This begins a series of posts that will translate and comment upon Pliny the Younger’s two letters (6.16 and 6.20) about the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79–the disaster that buried Pompeii, Herculaneum, and other sites. These posts are part of a book project that intends to understand the scholarly and popular reception of those letters. I am also teaching these letters in LAT 223 at DePauw this Fall term, so this is a good time to do it.
I will provide the Latin (using Mynors’ 1963 Oxford Classical Text [OCT]), and then work through it with a translation, dissection of grammatical constructions, and discussion of what the letters tell us. I will doubtless make mistakes as I proceed, and will be grateful for comments and corrections; the essence of scholarship is rectification through better evidence, arguments, or questions.
Today we start with how we even have these letters: the manuscript tradition. Simply put, we do not possess the Younger Pliny’s original letters. What we do have are later copies of, or excerpts from, compilations of his letters into books and collections. These copies fall into groups, or ‘traditions’, as reconstructed through textual criticism. (Below are just the basics; for more detail, see Roger Pearse’s site, which works from L. D. Reynolds, Texts and Transmission, Oxford 1983, 316-22, which in turn relies upon Mynors’ 1963 OCT. William Johnson at the University of Cincinnati also has a useful bibliography for Pliny). Note: the abbreviation ‘ms.’ = ‘manuscript’ (‘mss.’ = ‘manuscripts’).
- The ‘Nine-Book’ series
- The ‘Eight-Book’ series (known as ‘γ‘ [gamma]):
- Codex Veronensis deperditus (‘lost’) (at least 10th c. AD); contained books 1-7 and 9, with some omissions from books 1 and 9.
- Oxford, Holkham Hall 396 (15th c.), contains 167 letters of the γ tradition.
- Supplementary source (known as ‘θ‘ [theta]), date and origin uncertain, represented by several manuscripts in the Vatican, Turin, and Paris, used to fill in gaps and offer better readings in certain places.
- Carolingian source (known as ‘α‘ [alpha]):
- ‘V‘: Codex Vaticanus latinus 3864 (9th c. AD), contains books 1-4;
- ‘M‘: Codex Laurentianus Mediceus 47.36 (9th c. AD), contains books 1-9.15, 9.17-9.25; written at Fulda monastery; was at Corvey monastery before it was stolen and brought down to Italy; it is now in Florence, in the library of the Medici family (visit the website).
- excerpt in Codex Vaticanus latinus Reginensis 251, pp. 11-13 (early 9th c. AD), containing letter 6.16.
- The ‘Eight-Book’ series (known as ‘γ‘ [gamma]):
- The ‘Ten-Book’ series (known as ‘β‘ [beta]):
- ‘Π‘: Pierpont Morgan M.462 (late 5th c. AD), contains 2.20.13 to 3.5.4; once whole when in the collection of St. Victor in Paris from the 14th-16th c. Only six leaves remain, but all other manuscripts in this series were copied from this one. This publication is available as a Project Gutenberg e-book, with scans of the plates if you want to see what an ancient text looks like!
- ‘B‘: Florence, Laurentianus Ashburnham 98 (9th c. AD), contains Book 1 down to 5.6.31, minus a couple of letters in books 2 and 3, a descendant of Π.
- ‘F‘: Florence, Laurentianus S. Marco 284 (11th c. AD), contains Book 1 down to 5.6 (exactly 100 letters), a descendant of Π.
- ‘I/i‘: Oxford, Bodleian Auct L.4.3 (a compilation of the 16th c. by G. Budé and containing all the letters), largely relying upon Π.
- ‘a‘: editio Aldina 1508 (a printing-press edition), containing all the letters.
Our letters (6.16 and 6.20) happen to be extant in multiple manuscripts. This is good, because we have multiple sources that we can compare towards trying to get as close as possible to Pliny’s original text. This is also bad, because it can lead to confusion, contradiction, and uncertainty, esp. regarding points such as the month and date of the Vesuvian eruption. Mostly it’s good; we’d rather have more sources than fewer.
As the list of series and sources above can be confusing, here’s a graphical representation of how the Younger Pliny’s letters have descended to us:
For letters 6.16 and 6.20, the principal relevant sources are: γ, θ, M, i, a, which offer variant readings for particular passages. Mostly, it is three documents surviving physically today (M, a, i) that provide the OCT text from which we will be translating; I’ve highlighted those in yellow. When it is important for a point of understanding or interpretation, I will refer to these sources to provide alternate readings. The whole set of alternate readings for any text is called an apparatus criticus, and the ‘ap crit,’ as it is known, appears at the bottom of each page of text in modern scholarly editions, wrapped in mystical abbreviations and orthography that are revealed to graduate students with great solemnity, as if it’s some secret about the authorial certitude of our literary heritage (and it sort of is); here’s a key to unlock the ‘ap crit’ abbreviations.
The scholarly edition of the Latin text for this translation project, as mentioned above, will be the Oxford Classical Text edited by R.A.B. Mynors and published in 1963. In our next post, ‘Dramatis Personae,’ we will learn about the characters in this story, and begin to find out why the Younger Pliny, some 25-30 years after Vesuvius exploded, wrote these letters in the first place.