Elder and Younger were both in the vicinity of Vesuivius when it began its eruption in 79AD. Pliny the Elder went off to investigate and died in Pompeii. I have never read either of the extant Pliny's works in their entirity but have read snippets here and there. I had forgotten just how accessible their works are, particularly the letters of Pliny the Younger. For all that language, culture, technology, and other contexts have changed, in the letters, Pliny the Younger comes across as a knowledgeable but amiable neighbor down the street, sometimes talking shop, sometimes speculating, sometimes gossiping.
What caught my eye in reading Dirda's review is his account of the activities of both Pliny Elder and Pliny Younger at the time that the eruption was first noticed - both were busy reading. Pliny the Younger was so engrossed in Livy's History of Rome, that he declined his uncle's offer to go investigate what was happening in Pompeii. I recall a stretch of reading in my late teens or early twenties when I fell victim to Livy's spell and read through his works. All of it was engaging and interesting but I was particularly fascinated by the contest between Rome and Carthage for mastery of the Mediterranean. The capacity of the Romans to suffer defeat and return to the field of contest was amazing. In one of the Punic wars I seem to recall the land-based Romans deciding to take the battle to the sea, the natural element of the Carthaginians. They built a fleet; the Carthaginians sank it. They built a second fleet; the Carthaginians sank it. They built a third fleet and this time won. Astonishing persistence.
Anyway, via Dirda, here is Pliny the Younger's accounts of that long ago day, August 24th, 79AD when Vesuvius entombed Pompeii.
According to his nephew, the senior Pliny had "a keen intelligence, astonishing concentration, and little need for sleep.. . . He used to say that there was no book so bad that it was not useful at some point. . . . He believed that any time not devoted to study was wasted."
On the day of the eruption, the younger Pliny writes, "my uncle was at Misenum, where he held command of the fleet in person. Just after midday on 24 August [79 CE] my mother pointed out to him the appearance of a cloud of unusual size and appearance. He had relaxed in the sun, had then taken a cold dip, had lunched lying down, and was at his books. He asked for his sandals, and mounted to the place from which that remarkable phenomenon could best be observed. A cloud was issuing up from some mountain which spectators from a distance could not identify; it was later established to have been Vesuvius."
Pliny goes on to tell Tacitus about the cloud: "The pine tree, rather than any other, best describes its appearance and shape, for it rose high up into the sky on what one can describe as a very long trunk, and it then spread out into what looked like branches. . . . Its appearance varied between white on the one hand, and grimy and spotted on the other, according as it had thrust up earth or ashes. My uncle, most learned man that he was, realized that this was important, and should be investigated at closer quarters."
In short order, the elder Pliny "ordered a fast-sailing ship to be made ready" and, continues his nephew, "gave me the option of accompanying him if I so wished. I replied that I preferred to work at my books." We later learn that the younger man, just 18, simply didn't want to tear himself away from his enthralled reading of Livy's history of Rome.
J.M.W. Turner, Vesuvius in Eruption, 1817
When the seas grew rough, the air dense with cloud, and stones began to fall from the sky, the older Pliny's ships made their way to Stabiaie. There, the seemingly untroubled Roman naturalist bathed and dined at a friend's villa, even while Vesuvius continued to pour out flames. He did his best to calm the people around him, going so far as to retire for a nap. "In fact, he relaxed in sleep that was wholly genuine, for his snoring, somewhat deep and loud because of his broad physique, was audible to those patrolling the threshold." Before long, though, "the courtyard which gave access to his suite of rooms had become so full of ash intermingled with pumice stones that it was piled high."
The sleeping Pliny was awakened, and a debate broke out over whether the villa's residents should stay indoors or venture out to the coast. By now "the buildings were shaking with frequent large-scale tremors, as though dislodged from their foundations" and "seemed to shift now one way and now another, and then back again." Pliny convinced everyone to make a dash for the sea, despite the rain of pumice and debris. "They used strips of cloth to fasten pillows on their heads as a protection against falling stones."
By this point day had turned to night, and the little party discovered that the Mediterranean was still too "mountainous and hostile" for ships to cast off. Perhaps already starting to be overcome by the foul air, "my uncle lay down . . . on a discarded sail, and repeatedly drank cold water, which he had requested. Then flames and the smell of sulphur heralding the flames impelled the rest to flight and roused him. Leaning on two of his confidential slaves, he stood up and at once collapsed." Later on, it was concluded that "his breathing was choked by the greater density of smoke, and this blocked his gullet, which was often frail and narrow, and often unsettled. When daylight was restored, two days after his eyes had closed in death, his body was found intact and unharmed. It was covered over, still in the clothes he had worn. It was more like someone sleeping than a corpse."