This artwork, created around 1890 by Henry J. Pain and the Richmond Lithography Company, strives to re-create the catastrophic volcanic eruption of Vesuvius in the year 79, which famously destroyed Pompeii and other nearby cities. Fortunately for us, a written account produced by someone who experienced the ancient eruption first-hand still survives. The name of this ancient witness is Pliny the Younger (c. 61/62-113), whose uncle—Pliny the Elder (c. 23-79)—sadly died during the eruption. A friend of their family was the great Roman historian, Tacitus (c. 56-117+), and being his inquisitive self, he asked Pliny the Younger to write him a description of what happened during the volcanic eruption. Pliny the Younger accomplished this task by sending two separate letters to the historian, and he thankfully retained copies of the two letters for himself. Pliny’s hoarding of his own letters was important, because from Tacitus’ own writings, no information about Vesuvius can be gleaned except the faintest of references in his Histories. Instead, it was Pliny the Younger’s own personal copies of the letters that survived to become the most important eye-witness accounts of the Vesuvius eruption.
According to Pliny the Younger’s own recollection, he was seventeen years old when the Vesuvius volcano exploded. The two Plinys—Older and Younger—and their close family were staying at the nearby naval base of Misenum (modern-day Capo Miseno) at the time. In the days prior to the eruption, there had been mild earth tremors, enough to be noticeable, but not so violent as to cause alarm at the time. Yet, worry eventually began to build on an early afternoon when a strange plume of smoke began billowing out of Vesuvius, reaching great heights in the sky. Pliny wrote, “Sometimes it looked white, sometimes blotched and dirty, according to the amount of soil and ashes it carried with it” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 6.16). Young Pliny’s influential uncle, who commanded the local fleet, quickly realized that the darkening skies boded trouble, and he rushed to mobilize the ships under his command and embark on rescue missions to help people in the endangered cities. It was a mission from which Pliny the Elder would not return.
Back in safer Misenum, the younger teenage Pliny and his mother were going through their own scary experiences. As the eruption worsened, an earthquake shook the region. Pliny the Younger wrote, “The buildings round us were already tottering, and the open space we were in was too small for us not to be in real and imminent danger if the house collapsed” (Letters, 6.20). By now, debris and smoke in the air was darkening the sky, which made the view of the volcano all the more foreboding. Pliny the Younger wrote, “Meanwhile on Mount Vesuvius broad sheets of fire and leaping flames blazed at several points, their bright glare emphasized by the darkness of night” (Letters, 6.16). From his survivable vantage point, teenage Pliny witnessed the volcano’s ash start raining down around him, covering the landscape. Writing on behalf of himself and his mother, he stated, “We were terrified to see everything changed, buried deep in ashes like snowdrifts” (Letters, 6.20). Yet, despite these memorable darkening skies, lava, fires and falling ash, something else left more of an impression on young Pliny. This was the pyroclastic flow and the waves of gas and ash that seemed to roll over the land and sea. Pliny the Younger wrote, “Soon afterwards the cloud sank down to earth and covered the sea; it had already blotted out Capri and hidden the promontory of Misenum from sight…I looked round: a dense black cloud was coming up behind us, spreading over the earth like a flood” (Letters, 6.20). This tsunami of ash buried cities, such as Pompeii and Herculaneum, killing thousands of people who had not yet fled the region. The body of Pliny the Elder was reportedly recovered two days after the eruption. This was lucky, as the remains of thousands of other victims of the volcano were entombed deep under the newly deposited ash and pumice.
Such, then, is the history behind the 19th-century artwork featured above. It focuses more on fire and smoke, instead of on ash and pumice. Ships—perhaps the rescue mission led by Pliny the Elder—can be seen crowding the shoreline. Unfortunately, the frantic sailors and citizens inside the burring city do not have long before the situation becomes much worse. Soon, an avalanche of ash and pumice will descend to snuff out the raging fires, along with the lives of whoever could not evacuate in time.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Letters of Pliny the Younger, translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Classics, 1963, 1969.