Translating Pliny’s letters about Vesuvius, pt. 5. The Hero Embarks


Relative location of Vesuvius compared to the naval base at Misenum (inner and outer harbors visible at lower center). Based on GoogleEarth.

6.16.7-10: The Hero Embarks

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 third installment for letter 6.16.

The Younger Pliny has just unfolded a detailed description of the volcanic cloud that was first spotted by his mother around noon. (Note that this just provides a terminus ante quem for the initial explosion, but because of the explosive nature of ‘Plinian eruptions’, it is unlikely to have begun too long before Plinia noticed it.) Pliny is working from three sources: his memory, notes he took shortly after the event, and conversations with other people after the eruption (as he says later in section 22 of this letter).

As the crater of Vesuvius is about 30 km. away from Misenum by direct line of sight, the Elder Pliny, his curiosity alight, decides to have a closer look. It is perhaps 2 or 3 in the afternoon (we don’t know how long Pliny took with his bath, his lunch, and his climb to a vantage point). There was as yet no sense of urgency, but that was about to change.

7 Magnum propiusque noscendum ut eruditissimo viro visum. Iubet liburnicam aptari; mihi si venire una vellem facit copiam; respondi studere me malle, et forte ipse quod scriberem dederat.

7 (The cloud) seemed significant to such a highly learned man, and worth knowing about closer up. He orders a Liburnian (light ship) to be prepared; he makes the opportunity available to me if I should wish to come along; I responded that I preferred to study, and by chance he himself had set me something to write.

Reconstruction of a Liburnian galley

Reconstruction of a Roman bireme from

(Note: I translate the Latin historical present as present to help convey the vividness Pliny intends.)

Elder Pliny’s first choice for transport is a Liburnian. These were light, fast ships with two banks of oars (biremes) on either side, manned by ca. 60 rowers, and a large square sail. The Liburnian type (and term) was apparently taken from swift vessels used by pirates amongst the coastal islands of Illyria (modern Croatia)–good stories always include pirates. But our hard knowledge of ships in the Roman navy is problematic. Evidence is sketchy; transport ships, not military craft, tend to preserve as shipwrecks, and designs and usage changed over time. The subject has recently been treated in a book by Michael Pitassi (Roman Warships, Boydell 2011): review from the Classical Journal; review from De Re Militari; (more critical) German review from H-Net. Suffice it to say that a Liburnian, with a relatively small crew, was meant for reconnaissance, communication, light transport, and speed.

The speed of ancient ships, either rowed or driven before the wind, has been much debated. Lionel Casson, the most expert 20th-c. scholar on the subject, argued for 5-6 knots (9-11 km./hr) with favorable winds (based on literary accounts of long-distance journeys). There was a brisk wind running SE that day (we know this from the fallout pattern of ash and because the Elder Pliny’s ship would later get stuck at Stabiae in the SE corner of the Bay of Naples).

Young Pliny chooses words like ‘worth knowing’ (noscendum, a future passive participle [gerundive]) and ‘highly learned’ (eruditissimo); they apply to the Elder Pliny’s quest to understand this monumental natural phenomenon. But they also foreshadow Young Pliny’s fateful choice in this section: to stay home and study rather than accompany his uncle to investigate the eruption. We get snippets of conversation here: ‘Secundus, do you wish to come with me?’ ‘No, I’d rather study.’ He adds that he was doing a writing assignment that Elder Pliny himself had set for him. Is this an excuse? The use of forte (‘by chance’) is interesting; was the pressure of completing the teacher’s assignment enough to keep him home (and perhaps save his life), despite that same teacher giving him leave to skip out for some experiential learning?  Is Young Pliny being the good student, or the dull pedant? One wonders whether the writer is looking back on his choice with regret or relief. He will get his own part in the drama in any case, as the second letter shows. The Younger Pliny seems to be setting himself up as a (somewhat less intrepid) intellectual heir to his uncle, with an intense aspiration for learning. Does that play a role in the detail he includes, conveying the sort of information that his uncle ultimately could not?

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

8 (Elder Pliny) was just leaving the house (when) he receives a note from Rectina, wife of Tascus, terrified at the impending danger (for her villa was positioned below [the mountain] and there was no escape except by ships): she was pleading that he take her a significant distance away.

The name of the person who sent the letter is problematic in the manuscripts, doubtless because her identity is obscure. M has recti netasci; γ has recti necasci; a (the 1508 print edition) has Rectinae Nasci. An unproblematic reading in section 9 below refers to Rectinae, which helps clarify the reading here, relying on M for (ne)Tasci in preference to Nasci in other sources. We know it’s a ‘she’ because exterritae, in adjectival agreement, is feminine.

From the 18th c. to the early 20th c., scholars debated whether Rectina and her villa were the origin for the modern town name of ‘Resina’ (e.g.,  J.J. Winckelmann’s Letter on the Herculanean Discoveries [1762]). As Andrew Wallace-Hadrill has shown, however, the etymological argument does not hold.

Pompeian fresco of seaside villa, room 50 at the Villa San Marco, Stabiae; such images are as idealistically imaginary as they are representative of real architecture.

The word for ‘note’ is codicilli, always in the plural, for it refers to the ‘leaves’ of the document (thin wood or wax on wood, likely, rather than papyrus). So how did the  note get to Pliny at Misenum? Rectina says there was no escape except by ship. We don’t know exactly where her villa was; the whole shore was dotted with villas, according to the geographer Strabo (5.247):

“…the whole of this (bay) is furnished, partly by the cities I’ve mentioned, and partly by the residences and plantations, which, contiguous between them, display the appearance of a single city.”

The coast below the mountain was ca. 22-32 km away from Misenum by sea (the shorter distance at Portici, just NW of Herculaneum; the longer at Torre Annunziata to the SE); overland, the distance from Misenum is (at least) ca. 28-40 km. to the same two destinations. We don’t know whether the sea offered the only escape because the roads had become blocked by the eruption and/or refugees (presumably Rectina wants a carriage), or because the villa’s location lacked any road access whatsoever. The former is reasonable, given her proximity to the volcano (nam villa eius subiacebat) and what conditions were like even 30 km. away at Misenum (as Pliny describes later in the second letter). The latter is less likely; the eastern shore of the Bay of Naples is not (and was not) so precipitous as to prohibit terrestrial travel. The closest thing to substantial cliffs is at Stabiae to the southeast, and roads had access there.

If Rectina was able to send a mounted messenger by land (just one might pass more easily than the household parades on jammed roads we will encounter in the second letter), that messenger, at a reasonable rate of 15-16 km./hr, would be able to make it to Misenum in two to three hours. If she had sent out a small boat making ca. 2-3 knots (ca. 3.5-5.5 km./hr) against unfavorable winds (again using Casson’s estimates), such a journey would have taken five to seven hours.

Ultimately, we do not know four key variables: when the eruption actually began (as opposed to when we are told it was first seen), where Rectina’s villa was located, when she sent the messenger to Pliny, and by what route the message came. The point of all this is to see roughly what possibilities are in play. If the eruption happened shortly before noon and Rectina sent a messenger by horse not long after, the message could have arrived by 3 p.m.  Presumably Rectina’s messenger was rather in a hurry. Until he received the message of distress, Elder Pliny was not.

9 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.

9 He (Elder Pliny) changes his plan, and that which he had begun with an attitude of study he takes on with a spirit of courage. He draws out quadriremes; he himself boards, ready to bring assistance not only to Rectina, but to many (for the pleasantness of that shore was crowded).

Younger Pliny now shifts the story from an investigation to a rescue mission. In translating the first sentence it is difficult to capture the elegant structure of the Latin, with the two verbs (incohaverat obit) nested between adjectives that convey the change in purpose from curiosity to bravery (studioso…maximo). The noun (animo) also plays both ways–first as an intellectual, then as a spiritual driving force. The Elder’s mission broadens at the same time–not just to save one person (or household, more likely), but as many (multis) as he could (and so he brings more than one ship). Note the positional emphasis of auxilium (“aid”) at the end of the sentence, accentuated by the future active participle laturus (‘about to bring’). You can almost hear the shout: ‘don’t worry–he’s bringing help! Pliny’s on his way! (The clever poetic parenthetical phrase about the densely-populated Neapolitan shore is also hard to render in English: the metonymic amoenitas is the subject, though of course it’s the shore that is crowded, except that it’s crowded because of its “pleasantness”!)

Quadrireme reconstruction by J.F. Coates

Elder Pliny changes ships for his changed purpose, now fitting out quadriremes. This type of ship is known otherwise to have been stationed at Misenum through references on sailors’ tombstones (cf. Pitassi, pp. 100-106). This was a larger, relatively roomy vessel, with more oars (ca. 90, each probably manned by two rowers), and probably no sail. For the relatively short voyage across the bay, rowing speed (sustained perhaps up to 5-6 knots [9-11]) might match or exceed sailing speed, and the ships would have had more room to take on survivors. Here’s an ancient graffito from Alba Fucens that shows a quadrireme.

Fresco of two Roman warships, from the Temple of Isis at Pompeii, now in the Naples Museum.

10 Properat illuc unde alii fugiunt, rectumque cursum recta gubernacula in periculum tenet adeo solutus metu, ut omnes illius mali motus omnes figuras ut deprenderat oculis dictaret enotaretque.

10 He hurries to a place from which others flee, he holds course with a firm rudder straight into danger, so much absolved of fear that he dictates and marks down, as he had taken them in with his eyes, all the movements and all the shapes of that calamity.

Younger Pliny now fully casts his uncle as the rescuing hero. The Latin is fascinating here – the illuc (‘thence’) next to the unde (‘whence’) sandwiched between two verbs of contrasting energetic motion (properat, fugiunt), evoking a highway jam-packed with refugees going out while a handful of first responders pour in from the opposite direction. This scene may be the first historical instance in the western written tradition of the ‘disaster’ narrative archetype, which has since been repeated on the stages of earthquakes, tsunamis, fires, storms, and terrorist attacks, in which characters cool under pressure contrast with often frantic crowds.

Who runs towards danger? Loren Christensen addresses this issue in his book Warriors (Paladin, 2009), and Dave Grossman has done the same with his Killology research group. Grossman has popularized an allegory about sheep, sheepdogs, and wolves, which describes 98% of the population as sheep (those who tend to deny, are frightened of, and flee danger), less than 1% as wolves (those who use fear and prey on sheep), and maybe just over 1% as sheepdogs (those who accept or even yearn for danger so they can do their job to protect the sheep from the wolves). While Christensen and Grossman concentrate their work on the psychology of personal violence, the physical preparedness, mental willingness, and moral compass required to be a police officer or solider are akin to those required by other emergency personnel. These three aspects are also at the heart of any respectable martial arts training.

Ethical judgement is built deeply into the language of Younger Pliny’s description of his uncle: he repeats the word for  ‘straight’ / ‘right’ / ‘correct’  (rectum/recta) when describing the rudder and its course. The juxtaposition of periculum (‘danger’) and tenet (‘he holds’) shows the Elder’s resolution. The result clause that follows (adeo solutus metu…describes Elder Pliny’s lack of fear, which allows him coolly to observe, describe, and record the nature and the development of the threat he is swiftly approaching. These capabilities represent some key Components of Reaction Time that operate for humans under physical and psychological stress. In sum, Elder Pliny is described as acting properly with respect to his social position, his authority (as fleet commander), and his duty.

The moral angle is heightened by a new word that Young Pliny chooses for the eruption: malum, the neuter substantive of the adjective for ‘evil’ / ‘wicked’ / ‘bad’. The impassive force of nature has now taken on a personality; it has malicious intentions. In his nephew’s description, Elder Pliny’s journey has now risen to a mythological level: the brave and true hero has gone to confront the monster.

This is Elder Pliny’s big chance to ‘do something worth writing about‘. The truth is, the fleet at Misenum did not have a lot of substantial work in the late 1st c. AD. There were no military expeditions supported by that naval base; it acted more as a maritime Praetorian Guard, a ‘Home Fleet’. The biggest enemy those sailors faced on a daily basis was probably boredom. Suddenly, Elder Pliny can put those men and ships to noble purpose and fulfill the potential of his command by saving people (and studying the threat besides). Furthermore, the Younger Pliny can honor the man he declined to accompany that fateful day by ‘writing something worth reading’.

And so the Elder Pliny sails into a towering hail of ash and burning stone.

Next time, in the post for 6.16.11-12, ‘Fortune Favors the Brave,’ the Elder Pliny weathers the storm, has another bath, and keeps spirits up at a friend’s house.

Back to Part 4

Forward to Part 6

3 thoughts on “Translating Pliny’s letters about Vesuvius, pt. 5. The Hero Embarks

  1. This may not help because it is not the exact coin found in Pompeii that calls into question the date of the Vesuvian eruption, but I found the several coins of Titus of AD 79 from the Rome mint stating IMP XV. His IMP XV is not mentioned by imperial documents until mid-September. So, indeed the validity and clarity of the coin’s inscription in Pompeii would be very critical. And I believe townspeople came back to the ruins to try to salvage things and could have dropped a coin, so the exact location of the found coin in the strata would also be important. I find this all fascinating after reading this letter of Pliny for many years and never questioning the date. All of the other information in the letter is so precisely stated by Pliny.

    • Dear Katie: The scholarly article that treats the coin is:
      Abdy, R. “The Last Coin in Pompeii: A Re-evaluation of the Coin Hoard from the House of the Golden Bracelet.” The Numismatic Chronicle 173 (2013): 79-83.

      It’s pretty clear that the coin found cannot prove that the eruption did not happen in August 79. Thanks for your comments!

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