• 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: Continue reading

  • Translating Pliny’s letters about Vesuvius, pt. 10. When in Doubt, Study

    Angela Kauffmann, Pliny the Younger and his Mother at Misenum, 79 A.D. (1785) Princeton University Art Museum (detail)

    Angela Kauffmann, Pliny the Younger and his Mother at Misenum, 79 A.D. (1785) Princeton University Art Museum (detail; see full painting below)

    6.20.4-6: When in Doubt, Study.

    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 second installment for letter 6.20, and the tenth overall.

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

    At this point in the story, Younger Pliny has spent a restless and bumpy night while his uncle the Elder Pliny has sailed off to investigate the eruption and try to evacuate refugees. He awakens to a dark day.

    4 Inrupit cubiculum meum mater; surgebam invicem, si quiesceret excitaturus. Resedimus in area domus, quae mare a tectis modico spatio dividebat.

    4 My mother burst into my bedroom at the same time I was getting up, about to rouse her, were she still asleep. We sat down in a courtyard of the house which was separating, by a modest extent, the sea from the buildings.

    In the Latin, noteworthy is the mixed conditional with a present-contrary-to-fact imperfect subjunctive (quiesceret) in the protasis, and a future-more-vivid future active participle (exciturus) in the apodosis, all set up by the imperfect of surgebam: “Right then I was in the process of getting up, about to wake [my mom] up (which I was definitely going to do), if she were [still] sleeping (which she wasn’t).” In the second sentence, the relative clause (area…quae) is straightforward.

    The first line is dotted with adrenaline vocabulary (inrupit, surgebam, excitaturus) that perks up the reader at the same time that the story’s main characters (Pliny and his mother) are waking up during the night to find each other out of mutual concern. There is a running theme in this letter about the anxiety of separation. Uncle Pliny is away (and at about this time in letter 6.16, also being roused [excitatus]); he “left behind” Young Pliny (relictus, from 6.20.1). Can mother and son stay together as the volcanic storm descends upon them?

    Continue reading