Translating Pliny’s letters about Vesuvius, pt. 4. A Strange Cloud


Strange Cloud: non alia magis arbor quam pinus (vintage postcard from Naples)

6.16.4-6: A Strange Cloud

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 second installment for letter 6.16.

The Younger Pliny now begins the tale that Tacitus has asked him to share. It is critical to remember that the real subject of, and reason for, these letters, is to honor the life and memory of the Elder Pliny–not to describe a volcanic eruption and its effects–though it was the latter that the Elder Pliny was interested in recording that day, as we will see later on.

This post will also consider the date of the eruption in some detail.

4 Erat Miseni classemque imperio praesens regebat. Nonum kal. Septembres hora fere septima mater mea indicat ei adparere nubem inusitata et magnitudine et specie. 

4 He (Elder Pliny) was at Misenum and he was in command of the fleet. On the ninth day before the first of September at about the seventh hour, my mother indicates to him that a cloud of unusual size and shape is appearing.

Ancient port of Misenum, with its inner (background) and outer (foreground) harbors, view NE; reconstruction: Jean-Claude Golvin

Misenum was the location of the Roman fleet (classis Misenensis) for the western Mediterranean. The image above shows the inner (now a lagoon, ‘Lago Miseno’) and outer ancient harbors tucked just inside the cape, sheltered from heavy wind and wave. The area around Misenum, known as the Phlegraean (‘Burning’) Fields because of its active volcanic nature, is rife with archaeology (consider visiting the superb Museo dei Campi Flegrei). Right away, Younger Pliny establishes his uncle’s clout as commander.

Two tenses operate in the Latin here. The first sentence uses imperfect (erat, regebat), which indicates ongoing (incomplete) action in the past. Younger Pliny is telling us that the Elder Pliny’s location and job were ongoing. The tense then switches to the present (indicat), as I have translated above, but it is really ‘historical present‘—that is, present tense understood to have happened in the past (i.e., “my mother indicated to him that a cloud…was appearing”). (Credit to Plinia for being the first to notice something.) Use of the historical present makes the narrative more vivid—a ‘you are there’ approach, and Younger Pliny slips us easily into that temporal frame through the imperfect tense in the first sentence.

The pivot point between the temporal frames is a precise date and time–seventh hour, ninth day before the Kalends (first) of September (cf. the Roman calendar). This is Aug. 24, because the Romans counted inclusively (both the start and end of a sequence: Aug. 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, Sept. 1). The Roman system for hours of a day is confusing; they divided up daylight into 12 equal parts regardless of the time of year, so hours during the summer were longer than during the winter (at the vernal and autumnal equinoxes they = 1 hour). Happily, one can use the NOAA Solar Calculator to determine sunrise and sunset at any time in history anywhere on earth. So here’s the information to plug in for Capo Miseno (ancient Misenum):

    • Lat. 40.785640 N; Long. 14.085770 E
    • Time Zone: 1 (Central European Time)
    • Date: 24 August 79, Local time (doesn’t matter except for knowing azimuth)

Result? Sunrise at 5:19 and sunset at 18:49. That’s 13 1/2 hours of daylight, divided/12 = 67.5 min. per ‘hour’ x six (hours elapsed before the ‘seventh’ hour begins) = 405 min that we tack on to 5:19 to equal 12:04, or, just about noon (that’s what most translations say, but now you know how they derived it).

Have I forgotten or ignored anything? Well, yes. For one, a change in calendars. Pope Gregory XIII, in order to re-align the Julian calendar to the solar year (and liturgical holidays), decreed that the day after 4 Oct. 1582 became 15 Oct. 1582: ten days ‘disappeared’, and the leap year calendar was adjusted to drop leap years in years not divisible by 400 (the year 2000 was, but 2100 will not be a leap year). For our purposes, the NOAA Solar Calculator extrapolates the Gregorian calendar backwards through time, so in order to work with 24 Aug. in the Julian calendar, we need to add ten days, and calculate for 2 September. The results are now: 5:29 sunrise and 18:35 sunset (786 min/12 = 65.5 min per ‘hour’ x six (hours elapsed) = 393 min. tacked on to 5:29, equalling 12:02, or, just about noon! What?

That’s a lot of calculator trouble for two lousy minutes. But it does point out that the start of the Roman ‘seventh hour’ is always going to be noon. It has to be: it is halfway from sunrise to sunset, and marks the highest point of the sun on any day of the year. Pliny would have known that because the gnomon on his sundial would have cast its shortest shadow at noon. (Great article from Oxford on the workings of a Roman sundial, and correct, except for a confusion over how Romans counted their hours [the first hour of the day is ‘1’, not ‘0’].) Sorry. I could have been more direct. But it wouldn’t have been as much fun.

So much for precision. But precision is not the same as accuracy. For we can’t be completely sure that 24 August was the date of the eruption at all. Recently there’s been wrangling about the correct date. Jeremy O’Clair has collated several arguments, with references, in his blog ‘Ancient Study‘; see also the Wikipedia article and Blogging Pompeii. Here are highlights,  details, and some thoughts.

  • Dates in the manuscripts.

    The M manuscript showing eruption date near the bottom, from U. Pappalardo via Jeremy O’Clair’s blog

    No, they are not always reliable. Recall that we have five main manuscript sources for this letter (γ, θ, M, i, a), and of those, Ma, and are the primary coherent documents. Manuscripts M and a give us “nonum kal. Septembres“. But there are other manuscripts as well. According to S.E. Stout’s critical edition (1962), the 15th-c. Codex Parisinus 8620 (f) has only “nonum kal.” (no month); a ca. 1474 printed edition (Hain 13108) (r) has “November Calend“; three other printed editions (Hain 13114, ca. 1490; Hain 13115, ca. 1498; Cataneus ca. 1506) all have “Kl. [or Cal.] Novembres” (s). It should be noted that f, r, and s don’t quite agree with each other, though they all come from the same (γ) tradition (itself not mentioning a month at all), which then do not agree with M and a (which have “Septembres“, M also being our oldest substantially-complete ms.). Furthermore, the Hain 13108 (r) and 13114 printed editions have “Novembres” as a corrupted conjecture from “nonum“, according to Stout (this is sensible: nonum–>novem–>Novem[bres]). All in all (and the [γ] tradition is the most problematic in the manuscript tradition anyway), the “November” references are seriously flawed and cannot be considered strong literary evidence for an alternative date. That leaves a reference in Berry (The Complete Pompeii, 2007, p.20) to “IX Kal. Decembris“. This is an editorial emendation (supposed for the Pliny mss. that don’t mention a month) by Carlo Maria Rosini in 1797, as noted by Rolandi et al. in their 2007 article. It derives purely from his archaeological excavations of environmental data (certain plant remains, the presence of a carpet on one floor, and braziers in atria [used for cooking, not just for heating, by the way: see Figures 1.11-13 here]) which suggested to him a cold climate at the time of the eruption. In other words, to Rosini’s mind, the archaeology did not fit the text, so he changed the text.

  • An interesting coin.

    Coin of Titus, AD 79, Tribunician Power 9th time, Imperator 15th time, Consul, 7th time, Pater Patriae (same type as the one said to be found at Pompeii, found near Bury St. Edmunds in Britain: SF-634850)

    Rolandi et al. (2007) describe a silver denarius found on 7 June in 1974 at Pompeii as part of a hoard in the House of the Golden Bracelet (VI.17.42). It shows the portrait of Titus and a capricorn symbol, with notice that Titus was imperator for the 15th time (for a victory won that summer in Britain; see Dio Cassius’ text below): IMP XV. Working from an article by G. Stefani in 2006, they also cite two other documents: a bronze copy of a letter from Titus to the city of Munigua in Spain, and a military diploma from Egypt; both mention Titus as imperator for only the 14th time, and those documents are internally dated to 7 and 8 September respectively. The argument seems airtight–such a coin has to date after the Spanish and Egyptian documents, since the title of the emperor on the coin is more ‘up-to-date’. Accordingly, the promulgation of the emperor’s 15th honor of imperator (and therefore the eruption) would have to date after 7 Sept. But there is a question about the actual legibility of that silver denarius from the House of the Golden Bracelet (P 14312/176 in the Naples Museum); what has been published is an artist’s drawing that shows a clear, well-preserved piece; there is no photograph of the actual object. A nearly identical Titus/capricorn coin lists imperator for the 14th time, so if the Golden Bracelet coin is not preserved well on that side, it’d be impossible to tell the difference. Has anyone seen the Pompeian coin in question?

  • Environmental Data. This includes a whole bunch of conflicting data about artifacts, ecofacts, or the dispersal pattern of volcanic fallout. Collectively, it does not point one way or another. Modern high-altitude wind patterns during August usually flow westward, but the AD 79 ash fell to the south-east (Rolandi et al. [2007]), more in line with a late summer/early autumn (modern) pattern. The problem, of course, is arguing from a general modern pattern to a specific ancient fallout. The species of fish sauce found bottled up points to a July-early August harvest, and August production. Other arguments about pollen, fruit (fresh or dried), leaves, etc., why some of the dead were wearing heavy clothing–all falter on the fact that not just one kind of evidence from one season is preserved at this site. Pompeii is a complicated palimpsest. I won’t comment further on environmental data, since I doubt any such evidence will ever be conclusive; please refer to  ‘Ancient Study‘, Wikipedia, and Blogging Pompeii if you’re curious.

How do we know what year it was? (Pliny doesn’t give any hint.) Well, that comes from another source: The late 2nd c. AD Roman historian Dio Cassius, preserved in paraphrased, epitomized form by the 11th-c. monk Xiphilinus, in sections 66.20-23 (at Bill Thayer’s site; the 1925 Loeb translation) tells us it happened “at summer’s end” in the first year of Titus’ reign (AD 79):

20.3 As a result of these events in Britain Titus received the title of imperator for the fifteenth time…

21.1 In Campania remarkable and frightful occurrences took place; for a great fire suddenly flared up at the very end of the summer… Mt. Vesuvius stands over against Neapolis near the sea and it has inexhaustible fountains of fire…the crater is given over to the fire and sends up smoke by day and a flame by night; in fact, it gives the impression that quantities of incense of all kinds are being burned in it. 4 This, now, goes on all the time, sometimes to a greater, sometimes to a less extent; but often the mountain throws up ashes, whenever there is an extensive settling in the interior, and discharges stones whenever it is rent by a violent blast of air. It also rumbles and roars because its vents are not all grouped together but are narrow and concealed.

22.1 Such is Vesuvius, and these phenomena usually occur there every year. But all the other occurrences that had taken place there in the course of time, however notable, because unusual, they may have seemed to those who on each occasion observed them, nevertheless would be regarded as trivial in comparison with what now happened, even if all had been combined into one. 2 This was what befell. Numbers of huge men quite surpassing any human stature — such creatures, in fact, as the Giants are pictured to have been — appeared, now on the mountain, now in the surrounding country, and again in the cities, wandering over the earth day and night and also flitting through the air. 3 After this fearful droughts and sudden and violent earthquakes occurred, so that the whole plain round about seethed and the summits leaped into the air. There were frequent rumblings, some of them subterranean, that resembled thunder, and some on the surface, that sounded like bellowings; the sea also joined in the roar and the sky re-echoed it. 4 Then suddenly a portentous crash was heard, as if the mountains were tumbling in ruins; and first huge stones were hurled aloft, rising as high as the very summits, then came a great quantity of fire and endless smoke, so that the whole atmosphere was obscured and the sun was entirely hidden, as if eclipsed.

23.1 Thus day was turned into night and light into darkness. Some thought that the Giants were rising again in revolt (for at this time also many of their forms could be discerned in the smoke and, moreover, a sound as of trumpets was heard), while others believed that the whole universe was being resolved into chaos or fire. 2 Therefore they fled, some from the houses into the streets, others from outside into the houses, now from the sea to the land and now from the land to the sea; for in their excitement they regarded any place where they were not as safer than where they were. 3 While this was going on, an inconceivable quantity of ashes was blown out, which covered both sea and land and filled all the air. It wrought much injury of various kinds, as chance befell, to men and farms and cattle, and in particular it destroyed all fish and birds. Furthermore, it buried two entire cities, Herculaneum and Pompeii, the latter place while its populace was seated in the theatre. 4 Indeed, the amount of dust, taken all together, was so great that some of it reached Africa and Syria and Egypt, and it also reached Rome, filling the air overhead and darkening the sun. 5  There, too, no little fear was occasioned, that lasted for several days, since the people did not know and could not imagine what had happened, but, like those close at hand, believed that the whole world was being turned upside down, that the sun was disappearing into the earth and that the earth was being lifted to the sky. These ashes, now, did the Romans no great harm at the time, though later they brought a terrible pestilence upon them.

Here’s a link to the original Greek text on Perseus. The part (23.3) about the Pompeians dying in the theater was believed for a long time (I recall, though I can’t put my hands to the evidence), until the theater began to be excavated in 1764 and no bodies were found there.

Also note the reference to the eruption happening “at the very end of the summer.” (And you thought you were done reading about this.) The Greek is: “κατ᾽ αὐτὸ τὸ φθινόπωρον“. “αὐτὸ” here means “right at,” and “φθινόπωρον” is an interesting word; it basically means “autumn,” but is a compound of “φθιν” “the waning of,” from “φθίω” and “όπωρα” “latter part of summer”, i.e., late July-August-early September. The Loeb translator chose to be literal, “right at the waning of summer.” If one prefers “autumn” more generally as a fair translation of φθινόπωρον (and it is), then the specifying force of “αὐτὸ” has to be explained. I don’t think this passage can decide between the manuscript variations; the textual tradition of Dio is far more problematic than that of Pliny anyway. No help there, really.

Perhaps it is best to conclude that we don’t know the exact date for certain, and it doesn’t matter a whole lot to understanding what happened. Only a (understandably) sharp thirst for rare glimpses of precise historical accuracy really keeps this debate going. If we want to convey the precise immediacy of the ‘historical present’ (as museum exhibitions need to), 24 August is a ready default, and currently better than the alternatives. If we want to be more accurate, however, we should be more vague, and simply say: ‘in late AD 79’.

By the way, I quite like the parts about the Giant-like Men causing havoc on the volcano (in the Greek: “ἄνδρες πολλοὶ καὶ μεγάλοι, οἷοι οἱ γίγαντες γράφονται”). I picture the Elder Pliny’s Monstrous Races crawling out of the uncivilized margins of his seventh book (here, a fun translation from 1601) to take revenge on Pliny (and Romano-Hellenistic culture in general) for making them look ridiculous. 

Let’s get back to the story.

5 Usus ille sole, mox frigida, gustaverat iacens studebatque; poscit soleas, ascendit locum ex quo maxime miraculum illud conspici poterat. Nubes — incertum procul intuentibus ex quo monte (Vesuvium fuisse postea cognitum est)— oriebatur, cuius similitudinem et formam non alia magis arbor quam pinus expresserit.

5 He (Elder Pliny) took in the sun, then had a cold bath; he had eaten laying down and he began to study; he asks for his slippers, and he ascends to a place from which that marvel was best able to be seen. A cloud–it was uncertain to those watching from afar from which mountain (afterwards it was known to have been Vesuvius)–was rising up, whose resemblance and shape a pine tree would not have portrayed any differently.

A curious cloud appears on the horizon and Elder Pliny continues his routine: sunbathing, cold dip (in a bathing pool or in the sea next to the house), a bit of food, and study. The meal here is probably prandium, “lunch”, which was usually informal; this might be why Younger Pliny bothers to mention that the Elder was reclining (iacens) while he ate, which was normal protocol for the more formal cena, “dinner”. (See pp. 27-32 of this dissertation for literary evidence about when Romans ate.) The Plinys are probably living in a multi-terraced seaside villa like we find along the west side of Pompeii (e.g., the House of the Golden Bracelet) or below Herculaneum (the Villa dei Papiri is an example; see this virtual model); this allows Elder Pliny to climb up and have a look (literally at “something genuinely out of the ordinary and worthy of wonder”: miraculum).

Plinian eruption model from San Diego State University

The description of the cloud is justly famous–and only sensible to those who have seen the sort of pine trees that grow around the Bay of Naples (see the vintage postcard at the head of this post). This category of eruption is still called ‘Plinian’ by volcanologists, in honor of the first detailed, analytic description.

The Latin tenses are all over the place–pluperfect, imperfect, perfect, historical present again, making the result a bit choppy. For Latinists, the part from cuius to expresserit is a nice relative clause of characteristic, though.

6 Nam longissimo velut trunco elata in altum quibusdam ramis diffundebatur, credo quia recenti spiritu evecta, dein senescente eo destituta aut etiam pondere suo victa in latitudinem vanescebat, candida interdum, interdum sordida et maculosa prout terram cineremve sustulerat.

6 For having been raised high up on a very tall sort of trunk, (the cloud) was spreading out into something like branches, I believe because, having been carried forth by a fresh blast and then forsaken by that diminishing force, or even conquered by its own weight, it was dissipating to the sides, sometimes white, sometimes dingy and flecked, according to the earth or ash it had borne.

Here the Younger Pliny is channeling the observational and analytic eye of his uncle, trying to explain the mechanics of the developing shape of the cloud. In real terms, he’s not far off, which is one reason why I suspect volcanologists love him.

More interesting, perhaps, is how Pliny searches for life-form similes and metaphors to express what he sees: the cloud is a “pine tree” with a “trunk” and “branches”; the volcano has “breath” (spiritus), and the cloud follows a life-cycle from being born (recens) to growing old (senescens). At last the surging, rising smoke is abandoned (destituta) and overcome (victa) by its mortal weight (pondus). Sadly, it is when those columns of elevated debris collapsed and “died” that the pyroclastic flows and surges (known collectively as pyroclastic density currents) occurred that killed everyone. Without knowing it, Pliny’s metaphors of decline and fall for his inanimate clouds were about to be harshly but aptly played out upon a living populace.

Next time, in the post for 6.16.7-10, ‘The Hero Embarks,’ the Elder Pliny prepares to venture a scientific study of this miraculum, until the sudden arrival of a letter forces him to change tack and try to rescue some friends, all while the Younger Pliny, um, catches up on his homework.

Footnote: We have two papyrus letters home from young sailors posted to Misenum in the 2nd c. AD; they were from the Fayum area in Egypt (the towns of Karanis and Philadelphia). Text and further discussion here.

Back to Part 3

Forward to Part 5

13 thoughts on “Translating Pliny’s letters about Vesuvius, pt. 4. A Strange Cloud

  1. «Nam, ut dicit Suetonius idem in libro De Viris Illustribus, dum idem Plinius legiones in Siciliam duceret, eruptione fauillarum ab Aetna eructantium praefocatus interiit anno vitae suae quinquagesimo sexto, et in Sicilia tumulatur: cui consonat Plinius nepos eius in praefata epistula ad Macrum dicens, “Miraris quod tot volumina multaque in his scrupulosa homo occupatus absoluerit. Magis miraberis, si scieris illum aliquandiu causas dictitasse, et decessisse anno sexto et quinquagesimo.”

    Giovanni de Matociis (Giovanni Mansionario) – early 14th century

    What do you think about?

    • Thank you for your comment, which brought up some developments and sources that I need to investigate for the book anyway. I’ll give this a preliminary stab. It seems that the 14th-c. Giovanni de Matociis, aka Johannes Mansionarius, was a Veronese clergyman who was one of the first to develop critical tools for making sense of the mess of classical sources. One of his key contributions was to make clear that there were two Plinys (at the time, there was thought to be just one — a conflation of the Elder and Younger); he did this in brevis adnotatio de duobus Pliniis. The passage you cite seems to be one of Mansionarius’ arguments for distinguishing the two men: Suetonius says that Elder Pliny died at age 56, and Younger Pliny claims the same age at death for his uncle, thus meaning that the Elder and the Younger had to be two different persons (I’d wager that the ‘matching of age at death’ is what ‘cui consonat’ refers to). In letters 6.16 and 6.20, Pliny does not actually name his uncle; he doesn’t have to, because it is obvious to Tacitus, the addressee. E.T. Merrill, in the Classical Journal of 1910 (vol. 5.2, pp. 175-88), says (p. 181): “Again, in the same paragraph of the Adnotatio he quotes “Suetonius Tranquillus” as authority for the statement that the elder Pliny was smothered under the ashes of Etna, and yet calmly refers to Plin. Ep. vi. 16, which he must have known gives quite a different story. The Mansionarius certainly was aware that Campania is not Sicily, and Vesuvius is not Etna. But, as was the case with Vincent [another scholar] in the instance cited, the different sections of his doubtless somewhat overloaded memory were not always geared together.” In short, Mansionarius knew better, but wasn’t thinking clearly about reconciling these two stories of Elder Pliny’s death in this passage; he was interested in proving that there in fact were two Plinys.

  2. Matociis rightly decided that it can not be that a man in his letters describing his own death. So letters belong to someone else, according to the name, some close relative. It would seem that there could not be any doubt. The Younger Pliny writes – “…my uncle” (6.16.1). However, this division into two Pliny was revealed to the world as a discovery. Why?

    In common version of Life of Pliny the Elder Suetonius says nothing about Sicily, but almost word for word passed version of the death of Pliny, allegedly voiced his nephew’s letter to Tacitus, which is becoming a strong suspicion of forgery.

    PLINIUS SECUNDUS Novocomensis equestribus militiis industrie functus procurationes quoque splendidissimas et continuas summa integritate administravit, et tamen liberalibus studiis tantam operam dedit, ut non temere quis plura in otio scripserit. Itaque bella omnia, quae unquam cum Germanis gesta sunt, XX voluminibus comprehendit, itemque “Naturalis Historiae” XXXVII libros absolvit. Periit clade Campaniae; cum enim Misenensi classi praeesset et flagrante Vesubio ad explorandas propius causas liburnica pertendisset, nec adversantibus ventis remeare posset, vi pulveris ac favillae oppressus est, vel ut quidam existimant a servo suo occisus, quem aestu deficiens ut necem sibi maturaret oraverat.

    It is possible that Tacitus showed to Suetonius the letters addressed to him by Pliny the Younger, who used them as a source of information for his series of “Lives of famous people”, but what is most interesting, Tacitus does not used this information by himself as well as Suetonius never mentions in his writings Tacitus!
    What is unknown to us today, which version of Suetonius MS Matocii has used and, more importantly, where it is gone after his death?

    I would put under suspicion the Paduan humanist Sicco Polenton (Sicconio Polentone), which in 1437 produced the first history of Latin literature in 18 volumes. As Berthold Louis Ullman considered, Sicco, because of the large amount of work for his intended History, took the path of least resistance, and, once he has copied all that he wanted to include in his book from a single existing copy to that time of the Suetonius De Viris Illustribus MS, destroyed the MS in order to prevent possible further charges in plagiarism.

    (s. Ullman B.L. Siccoinis Polentoni Scriptorum Illustrium Latinae Linguae, American Academy in Rome, 1928)

    But it’s not that simple. Matociis, focusing on Suetonius, should be familiar with the letters of Pliny the Younger, to which he refers. However, unfortunately his letters have not being quoted! Did he not pay attention to the discrepancy in the description of the place of death of Pliny the Elder by Suetonius and by Pliny the Younger? Maybe in the XIV century, the texts of letters of Pliny to Tacitus as well as the texts of Suetonius differed from that canonized by now?

    • Until the start of the 14th c., there doesn’t seem to have been much of a systematic approach to collating, evaluating, and triaging manuscripts for consistency, errors, authorial reliability, etc. Absent any internal evidence in the Natural History or Letters, there may have been nothing available to indicate that there was more than one ‘Pliny’ as an author. Certainly we can’t say there was a coherent tradition of critical classical scholarship at the time. So I bet there was a lot of confusion and a general lack of agreed (that is, tested over time by argument and evidence) authority about many texts. Perhaps Mansionarius had a different version of Suetonius’ life of (Elder) Pliny; there are many manuscripts that disappeared in the next couple of hundred years (or rather, became ‘obsolete’) with the advent of the printing press. Today’s best extant (Younger) Pliny manuscript of any extent is M (9th c.), so that predates Mansionarius. As for the discrepancy about place of death, I suspect again that this was not his concern in the passage cited (that’s not why he quotes it). It would probably be a stretch to place the validity of the (now missing) account attributed to Suetonius in Mansionarius’ work (when he was attached to one library in Verona) above the mature critical scholarship that occurred a century or so later when manuscripts from multiple libraries were collected, compared, and compiled to determine the best text. It’s an interesting side story to Pliny, though, and I look forward to investigating it further, when I could speak in a more informed way. Thanks, Andreas.

  3. You are welcome. I spent a couple of years investigating this matter. Keeping in mind my book about is still in writing and it seems it will never be finished, I am glad now to share the results of my investigations as well as suspicions with you.

    Humanists of the 14th century under the influence of flow-fashioned imitations of ancient authors, such as Cicero (Ad Atticum, Ad Familiares) and Pliny, practiced writing dialogue in letters. To distinguish which of them really are authentic is almost impossible. Particularly successful in this business was Jerry Arezzo ((Geri d’Arezzo (Gerius Frederici de Aretio) 1270 – 1339). In his written conversations he often quotes or imitates Seneca, Juvenal, and especially Pliny. In a letter to Bartolomeo Oliari, the Cardinal of Padua in 1395, Coluccio Salutati, chancellor of Florence and a leading humanist of his generation pointed Jerry as the greatest copycat of Pliny the Younger in that time and the “first cultivator of eloquence” after centuries of decline of the rhetoric.

    “emerserunt parumper nostro seculo studia litterarum; et primis eloquentie cultor fuit conterraneus tuus Musattus Patavinus, fuit et Gerius Aretinus, maximus Plinii Secundi oratoris, qui alterius eiusdem nominis sororis nepos fuit, imitator”

    (s. Coluccio Salutati, Epistolario, a cura di Francesco Novati, Roma 1896, vol. III.)

    From the epistolaries of Jerry survived only six letters. One of them addresses the Florentine poet Gherardo da Castelfiorentino, dating from 1306 – 1339’s, in which he admires Pliny Secundus of Verona, as a brilliant orator. This letter was accompanied also with allegedly found by Jerry a manuscript of Caesar’s “De bello Gallico”, the existence of which Petrarch never knew until his death. All the rest has disappeared until our times from the literary circulation. It is possible that some of his letters were later supplemented to a collection of letters of Pliny the Younger and even edited with.

  4. In connection with the alternative version of Suetonius of the death of Pliny the Elder in Sicily whilst the Mount Etna erupted, let us carefully consider the letter of Pliny to Tacitus (6.16) one more time.

    Pliny wrote:

    Usus ille sole, mox frigida, gustaverat iacens studebatque; poscit soleas, ascendit locum ex quo maxime miraculum illud conspici poterat. Nubes – incertum procul intuentibus ex quo monte; Vesuvium fuisse postea cognitum est – oriebatur, cuius similitudinem et formam non alia magis arbor quam pinus expresserit.

    One can assume that the explanation (afterwards it was known to have been Vesuvius) is a later interpolation. Why? If you are in Miseno you can not be confused Vesuvius with any other mountain. Vesuvius from there is in full view and Pliny`s uncle did not have to climb to a higher place to see it. All the more so, because at such a distance one hundred meters difference in height of the observation point above sea level do not play any significant role in improving the review.

    But if the uncle was not in Misenum, where he “was in command of the fleet”, but in Messana in Sicily, it really would have been difficult for him to make sure from which one of mountains came out a cloud resembling a pine.

    Also the ancient port and the famous Roman naval base Missina (Messana) in Sicily is very in tune with Miseno.

    Some comments to the timeline:

    Then his uncle, for the sake of interest, ordered to prepare liburna and was about to leave the house when he received a letter from Rectina, wife of Tascus:

    Pliny wrote:
    Egrediebatur domo; accipit codicillos Rectinae Tasci imminenti periculo exterritae – nam villa eius subiacebat, nec ulla nisi navibus fuga -: ut se tanto discrimini eriperet orabat.

    Pliny does not specify how long the uncle Pliny surveyed the surroundings and how soon liburna could be ready to sail, but to get from the foot of the Mount Vesuvius to Misenum, currier of Rectina would need to drive his horse at a trot changing from time to time to walk more than 40 km along the coast. And it is not less than 4 hours. Otherwise forty kilometers of a gallop a horse simply won’t survive, it would die. And the Roman roads were not built for a derby.

    Pliny wrote:
    Vertit ille consilium et quod studioso animo incohaverat obit maximo. Deducit quadriremes, ascendit ipse non Rectinae modo sed multis – erat enim frequens amoenitas orae – laturus auxilium.

    Pliny also does not specify the time required for charging quadrireme but in any case it turns out that, when the uncle Pliny finally become ready to rescue Rectina, the day wore on. However uncle Pliny to reach the event, even in a straight line, must sail about 30 km of distance. And that, at an average speed of 5 knots (1,852 km / h), means for at least 3 hours of sailing. On August 24th in Naples at 7 pm is already dark. And if you would believe in other MS of letters of Pliny, where the eruption of Vesuvius occurred in November, there was already dark at 5 o’clock in the afternoon. At night, as I know, in those days nobody sailed.

    Pliny the Younger does not mention Pompeii and Herculaneum. Probably in the 14th century, when the letters of Pliny were forged (or altered), no one did know anything about their deaths and in Sicily such towns do not exists.

    Cassius Dio, as you know, has been discovered much later.

    • I’ve addressed some of this in Part 5 of the translation serialization, so I’ll be brief here.

      • The explanation that the mountain was “later understood to be Vesuvius” is not a later textual interpolation (no evidence for that); it just means at the time that the Plinys first saw the cloud, it wasn’t clear which mountain was the source. There is a whole range of mountains in the distance behind Vesuvius, and from a distance of 30 km., it would not necessarily have been obvious, especially since it was not generally known to be a volcano. We do not know where Pliny’s villa at Misenum was; we don’t know what the visibility was like; with locally undulating topography that was heavily built up, it’s reasonable that he might have to move to get a better look. Elevation does indeed matter; GoogleEarth can provide the ground-level perspective, and things are not so clear from there, esp. if Pliny’s house was on the slopes of Capo Miseno itself (which, given its vantage point, is likely.
        View towards Vesuvius from Via Dragonara, Capo Miseno
        (GoogleEarth image shows the NW slope of Capo Miseno looking east towards the broken peak of Vesuvius. If one is at ground level, one cannot see Vesuvius at all.)
        There is plenty of cover for Vesuvius around the slopes of Capo Miseno. That’s undoubtedly why the Elder Pliny had to ‘climb up’ to get a better look.
        Given that this is also around noon, that’s the worst time of day to see at a distance; the photo you reference is on a clear day at sunset, at significant elevation, so Vesuvius is bound to be outlined against the sky.
      • Messana in Sicily was not the HQ for the Roman fleet at this time, and had not harbored any significant number of naval vessels since Sextus Pompey’s rebellion in 36 B.C. There was no command post there. We know from lots of archaeological, inscriptional, and textual evidence that Misenum was the port for the fleet. Messanae (the locative form) can also not reasonably be contorted into Miseni, and there are no variants for this part of the text anyway.
      • For distance and endurance figures for horses and ships and the timing of it all, cf. Pt. 5 of the translation project. Yes, sunset would have been just before 7 pm that day, but it was already pretty dark because of the eruption. If Pliny left by 3 p.m. he would have gotten close enough to the coast to know he had to turn back by about 5 p.m., which provides plenty of time to sail SE with the wind to arrive at Stabiae before supper. (Regardless, the Romans could and did sail at night.) But we shouldn’t try to get too specific; we just don’t have enough secure detail.
      • Not mentioning Pompeii or Herculaneum is neither here nor there. We can’t argue from negative evidence, and describing the cities buried by the volcano was not the purpose of the letters; the purpose was to describe and honor Pliny the Elder’s life and death.

      We have a ninth-century ms. with these letters which is our best source (M), which predates all the speculation of later forgery/alteration. An enormous amount of special pleading would have to take place to accept a (now lost) text attributed to Suetonius by one 14th-c. clergyman in place of a well-documented manuscript tradition for Pliny’s letters we have today. Finally, there’s no motive.

  5. Dear Pedar, please forget the Google. Also you do not have to be confused with photographs of Vesuvius from the internet made with a different kind of lenses. I was there and I can assure you that Vesuvius from Miseno is very good visible and clearly differs from any other mountains of the Gulf of Naples. Besides, the uncle Pliny “He had had a sunbath…”, it means it was a sunny day. However, it doesn’t really matter.

    Allegedly another (other?) Pliny´s manuscript brought to Verona in 1326, Simon da Arezzo (Simone della Tenca di Arezzo aka ser Simone di ser Benvenuto di Bonaventura della Tenca), who formerly served in the papal curia in Avignon. In Verona he worked until 1337 as a canon. This Codex (Codex F) through the Order of the Dominicans and Franciscans in Arezzo, whom bequeathed his library deceased in 1338 Simon, was later, probably in 1377, at the hands of Coluccio Salutati, the third after Boccaccio and Petrarch representative of the “Florentine triad” of early humanists and is still preserved in Florence. Strangely enough, but Salutati did not pay his attention to letters of Pliny the Younger and never and nowhere has quoted them.

    Remarkable that Petrarch, known for his meticulous and critical approach to the sources, has never mentioned the Pliny the Younger, in spite of the fact that his friends like Gulelmo Pastrengo, quotes him. And he probably does not even knew of the existence of letters of Pliny. However he was spending a lot of time in the library of Verona, in which he in 1345 while copying Cicero. Petrarch hasn’t discovered in the same library the letters of Pliny, neither those used by the Mansionario nor those brought from Avignon by Simon? Something does not fit here. Although perhaps Mansionario used the manuscript of Pliny, which Simon brought from Avignon.

    You can certainly assume that Giovanni Mansionario messed something with Suetonius and has included a quote about Sicily and Pliny the Elder in error, but four years after his death in Verona appear Florilegium – Flore moralium auctoritatum, riched with quotations from ancient authors including Suetonius and this is in the same interpretation as by Mansionario.

    (s. Elmer Truesdell Merrill, “On the Eight-Book Tradition of Pliny’s Letters in Verona,” Classical Philology 5 (1910), 175-88; Giovanni de Matociis, Brevis adnotatio de duobus Pliniis Veronensibus, ibid., 186: “Plinii duo fuisse noscuntur, eodem nomine et praenominibus appellati…”)

    Mansionario left his books, which were kept in the sacristy of the cathedral in Verona, but did not specify in his will their titels. Obviously that Florilegium was compiled from the same sources used by Mansionario in the same library of Verona. Le Historiae imperiales preserved to this day in the three manuscripts, two of which are in the Vatican. All of them are copies of the XV century, and there is no one original manuscript of Mansionario, including the one Brevis de adnotatio duobus Pliniis, in which he shares Pliny in two, is absent in Verona.

    Thus it turns out that following the discover of the letters of Pliny the Younger and dividing Pliny into uncle and the nephew, the letters have been forgotten for almost a century. They do not matter until 1419 (Guarino Guarini Veronese) neither in connection with the death of Herculaneum and Pompeii, nor as historical evidence in the epistolary genre.

    You wrote: “We have a ninth-century ms. with these letters which is our best source (M), which predates all the speculation of later forgery/alteration….Finally, there’s no motive.”

    The dating of the manuscript (M) was made just based on the distinctive type of its script. Is it enough to make sure if it is forgery or not?

    (s. Revilo P. OLIVER, The First Medicean MS of Tacitus and the Titulature of Ancient Books, Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 82 (1951), pp.232-261).

    Probably you know that at the end of XIX century, a number of historians have questioned into the “Annals” and “History” written by Tacitus, believing that these works were written in the XV century by a talented writer and politician of the Florentine Signoria Poggio Bracciolini or by someone of his contemporaries paid by him.

    John Wilson Ross published in 1878 a book entitled “Tacitus and Bracciolini:: the Annals forged in the XVth century”, intended to prove that Poggio had forged the works of Tacitus. This work has now been added to Project Gutenberg and is online. In 1890 P. Hochart, “De l’Authenticite des Annales et des Histoires de Tacite”, maintained the same idea.

    However the question “Cui prodest?” is another story…

    • Vesuvius under clouds, while the Bay is sunny.(Sunny Bay, Cloudy Mountain) I’m not going to prolong this, and continue to argue about visibility, or note all the times I’ve visited the Bay of Naples for research. It’s fine that you prefer a conspiracy of medieval forgeries. I see no corroboration; I won’t argue on negative evidence; there is no reasonable motive for the supposed forgers, and no capability or motive for describing in such accurate detail a Plinian eruption when the mountain was quiet from the end of the 13th c. until 1631. (And Etna was pretty quiet then too.) It doesn’t add up. But on a lighter note, here’s a picture of Italians sunbathing while Etna has a small fit in 2011! Cheers.
      Sunbathing while Etna erupts

  6. Its up to you, either to accept my point of view or not. However, I prefer to follow the motto: Nothing is proven but the suspicions are justified, and it makes sense of further investigations.

  7. Thank you so much for these translations. It was just the thing I needed for my Latin test. These texts may be even better than the lessions my teacher taught us in 6 weeks!

  8. How is the discussion here actually an issue.

    We know that the author of the Encylopedia was called Pliny
    We know that the author of the Letters was called Pliny

    From this letter, we know that the uncle of Pliny wrote a ton of stuff, and from letter 9.16 to Macer Baebius, we are given a very exact list of what the uncle wrote.

    It seems like the only issue is that it literally does not say “my uncle, Pliny” in the opening of this letter.

    • Thank you for your comment. Very very briefly, the answer is: in the medieval period, before the advent of systematic manuscript and historical criticism, people were unsure whether there was one, or two, Plinys. The evidence we have today was not available then. Sorry I don’t have time at the moment to go into any further depth. Thanks again for your thoughts.

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