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History Frozen in Time

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History Frozen in Time: The Eruption of Mt. VesuviusEdit

Occursabant trepidantibus adhuc oculis mutata omnia altoque cinere tamquam nive obducta (Pliny, Letter II.).” –‘The sight that met our trembling eyes was a changed world, buried in ash like snow’. The year was 79 A.D, and it started out like any other day. The ancient people went about their regular activities, never imagining that this day may be their last. The earth quaked, which was a normal occurrence in the area around the bay of Naples. However, on this day, something was different. Their world began to tremble; fire and lava burst from the mountain across the bay, and the day turned to night- Mt. Vesuvius had awoken from its slumber.

In today’s society, we recognize the occurrence of disasters, like volcanoes, and know that they are part of nature. However, in 79 A.D., most of these people probably never knew that volcanic eruptions existed. So, try to imagine what must have been going through their minds: uncertainty, fear, panic, chaos. The best way to understand the events and feelings during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius is through Pliny the Younger. His descriptions are the only eyewitness accounts of the eruption that survive today. After the eruption, Pliny wrote two letters to the historian Tacitus about the events; the first letter recounts the rescue mission and death of his uncle Pliny the Elder, and the second talks about Pliny’s own experiences. These descriptions not only allow us to comprehend the turn of events, but they also let us imagine the mystery and confusion felt by such a tragic natural disaster.

Despite the colloquial nature of Pliny’s letters, I found that Pliny has amazing expressive capabilities, and can really “paint a picture” with his words. He makes the reader feel like they are witnessing the destruction, fire, ash, and fear produced from the eruption. After reading the descriptions of the volcano in these two letters, I noticed that his style of writing reflects that of Vergil. Throughout this course, we have seen many instances in which Vergil brings his scenes to life. Vergil is able to take small ideas, like building the city of Carthage, and transform them into elaborate similes of bees working together in a hive, gathering honey, and flying from flower to flower. His descriptive nature truly does bring an idea to life in your mind. Seemingly, both Vergil and Pliny share the same qualities in writing, style, and speech. Therefore, I thought it would be interesting to look at both author’s work, and see how they compare and contrast.


The most prominent similarity from Pliny’s letters to Vergil’s Aeneid is that Pliny directly quotes Vergil. Before beginning his second letter to Tacitus, Pliny writes, “Quamquam animus meminisse horret, ...incipiam (Pliny, Letter II).” This quote states: ‘Although my spirit shutters at the memory, I will begin.” This is a fantastic introductory statement to use, because it sets the reader up for the mood of the story. This quote was taken from the beginning of Book II of the Aeneid, in which Aeneas is recounting the fall of Troy for Dido. Here, Aeneas shudders at remembering the horrific events that occurred, as well as the death of his city and comrades. Similarly, Pliny brings this same mood to his letter, stating that he does not wish to recall the horrible events of eruption. As we have seen throughout the Aeneid, Vergil has the ability to bring scenes and descriptions to life from his writing. Likewise, Pliny uses the same techniques as Vergil to allow the reader to feel as if they were witnessing the eruption itself. So, in what way does Pliny reflect Vergil? As we continue, we will see that each author excels in creating vivid descriptions of disaster, destruction, and chaos.

Moreover, the next similarity I found when comparing the two writers, is that each uses different poetic elements to illustrate particular scenes and ideas. Pliny’s writing echoes Vergil’s style of using similes, imagery, and word choice to intensify his descriptions. In his first letter, Pliny describes the volcanic cloud as, “Nam longissimo velut trunco elata in altum quibusdam ramis diffundebatur (Pliny, Letter I).”, ‘for it rose into the sky like a very long trunk of a certain tree from which spread out branches’. Pliny’s specific word choice of “longissimo”, “altum”, and “diffundebatur”, really sparks the audience’s imagination. From this, the reader can actually picture a massive cloud bursting out from the top of Mt. Vesuvius, spreading out over all of the land. Pliny is also able to capture the mood of the event when he explains, “Respicio: densa caligo tergis imminebat, quae nos torrentis modo infusa terrae sequebatur (Pliny, Letter II)”, ‘I look back: the dense cloud was threatening behind, which was following us like a flood infused on the land’. Again, he uses words like “densa”, “imminebat”, and “sequebatur”, to reiterate the idea of imminent danger and uncertainty. He continues this imagery by stating, “Iam dies alibi, illic nox omnibus noctibus nigrior densiorque (Pliny, Letter I).” Here, Pliny describes that ‘now it was day elsewhere, but here the night was darker and thicker than all nights’. Although it was the afternoon, the eruption brought this cloud filled with ash, fire, and dust. The cloud was so huge, that is blocked the whole sky and sun, changing the day into an abnormally dark night. With just these three similes, Pliny is able to create a dramatic image of the event, enhancing his explanation

Pliny’s use of these poetic elements is found throughout his letters, bringing an eerie sense of reality and fear to the eruption. Like Pliny, Vergil is known to use these elements as well to get the tone and mood of the scene across to his audience. In Book I., Vergil uses a similar description when discussing the storm raging against the Trojan fleet. He states, “Eripiunt subito nubes caelumque diemque Teucrorum ex oculis; ponto nox incubat atra (Vergil, I. 87-88).” Like the darkness that the volcanic cloud brought, Vergil explains, ‘Suddenly the clouds snatched away the day and sky from the eyes of the Trojans; now dark night was brooding over the sea.’ The darkness in both explanations symbolizes the mood and imminent doom that each disaster brings. I find it remarkable that Pliny and Vergil are able to write about the same idea, yet express it in their own separate voice!

In addition to their poetry, it is also intriguing to compare both writers depiction of panic, chaos, and destruction. In the Aeneid, there are many instances of disaster; the storm set by Juno that destroys some of Aeneas’s fleet, the sacking and fall of Troy, the suicide of Dido, and much more. As we have seen, Vergil’s descriptions of all of these scenes encompass the panic and fear of each character. For example, during the destruction of Troy, Vergil explains: “Tum pavidae tectis matres ingentibus errant amplexaeque tenet postis atque oscula figunt (Vergil, II. 489-492).” ‘Mothers scatter in panic, down the palace halls and hold the pillars, cling to them, kiss them.’ This line represents the uncertainty and panic felt by the citizens of Troy- Where should they run to? Will they survive? Are friends and family still alive? - And how the only thing left to do is pray. Pliny was also able to encompass this same sense of panic in his letters. Pliny states: “Audires ululatus feminarum, infantum quiritatus, clamores virorum; alii parentes alii liberos alii coniuges vocibus requirebant, vocibus noscitabant;…erant qui metu mortis mortem precarentur (Pliny, Letter II),”

“You can hear women lamenting, infants crying, and the shouts of men; Some calls were searching for parents, others for children, others for spouses, they could only recognize voices;…there were some who feared death so much that they even prayed for death,”

Here, Pliny lets us imagine how lost all of the people felt during the eruption. We can literally hear the cries and shouts of the men, women, and children through the word “ululatus” and “clamores”. We can imagine the people searching for loved ones under the darkness of the volcanic ash and cloud, only able to “vocibus noscitabant”, recognize others by voices. This description, however short, depicts how these people lost all hope, even to wish for death! This same confusion can be found in another chaotic scene in the Aeneid, after the death of Dido:

lamentis gemituque et femineo ululatu tecta fremunt, resonat magnis plangoribus aether, non aliter, quam si immissis ruat hostibus omnis Karthago aut antique Tyros, flammaeque furentes culmina perque hominum volvantur perque deorum (Vergil, VI. 663-671).”

“The palace rings with lamentation, with sobbing and women’s shrieks, and heaven echoes with loud wails- As though all Carthage or ancient Tyre were falling before the inrushing foe, and fierce flames were rolling on over the roofs of men, over the roofs of gods (Vergil, VI. 663-671).”

In this description, we are looking at a different kind of chaos than that of a natural disaster. Here, the citizens of Carthage are distressed about the death of their queen, uncertain of what will come next. Vergil uses the same word “ululatu”, which embodies the sounds of sobbing and lamentation. I think that both authors have an impeccable talent when it comes to portraying disaster.

Site of Pompeii and ArtifactsEdit


Crying Pompeiian person enclosed in ash

As we read Pliny’s descriptions of the emotion and pain of the eruption, it is helpful to investigate other historical accounts. One of the best ways to analyze Pliny’s descriptions is by looking at artifacts from the eruption. When discussing the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, the most famous city that comes up is Pompeii. Right on the bay of Naples in Italy, the city of Pompeii was recently excavated in the 1700s. Covered in multiple feet of volcanic ash, the entire city was completely preserved for hundreds of years. Buildings, paintings, houses, streets, and more were recovered at the site. This archaeological site truly represents a city frozen in time.


Pompeiian person enclosed in ash

However, the most interesting artifacts discovered from Pompeii were the people. Archaeologists found many casts of people, covered in ash, who died on the day of the eruption. From these casts, we can see the fear and destruction itself of the eruption. In his letters, Pliny does an excellent job capturing these agonizing emotions. For example, in his description above, Pliny states that “You can hear women lamenting, infants crying, and the shouts of men.” This represents the alarm felt by the citizens of Pompeii, unable to find their loved ones, and unsure of their own fate. This fear described by Pliny is embodied in many of the human forms found at Pompeii. These included images from Pompeii show a cast of a person crying, or maybe praying for their life; as well as someone on the edge of life, most likely suffocating from the fumes and ash. It is fascinating to compare these human casts to the words of Pliny himself. These real life depictions are a horrific example of the tragedy of that day in 79 A.D..

Finally, despite all of these similarities, there is one main difference between Pliny and Vergil. That is, Vergil wrote about fiction and mythology, and Pliny wrote about an actual event. Therefore, it is intriguing to look at the similarities in their writing, even though their topics are so different. That being said, I find that Pliny has a more realistic approach at describing the horror of the eruption. Even though he does not use extensive similes like Vergil, he still captures the horror of the moment well. Both authors do a fantastic job at using poetic elements, creating a mood, and portraying destruction. Their writing makes convincing and fascinating stories for all!

Katie Smith 16:43, March 11, 2011 (UTC)

Works CitedEdit

Pliny the Younger. “Pliny the Younger, Letters.” Perseus Digital Library. 2/25/11. < >

Vergil. Aeneid. Trans. H. Roushton Fairclough. Cambridge, MA: The Loeb Classical Library: Harvard University Press, 2000.

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