The letters of Pliny the Younger: Dispatches from a dying Pompeii

The letters of Pliny the Younger provide gripping insight into Roman life -- and the last hours of a city

Topics: History, Nonfiction, Books,

The letters of Pliny the Younger: Dispatches from a dying Pompeii"Pliny the Younger: Complete Letters," by P.G. Walsh(Credit: Cains)

A few months ago, many people who were scheduled to travel to Europe found their trips canceled at the last moment: Airborne ash from an Icelandic volcano had, astonishingly, grounded nearly all flights to England and much of the continent.

While cities weren’t buried alive beneath a drizzle of fine pumice, this strange disruption of modern life unavoidably called to mind — at least to my mind — the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae, many of whose inhabitants actually suffocated from the volcanic smoke and grit that smothered their cities. In antiquity the classic account of the eruption, and of a small part of its devastation, occurs in a pair of letters written by Pliny the Younger (61 AD – c.112 AD) to his friend the historian Tacitus. In them he relates how his uncle — in command of the Roman fleet in that part of the Bay of Naples — sailed into harm’s way, both to acquire a better idea of the scope of this natural disaster and to reassure the populace under its shadow.

Barnes & Noble ReviewAs it happens, that intrepid seaman was also called Pliny and is remembered today as an author rather than an admiral. The Elder Pliny’s “Natural History” is one of the greatest books of ancient times, a massive compendium of scientific knowledge, traveler’s tales, zoological observation and “Believe It or Not” anecdote. (This genial encyclopedia takes up 10 compact volumes in the Loeb Library, with Latin and English on facing pages, and still makes excellent bedside reading.) According to his nephew, the senior Pliny had a keen intelligence, astonishing concentration, and little need for sleep. He used to say that there was no book so bad that it was not useful at some point. He believed that any time not devoted to study was wasted.

On the day of the eruption, the younger Pliny writes, “my uncle was at Misenum, where he held command of the fleet in person. Just after midday on 24 August [79 CE] my mother pointed out to him the appearance of a cloud of unusual size and appearance. He had relaxed in the sun, had then taken a cold dip, had lunched lying down, and was at his books. He asked for his sandals, and mounted to the place from which that remarkable phenomenon could best be observed. A cloud was issuing up from some mountain which spectators from a distance could not identify; it was later established to have been Vesuvius.”

Pliny goes on to tell Tacitus about the cloud: “The pine tree, rather than any other, best describes its appearance and shape, for it rose high up into the sky on what one can describe as a very long trunk, and it then spread out into what looked like branches … Its appearance varied between white on the one hand, and grimy and spotted on the other, according as it had thrust up earth or ashes. My uncle, most learned man that he was, realized that this was important, and should be investigated at closer quarters.”

In short order, the elder Pliny “ordered a fast-sailing ship to be made ready” and, continues his nephew, “gave me the option of accompanying him if I so wished. I replied that I preferred to work at my books.” We later learn that the younger man, just 18, simply didn’t want to tear himself away from his enthralled reading of Livy’s history of Rome.

When the seas grew rough, the air dense with cloud, and stones began to fall from the sky, the older Pliny’s ships made their way to Stabiaie. There, the seemingly untroubled Roman naturalist bathed and dined at a friend’s villa, even while Vesuvius continued to pour out flames. He did his best to calm the people around him, going so far as to retire for a nap. “In fact, he relaxed in sleep that was wholly genuine, for his snoring, somewhat deep and loud because of his broad physique, was audible to those patrolling the threshold.” Before long, though, “the courtyard which gave access to his suite of rooms had become so full of ash intermingled with pumice stones that it was piled high.”

The sleeping Pliny was awakened, and a debate broke out over whether the villa’s residents should stay indoors or venture out to the coast. By now “the buildings were shaking with frequent large-scale tremors, as though dislodged from their foundations” and “seemed to shift now one way and now another, and then back again.” Pliny convinced everyone to make a dash for the sea, despite the rain of pumice and debris. “They used strips of cloth to fasten pillows on their heads as a protection against falling stones.”

By this point day had turned to night, and the little party discovered that the Mediterranean was still too “mountainous and hostile” for ships to cast off. Perhaps already starting to be overcome by the foul air, “my uncle lay down … on a discarded sail, and repeatedly drank cold water, which he had requested. Then flames and the smell of sulphur heralding the flames impelled the rest to flight and roused him. Leaning on two of his confidential slaves, he stood up and at once collapsed.” Later on, it was concluded that “his breathing was choked by the greater density of smoke, and this blocked his gullet, which was often frail and narrow, and often unsettled. When daylight was restored, two days after his eyes had closed in death, his body was found intact and unharmed. It was covered over, still in the clothes he had worn. It was more like someone sleeping than a corpse.”

In a follow-up letter to Tacitus, the younger Pliny recalls his own adventures back at Misenum. “The buildings all round were shaking,” he writes, and to his amazement the tumultuous seas were “sucked back” by an earth-tremor, leaving “many sea-creatures stranded on the dry sand.” Meanwhile, Vesuvius continued to spit forth a “black and menacing cloud, split by twisted and quivering flashes of fiery breath,” which opened out “into extended shapes of flames, like lightning flashes, but greater.”

Young Pliny and his mother soon decided to flee, despite the darkness brought on by the ash, and were nearly trampled to death by the panicked mob:

You could hear women moaning, children howling, and men shouting; they were crying out, some seeking parents, others children, and others wives, or recognizing them by the sound of their voices. Some were lamenting their own misfortune; others that of their families. A few in their fear of death were praying for death. Many were raising their hands to implore the gods, but more took the view that no gods now existed anywhere, and that this was an eternal and final darkness hanging over the world.

When true daylight finally reappeared, the exhausted survivors were “confronted with a scene of universal change, for everything was buried by deep ash, as though by snow.” At this point mother and son decided to return to Misenum and were there when “the message came about my uncle.”

Pliny the Younger’s correspondence with numerous friends — besides Tacitus, he also knew the historian Suetonius and the poet Martial — provides one of the great records of what life was like during Roman times. There are 247 surviving personal letters and 121 official memoranda to the Emperor Trajan. Only Cicero’s 914 letters (largely to his friend Atticus and written a century and a half earlier) excel Pliny’s in importance, whether as a self-portrait of the author or as a tableau of social life during the early Empire.

An experienced trial lawyer, an efficient government bureaucrat, and a trusted supporter and confidant of Trajan (who ruled from 98 to 117), Pliny often reminds me of Washingtonians I know. He’s good at his work and rightly proud of his accomplishments, and very much an Inside-the-Beltway pillar of the imperial establishment. Well-off from inheritances and land-rents, Pliny typically uses his influence to help the sons and daughters of friends, just as he regularly donates his money to worthy civic projects, such as the education of children in his hometown of Comum on the shores of what is now Lake Como.

Even though Pliny desperately yearns for literary immortality, whether as orator, poet or letter-writer, he’s clearly no genius. But he is amiable, like one of those 18th-century litterateurs such as Horace Walpole or Lord Chesterfield. This very ordinariness contributes to his appeal. We can believe what he says, whether he’s describing the structure of his villa, the beautiful springs at Clitumnus, the machinations of a shyster lawyer, or the floods on the Tiber. With at least one eye on posterity, he typically mixes little Polonius-like disquisitions about life and the proper use of one’s leisure with accounts of the latest gossip: Thus he tells of houses haunted by ghosts, reports on Vestal virgins immured alive for violating their oaths, provides instruction on how to become a better writer (through translation and imitation), confesses his sorrow over his young wife’s miscarriage, lists the traits of the ideal tutor, reflects on the opposing rhetorical styles of florid “Asiatic” expansiveness and lean “Attic” concision, and even speculates about those strange cultists known as Christians.

Sometimes Pliny seems like a charming and slightly prim eccentric: While out hunting, he takes along his tablets so that he can work on his poetry while awaiting some hapless wild boar to stray into his nets. He complains that nowadays courtrooms are filled with riff-raff and “hired claques, purchased with money.” Sport bores him: “The races were on, and I take not the slightest interest in that type of performance. There is no novelty, no variation, nothing for which a single viewing would not suffice.” Like most writers, he’s deeply sensitive to criticism, hotly defending his taste for “eloquence”: To one correspondent he complains that “you seemed to have designated some passages in my writings as inflated, when I thought them lofty, as pretentious, when I thought them bold, as overblown, when I thought them fully expressed.” He closes with an almost pathetic simper: “The impact of talent should not be confined within a very circumscribed course.”

Cultivated and well-read, Pliny — like many another Latin writer — does sometimes verge on the sententious: “There is no happiness that literature does not intensify, and nothing so sad that literature does not relieve it.” Yet he can also be quietly witty: Of one acquaintance he writes, that “his only concession to old age is discretion.” What will matter most to modern readers, though, is how much this ancient Roman resembles ourselves, how human he is. After his hated courtroom enemy Regulus dies, Pliny confesses that during trials he still finds himself looking for him, that he, in fact, misses the scoundrel. He keeps abreast of real-estate values: “Are you aware that the price of land has risen, especially around Rome? The reasons for this sudden increase have been the subject of much discussion.” When social invitations request that one attend a poetry reading if free on such and such a day, he notes that “at Rome, in fact, no one is ever ‘absolutely free’ or finds it ‘convenient’ to listen to someone reciting his work.”

There’s an immense variety in these pages, and nothing — except a couple of court cases — goes on too long. On one page Pliny might record a premonitory dream, on another a horrific murder, but he’s always aware of the latest domestic scandals, from adultery to disinheritance. One particularly charming letter marvels that a dolphin, in a lagoon near Hippo in Africa, would regularly frolic with swimmers, even allowing one boy to ride on his back. Still another reveals his own passionate love for his third wife, 30 years his junior: “My obsession with longing for you is beyond belief … The one time when I am free of this torture is when I exhaust myself in court with friends’ lawsuits.”

But repeatedly, too, there are letters of condolence and of sorrow. When his mentor and benefactor Cornelius Rufus, who has been suffering from illness, commits suicide, Pliny is devastated:

I contemplate the sort of friend, the sort of man I am now without. He completed his sixty-seventh year, a reasonable age for the sturdiest of us; I acknowledge that. He escaped from an interminable illness; I acknowledge that. He died with his dear ones surviving him, and at a time of prosperity for the state, which was dearer to him than all else; that too I acknowledge. Yet I lament his death as though he were young and in glowing health. I lament it — you can consider me a weakling in this — on my own account, for I have lost the witness, guardian and teacher of my life.

In such a paragraph, despite its emotion, there’s no disregarding the balanced sentences, the repeated phrase “I acknowledge that,” and the overall artfulness of the writing. This careful attention to style reminds us that Pliny was not only well educated in oratory, but that he was also trained by the greatest of all teachers of rhetoric, Quintilian. His prose itself might be loosely called Ciceronian, at once rhythmic and decorated with poetic tags and allusions (chiefly to Homer and Virgil). Scholars suggest that he found further models for his writing in the letters of the stoic philosopher Seneca and the verse-epistles of Ovid, such as the “Heroides” in which classical heroines bemoan their sad fates.

While an obvious source for historians, Pliny has also been, somewhat surprisingly, an inspiration to architects. His loving and leisurely descriptions of his two main homes — one on the sea at Laurentine and another in Tuscany — led architects of the Renaissance and beyond to a better understanding of Roman villas. As David Watkins has written (in “The Legacy of Rome,” edited by Richard Jenkyns): “Pliny’s Laurentine villa occupies a special place in architectural history because of the numerous paper restorations which have been inspired by his extensive and charming descriptions of it … He provided a compelling picture of the pleasure that architecture can give in its relation to sound, sight, smell, temperature, colour, water, and vegetation. At the same time, there was enough obscurity in his description to allow free rein to the imagination of countless architects down the centuries bent on reconstructing his villa.” Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello is just one of these reconstructions.

While the first nine books of Pliny’s letters follow a roughly chronological order — the author disingenuously maintains he’s just selected them casually, almost at random — Book 10 is made up of official correspondence exchanged during his tenure as governor of Bithynia (part of modern-day Turkey). Addressed to Trajan, and accompanied by the Emperor’s replies, these concise exchanges resemble office memos or short business e-mails. However, one of the few substantial letters does offer our first recorded glimpse of the Christian community by an outsider. Pliny has been investigating the religion for alleged disloyalty to Rome:

They maintained … that all that their guilt or error involved was that they were accustomed to assemble at dawn on a fixed day, to sing a hymn antiphonally to Christ as God, and to bind themselves by an oath, not for the commission of some crime, but to avoid acts of theft, brigandage, and adultery, not to break their word and not withhold money deposited with them when asked for it. When these rites were completed, it was their custom to depart, and then to assemble again to take food, which was however common and harmless.

He adds: “The infection of this superstition has extended not merely through the cities, but also through the villages and country areas, but it seems likely that it can be halted and corrected.” (Pliny was certainly wrong about that.) When Trajan writes back, he counsels restraint and tolerance, warning against any sort of witch-hunt:

Christians are not to be sought out. If brought before you and found guilty, they must be punished, but in such a way that a person who denies he is a Christian and demonstrates this by his action, that is, by worshiping our gods, may obtain pardon for repentance, even if his previous record is suspect. Documents published anonymously must play no role in any accusation, for they give the worst example, and are foreign to our age.

Since Pliny’s letters stop abruptly during his time in Bithynia, it seems likely that he died there.

While Pliny lacks the raciness of his friend Suetonius [see my earlier essay for BNR on the "Lives of the Caesars"], his is an admirably civilized sensibility. To the Renaissance he once seemed an early humanist, even as I now view him as the ancestor of today’s educated, hard-working, and much-maligned Washingtonian.

There are two readily available paperbacks of Pliny. The long-established Penguin — “The Letters of Pliny the Younger” — was translated by Betty Radice, who also edited the Latin text for the scholarly Loeb series. Her introduction is masterly and should be read. But P. G. Walsh’s Oxford World Classics edition — “Pliny the Younger: Complete Letters” — offers the advantage of extensive end-notes. These identify people and places and set the sometimes recondite material in its historical context. I have quoted Walsh here, since his seems the better book for most beginning readers of the lawyerly and industrious and kindly Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus.

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