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?