In truly epic poem style, Anthony Burgess narrates the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD in his conclusion of The Kingdom of the Wicked. He also places Domitian at the scene, which he successfully flees: “He had to live to become emperor; there were many hearts to be transfixed before he died.”
The best known historic description of the horrifying event comes from Pliny the Younger in two letters to Tacitus: 6.16 and 6.20. Pliny the Elder was praefect of the Roman fleet at Misenum at the time, and his adopted nephew Pliny the Younger and his mother lived with him or visited him at the time. Pliny the Elder perished and Pliny the Younger and his mother barely escaped.
6.16 “… Then came an smell of sulfur, announcing the flames, and the flames themselves, sending others into flight but reviving him. Supported by two small slaves he stood up, and immediately collapsed. As I understand it, his breathing was obstructed by the dust-laden air, and his innards, which were never strong and often blocked or upset, simply shut down. When daylight came again 2 days after he died, his body was found untouched, unharmed, in the clothing that he had had on. He looked more asleep than dead.”
[In vulcanology, Pliny is immortalized through the term Plinian: “Plinian eruptions are large explosive events that form enormous dark columns of tephra and gas high into the stratosphere (>11 km).”]
6.20 “… Now came the dust, though still thinly. I look back: a dense cloud looms behind us, following us like a flood poured across the land. ‘Let us turn aside while we can still see, lest we be knocked over in the street and crushed by the crowd of our companions.’ We had scarcely sat down when a darkness came that was not like a moonless or cloudy night, but more like the black of closed and unlighted rooms. You could hear women lamenting, children crying, men shouting. Some were calling for parents, others for children or spouses; they could only recognize them by their voices. Some bemoaned their own lot, other that of their near and dear. There were some so afraid of death that they prayed for death. Many raised their hands to the gods, and even more believed that there were no gods any longer and that this was one last unending night for the world. Nor were we without people who magnified real dangers with fictitious horrors. Some announced that one or another part of Misenum had collapsed or burned; lies, but they found believers. It grew lighter, though that seemed not a return of day, but a sign that the fire was approaching. The fire itself actually stopped some distance away, but darkness and ashes came again, a great weight of them. We stood up and shook the ash off again and again, otherwise we would have been covered with it and crushed by the weight. I might boast that no groan escaped me in such perils, no cowardly word, but that I believed that I was perishing with the world, and the world with me, which was a great consolation for death.”
In September, our group will be reading Pompeii: A Novel by Robert Harris, which takes place at the time of the eruption. Just yesterday I read at rogueclassicism that the book will be made into a movie by veteran director Roman Polanski, with Harris writing the script. See also POLANSKI ERUPTS ONTO POMPEII MOVIE.
The above image is a painting by Johan Christian Clausen Dahl (1788-1856): Vesuvius erupting (1826).