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.
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.
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, M, a, and i 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.
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. ), 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).
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.