Translating Pliny’s letters about Vesuvius, pt. 9. Shuddering to Remember

Relief from the House of L. Caecilius Iucundus (V.1.26) at Pompeii depicting the earthquake of AD 62

The world turned topsy-turvy: detail of a relief from Pompeii depicting the earthquake of AD 62/3 toppling the Temple of Jupiter (see below for details)

6.20.1-3: Shuddering to Remember

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 first installment for letter 6.20, and the ninth overall.

I  provide the Latin (using Mynors’ 1963 Oxford Classical Text [OCT]), and then work through it with a translation, dissection of grammatical constructions, and discussion of what the letters tell us. Other pages in the series detail the manuscript tradition and the cast of characters in the two letters. The Codex Laurentianus Mediceus for letter 6.20 can be viewed here Plut. 47.36, p. 186.

The Latin is in italics; English translation follows in Roman text, indented, and then commentary in brown text. Parentheses indicate (‘understood’) words that are not explicit in the Latin. My purpose here is as much to look at the process of translating as to provide another translated product. So I tend to err on the side of a technical rather than a fluid English translation.

The Younger Pliny has already written one account of the eruption (6.16) in order to describe the death of his uncle, Pliny the Elder. He now pens a follow-on to Cornelius Tacitus about his own, and his mother’s, flight from the volcanic storm.


Gaius Plinius greets his dear (friend) Tacitus.

C‘ is the abbreviation for the common name ‘Caius‘, or ‘Gaius‘. ‘S‘ is short for ‘salutem‘, and goes with the gapped verb ‘dicit‘ to mean ‘says greeting’. ‘Suo‘ is a term of affectionate familiarity often used to denote ‘one’s own’ (i.e., family and friends) This address is identical to that of 6.16.

1 Ais te adductum litteris quas exigenti tibi de morte avunculi mei scripsi, cupere cognoscere, quos ego Miseni relictus (id enim ingressus abruperam) non solum metus verum etiam casus pertulerim. ‘Quamquam animus meminisse horret, …incipiam.’

1 You say that you have been drawn, by the letter which I wrote you — who requested it — about the death of my uncle, to desire to know not only what fears, but indeed what disasters I underwent, having been left behind at Misenum (for having begun, I had broken off at that point). ‘Although my soul shudders to remember, … I shall begin.’

The first sentence is relatively complex, but not difficult when broken into its constituent parts. It begins with an emphasis on ‘you’ (that is, the addressee Tacitus). The response of the historian to the Younger Pliny’s first account is couched in indirect discourse (ais te adductum [esse is gapped]…), followed by an instrumental ablative that references Pliny’s letter 6.16. (A ‘letter’ (litterae) — denoting a message comprised of individual alphabet letters [each of which is a ‘littera‘], words and sentences — is plural in form.) Litteris then becomes the antecedent for a relative clause (quas…scripsi). The essential topic of letter 6.16 (de morte avunculi mei) is stressed, and the motivation for that letter, using a succinct participial phrase (exigenti tibi) reprises the statements (from 6.16.1 & 3) that Tacitus’ curiosity is the reason for Pliny’s accounts.

That curiosity is emphasized further by a extension of the initial indirect discourse into a double infinitive: cupere cognoscere, the objects of which (metus…casus) are pulled inside the relative clause (quos…pertulerim) that ends the sentence. Pliny emphasizes Tacitus’ desire to know what happened, and his own trials and fears after having been “left behind” at Misenum by his uncle.

So Pliny offers a defense for writing this epistle (‘you asked for it, Tacitus’), even while he admits he had halted a story (id enim ingressus abruperam) which it seems he wanted to go on and tell. After that formally intricate introduction for his friend the prose historian, Pliny follows with a quotation from epic poetry.

West Ham mosaic from Somerset, England, showing the meeting between Aeneas and his son Ascanius (left) and Queen Dido of Carthage (right), as arranged by the goddess Venus (center). Scene from the end of Book I, Vergil’s Aeneid. 4th c. AD. Image from the Vanderbilt Classics Dept.

Vergil, Aeneid II.10-13:

Sed si tantus amor casus cognoscere nostros
et breuiter Troiae supremum audire laborem,
quamquam animus meminisse horret luctuque refugit,

“But if such desire drives you to know our disasters,
and hear in brief the final trial of Troy,
although my soul shudders to remember and once more shrinks from grief,
I shall begin.”

Here Pliny positions himself in the role of Aeneas telling his tale of disaster to Dido, just months after the fall of Troy (compared to Pliny’s relation of events some two decades later). He also samples other parts of the same passage (cupere cognoscere in reference to amor cognoscere, and the re-use of casus). It is interesting that Pliny omits luctuque refugit from his quotation. While those words were not necessary for Tacitus to recognize the reference, the removal of personal grief might relate to the fact that this letter — though containing plenty of hazard and panic — does not describe the loss of any family members or friends (as letter 6.16 did, with the Elder Pliny’s death).

6.20 is also another chance to impress Tacitus, whose Histories he will predict in a later letter (Ep. 7.33.1) to be immortal. In 7.33 Pliny is keen to appear as a character (and a particularly heroic one) in an event submitted for Tacitus’ account. Pliny does not shrink from self-aggrandizement when he sees an opportunity (see Ilaria Marchesi, The Art of Pliny’s Letters [Cambridge 2008] 221-2). So while the first sentence seems to claim that Pliny is only fulfilling a request and helping out a friend, the Vergilian quote betrays an eagerness to write himself dramatically into the story. At the end (6.20.20) Pliny will deny that his account has any historical value, but that seems a ploy of, or a play on, false modesty.

The reference to Vergil serves another function. Pliny sets a storytelling stage for moving the reader back into the past — in fact, to the moment after his uncle sailed away (see section 2 below). While after the Elder’s departure everything reported in 6.16 came second-hand, what follows in 6.20 is Pliny’s first-hand recollection, and he will supply the emotional vividness that came with it.

Some of that vividness is evoked by the verb ‘horret‘, which precisely describes the feeling of hairs standing up on the back of one’s neck. It also means to quake with apprehension; such trembling anticipates the serious shaking of the ground that is part of Pliny’s memory (below, section 3).

2 Profecto avunculo ipse reliquum tempus studiis (ideo enim remanseram) impendi; mox balineum cena somnus inquietus et brevis.

2 After my uncle had set sail, I spent my remaining time at my studies (since for that I had stayed home); afterwards it was a bath, dinner, and short and restless sleep.

The initial ablative absolute quickly shifts into the historical/epic past that Pliny is building. At first read, the ipse that follows might seem to refer to the Elder, as it had each of the three times it appears in letter 6.16 (section 2, referring to the Elder’s writings; sections 7 and 9, setting the Younger’s homework and then boarding the ship that took him towards the eruption). But we must wait until the first-person verb (impendi) at the end of the clause to see that ipse = the Younger, and it describes doing his assignments. Once again, Pliny mentions the excuse for why he did not accompany his uncle.

This reference also begins to set up a parallel between the Younger and the Elder. The latter’s literary credentials, bravery, and sense of adventure were all praised in letter 6.16; his nephew and adopted son will imply taking on those qualities in 6.20. So it is no surprise that Young Pliny’s afternoon routine (couched in rather abrupt list form) of balineum, cena, and somnus — while routine for elite Romans — mirrors that of the Elder’s in 6.12-13. The one difference is that while the Elder slept and snored soundly, the Younger had a brief and restless night.

Primary direction of the Vesuvian debris-fall

To this point, Pliny’s direct experience of the eruption had been limited to the sight of the ash cloud (but the wind was carrying it SE, away from him) and earth tremors. That was about to change overnight, as the eruption shifted from its Plinian to Peléan phase.

3 Praecesserat per multos dies tremor terrae, minus formidolosus quia Campaniae solitus; illa vero nocte ita invaluit, ut non moveri omnia sed verti crederentur.

3 Earthquakes had been happening for many days previous, which were less frightening because they are common in Campania; but that night they were so strong that everything could be believed not only to be shaking, but to be overturned.

It was the evening of Aug. 24 (probably). Pliny’s statement about precursory earthquakes is corroborated by the otherwise more fanciful account of Cassius Dio 66.22.3. Pliny also usefully admits the ‘normality’ of tremors in Campania, which may explain the relatively nonchalant attitude of Pliny and his mother. But that night the earth is restless, like Pliny’s mind. He uses a result clause (ita invaluit…ut) followed by three passive constructions (moveri and verti as complementary infinitives to crederentur) because the cause (the grammatical subject) of the quakes is unknown. Terrestrial and, to some extent, linguistic conventions get upended.

*   *   *

Although a regional tremor in AD 37 had wrecked the lighthouse at Capri and conveniently prefigured an emperor’s death [Suetonius, Tib. 74], it is likely that the initial cycle of the AD 79 eruption event goes back to a serious earthquake some 16 or 17 years before, recorded both by Tacitus and the Younger Seneca.

Tacitus, Annales 15.22, C.D. Fisher’s Oxford text (1906):

Isdem consulibus gymnasium ictu fulminis conflagravit effigiesque in eo Neronis ad informe aes liquefacta. Et motu terrae celebre Campaniae oppidum Pompei magna ex parte proruit; defunctaque virgo Vestalis Laelia in cuius locum Cornelia ex familia Cossorum capta est.

“During the same consulship, a gymnasium burned down from a lightning strike, and in it, a statue of Nero melted into a bronze lump. And the populous town of Pompeii in Campania for the most part fell down because of an earthquake; and the Vestal Virgin Laelia died, in whose place Cornelia, from the Cossi family, was enrolled.”

Tacitus often lists unusual events (omens, prodigies, natural disasters) at the end of his entry for each year of the Annales, and so the Campanian earthquake falls comfortably for him between a lightning strike that destroyed an image of Nero (slyly looking forward to that tyrant’s own fall), and the death of a Vestal Virgin. See M. Owen and I. Gildenhard’s detailed commentary on this passage, and R. Syme, Tacitus (Oxford 1958) 520-7 for more on Tacitus and prodigies.

Tacitus’ text gives a date for the earthquake of AD 62, in the consulship of Publius Marius and Lucius Afinius (14.48), as Tacitus begins the very next section of the text (15.23) with consuls for the following year (AD 63): Memmius Regulus and Verginius Rufus. As can be seen in the passage below, Seneca (alive during the event, unlike Tacitus) specifically cites Regulus and Verginius as consuls during the disaster, and so gives a date of AD 63, specifically on the Nones of February (that is, February 5th) of that year. For our purposes, it does not matter which year it was; both sources are relatively reliable and seem to be irreconcilable, so we shall use 5 Feb. AD 62/3 to catalog the date of the event (cf. this list of 1st-c. AD Roman consuls).

Seneca’s account appears in his Naturales Quaestiones 6.1.1-3, 6.31.1 (de terrae motu), T.H. Corcoran’s Loeb text and translation (1972). See also A. E. Cooley and M.G.L. Cooley, Pompeii: A Sourcebook (Routledge 2004) C1.

[1.1] Pompeios, celebrem Campaniae urbem, in quam ab altera parte Surrentinum Stabianumque litus, ab altera Herculanense conveniunt et mare ex aperto reductum amoeno sinu cingunt, consedisse terrae motu vexatis quaecumque adiacebant regionibus, Lucili, virorum optime, audivimus, et quidem hibernis diebus, quos vacare a tali periculo maiores nostri solebant promittere. [1.2] Nonis Februariis hic fuit motus Regulo et Verginio consulibus, qui Campaniam, numquam securam huius mali, indemnem tamen et totiens defunctam metu, magna strage vastauit. Nam et Herculanensis oppidi pars ruit dubieque stant etiam quae relicta sunt, et Nucerinorum colonia ut sine clade ita non sine querela est; Neapolis quoque privatim multa, publice nihil amisit leuiter ingenti malo perstricta; villae vero prorutae, passim sine iniuria tremuere. [1.3] Adiciuntur his illa: sexcentarum ouium gregem exanimatum et divisas statuas, motae post hoc mentis aliquos atque impotentes sui errasse. Quorum ut causas excutiamus, et propositi operis contextus exigit et ipse in hoc tempus congruens casus.

[31.1] Quare tamen per plures dies motus fuit? Non desiit enim assidue tremere Campania, clementius quidem, sed cum ingenti damno, quia quassa quatiebat, quibus ad cadendum male stantibus opus non erat impelli sed agitari.

“[1.1] Lucilius, my good friend, I have just heard that Pompeii, the famous city in Campania, has been laid low by an earthquake which also disturbed all the adjacent districts. The city is in a pleasant bay, back a ways from the open sea, and bounded by the shores of Surrentum and Stabiae on one side and the shores of Herculaneum on the other; the shores meet there. In fact, it occurred in days of winter, a season which our ancestors used to claim was free from such disaster. [1.2] This earthquake was on the Nones of February, in the consulship of Regulus and Verginius. It caused great destruction in Campania, which had never been safe from this danger but had never been damaged and time and again had got off with a fright. Also, part of the town of Herculaneum is in ruins and even the structures which are left standing are shaky. The colony of Nuceria escaped destruction but still has much to complain about. Naples also lost many private dwellings but no public buildings and was only mildly grazed by the great disaster; but some villas collapsed, others here and there shook without damage. [1.3] To these calamities others were added: they say that a flock of hundreds of sheep was killed, statues were cracked, and some people were deranged and afterwards wandered about unable to help themselves. The thread of my proposed work, and the concurrence of the disaster at this time, requires that we discuss the causes of these earthquakes.”

[31.1] “Yet why has an earthquake lasted for several days? For Campania did not cease its continuous trembling; the earthquake became milder but still caused great damage because it shook things already shaken, and since they were scarcely standing, and were ready to fall, they did not need to be pushed but only to be shaken.”

Usefully, the disaster is visually documented in two marble reliefs from the northern district of Pompeii, which provide topographic detail about the damage.

Marble Relief no. 1, from the SE side of the lararium in the House of L. Caecilius Iucundus (V.1.26) at Pompeii depicting the earthquake of AD 62/3; image from the Landesmuseum für Vorgeschichte in Halle (Germany). 13.5 x 87.5 cm., SAP inv. no. 20470, part of the Boscoreale Antiquarium collection. Recently featured in the British Museum exhibit: Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum. The relief shows the jumbled monumental center of the city (left to right): arch at the NW corner of the forum, temple of Jupiter (with flanking equestrian statues, perhaps of the Dioscuri), and an altar, complete with sacrificial implements and taurine victim.

Marble Relief no. 2 (plaster copy), depicting the earthquake of AD 62/3; image from the Landesmuseum für Vorgeschichte in Halle (Germany). Allegedly found nearby (exact findspot unrecorded), this relief did not originally belong to the House of L. Caecilius Iucundus (V.1.26), according to the Swedish Project at Pompeii, though it was displayed on the wall above Relief no. 1 in the lararium for many years. Sometime in the 1980s, the original was stolen (Pompei: Pitture e Mosaici Vol. III [1991] 578-9), and it has not been recovered. A copy in plaster, 18 x 86 cm., was made in the 1930s and exists in the inventory of the Museo della civiltà romana in Rome, no. 1368. See the Homo Faber online exhibit. The relief shows (left to right): the castellum aquae, collapsed Porta Vesuvio, donkey-cart in front of the city walls, and altar and tree outside the gate. See a plan and explanation of the area at Pompeii.

At least one of the reliefs was definitely part of a lararium (household shrine) in the house of L. Caecilius Iucundus (V.1.26). Iucundus was a banker and and broker who kept an archive of 153 writing tablets documenting financial transactions, the latest of which is dated to January, AD 62 (awfully close to Tacitus’ date for the disaster; cf. A. E. Cooley and M.G.L. Cooley, Pompeii: A Sourcebook (Routledge 2004) H69-82. A lararium documenting the serious effects of the earthquake may have been a way in which Iucundus expressed thanks for his survival to the tutelary gods of his house and family.

How severe was the AD 62/3 event?

Moment Magnitude Scale of recent earthquakes. the AD 62/3 quake was about 5.1 on this scale, but its location and ground conditions at Pompeii amplified its practical effects on the city.

A recent assessment by E. Cubellis and A. Marturano (“Felt index, source parameters and ground motion evaluation for earthquakes at Mt. Vesuvius,” Annals of Geophysics 56.4 [2013] S0439) of the AD 62/3 earthquake assigns it a magnitude of 5.1 +/- 0.3 on the Moment Magnitude Scale, though they also give it a IX on the Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale to better describe the local damage at Pompeii (Cubellis and Marturano, Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research 118 [2002] 339-51). It is the physical evidence of earthquake damage and repair at Pompeii and other sites, combined with the literary descriptions of Seneca and Tacitus, which feed scientific estimates for historical earthquakes.

Dipinto from the north external wall of the Palastra Grande at Pompeii (Notizie degli Scavi 1939, 308, fig. 21)

Dipinto from the north external wall of the Palastra Grande at Pompeii (Notizie degli Scavi 1939, 308, fig. 21), honoring Nero for games with a hunt and athletes: the bottom three lines (pro salute Neronis Claudi Caesaris…)

There is other evidence for activity between AD 62/3 and 79. Suetonius (Ner. 20) and Tacitus (Ann. 15.33-34) record that in AD 64 (according to Tacitus), after Nero débuted a vocal performance at the theater in Naples, the building collapsed — Suetonius says from an earthquake during the show. A dipinto from Pompeii on the right side of doorway IX.7.3 (CIL IV, 3822; Notizie degli Scavi [1888] 517-8 c [see also g]) is reconstructed as follows: “pro salute Ner[onis] in terr[ae motu],” perhaps marking gratitude for Nero’s escape from death, for rebuilding funds, or for sponsoring entertainments despite the ban on gladiatorial contests at Pompeii (imposed after the AD 59 riot; see Tacitus, Ann. 14.17; L. Jacobelli, Gladiators at Pompeii [L’Erma, Roma 2003] 106). See Notizie degli Scavi [1939] 307-10, nn. 410, 415; A.E. Cooley and M.G.L. Cooley, Pompeii: A Sourcebook [Routledge 2004] D39, and perhaps Notizie degli Scavi [1946] 95, n. 78bis).

CIL X, 846 describing the restoration of the Temple of Isis at Pompeii by

CIL X, 846 describing the restoration of the Temple of Isis at Pompeii by Numerius Popidius, six years old. From Pompeii in Pictures; replica on-site at the Temple in Pompeii; original in the Museo Nazionale in Naples MNN 3765.

Post-quake reconstruction is the theme of two inscriptions connected to local temples; one from the Isaeum at Pompeii (CIL X, 846; image above), and one referring to the Temple of Mater Deum at Herculaneum in AD 76 (CIL X, 1406; image below).

CIL X, 846 reads:


“Numerius Popidius Celsinus, son of Numerius, rebuilt the Temple of Isis, collapsed from the earthquake, from its foundations, with his own money. On account of his generosity, the town councillors enrolled him free of charge into their ranks, even though was only six years old.”

Little Numerius is a startling example of upward mobility in Roman society, as his father (Numerius Popidius Ampliatus) was a freedperson — and so ineligible for public office –, though the boy had citizenship by means of his free birth. By paying for the restoration of the temple in his son’s name, the father was ensuring that his descendants would belong to Pompeii’s political elite. The ‘donation’ also ensured that the boy’s selection was ‘free’ of the usual fee, and exempted him from the age restriction of 25 years old.

CIL X, 1406, in contrast, documents funding from the very top of the Roman social pyramid.

CIL X, 1406


“The Emperor Caesar Vespasianus Augustus, Chief Priest, with Tribunician Power for the 7th time and acclaimed Imperator for the 17th time, Father of the Fatherland, Consul for the 7th time (Elect for the 8th time), restored the Temple of the Mother of the Gods [Cybele], which had collapsed from the earthquake.”

The specific honorifics and titles of the Emperor Vespasian, especially the detail of being consul elect for the eighth time, permit a dating of August-December of AD 76. This inscription is clear evidence of imperial stimulus funds to support the redevelopment of an area stricken by disaster, even more than a decade after the event. That being said, the difficulty that these communities faced in their recovery from the earthquake has been assessed recently by N. Monteix (in G. Djament-Tran and M Reghezza-Zitt, Résiliences urbaines [Paris 2012]). For more on earthquakes prior to the AD 79 eruption, see E. De Carolis and G. Patricelli, Vesuvio 79 d.C. la distruzione di Pompei ed Ercolano (L’Erma, Roma 2003) 71-76; and W.F. Jashemski and F.G. Meyer, The Natural History of Pompeii (Cambridge 2002) 33-35.

For the Younger Pliny, now in middle age, the tremor terrae emerges from motus memoriae. In that process of studied recollection, how will he portray himself and others, confronted by a suddenly unstable world?

In the next post, which covers 6.20.4-7, Pliny and his mother sit by the seaside during the tremors until the shaking gets so bad that they decide, with the urging of a family friend visiting from Spain, to flee Misenum.

Back to Part 8

Forward to Part 10

2 thoughts on “Translating Pliny’s letters about Vesuvius, pt. 9. Shuddering to Remember

    • Thanks; unfortunately I’ve had a lot of other projects to clear off my desk, but I’ll return to this series as soon as I can. Thanks for reading!

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