Pliny’s Heroic Death

Pliny’s Heroic Death
(as described by his nephew)

…He was at Misenum [in the Bay of Naples] in his capacity as commander of the fleet on the 24th of August [79 AD], when between 2 and 3 in the afternoon mother drew his attention to a cloud of unusual size and appearance. He had had a sunbath, then a cold bath, and was reclining after dinner with his books. He called for his shoes and climbed up to where he could get the best view of the phenomenon.

The cloud was rising from a mountain—at such a distance we couldn’t tell which, but afterwards learned that it was Vesuvius. 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 from closer at hand.

He ordered a boat made ready. He offered me the opportunity of going along, but I preferred to study—he himself happened to have set me a writing exercise. As he was leaving the house he was brought a letter from Tascius’ wife Rectina, who was terrified by the looming danger. Her villa lay at the foot of Vesuvius, and there was no way out except by boat. She begged him to get her away. He changed his plans. The expedition that started out as a quest for knowledge now called for courage. He launched the quadriremes and embarked himself, a source of aid for more people than just Rectina, for that delightful shore was a populous one. He hurried to a place from which others were fleeing, and held his course directly into danger. Was he afraid? It seems not, as he kept up a continuous observation of the various movements and shapes of that evil cloud, dictating what he saw.

Ash was falling onto the ships now, darker and denser the closer they went. Now it was bits of pumice, and rocks that were blackened and burned and shattered by the fire. Now the sea is shoal; debris from the mountain blocks the shore. He paused for a moment wondering whether to turn back as the helmsman urged him. “Fortune helps the brave,” he said, “Head for Pomponianus.”

At Stabiae, on the other side of the bay formed by the gradually curving shore, Pomponianus had loaded up his ships even before the danger arrived, though it was visible and indeed extremely close, once it intensified. He planned to put out as soon as the contrary wind let up. That very wind carried my uncle right in, and he embraced the frightened man and gave him comfort and courage. In order to lessen the other’s fear by showing his own unconcern he asked to be taken to the baths.

He bathed and dined, carefree or at least appearing so (which is equally impressive). Meanwhile, broad sheets of flame were lighting up many parts of Vesuvius; their light and brightness were the more vivid for the darkness of the night. To alleviate people’s fears my uncle claimed that the flames came from the deserted homes of farmers who had left in a panic with the hearth fires still alight. Then he rested, and gave every indication of actually sleeping; people who passed by his door heard his snores, which were rather resonant since he was a heavy man. The ground outside his room rose so high with the mixture of ash and stones that if he had spent any more time there escape would have been impossible.

He got up and came out, restoring himself to Pomponianus and the others who had been unable to sleep. They discussed what to do, whether to remain under cover or to try the open air. The buildings were being rocked by a series of strong tremors, and appeared to have come loose from their foundations and to be sliding this way and that. Outside, however, there was danger from the rocks that were coming down, light and fire-consumed as these bits of pumice were. Weighing the relative dangers they chose the outdoors; in my uncle’s case it was a rational decision, others just chose the alternative that frightened them the least.

They tied pillows on top of their heads as protection against the shower of rock. It was daylight now elsewhere in the world, but there the darkness was darker and thicker than any night. But they had torches and other lights. They decided to go down to the shore, to see from close up if anything was possible by sea. But it remained as rough and uncooperative as before.

Resting in the shade of a sail he drank once or twice from the cold water he had asked for. Then came a smell of sulfur, announcing the flames, and the flames themselves, sending others into flight but reviving him. Supported by two small slaves he stood up, and immediately collapsed. As I understand it, his breathing was obstructed by the dust-laden air, and his windpipe, which was never strong and often blocked or upset, simply shut down. When daylight came again 2 days after he died, his body was found untouched, unharmed, in the clothing that he had had on. He looked more asleep than dead.

From The Letters of Pliny the Younger, Book Six, 16.


Some of the dead at Pompeii. Ash covered their bodies and made a mold or negative which archaeologists filled in with plaster many centuries later.



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27 Responses to Pliny’s Heroic Death

  1. 100swallows says:

    John Kerpan: Thanks a lot for taking the time to clarify these points. It all makes sense and seems probable: that Rectina had time to get worried and send that message; that Stabiae was not destroyed and so Pliny died because of his lung condition rather than the raining ash, so other eye-witnesses there with him could well have told the story; and that the “bodies” in the museum are not actual cadavers but plaster casts.

  2. John Kerpan says:

    To answer a couple of questions: 1) Rectina asked Pliny as he was the imperial navy commander at the time in the Bay of Naples. It would be like calling the coast guard today. 2) She probably did not have enough space on whatever boats she had with her for everyone there. Then and now the Bay of Naples was a very popular tourist destination. Imagine trying to evacuate a whole neighborhood in one car… 3) She would have had time to send the message. The earth had been shaking violently before the eruption, and she was at the coast, not at the crater of the mountain. 4) Stabiae, where Pliny the Elder ended up, was not destroyed. Pliny died because he was old and had lung conditions. Everyone else there could have survived to tell the tale, inculding his helmsman who could fill in details from the voyage itself. 5) codicillos is a “little codex”, a piece of parchment or clay kept safe by covers. 6) They are not real bodies in the photos. They are the plaster casts made from the holes in the ash where the bodies had been.

  3. Bethideh says:

    are those real bodies? shame imagine all the pain those people must have went through, its not nice to be saying wow i wanna go there and that its a good place to viset because they suffered horridly.

  4. ginet says:

    pompeii is an amazing place to visit. Sad tho to think what happened. I loved reading this article. One day i will travel there again.

  5. abbey dixon says:

    you retards god man stop questioning history it doesnt make you smart it makes you disrespectful at the end of the day thousands of people died and you people have the ordacity to question this have some respect for these people who died god what is this world coming to?

  6. Anonymous says:

    this is hella cool i wanna go there someday when
    im older

  7. Anonymous says:

    Haha she should’ve just text him lol.

  8. 100swallows says:

    Bill Thayer: Thanks for your comments, Bill, to me and to Camila.
    No has dicho por qué no te gusta Plinio el Sobrino, pero me lo puedo imaginar. De la belleza de su prosa no puedo opinar, sólo de la naturalidad de las traducciones; y la de Betty Radice me pareció más legible que otra que consulté. Aconsejas que se comparen traducciones con el texto original pero sabes que son pocos en el mundo entero capaces hoy en día de comprender un texto latín, y menos, de valorar la calidad o la belleza de su estilo. Los demás sólo podemos confiar en los expertos como tú.

  9. Bill Thayer says:

    Betty Radice — just noticed this — is one of the rare Loeb translators to be thoroughly trusted, and her beautiful prose does justice to that of Pliny. I frankly don’t much like the nephew, but he’s an excellent writer. It’s unfortunate that the Loeb translation of the uncle on the other hand is sometimes so bad.

    (Y Camilla: recuerdate que, aún que sea bien hecha esta página, es siempre útil, si puedes hacerlo, volver a las fuentes mismas, en este caso a lo que dijo Plinio; y cuando se tratan de traducciones, quizas mirar a dos o tres….)

  10. 100swallows says:

    camila: Me alegra de que te haya servido. Ojalá puedas encontrar material para otro trabajo. Un saludo.

  11. CAMILA says:


  12. spockgirl says:

    Jeff: There was time for bath, dinner, and nap – as the eruption took place over three days. The people of Pompeii had never seen anything like it, so after the initial pumice rained down and killed some people, they thought it was over. They weren’t expecting the fire and ash later.

  13. cupcake12 says:

    wat who would take time to send a letter just freakin get out nd save your life whew they were retards back then

  14. GoldJoker says:

    I don’t think it’s a true story because no one did get out let alone have time to send a letter. But I do believe it had some influence and some truth in it. Maybe.

  15. geraldine says:

    it truly sad story and we will never forget this great story of the past

  16. 100swallows says:

    Thanks, Bill, for the comment. You will have noticed that I took some liberties even with this translation, trying to make it more easily understandable. Of course you are right to warn readers that even the original Pliny is no good to know “what actually happened”. As he himself tells Tacitus at the end of the letter: “I will say no more except to add that I have described in detail every incident which I either witnessed myself or heard about immediately after the event, when reports were most likely to be accurate. It is for you to select what best suits your purpose, for there is a great difference between a letter to a friend and history written for all to read.”

    My Latin not being up to reading the original, I wasn’t aware that my translator had invented the “mail”. Betty Radice (Penguin Classics) does call the codicillos (sounds like a Spanish word!) a “message”. It certainly looks like Rectina didn’t make it away unless she escaped before Pliny got there, when “the shore was blocked by the debris from the mountain”.

  17. Bill Thayer says:

    Reading what’s there, Pliny never tells us whether Rectina did or did not get out. There’s also no indication that the boat had anything to do with any mail, in fact there is no indication of any mail at all.

    Finally — reading not what is here, which is at least two steps removed from what Pliny the Younger wrote (and thus three or maybe four steps removed from what actually happened) but the original text of Pliny (Ep. VI.16), there’s no letter either. What Pliny wrote was “codicillos” — a little note; in the Loeb translation, “a message”.

    About the only thing we can say is that Rectina got a note to Pliny (one would think by boat, yes, although it’s only the nephew who says that exit was possible only by boat), and that Pliny set out to rescue her, and didn’t. Whether Rectina got out, on her own or thru the agency of someone else, is not known.

  18. silverseason says:

    Yes, maybe I did, but have just forgotten.

  19. 100swallows says:

    Silverseason: Maybe you did know her.

  20. silverseason says:

    I didn’t know the lady who sent the letter. (I’m old, but not that old.) My supposition is that she was brought up to depend on others, the males in the family, not to initiate her own actions. When things got bad, she sent for help. She failed to imagine that worse was coming and it is time to get out, however ungracefully.

  21. 100swallows says:

    Jeff Tomaszew: That’s your supposition versus the account of someone who was there. Have you read Pliny the Younger’s letters? He doesn’t exaggerate, much less fib. I think this version is believable, though I can’t explain why the lady didn’t hop on the mail boat.

  22. Jeff Tomaszew says:

    This is all made up crap. For one she would have left on the boat instead of sending a letter. Nobody survived so who told the story? This all happened very fast, no time for baths, dinners and a nap yet alone the time for the letter to be mailed and the time to sail his boat to rescue her.

  23. 100swallows says:

    Chump: I don’t know why Rectina didn’t hop on the mail boat. But I agree that the world was lucky that Pliny the Nephew stayed behind. His letters show a very decent man and help to understand why the empire lasted. Trajan too comes across as a wise and tolerant ruler.

  24. chump says:

    How did Rectina get a letter to him?? And why didnt she just leave with the mail?? In any event, that his nephew stayed behind to “study” is surely a happy accidnt of history. His letters are a wonderfully rich window into the daily life of a very successful Roman lawyer. Some of them read as if written yesterday by a senior member of the bar–complaining about younger lawyers and the loss of skill that was on display in “the good old days…”

  25. Pingback: Pliny: A Man Who Didn’t Waste Time « Great Names in History

  26. erikatakacs says:

    Sounds like he was a wonderful human being. So others who were there, got away? Those casts of the people of Pompeii are heart-wrenching, I don’t think I could visit there. Once I saw a documentary about the eruption, a sort of re-telling from contemporary sources. The story of Pliny sounds very familiar, if I’m not mistaken, his fate was mentioned also.

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