Translating Pliny’s letters about Vesuvius, pt. 11. The Elements Torn Asunder

Drawback from the Boxing Day tsunami, 2004, Hat Rai Lay Beach, Thailand

6.20.7-9: The Elements Torn Asunder.

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 6.20, and the eleventh overall.

This installment was completed with the contributions of DePauw LAT 223 students Jackson Hicks, Luke Lohrstorfer, and Leigh Plummer in Fall 2014 and 2015.

The Younger Pliny and his mother have been unsettled by strong tremors at their seaside residence early on the morning of the second day of the eruption. The Elder Pliny, who sailed off the afternoon before, is on the Stabian seashore with his friend Pomponianus.

7 Tum demum excedere oppido visum; sequitur vulgus attonitum, quodque in pavore simile prudentiae, alienum consilium suo praefert, ingentique agmine abeuntes premit et impellit.

7. At that point, it finally seemed best to exit the town. A confounded mob followed — and what in fear seems akin to wisdom, each prefers another’s judgement to their own — and in a massive throng it presses and pushes us on as we leave.

Tottering roof tiles have finally forced Younger Pliny, his mother, and their household to abandon their home at Misenum. They are joined by a mob of slaves, freedpersons, and neighbors (vulgus attonitum) who lack, and desire, direction. As he has since 6.20.4, Younger Pliny generates synchronicity—across the bay, at the same time (in letter 6.16.16), Elder Pliny and Pomponianus’ household are also deciding whether to stay or go. In these twin dilemmas, Younger Pliny focuses on the psychological processes of decision-making under stress:

(6.16.16): apud illum quidem ratio rationem, apud alios timorem timor vicit
(6.20.7): quodque in pavore simile prudentiae, alienum consilium suo praefert

(6.16.16): For the Elder Pliny (illum), reckoning defeated reckoning, (whereas) for the others, one fear won out over another
(6.20.7): and what in fear seems akin to wisdom, each prefers another’s judgement to their own

In 6.16.16, reason (rare; only the Elder) and fear (common; everyone else) are clearly distinct, a separation buttressed by the parallelism of the clauses. In 6.20.7, Younger Pliny describes a group panic in which terror and rationality, and individual and multitude, are indistinguishable (mirrored by the ‘run-on’ appositional structure and the linked proximity of pavore simile prudentiae and alienum consilium suo). This mental condition leads to paralysis — the threat of falling stone has literally petrified the crowd until the Plinys provide a vector for action by leaving their home. The Elder Pliny is lionized as a beacon of reason, but Younger Pliny admits his own hesitation and fear; both he and his mother had already been chided by their Spanish guest (6.20.5) for inaction, and they will be again (6.20.10). Both passages complicate a common argument about these letters — that Pliny is consistently classist (patricians pondered; plebs panicked). Pomponianus is no less elite than Elder Pliny, and he is frightened and irrational; neither do Pliny the Younger or his mother have a real plan (they are simply pushed along, premit et impellit, by the rest). Instead, Younger Pliny mostly pretends to be calm and controlled. Visum [est] (‘it seemed best’) does not denote bold confidence, and demum suggests that looking back, Younger Pliny was a bit astonished at how long it took his younger self to get up and go.

The pressing and pushing action of the crowd comes from the back (literally, the end of the sentence). There is no person to step forward, like the Elder Pliny, to lead people to safety. Confusion is heightened because Misenum is a military town—it is accustomed to even more hierarchical governance than civilian settlements. To whom would the residents look for guidance other than the commander of the imperial fleet (Elder Pliny) and his family? But the admiral is away, the mob is leaderless, and Pliny is not yet ready to fill his uncle’s sandals. This is despite the fact that the actual danger he faces is much more distant, far less intense, and ultimately not deadly at all (not that they knew it).

In a throng, each person follows the judgement of someone else instead of their own, and this only pushes the group farther forward. One can reference (Johns Hopkins professor of emergency medicine) Edbert Hsu’s description of human stampedes that kill many each year.

The word for the shape of the crowd, agmen, resides on the tense edge between order and chaos: an agmen can mean, in its most regimented sense, a marching line of soldiers (appropriate for residents of a naval base), but the word can also represent a more chaotic mass, verging towards its use as a term for coursing water. This letter spills floods of people, voices, and pyroclastics.

How large, potentially, was the crowd? Misenum as a town was not particularly big, as its land area is limited; John D’Arms has estimated its population at 3,300-4,000 in the mid-second century AD (“Memory, Money and Status at Misenum: three new inscriptions from the collegium of the Augustales,” Journal of Roman Studies 90 [2000] 126-44). P. Miniero (Baia. Il Castello, il Museo, l’area archeologica [Napoli 2000] 70), estimates the population of the naval base at about 6,000 men, probably quartered around the inner harbor.

8. Egressi tecta consistimus. Multa ibi miranda, multas formidines patimur. Nam vehicula quae produci iusseramus, quamquam in planissimo campo, in contrarias partes agebantur ac ne lapidibus quidem fulta in eodem vestigio quiescebant.

8. Having cleared the rooftops, we stopped. There we experienced many marvels and many terrors. For the carriages which we had ordered to be brought out, although upon the flattest ground, were being knocked in opposite directions and not even wedged by rocks were they resting in the same spot.

The eruption of Vesuvius in 1944, displaying the iconic pine tree shape of the smoke cloud.

After exiting the urbanized area (to avoid the danger of collapsing roofs on either side of the road), Younger Pliny describes his household pausing to wonder at what nature is doing. He uses a future passive participle, i.e., a gerundive (miranda) expressing obligation: how the multa must be marveled at. The natural spectacle is beautiful both because of, and in spite of, its danger. He sets up the sentence with a tricolon of alliteration  (multa, miranda, multas), which escalates, and then holds in tension, the majestic attraction with the horrors that it is bringing: the terrible beauty of destruction.  

The port of Misenum, the possible location of Pliny the Elder’s house on the northwest slope of Capo Miseno, and possible routes of escape (A, towards Cumae; B, towards Baiae; each letter represents a distance of 2.4 km., or about a 30 min. walk, from the lower slopes of Capo Miseno). Click to access a much larger version. P. Foss, using Google Earth.

Judging by the geography of the promontory of Misenum and the timing of the story, this procession is likely to have moved northwest of the Roman port of Misenum towards the valley between Monte di Procida (Mons Misenus) and the hills southwest of Baiae (see above, route ‘A’, in red). That valley had a road running through its center, the mouth of which (at ‘A’) was flanked by the tombs of sailors who had served in the Roman navy (see Beloch’s map below). Tombs would have been clearly ‘out of town’ (egressi tecta), but as we do not know the extent of urbanization at ancient Misenum, anywhere along the southern edge of the inner harbor could indicate where the family paused. 6.20.13 also says that when the final pyroclastic density current arrived, it was ‘on their backs’ (caligo tergis imminebat), and the only way that makes sense is if they are walking west/northwest (the wind was blowing southeast that day). The other road (route ‘B’, in yellow) goes more towards the eruption. Our only ancient map of the area, the Tabula Peutingeriana, shows only the route passing by the Lago di Fusaro/Acherusian Lake (‘A’), from Baiae to Cumae (no spur road to Misenum), and so does not resolve the issue. Yet route ‘A’ is dead level the whole way; route ‘B’ encounters significant undulation and elevation just as the road rises from the inner harbor. ‘A’ is therefore the likely route. (To explore Roman roads, try Omnes Viae, a site that plans ancient routes based on the Tabula Peutingeriana and the Itinerarium Antonianum.)

Tabula Peutingeriana, detail of the Phlegraean Fields (click to see enlarged version). P. Foss, after the digital file in Omnes Viae.

The present parchment version of the Tabula dates from the 13th c. AD, which was copied from a 4th-c. AD original (perhaps Constantinian), but the document has 1st c. AD details (such as towns marked for ‘Herculanum’ and ‘Pompeis’, which were never re-built), so the cartographic and iconographic data of our surviving map is a palimpsest. For instance, the half-oval perforated by two ‘archways’ to the right of Puteolis in the image below probably represents the ‘Crypta Neapolitana’ and/or ‘Grotta di Seano’, 700-m+ tunnels driven under the Pausilypon ridge that separates Neapolis from Puteoli, to shorten and straighten travel distance, first begun in the 30s BC on Agrippa’s orders (Strabo 5.4.5 mentions a third tunnel as connecting Cumae and Lake Avernus, which is called the Grotta di Cocceio, after its engineer, and is nearly 1 km. long). See L. Amato, et al., “The Crypta Neapolitana; a Roman tunnel of the early imperial age,” in More than two thousand years in the history of architecture, international congress proceedings (UNESCO, Paris, 2001).

Younger Pliny comments that their carriages packed with belongings were being shaken so badly that even on the most level ground they were being moved in opposite directions, recalling his description at Stabiae through Elder Pliny’s eyes, where the roofs are swaying back and forth (6.16.1; blog part seven). On the Misenan shore, Pliny emphasizes the tension between reliable immovability (in planissimo campo; lapidibus…fulta) and uncontrollable movement (in contrarias partes agebantur [a passive-voice verb; there is no ‘agent’ of the verbal action; it is just ‘happening’]; ne…quiescebant).

A bas relief showing the covered carriage in which, for a fee, the ordinary Roman traveler would be carried on his journey along the Roman highways.

Depiction of a covered Roman carriage (though Pliny and his mother were clearly walking). Relief, south exterior wall of the Maria Saal church; originally from a Roman tomb at Virunum (state of Carinthia, Austria; the city, founded by Claudius, was the provincial capital of Noricum).


The flat route along the shore went past the ‘schola armaturarum,’ or ‘schola militum’ (today the area called miliscola at the west end of the inner harbor). That appellation designated the base training ground (parade maneuvers rather than fighting practice according to E.L. Wheeler, “The Occasion of Arrian’s Tactica,” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 19 [1978] 357-58) for soldiers and sailors, as known from an early 4th-c. AD inscription (CIL X, 3344 [ILS 5902]) found there, as argued early on by Michele Arditti (Il porto di Miseno [1808] 41). The inscription memorializes the rebuilding of a (moveable?) wooden bridge that spanned the canal linking the inter and outer harbors (pons ligneus in Beloch’s map below). The bottleneck, and perhaps unreliability, of that bridge during an eruption is another reason why escape route ‘A’ (above) is the most likely. Details in the next few sentences will confirm this route.

Karl Julius Beloch, Map of Misenum in Campanien. Geschichte und Topographie des antiken Neapel und seiner Umgebung (1890). Click to access large version.

9 Praeterea mare in se resorberi et tremore terrae quasi repelli videbamus. Certe processerat litus multaque animalia maris siccis harenis detinebat. Ab altero latere nubes atra et horrenda ignei spiritus tortis vibratisque discursibus rupta in longas flammarum figuras dehiscebat: fulguribus illae et similes et maiores erant.

9 Moreover, we were watching the sea suck back into itself again as if being driven back by the shaking of the land. Certainly the shoreline had advanced and was holding back many creatures of the sea upon dry sand. On the other side, a dark and hair-raising cloud, burst by twisting and quivering ripples of fiery exhalation, was yawning into tall shapes of flames: these flames were both similar to, and greater than, the lightning.

The first sentence is a double indirect statement, used with main verbs of saying, thinking, knowing, or feeling. Videbamus takes an accusative, mare, that in turn governs resorberi and repelli, both present passive infinitives. Mare first works with the reflexive “in se,” and then in the context of a kind of simile to explain why the water is receding: “as if [the sea were] being driven back by earthquake”. The second sentence is straightforward, but shifts the agent of action from sea to shore: it is the beach that had pushed forward and was clinging to the marine animals left exposed to the air. Note the nested structure framed by litus and detinebat: multa animalia (who belong in the water but who are now on dry land) separated from that dry land (siccis harenis)—even though they are in fact stuck upon it—by an inconstant maris. The juxtaposition of maris with siccis shapes a superficial similarity even as the combination is discordant. This is the point: the world is behaving in contradiction.

In fact, it is the line of fleeing townspeople that is caught and exposed in the middle, on the thin spit of sand between the Tyrrhenian Sea and the harbors. Moving west-northwest, they see the submission of ocean to land on the left, and on their right, the air invaded by earth and fire. The third sentence contains many participial phrases, but can be translated with patience. Nubes is modified by atra, the future passive participle horrendaand a perfect passive participle, rupta, which governs the perfect passive participles tortis and vibratisque that modify discursibus. The main verb dehiscebat serves the subject nubes, and illae is a demonstrative pronoun/adjective for figuras, as the subject of erant. When one sees et…et… the translation “both…and…” should be used. Similes is accompanied by a word in the dative case, fulguribus, yielding: “similar to the lightning.” Maiores is a comparative adjective which requires an ablative of comparison–again, fulguribus! Because the dative and ablative endings are the same for a third declension noun, Pliny uses “fulguribus” once in writing but twice in meaning.


Rendition of Vesuvius eruption based on Pliny. George Julius Poulett Scrope. 1822.

Pliny’s personification of the eruption continues. First, he affixes the blast with breath. He did this in his first letter (6.16.6), using the same word: spiritus. He continues the breath metaphor by writing that the cloud dehiscebat, was opening up wide. The verb stem, hisco, means to yawn, and de- broadens that split. Note the continuing use of the imperfect tense, showing action that began in the past, and is continuing to happen; this helps the account feel vivid—ocurring while the reader scans the lines. It was vivid for the 18-year old Pliny (and in his later memory, as he wrote these letters); once again he portrays the volcano as a kind of living monster. Unlike his uncle, whom he describes as being brave and heroic throughout the events, Pliny the Younger has so far seemed a victim to circumstance. Yet now he shifts slightly. No longer can he nonchalantly read Livy; instead, he and his mother are in flight. The instruction and habits of his uncle have made an impact; Younger Pliny begins to notice strange things. The descriptive adjectives and participles he uses in this passage reveal a young man who is frightened, but also amazed by the unfolding events. He is taking note and trying to derive explanations—a scholar who can finally apply his skills.


Water being pushed back in rapid recession, warning of an approaching tsunami in Japan 2011. USGS.

When Pliny the Younger describes the recession of the shore line, he is recording a characteristic of a tsunami. The ‘drawback’ is in fact, just the ‘trough,’ rather than the ‘crest,’ of the force wave working its way through the medium of water. Tsunamis are most often the result of massive undersea earthquakes or landslides, but can also be caused by volcanic eruptions (due to displacement of water from the collapse of pyroclastic material into the water, causing a kind of landslide, or due to accompanying quakes). Tsunamis caused by volcanic eruptions dissipate faster than Pacific-wide tsunamis caused by earthquakes, and tend not to affect coastlines distant from the source of the eruption. Click here; the video shows the development of a tsunami from a volcano, using various clips from the Thailand tsunami in 2004. Another video, a little longer, shows footage from the Japan tsunami in 2011. Clearly in the case of AD 79, the shockwave was not severe enough to cause an actual tsunami; if it had been, Pliny and the rest of the refugees would have been washed out from the vulnerable coastal road.

Younger Pliny himself must have been gaping at what he saw; his amazement is about to get slapped back into reality by the guest from Spain, who tells him to run.

Back to Part 10

Forward to Part 12 (forthcoming)

2 thoughts on “Translating Pliny’s letters about Vesuvius, pt. 11. The Elements Torn Asunder

  1. We are translating this particular letter from the Latin and the information is a gold mine. I look forward to the next section/

    • Cheers, Sherry. The final product in the book will be significantly enhanced and revised; it should be published in about a year. What’s online is a rough draft, but I’m glad it has been useful.

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