Translating Pliny’s letters about Vesuvius, pt. 7. An Anxious Night

Lightning from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in October, 2010, by Sigurdur Hrafn Stefnisson, from National Geographic

6.16.13-16: An Anxious Night

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 fifth installment for letter 6.16.

The Elder Pliny has now arrived at the villa of his friend Pomponianus at Stabiae in the southeast corner of the Bay of Naples. Beset by ash, pumice, and tremors, the gathered guests and household staff are not yet in any immediate physical danger. But they can see the fiery devastation happening just a few miles away.

13 Interim e Vesuvio monte pluribus locis latissimae flammae altaque incendia relucebant, quorum fulgor et claritas tenebris noctis excitabatur. Ille agrestium trepidatione ignes relictos desertasque villas per solitudinem ardere in remedium formidinis dictitabat. Tum se quieti dedit et quievit verissimo quidem somno; nam meatus animae, qui illi propter amplitudinem corporis gravior et sonantior erat, ab iis qui limini obversabantur audiebatur.

13 Meanwhile from Mt. Vesuvius, exceedingly broad flames and tall fires were illuminating many places, and their lightning-white brightness was made sharper by the darkness of the night. He (Elder Pliny) kept repeating, as a palliative for terror, that they were fires left unattended because of farmers’ consternation, and deserted estates were burning because of that abandonment. Then he gave himself over to rest and indeed settled down into a deep sleep; for his snoring, which on account of his ample frame was quite heavy and loud, was heard all night by those who stayed perched outside his door.

The first clause constructs a scene of fire all over the mountain: side-to-side (latissimae) and up into the sky (alta), interlocked via adjective-noun synchysis. The blazes are both coming from the peak (e Vesuvio monte) and shining back (relucebant) to spotlight the mountain. Younger Pliny’s triad of words evoking brightness (flammae, incendia, relucebant) builds to a crescendo of hendiadys: fulgor et claritas (something like ‘bright-white lightning light’), its brilliance set off — enhanced — by the dark background of tenebris noctis. Parallel imperfect verbs punctuate each clause.

Lightning (fulgor) of several different kinds does accompany large eruptions (as in the photo above of an Icelandic event), though the cause and mechanism are not yet completely understood. 

Outlined against the raw blaze of the mountain is ille (“he,” “the man,” Elder Pliny). Pliny’s power comes not from fire, but from words: “dictitabat,” “he was saying over and over again.” (Here it should be noted that the M and θ manuscripts have dictitabat, while γ has a plainer — though still continuous — dictabat. See the manuscript tradition here.) What was Pliny repeating? Words of comfort and contrived explanation. A path to reason out the unbelievable.

The Elder Pliny’s ploy to calm the fears of his friends was to tell them that the fires they saw were from villas abandoned in confusion by farmers. Translators have variously treated this passage; Melmoth’s 1746 effort (published only eight years after formal Bourbon excavation of Herculaneum began, and six years after English visitors began to visit that site) expands the ends of the sentence and compresses the center: “But my uncle, in order to calm the apprehensions of his friend, assured him it was only the conflagration of the villages, which the country people had abandoned.” As this does not properly represent the Latin, the revised translation of Melmoth in Hutchinson’s 1915 Loeb edition separates the ignes relictos [esse] from the desertasque villas per solitudinem ardere (nice parallel indirect discourse here). Hutchinson interprets per solitudinem as a geographical indicator (“in the abandoned district”). Westcott (p.220, no.31) sees it adverbially: the abandoned villas left to burn “by themselves.” It could also be explanatory: “because of that abandonment,” building off of relictos and desertas, which might seem overly redundant, but there is a powerful repetition here of ‘things left behind’. (Radice’s 1963 translation just tweaks Hutchinson, and not for the better.)

Here’s the verbal tension: the Elder Pliny is supposedly reassuring his friends about their situation (things are burning because they were deserted in a panic, so we should stay here). However, the very triplet of desertion-words suggests that the fires just might be (splitting definitions finely, if I may) ‘consecutive’, not ‘consequent’, to abandonment. Could this repetition represent a subconscious cry across the years by the Younger Pliny? “Uncle, get out while you can!” One thinks of the standard audience response to a horror film in which a character is about to open a door that hides the monster: “Don’t go in there!” Indeed, the secondary vocabulary emphasis is on fear, particularly words that evoke confused panic and raw dread, not just anxiety or alarm: trepidatio and formido. How is the Elder Pliny portrayed in the face of his friends’ trembling? He is the calm voice of reason who acknowledges (without accusing) his companions’ fear by describing the terror of panicky country-folk. Pliny of course does not submit to such fear, and in hindsight, stubbornly staying proves to be his undoing.

Elder Pliny doesn’t just stay put — he goes to bed. The triad of quieti, quievit, and verissimo…somno is a remedy for the terrors of the previous sentence. But Younger Pliny then employs an even more effective antidote to fear — laughter. For the very proof of the Elder’s peace of mind while in repose is his snoring (meatus animae, a lovely euphemism). Indeed his rattling is so substantial that it can be heard outside his room by the persons (servants, presumably) stationed there to mind him. Here the author provides personal information — Pliny the Elder was fat, and so he pronounced particularly deeply and loudly. Pliny’s rumbles are audible even above the roars of Vesuvius; he is his own volcano, and a man who can sleep through an actual eruption. Alas, the cost of delay is at this moment piling up outside his door.

The primary direction of the Vesuvian debris fall.

14 Sed area ex qua diaeta adibatur ita iam cinere mixtisque pumicibus oppleta surrexerat, ut si longior in cubiculo mora, exitus negaretur. Excitatus procedit, seque Pomponiano ceterisque qui pervigilaverant reddit.

14 But the courtyard by which his suite was approachable had so mounted up, full of ash with pumice mixed in, that if delay were more protracted in his bedroom, exit would be denied. Having been roused, he (Elder Pliny) came out, and returned himself to Pomponianus and the others who had kept watch all night.


Ash outside the portico of the palaestra of the Villa Arianna, Stabiae (see plan below, ‘H’)

The previous section ended with two imperfect verbs emphasizing the ongoing watchfulness outside Pliny’s room while he sleeps. That tense is carried over into adibatur, part of a clause that tries to describe the area outside the door where the ash is steadily rising. Melmoth-Hutchinson-Radice’s choice to translate the area outside Pliny’s room as a ‘court’ or ‘courtyard’ is reasonable, since ‘area‘ means ‘open space’, sleeping quarters were often located off of such circulatory spaces, and it is a place where ash would easily be collecting. But the question of Pliny’s room is slightly more complicated.

There are two basic choices. First, that Pliny’s room is simply described both as a diaeta (the word in the M and θ manuscripts; γ has an alternate spelling for the same term: zeta) and also as a cubiculum. Second, that there was a transitional space between the court (area) and the place Elder Pliny was sleeping (cubiculum), and ‘diaeta‘ means the set of both rooms together. Such an arrangement does appear at the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale (the famous room M now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with its little-discussed ante-room O); see the plan below, and marvelous digital renderings here.

Plan of the Villa of Publius Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale; note rooms M and O, lower left

How does Pliny use the term ‘diaeta‘ elsewhere in his letters? The word appears in 2.17 (about his Laurentian Villa; at 12, 15, 20, and 24), 5.6 (his Tuscan villa; 20, 21, 27, 28, 31), and 7.5 (in which he dearly misses his wife Calpurnia). Sherwin-White, in his commentary, takes diaeta as a kind of ‘apartment’, perhaps what we might now call a ‘suite,’ something more than just a standard single room, which aligns with the second option above (hence my translation choice). In that case, the room in that suite where Pliny sleeps is called the cubiculum; the attendants hearing him snore might occupy an adjacent space.

‘Idealized’ Roman house plan

A word of caution is necessary, however. It has long been common, in textbooks and websites (such as the Wikipedia entry for domus; see left) for terms from the Augustan-age architect Vitruvius (and, for that matter, Pliny the Younger) to be pasted onto genericized ground plans of atrium-peristyle houses. The problem is that such models represent do not represent any actual instance of an ancient residence. They are abstractions. Recent research has shown Latin terms for domestic spaces to be frustratingly inconsistent (Here’s a chapter by P. Alison on the subject from the World of Pompeii).

In terms of the Latin, iam…surrexerat introduces a result clause (ut…) that immediately encloses a mixed contrary-to-fact conditional clause (si…mora [fuisset]…negaretur). Why is the tense mixed? Because we would expect a pluperfect subjunctive (fuisset) gapped after the mora (the hypothetical delay had not happened), while the negaretur in the imperfect provides greater narrative vividness (as J.H. Westcott suggested, on the principle of ‘repraesentatio,‘ in Selected Letters of Pliny, Allyn and Bacon [1898] 221 n.6). Old Latin school textbooks are awesome, by the way; Westcott’s manuscript notes are available in the archives at Princeton.

As the bottom of the hourglass fills, so does the house, and Pliny’s attendants rouse him (excitatus is a perfect passive participle) to keep him from being trapped. He joins the others, who have stayed up all night. This is interesting because although his portrayal so far has been one of confidence and command, because he doesn’t pay attention to what is actually happening, the Elder Pliny is in danger of being trapped. He needs the help of others who are bothering to keep watch. They all must now decide: stay, or flee?

Villa Arianna, Stabiae

15 In commune consultant, intra tecta subsistant an in aperto vagentur. Nam crebris vastisque tremoribus tecta nutabant, et quasi emota sedibus suis nunc huc nunc illuc abire aut referri videbantur.

15 They deliberate together, whether they should remain under shelter, or wander outdoors. For the roofs kept swaying due to frequent and prodigious shaking, and  just as if shifted off their foundations they were seeming to go forth or come back now this way, now that way.

I continue to keep the present tense in English for the historical present (consultant) in the Latin. That verb of speaking introduces an indirect question (the utrum that often precedes the an is omitted here). Interestingly, the decision about whether to stay or go is done collectively now — Elder Pliny is no longer the sole director (though we’ll see how Younger Pliny rationalizes that in the next section). Serious uncertainty about the less-than-optimal options is suggested by the verb vago for moving outdoors. It implies that if they do go outside, they’re not sure where to proceed after that — simply that it might be safer than getting crushed in the house.

Tecta, used twice here, technically means ‘roofs’, but by metonomy it also means a building that has a roof (or buildings in plural) — especially houses — and specifically here Pomponianus’ villa. It can also refer more abstractly to a concept such as ‘shelter’. Since roofs are protecting our characters from falling debris while at the same time threatening to crash upon their heads due to tremors (this is the devil’s choice debated in section 16 below), it seems that ‘roofs’ should be prominent in the translation. The verb subsisto also emphasizes a bunker mentality: huddling under (sub-) a roof, indoors (intra tecta).

Previously, in section 6, we had seen how Pliny describes Vesuvius as akin to a living thing. Here, the villa is in anthropomorphic death-throes — the shaking to and fro of its members is described with the verb nuto, which at its core means ‘to nod’. The earth itself seems alive, heaving heavily (vastis) and frequently (crebris). The earth is supposed to be stable; it is the locus of foundations (sedibus) for human buildings. But now those structures seem (videbantur) almost to walk forward and back (abire aut referri). The very structure of the world has literally become unstable (‘unstandable’, as Ovid used instabilis in his Metamorphoses). Walls and roofs are being tossed about, and the very vision of their occupants is being shaken (which informs videbantur). Synchestic vocabulary (nunc huc nunc illuc) adds to the queasiness.

As the earth comes alive, she shows little regard for her tiny occupants, who in the next section decide to take their chances out under the sky.

16 Sub dio rursus quamquam levium exesorumque pumicum casus metuebatur, quod tamen periculorum collatio elegit; et apud illum quidem ratio rationem, apud alios timorem timor vicit. Cervicalia capitibus imposita linteis constringunt; id munimentum adversus incidentia fuit.

16 Under the open sky, on the other hand, the fall of pumice stones — however light and corroded — was worrying, but a comparison of dangers chose that course; and indeed for the Elder Pliny, reckoning defeated reckoning, (whereas) for the others, one fear won out over another. Cushions placed on their heads they bound with linens; that was their defense against falling objects.

Fourth-style fresco from Pompeii (V.2.4; Naples mus.120029) showing banqueters, with rolled-up fabric at the edge of the couches indicating cushions, or bolsters (cervicalia)

We have just been told the perils of staying indoors; here Pliny describes the other option (rursus): the hazards of open ground (sub dio [deo: γ; dieM]). Specifically, the company is concerned about the hail of pumice stones (qualified by their light (levium) nature; exorsum literally means ‘eaten away’, or in this case ‘hollowed out’, describing the pitted and porous nature of the stone).

Vesuvian pumice

Pumice was a highly useful stone in the ancient world. In construction, it was used in the production of Roman concrete (as a light, durable aggregate, most famously at the top of the Pantheon dome in Rome, but still in modern buildings); a group of geophysicists has just published proof of its export from the Pompeian area. Pumice was also used as an fine abrasive: for exfoliation of skin and for smoothing and polishing papyrus before writing. (But not for polishing Roman frescoes; Vitruvius 7.3.3 tells us that chalk and marble was thus used.) Pumice appears in Latin poetry as a metaphor for ‘finished writing’ (e.g. Catullus 1), and as an evocation of stylistic aridity.

The comparison of dangers (periculorum collatio [malorum collocatioγ]) leads to a choice (elegit: γ [eligit: M]) in favor of falling pumice instead of collapsing masonry. The object of the choice is quod, here acting as a relative pronoun and clearly referring to the antecedent of pumice-fall, but the gender does not match (casus is masculine; the pronoun should thus be quem; ref. Westcott 221, n.13). The pronoun may be taking neuter ‘by attraction’ to periculorum in its own clause; that is, ‘a comparison of dangers chose (quod = the danger) of falling pumice.’

What comes next reveals the Younger Pliny’s efforts to paint his uncle in the best light. He claims knowledge of the internal deliberative process of the Elder Pliny compared to all the others. Pliny’s mind wrestled with arguments (ratio); the others chose that which scared them least (timor). Never mind that all agreed to go outside! While the chiastic construction of reason vs. fear is elegant, the attempt to ennoble Elder Pliny’s reasoning here is rather blunt and perhaps a bit desperate. It is the last time in the letter that the character of the Elder Pliny’s actions or motivations is distinguished from those of the others.

At Pompeii, neither choice was a good one. A 2003 study by G. Luongo et al. concluded that 38% of human victims were killed by the falling-debris phase of the eruption — 90% of them indoors due to building collapse. The other 62% were killed by pyroclastic density currents (PDCs) that overran the town — whether they were inside a building or outside did not matter.

We are not told who had the idea of strapping on cushions to provide protection against the storm of stone. They raided the dining-room also for the fabric to bind them over their heads. Linteum is a fairly generic word; it just means linen-cloth, so it could be curtains, covers, or napkins (which is the usual translation). Such napkins are not the utterly useless sort one finds today in the bars or gelaterie of Italy, but rather items large and sturdy enough to pack the left-overs from a cena and take them home. In this function, they became sportulae, gift-bags (see the Duncan-Jones article cited here). Pliny uses linteum only one other time in his letters, and it is two sections later (6.16.18), when describing the cloth his uncle lies down upon to rest. I’ll examine that in the next installment.

Pierre Henri de Valenciennes, The Eruption of Vesuvius, August 24, 79 A.D. (1813)

The dramatic tableau of Elder Pliny and his companions fleeing from Stabiae with cushions on their heads became a favorite scene to portray in 18th-19th century paintings inspired by this letter. Such works by Jacob More (c. 1780), Pierre Henri de Valenciennes (1813), and John Martin (1822-26) are all featured in the highly-interesting The Last Days of Pompeii: Decadence, Apocalypse, Resurrection museum exhibition and catalog. Flight, hope, despair, and collapse: all operate upon those who attend the end of the world.

Next time, in the post for 6.16.17-22, ‘The Smell of Sulfur,’ we witness the Elder Pliny’s last breath and the close of the letter.

Back to Part 6

Forward to Part 8

3 thoughts on “Translating Pliny’s letters about Vesuvius, pt. 7. An Anxious Night

  1. WOW! Fascinating Article. And carefully covered in extra ordinary detail!

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