Translating Pliny’s letters about Vesuvius, pt. 3. The Historian’s Request

Bay of Naples: pulcherrimarum terrarum

6.16.1-3: The Historian’s Request

This post belongs to a serialized translation and commentary of Pliny the Younger’s letters (6.16 and 6.20) to the historian Tacitus about the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. This is the first installment for letter 6.16. The Codex Laurentianus Mediceus for letter 6.16 can be viewed here Plut. 47.36, p. 180.

With the background established, let’s read the letters. The Latin is in italics; English translation follows in Roman text, indented, and then commentary in brown text. Parentheses indicate (‘understood’) words that are not explicit in the Latin. Remember: our purpose here is as much to give a look at the process of translating as to provide another translated product. So I will tend to err on the side of a technical rather than a fluid English translation.


Gaius Plinius greets his dear (friend) Tacitus.

C‘ is the abbreviation for the common name ‘Caius‘, or ‘Gaius‘. ‘S‘ is short for ‘salutem‘, and goes with the gapped verb ‘dicit‘ to mean ‘says greeting’. ‘Suo‘ is a term of affectionate familiarity often used to denote ‘one’s own’ (i.e., family and friends). This is a pretty standard opening for a letter.

1 Petis ut tibi avunculi mei exitum scribam, quo verius tradere posteris possis. Gratias ago; nam video morti eius si celebretur a te immortalem gloriam esse propositam.

1 You ask that I write to you about the death of my uncle, so that you might be able to hand it down more accurately to posterity. Thank you — for I see that the everlasting renown of his death is established if he were honored by you.

Right away the Younger Pliny tells us that this letter is a response to Tacitus’ request for information to help with his history project (‘Pliny: please tell me how your uncle died…’). Not for the last time, Pliny will describe the power of published writing as a vehicle for immortality.

Pliny begins with an indirect command (‘petis ut…scribam‘), followed by a relative clause of purpose (‘quo…tradere…possis‘). He then goes into indirect statement (after a verb of saying, thinking, knowing, or perceiving: ‘video‘) that segues right into a mixed condition. Video, ‘I see’ (that is: ‘I understand/know/realize’) assumes the mental certainty of historical fame in the perfect passive infinitive (video…esse propositam) dependent upon Tacitus including the Elder Pliny’s demise in his Historiae, which is technically uncertain at this point (Pliny is not done with this letter, and Tacitus hasn’t finished or published the Historiae yet). Therefore the imperfect subjunctive is used (si celebretur a te, ‘if he were honored by you’). All these classic constructions are great for teaching Latin.

We also get tension (exitum…posterismorti eius…immortalem gloriam) between mortality and continuity that builds through both letters (Wescott’s notes [218] calls them ‘oxymorons’). That tension is the essence of the Younger Pliny’s motivation in responding to Tacitus. 

2 Quamvis enim pulcherrimarum clade terrarum, ut populi ut urbes memorabili casu, quasi semper victurus occiderit, quamvis ipse plurima opera et mansura condiderit, multum tamen perpetuitati eius scriptorum tuorum aeternitas addet.

2 For although he died in the destruction of the loveliest of lands, as whole populations and as cities (did) because of a memorable disaster, it will be as if he lives ever on; although he himself composed works both plentiful and destined to endure, nevertheless the immortality of your written words will add much to his perpetuity.

Here Pliny marks the magnitude of the cataclysm: it was the most beautiful place that was ruined; whole cities perished with their populations. Scholars of Pompeii always try to vary the nouns they use to describe the eruption; so far, I’ve used ‘destruction’, ‘disaster’, ‘cataclysm’, etc.; Pliny does the same: clades, casus. We have a lot of words for Very Bad Things.

The structural tension between finality and perpetuity builds:
pulcherrimarum terrarum, ‘loveliest of lands’ vs. clade, ‘destruction’;
populi…urbes, ‘(living) populations and cities’ vs. casu, ‘disaster’;
quasi semper victurus, ‘it will be as if he lives ever on’ vs. occiderit, ‘he died’.
Younger Pliny then serves up dollops of hope: though Elder Pliny wrote quite a lot (plurima), and what he wrote is going to endure (mansura), the immortality (aeternitas) of Tacticus’ own history-writing will add yet more (multum) to the Elder Pliny’s continuing legacy (perpetuitati). The irony, of course, is that Tacitus’ version has not survived.

Pliny has revealed an urgent desire for his uncle to be remembered: the more ways, the bigger ways, the more lasting ways, the better. Crucially, Tacitus has provided Pliny a way to demonstrate filial pietas, that Roman value of loyal devotion to gods, nation, and most importantly family.

3 Equidem beatos puto, quibus deorum munere datum est aut facere scribenda aut scribere legenda, beatissimos vero quibus utrumque. Horum in numero avunculus meus et suis libris et tuis erit. Quo libentius suscipio, deposco etiam quod iniungis.

3 Indeed I think that fortunate persons are those to whom is given, by gift of the gods, either to do things worth writing about, or to write things worth reading, and indeed, most fortunate are those to whom both are given. My uncle will be amongst the number of the latter, both in his own books, and in yours. Accordingly I quite freely undertake–even demand–what you have enjoined me (to do).

puto‘ introduces parallel indirect statements (‘beatos and beatissimos [esse]‘) which both connect to relative clauses (introduced by quibus…). The prize is: ‘aut facere scribenda aut scribere legenda’ which has both a synchysis of forms (infinitive-gerundive-infinitive-gerundive) and a near chiasmus of verbs (facere-scribere-scribere-legere). This elegant sentiment has been meaningful both to the 4th Earl of Chesterfield (ca. 1740) and to aspiring hobbits today. The former knew his Latin, and in writing to his bastard son (letter 37) after quoting our Plinian passage, he advises:

“Pray mind your Greek particularly; for to know Greek very well, is to be really learned: there is no great credit in knowing Latin, for every body knows it; and it is only a shame not to know it.”

Nowadays hardly anyone knows Latin, much less Greek (ergo, this blog).

The gerundives above are substantival–that is, they incorporate ‘things’ in their understanding (‘things worth writing/reading’), so they act more like nouns than the verbal adjectives they are supposed to be. (Gerundives and gerunds are great fun.) Another relative clause (horum…) claims that the Elder Pliny will belong to the choir of special souls who both ‘did great things’ and ‘wrote well’ (listen up, college students), and once again he manages to compliment Tacitus. The eagerness that the Younger Pliny shows here is palpable: he is now demanding (‘deposco‘) the yoke (literally, from ‘iniungo‘) of writing his uncle’s story for posterity. It’s a good thing he did.

Next time, in the post for 6.16.4-6, ‘A Strange Cloud,’ we will watch a curious apparition form over the mountain.

Back to Part 2

Forward to Part 4

2 thoughts on “Translating Pliny’s letters about Vesuvius, pt. 3. The Historian’s Request

  1. It must be said, this is a truly thoughtful and thorough post. This Pliny was the final piece I translated before I graduated with a bachelor of arts degree, and as I translated it “ex alia in aliam” (to borrow from Bede’s profoundly splendid parenthetical) I remember seeing Pliny’s observations unfold before me, and thinking that the flimsy defense of the doomed denizens–id est, “Cushions placed on their heads they bound with linens”–was the objective correlative to my degree in literature! There I would boldly go (split infinitive!) into the world with something that could not protect me at all! Books! Words! My degree in the literary arts was my “defense against falling objects,” all the curveballs of the universe, what a joke it seemed. But how wrong I was. I am happy to report that I have also done things worth writing about since, and written things worth reading. Studying Latin and studying literature has been in no way like strapping cushions to my head to ricochet the smouldering vomit of the earth’s innards, it has rendered me a proper grown-up, a person who can think critically, parse sentences (god forbid!), and appreciate history, art, and the power of story. Bravo to the author of this website for breathing life into, for resuscitating (for that is what reciting truly is!) an ancient, wonderful, relevant text. Again, bravo.

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