and managed to write a very accurate account some 25 years later. Originally intended as letters for historian Tacitus, to describe and perhaps glorify the death of his uncle Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus), his letters were later discovered in the 16th century and had become a crucial primary piece of evidence in unraveling the different stages of the eruption.
(Above) Artist's impression of Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger by Barry Moser.
EXTRACTS FROM PLINY'S LETTERS 6.16 AND 6.20
THE ERUPTION FROM AN ANCIENT ROMAN’S POINT OF VIEW
“There had been tremors for many days previously, a common occurrence in Campania and no cause for panic. But that night the shaking grew much stronger; people thought it was an upheaval, not just a tremor.”
“Up comes a friend of my uncle’s, recently arrived from Spain. When he sees my mother and me sitting there, and me even reading a book, he scolds her for her calm and me for my lack of concern. But I kept on with my book.”
Ancient Pompeii was located on a volcanic plain in Southern Italy called Campania while Mount Vesuvius sits on two fissures in the earth’s crust, dominating this plain. When Pliny describes the earth tremors in Campania in a casual manner, saying they are frequent or “a common occurrence,” it makes evident that people were neither particularly shocked nor frightened at the time before the eruption, that they were clearly unaware of the link between seismic activity and volcanic activity. In our scientifically advanced world today, we can understand that Mount Vesuvius’ long period of inactivity before the eruption, was a clear link to the catastrophic magnitude this eruption would eventually have. The earth tremors that Pliny describes in his letter, as growing “much stronger” were a sign of the mounting seismic activity in Mount Vesuvius- a looming disaster.
“The cloud was rising from the mountain…I can best describe its shape by likening it to a pine tree. It rose into the sky on a very long “trunk” from which spread some “branches.” I imagine it had been raised by a sudden blast, which then weakened, leaving the cloud unsupported so that its own weight caused it to spread sideways. Some of the cloud was white in other parts there were dark patches of dirt and ash. The sight of it made the scientist in my uncle determined to see it closer at hand.”
Here, Pliny describes the strange and towering cloud, that emerged 20 kilometers into the sky, suddenly from Mount Vesuvius- when it had erupted and how it had made his uncle decide it was a matter that needed to be investigated urgently. This blast that occurred on that fateful day, according to volcanological research conducted in the years following the rediscovery of Pompeii, and according to Pliny’s account, had sent a plume of “dirt and ash” so high into the sky that it could be seen for hundreds of miles around. Which justifies how Pliny had managed to witness the eruption despite his location at the time, which was across the bay from Mount Vesuvius, in Misenum. He describes the cloud as billowing upwards at first somewhat similar to a “trunk” then later spreading into a shape that resembled “a pine tree” or what we would call now as a ‘mushroom cloud’ due to its similarity in shape. Modern geologists have later found that this blast consisted of superheated volcanic gas, ashes and debris ejected from Vesuvius’ crater, and that as the column of the volcano cooled the volcanic matter began to move with the wind and rain down on Pompeii. Why did Vesuvius suddenly erupt? A reservoir as wide as 3 kilometers of smoldering magma had formed beneath the volcano, held by a plug of old magma. When Vesuvius had burst out the cloud that Pliny had seen, it was due to a chemical reaction involving water and gases that had bust the lava plug trapping the magma- Vesuvius had come back to life. Pliny’s detailed description of this cloud critical in determining the type of eruption that destroyed the city of Pompeii. So detailed and vital in the investigation, in fact, that in honor of Pliny the Younger they named the eruption after him- a Plinian eruption.
“…It seemed as though the sea was being sucked backwards, as if it were being pushed back by the shaking of the land. Certainly the shoreline moved outwards, and many sea creatures were left on dry sand. Behind us were frightening dark clouds, rent by lightening twisted and hurled, opening to reveal huge figures of flame. These were like lightening, but bigger.”
The younger Pliny notes that the “sea was being sucked backwards,” therefore making it dangerous for his uncle to travel by sea. This is due to the strong seismic activity occurring in Mount Vesuvius, it had caused the waters to recede from the shore. Pliny describes this as “…as if it were being pushed back by the shaking of the land.” This gives us the impression that Pliny the younger was not completely unaware that the earthquakes they had been experiencing might have caused the waters to withdraw. That although they did not have the same advanced knowledge we have today he had some idea of what was occurring. Scientific knowledge today allows us to understand that earthquakes are typically associated with tsunamis due to the seismic activity within the volcanoes. This explains Pliny’s observations regarding the seas. In his letters, the younger Pliny also notes that there was lightning. Based on scientific research, we now understand that what triggered the lightning during the eruption was the scorching hot ash, heated gases and other volcanic matter being propelled into the atmosphere, as they caused electrical charges to be built up.
Significance and Limitations of Pliny's Letters
Through Pliny's letters we are provided with extremely useful information that give us a better understanding of what exactly occurred on that day in August 79 AD. His letters prove to be a reliable primary source and is used for the reference of scientific as well as historic experts who wish to analyse the eruption. Pliny gives us a very detailed description of the order of the events, his observations, the reactions of the people and even his own personal response to the eruption. Not to forget, the actions of his uncle in the midst of all the chaos and turmoil. There are limitations to the reliability of his letters, however, as we cannot be completely sure that his account of events are entirely true. It is possible he may have over exaggerated so as to make his uncle's actions seem more heroic than they might have been. It is also important to remember that Pliny had written his letters some 25 years after the eruption, therefore his recount is not one that can be considered completely trustworthy, as there is a risk that he had forgotten some details over time and so overdramatised the event in his letters. It is also possible that Pliny's writing could have been influenced by his desire to impress the historian Tacitus and so he might have exaggerated the truth. Another limitation would be that his letters were not originally english in language and so his words may have been translated inaccurately to fit another language, ultimately changing the meaning or message he wanted to originally get across.