Translating Pliny’s letters about Vesuvius, pt. 6. Fortune Favors the Brave

A Roman seaside villa on a sunnier day (fresco from the Villa San Marco, Stabiae)

6.16.11-12: Fortune Favors the Brave

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 fourth installment for letter 6.16.

At this point in the story, the Elder Pliny has set off to rescue citizens trapped in their villas below Vesuvius on the east edge of the Bay of Naples. He is commanding several warships, and noting down his observations of the eruption as it develops. It is likely late afternoon as the ships approach shore.

11 Iam navibus cinis incidebat, quo propius accederent, calidior et densior; iam pumices etiam nigrique et ambusti et fracti igne lapides; iam vadum subitum ruinaque montis litora obstantia. Cunctatus paulum an retro flecteret, mox gubernatori ut ita faceret monenti ‘Fortes’ inquit ‘fortuna iuvat: Pomponianum pete.’

11 Now ash was falling on the ships, hotter and heavier the nearer they approached; then pumice-stones, and even stones, blackened, burnt, and broken by fire; then unexpected shallows, and the collapse of the mountain as a blockage upon the shoreline. Having hesitated a bit about whether he should turn back, he soon said to the helmsman, who was advising that he do just that: “Fortune favors the brave: head for Pomponianus.”

Younger Pliny builds a sense of immediate adventure with repetition of a key word three times: iam, (basic meaning: “now”). It is a play-by-play that increases the danger with each phrase (this is called tricolon crescens): first ash (even that gets more hazardous the closer they get); then light and relatively harmless pumice; then proper stone that is itself three times transformed (blackened, burnt, broken); then the fall of the mountain and perhaps the subsidence of the sea that has turned navigable sea into impassable shallows. (The Latin is tricky: ruina [‘collapse’] may be nominative–in parallel with cinis, pumices, lapides, and vadum–, agreeing with a rare form of obstantia as a substantive [a ‘hinderance’ or ‘obstruction’] perhaps preserving some participial force from its verbal origin (obsto) that acts upon litora [‘shoreline’] as an object. But one could also see ruina as ablative of means, and litora obstantia in the nominative plural: ‘and due to the collapse of the mountain, the shoreline blocking [the way]’. Neither is an entirely satisfactory syntactical explanation.) 

Elder Pliny is stuck offshore, unable to discharge the duty of rescuing those along the beach–the obstacles are too great, and getting worse. At this point, Younger Pliny has the Elder pause before the ferocity of nature; his hero cannot decide what to do, and we pause with him, wondering. The helmsman manning the steering oars tells him to turn back–we want him both to go on (and be the hero) and also to veer off (and save himself); we ourselves cannot decide how we want Elder Pliny to play his role. Younger Pliny has it both ways. His uncle steers south, away from immediate threat, to a shore that is accessible (at Stabiae), where he can attempt to rescue at least someone (his friend Pomponianus). His daring is underscored by uttering a timeworn proverb about the bold making their own luck, a version echoing statements in both the comic playwright Terence and the epic poet Vergil: Fortes fortuna iuvat. Fortune favors the brave.

What’s the import of this statement? A variation has proved popular in the mythic wisdom of American entrepreneurship: that one makes their own luck through hard work and perseverance (see Quote Investigator). This has become an important piece of advice for people trying to establish or improve themselves (cf. Nick Usborne, Richard Wiseman, Susan RoAne, Alex Rovira and Fernando Trias de Bes). If we compiled their advice, ‘luck’ could be said to come from:

    1. Maintaining an open and positive attitude to good fortune;
    2. Socializing, networking, and cooperating so people know who you are and what you can do;
    3. Paying attention to opportunities and making the most of them;
    4. Persevering through inevitable difficulties by turning problems into possibilities (maintaining confidence while learning from mistakes);
    5. Accepting responsibility for one’s actions

Pliny’s phrase revolves mostly around the willingness to recognize and take opportune risk (nos. 3 and 4). We can trace this sentiment at least as far back as the tale of a statue commissioned for the city of Sikyon in Ancient Greece. In the late fourth century BC, there was a famous Greek sculptor named Lysippos. His skill was such that he had been given exclusive license to carve Alexander the Great’s portrait in marble. In the agora of his hometown Sikyon, he set up a bronze statue that personified the “right moment,” a concept the Greeks called “Kairos,” or “Opportunity.”

2nd c. BC Roman relief copy of Lysippos’ Kairos, Turin D317; another ancient copy (now missing) once existed in the Palazzo Medici in Florence.

In the following epigram by the poet Poseidippos (Anthologia Graeca 2.49.13), who saw the work when it was relatively new, the statue comes alive, and engages with a passerby in a dialogue that describes its form and mission (after a translation by  J.J. Pollitt):

(Passerby): “Who are you?”
(Statue): “Opportunity, who conquers all.”
(Passerby): “Why do you stride upon the tips of your toes?”
(Statue): “I am always running.”
(Passerby): “And why do you have a pair of wings on your feet?”
(Statue): “I fly like the wind.”
(Passerby): “And why do you hold a razor in your right hand?”
(Statue): “To show people that my appearance is more abrupt than any blade.”
(Passerby): “And why does your hair hang down over your face?”
(Statue): “So that anyone who meets me may seize it.”
(Passerby): And why, by Zeus, is the back of your head bald?”
(Statue): “Because no one, once I have raced past on my winged feet, can ever catch me from behind, much though they yearn to.”
(Passerby): “And why did the artist fashion you?”
(Statue): “For your sake, stranger…”

Elder Pliny is certainly described by his nephew as one to recognize and seize opportunity as it approaches. Sometimes, however, one gets burned. Like Pliny, the original bronze Kairos perished due to flame. The statue and many others of the most famous works of ancient art (such as the Aphrodite of Knidos and the chryselephantine statue of Zeus from Olympia) were collected in the palace of Lausos in Constantinople. In AD 476, the Lauseion burned down. But the theme of capturing ‘the right moment’ in art endures; see, for instance, a current show at the Ki-gallery in Turin: “Chronos und Kairos“, or in an essay about its temporary perfection.

Bay of Naples; Stabiae is at the southeast corner. From the Melbourne Museum “A day in Pompeii” show, 2009.

12 Stabiis erat diremptus sinu medio (nam sensim circumactis curvatisque litoribus mare infunditur); ibi quamquam nondum periculo adpropinquante, conspicuo tamen et cum cresceret proximo, sarcinas contulerat in naves, certus fugae si contrarius ventus resedisset. Quo tunc avunculus meus secundissimo invectus, complectitur trepidantem consolatur hortatur, utque timorem eius sua securitate leniret, deferri in balineum iubet; lotus accubat cenat, aut hilaris aut (quod aeque magnum) similis hilari.

12 He (Pomponianus) was at Stabiae, separated by the middle of the bay (for the sea pours up against a shoreline gradually curving and bent around it); although the danger was not yet drawing near there, nonetheless it caught the eye as close at hand, especially when it strengthened. He (Pomponianus) had loaded luggage onto ships, set on escape once the contrary wind had died back down. By that (same) most favorable wind my uncle was carried in; he embraces the trembling man, comforts him, and encourages him so that he might alleviate the man’s fear through his own confidence; he asks to be brought to the baths; having washed, he lies down at table and dines, either cheerful or (that which is equally as impressive) pretending to be cheerful.

Plan of the Villa San Marco, Stabiae

We don’t know who Pomponianus was; this letter is the only reference to him. Nor can we locate his villa. Stabiae was excavated in two phases: the Bourbon period (1749-1782), using tunnels; and an open-air dig organized by a local school principal after World War II. Several major villas have been uncovered, including the Villa Arianna and the Villa San Marco, but the identities of their owners in AD 79 are unknown. These villas do, however, evince the tremendous luxury of first-century residences perched along the edge of a natural seaside cliff at the southeast corner of the Bay of Naples.

View of the Bay of Naples from the funicular on Monte Faito, above the site of Stabiae, from

Younger Pliny takes the trouble to describe the shape of the bay in some detail, presumably to indicate how Elder Pliny could sail across open water (rather than along the shore, clogged with debris) to reach Stabiae. That town at this point in the eruption sequence had begun to experience ash and pumice fall. Immediate peril was not yet proximate, but was looming, as Pliny indicates in a tripled ablative absolute (periculo…proximo) nesting a circumstantial cum clause (cum cresceret).

Pomponianus was clearly worried about the eruption, for he had already loaded up his own ships with luggage, ready for evacuation. (For the grammatical underpinnings of “certus fugae si contrarius ventus resedisset,“cf. F.E. Romer, “Pliny, Vesuvius, and the Troublesome Wind,” The Classical World 78.6 [1985] 587-91, though Romer did not understand the dynamics of the eruption and thought Pomponianus might eventually have escaped by sea.) Pomponianus’ problem, of course, was that the same northwesterly winds that were carrying the ash towards the town and bringing Elder Pliny swiftly to his door were preventing his escape by boat. This is likely another reason for the pains that Younger Pliny has taken with his topographic description: with those winds, Stabiae had become a maritime cul-de-sac. All they could do was wait. Younger Pliny paints an interesting contrast between the contrarius ventus afflicting Pomponianus, and the wind’s secundissimus character in association with Elder Pliny’s arrival. In the gathering gloom, the admiral seems to bring some hope and cheer.

Reconstruction of the Villa San Marco at Stabiae by the Restoring Ancient Stabiae Foundation

Elder Pliny immediately begins to build morale: a triplet of deponent verbs that demonstrate physical comfort (complectitur), verbal comfort (consolatur), and spirit-boosting (hortatur). The words connected with Pliny’s host, by contrast, are nervous: he is trepidantem (‘shaking’), and fearful (timorem eius, nicely expressed in reverse order to Elder Pliny’s sua securitate). Pliny has made the gestures and said the words; now he must act the part: he personally has to demonstrate his confidence. This is the purpose of the purpose clause (utque…leniret) the indirect statement (deferri…iubet), and the brisk verbal sequence (lotus accubat cenat) which shows an entirely routine sequence of late-afternoon and evening activities: bath and formal dinner (reclining), all continuing the immediacy of the historical present tense. This parallels Pliny’s actions earlier the same day right after the eruption cloud was sighted: bath, and then lunch. Everyday habits bracketing heroic journey demonstrate Elder Pliny’s unfluttered character. The final clause serves as an exclamation point: Pliny was either genuinely unworried (in fact, jovial), or–an even greater achievement–pretending to be light and lively, for the benefit of keeping his friends calm. Word choice is key: hilaris evokes genuine merriment, not feigned or pretended cheer. Perhaps the genuineness was in concern for his friends, and Pliny felt that avoiding panic through simulation would serve them best.

One question the reader should have by know is: how do we know any of this detail? It will not be a spoiler to reveal that while Pliny the Elder will not survive the next 24 hours, others did, including those in his company on the voyage and at the villa. It must be those individuals whom Younger Pliny questioned in the aftermath, as he gathered his notes about what had happened.

Despite Pliny’s good humor (real or not), the worst of the eruption has not yet occurred. Trapped by wind and rough sea as a barely visible sun sets, Pomponianus and his guests prepare to weather the volcanic storm.

Next time, in the post for 6.16.13-16, ‘An Anxious Night,’ Pliny catches some winks at Pomponianus’ villa while it shudders around him.

Back to Part 5

Forward to Part 7

9 thoughts on “Translating Pliny’s letters about Vesuvius, pt. 6. Fortune Favors the Brave

    • Indeed. At the moment, swamped by grading and administrative duties, I’ve not had time to finish parts 7 and 8. It’s unlikely to be complete until late May. Thanks for your interest!

  1. Yes I have throughly enjoyed this series and am looking forward to the next 2 segments. Thank you

  2. Dear Pedar,

    just to send you a short notice of admiration. That is a splendid initiative, well written and well-researched. Incredibly helpful to see the overview of the old texts and their photos. I searched so long for that. Had I seen this earlier!

    Short thoughts:
    1. Might you consider of someone having used pigeons for transmitting the message to Pliny?
    2. fyi – they just found proof that the villa of Lucius Piso was in Baia and is not identical with the Villa dei Papyri (they found his name on a pipe). Any ideas of whose Villa that was? I speculate that it was a honour consul of the previous year, Cascus, but can be light years wrong. I also favour still Winckelmann’s thesis that Rectina=Resina. I’d love to have your thoughts. I think there must have been someone important in that place to make the fleet move. That can’t just be a ‘friend’…

    Again, all my respect for your absolutely great work.


    • Cheers, Ulrike. I’m afraid the blog entries are rather out of date now; my book will have improved and updated arguments and evidence. And yes, pigeons are a possibility. All best!

You are welcome to respond

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.