Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome – How Pliny Saved His Mother

During all this time my mother and I remained at Misenum, my uncle having left us. For many days a trembling of the earth had been noticed. This did not alarm us much, as it is quite an ordinary occurrence in southern Italy, but it was very violent that night and overturned everything about us.

My mother rushed into my room, where she found me rising to awaken her. We sat down in the open court of the house, which was in a small space between the buildings and the sea. I was but eighteen years of age at the time, and I do not know whether I was courageous or foolish, but I took up a book — my Livy — and amused myself with turning over its pages.

Just then a Spanish friend of my uncle’s joined us and reproved me for my careless security.

Though it was now morning, the light was faint. Buildings all around us were tottering, and we resolved to leave the town.

A panic-stricken crowd followed us. At a little distance from the houses we stood still in the midst of a most dreadful scene. The ground shook violently. The sea seemed to roll back upon itself and to be driven from the shores. On the other side, above Vesuvius, reared a black and dreadful cloud, broken with rapid and zigzag flashes.

Upon this my uncle’s friend urged us to escape. ” If your uncle were here,” he said, ” he would certainly wish you to survive him. Why do you delay your escape a moment ? ”

But we told him that as long as we were uncertain of my uncle’s safety we could not think of our own. Upon this our friend left us with the greatest haste.

Soon afterwards the cloud began to descend and cover the sea. I t had already hidden the island of Capri. My mother now begged me to make my escape, which, as I was young, I might easily do. She would willingly meet death herself, she said, if she might know she was not the cause of mine. But I absolutely refused to leave her and, taking her hand, compelled her to go with me. The ashes began to fall upon us, though in no great quantity. A dense mist seemed to be following us.

” Let us turn out of the highway,” I said, ” while we can still see ; if we should fall in the road, we should be crushed to death in the dark by the crowds.” We had scarcely done this when night came upon us — a blackness like that of a room when it is shut up and all the lights are put out.

You could hear the shrieks of women, the screams of children, and the shouts of men. Some were calling for their children, others for their parents or their husbands. They tried to recognize each other by the voices that replied. Some were lifting their hands to the gods, and some were convinced that there were no gods and that the end of the world had come.

It grew lighter; the light was caused not by day but by a great burst of flames from the mountain. The fire, however, fell at a distance from us.

Then again came thick blackness, and a heavy shower of ashes rained upon us. We were obliged every now and then to rise and shake them off, else we should have been buried in the heap.

At last the dreadful darkness disappeared by degrees ; the real day returned. Every object on which our eyes rested was covered deep with ashes, as if with snow.

We returned to Misenum and passed an anxious night between hope and fear, for the earthquake still continued. But notwithstanding the danger we had passed, and that which still threatened us, my mother and I had no thoughts of leaving the place until we could receive some news of my uncle.

From the letter of Pliny the Younger to Tacitus

Pliny (plin’i). — Misenum (ml se’num) : a town near Pompeii. — uncle : Pliny the Elder, a noted scientist, who lost his life by venturing too near the mountain during this eruption. — Livy (117’1): a great Roman historian. — Tacitus (tas’i tus): a Roman historian and orator.