THE GREAT ERUPTION OF VESUVIUS


Vesuvius erupting

PLlNY THE YOUNGER ( AD 62 - unknown after 107 )

( From "Pliny's Letters": by Rev. Alfred Church and Rev. W. J. Brodribb. )

WHEN my uncle had started, I spent such time as was left on my studies -- it was on their account, indeed, that I had stopped behind. Then followed the bath, dinner, and sleep, this last disturbed and brief. There had been noticed for many days before a trembling of the earth, which had caused, however, but little fear, because it is not unusual in Campania. But that night it was so violent, that one thought that everything was being not merely moved but absolutely over-turned. My mother rushed into my chamber; I was in the act of rising, with the same intention of awaking her should she have been asleep. We sat down in the open court of the house, which occupied a small space between the buildings and the sea. And now -- I do not know whether to call it courage or folly, for I was but in my eighteenth year -- I called for a volume of Livy, read it, as if I were perfectly at leisure, and even continued to make some extracts which I had begun. Just then arrived a friend of my uncle, who had lately come to him from Spain; when he saw that we were sitting down -- that I was even reading -- he rebuked my mother for her patience, and me for my blindness to the danger. Still I bent myself as industriously as ever over my book.

It was now seven o'clock in the morning, but the daylight was still faint and doubtful. The surrounding buildings were now so shattered, that in the place where we were, which though open was small, the danger that they might fall on us was imminent and unmistakable. So we at last determined to quit the town. A panic-stricken crowd followed us. They preferred the ideas of others to their own -- in a moment of terror this has a certain look of prudence -- and they pressed on us and drove us on, as we departed, by their dense array. When we had got away from the building, we stopped. There we had to endure the sight of many marvelous, many dreadful things. The carriages which we had directed to be brought out moved about in opposite directions, though the ground was perfectly level; even when scotched with stones they did not remain steady in the same place. Besides this, we saw the sea retire into itself, seeming, as it were, to be driven back by the trembling movement of the earth. The shore had distinctly advanced, and many marine animals were left high and dry upon the sands. Behind us was a dark and dreadful cloud, which, as it was broken with rapid zigzag flashes, revealed behind it variously shaped masses of flame: these last were like sheet lightning, though on a larger scale.

Then our friend from Spain addressed us more energetically and urgently than ever. "If your brother," he said, "if your uncle is alive, he wishes you to be saved; if he has perished, he certainly wished you to survive him. If so, why do you hesitate to escape?"
We answered that we could not bear to think about our own safety while we were doubtful of his. He lingered no longer, but rushed off, making his way out of the danger at the top of his speed. It was not long before the cloud that we saw began to descend upon the earth and cover the sea. It had already surrounded and concealed the island of Capreae, and had made invisible the promontory of Misenum.
My mother besought, urged, even commanded me to fly as best I could; "I might do so," she said, "for I was young; she, from age and corpulence, could move but slowly, but would be content to die, if she did not bring death upon me."
I replied that I would not seek safety except in her company; I clasped her hand, and compelled her to go with me. She reluctantly obeyed, but continually reproached herself for delaying me.

Ashes now began to fall -- still, however, in small quantities. I looked behind me; a dense dark mist seemed to be following us, spreading itself over the country like a cloud.
"Let us turn out of the way," I said, "whilst we can still see, for fear that should we fall in the road we should be trodden underfoot in the darkness by the throngs that accompany us."
We had scarcely sat down when night was upon us, -- not such as we have when there is no moon, or when the sky is cloudy, but such as there is in some closed room when the lights are extinguished. You might hear the shrieks of women, the monotonous wailing of children, the shouts of men. Many were raising their voices, and seeking to recognize by the voices that replied, parents, children, husbands, or wives. Some were loudly lamenting their own fate, others the fate of those dear to them. Some even prayed for death, in their fear of what they prayed for. Many lifted their hands in prayer to the gods; more were convinced that there were now no gods at all, and that the final endless night of which we have heard had come upon the world. There were not wanting persons who exaggerated our real perils with terrors imaginary or willfully invented. I remember some who declared that one part of the promontory Misenum had fallen, that another was on fire; it was false, but they found people to believe them.

It now grew somewhat light again; we felt sure that this was not the light of day, but a proof that fire was approaching us. Fire there was, but it stopped at a considerable distance from us; then came darkness again, and a thick heavy fall of ashes. Again and again we stood up and shook them off ; otherwise we should have been covered by them, and even crushed by the weight. I might boast that not a sigh, not a word wanting in courage, escaped me, even in the midst of peril so great, had I not been convinced that I was perishing in company with the universe, and the universe with me -- a miserable and yet a mighty solace in death.
At last the black mist I had spoken of seemed to shade off into smoke or cloud, and to roll away. Then came genuine daylight, and the sun shone out with a lurid light, such as it is wont to have in an eclipse. Our eyes, which had not yet recovered from the effects of fear, saw everything changed, everything covered deep with ashes as if with snow. We returned to Misenum, and, after refreshing ourselves as best we could, spent a night of anxiety in mingled hope and fear. Fear, however, was still the stronger feeling; for the trembling of the earth continued, while many frenzied persons, with their terrific predictions, gave an exaggeration that was even ludicrous to the calamities of themselves and of their friends.
Even then, in spite of all the perils which we had experienced and which we still expected, we had not a thought of going away till we could hear news of my uncle.





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