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Sunday, 1 June 2014

The Death of Pliny the Elder


The Eruption of Vesuvius, 24 August A.D. 79 [showing the death of Pliny the Elder on the shore at Stabiae]: Pierre Henri de Valenciennes (1750–1819), 1813, oil on canvas, 147.5 x 195.5 cm; image by Daniel Martin (Musée des Augustins, Toulouse)

Primo Levi: Pliny

Don't hold me back, friends, let me set out.
I won't go far; just to the other shore.
I want to observe at close hand that dark cloud,
Shaped like a pine tree, rising above Vesuvius,
And find the source of this strange light.
Nephew, you don't want to come along?  Fine; stay here and study.
Recopy the notes I gave you yesterday.
You needn't fear the ash; ash on top of ash.
We're ash ourselves; remember Epicurus?
Quick, get the boat ready, it is already night:
Night at midday, a portent never seen before.
Don't worry, sister, I'm cautious and expert;
The years that bowed me haven't passed in vain.
Of course I'll come back quickly.  Just give me time
To ferry across, observe the phenomena and return,
Draw a new chapter from them tomorrow
For my books, that will, I hope, still live
When for centuries my old body's atoms
Will be whirling, dissolved in the vortices of the universe,
Or live again in an eagle, a young girl, a flower.
Sailors, obey me: launch the boat into the sea.

................................................................................23 May 1978

Primo Levi (1919-1987): Pliny, translated by Ruth Feldman with Brian Swann, in Collected Poems, 1988

File:HistoireDesMétéores - p419.jpg

The Death of Pliny the Elder (reconstruction, according to the account of his nephew Pliny the Younger
): Yan Dargent, 1870, illustration in Histoire des météores; image by LBE, 28 June 2013
Meanwhile broad flames shone out in several places from Mount Vesuvius, which the darkness of the night contributed to render still brighter and clearer. But my uncle, in order to soothe the apprehensions of his friend, assured him it was only the burning of the villages, which the country people had abandoned to the flames: after this he retired to rest, and it is most certain he was so little disquieted as to fall into a sound sleep: for his breathing, which, on account of his corpulence, was rather heavy and sonorous, was heard by the attendants outside. The court which led to his apartment being now almost filled with stones and ashes, if he had continued there any time longer, it would have been impossible for him to have made his way out. So he was awoke and got up, and went to Pomponianus and the rest of his company, who were feeling too anxious to think of going to bed. They consulted together whether it would be most prudent to trust to the houses, which now rocked from side to side with frequent and violent concussions as though shaken from their very foundations; or fly to the open fields, where the calcined stones and cinders, though light indeed, yet fell in large showers, and threatened destruction. In this choice of dangers they resolved for the fields: a resolution which, while the rest of the company were hurried into by their fears, my uncle embraced upon cool and deliberate consideration. They went out then, having pillows tied upon their heads with napkins; and this was their whole defence against the storm of stones that fell round them. It was now day everywhere else, but there a deeper darkness prevailed than in the thickest night; which however was in some degree alleviated by torches and other lights of various kinds. They thought proper to go farther down upon the shore to see if they might safely put out to sea, but found the waves still running extremely high, and boisterous. There my uncle, laying himself down upon a sail cloth, which was spread for him, called twice for some cold water, which he drank, when immediately the flames, preceded by a strong whiff of sulphur, dispersed the rest of the party, and obliged him to rise. He raised himself up with the assistance of two of his servants, and instantly fell down dead; suffocated, as I conjecture, by some gross and noxious vapour, having always had a weak throat, which was often inflamed. As soon as it was light again, which was not till the third day after this melancholy accident, his body was found entire, and without any marks of violence upon it, in the dress in which he fell, and looking more like a man asleep than dead.

Pliny the Younger to the historian Cornelius Tacitus, on the death of his uncle Pliny the Elder, 79 AD; from The Letters of the Younger Pliny, translated by Betty Radice, 1976

Mount Vesuvius at Midnight, 1868. Albert Bierstadt (American, 1830–1902). Oil on canvas; 42.60 x 60.70 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of S. Livingstone Mather, Philip Richard Mather, Katherine Hoyt (Mather) Cross, Katherine Mather McLean, and Constance Mather Bishop 1949.541
Mount Vesuvius at Midnight: Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902), 1868, oil on canvas; 42.6 x 60.7 cm (Cleveland Museum of Art)


TC said...

Pliny the Elder, the great first century Roman natural philosopher, and Primo Levi, a chemist, were scientists by inclination, given to the close observation of natural phenomena.

Certain key details of the final hours of both these men of enquiring mind have engaged historians, ancient and modern, in some debate.

The story of Pliny's last hours as given here comes from a letter addressed twenty-seven years after the event to Tacitus by the Elder Pliny's nephew and heir, Pliny the Younger. A differing account given by Suetonius is speculative, and largely hypothetical.

The precise manner of the coming of the end for Primo Levi remains a matter of mystery and controversy.

Diego Gambetta: Primo Levi's Last Moments


The Earth followeth next: unto which along of all parts of the world, for her singular benefites wee have given the reverent and worshipfull name of Mother. For like as the Heaven is the (mother) of God, even so is she of men. She it is that taketh us when we are comming into the world, nourisheth us when we are new born: and once being come abroad, ever sustaineth & beareth us up: and at the last when we are rejected and forlorne of all the world besides, she embraceth us: then most of all other times, like a kind mother, she covereth us all over in her bosome: by no merit more sacred than by it, wherwith she maketh us hold and sacred; even bearing our tumbes, monuments, and titles, continuing our name, and extending our memorie, thereby to make recompence and weigh against the shortnesse our age: whose last power wee in our anger with to be heavie unto our enemie, and yet she is heavie to none, as if we were ignorant that she along is neg3r angry with any man. Waters ascend up, and turn into cloueds, they congeale and harden into haile, swell they doe into waves and billowes, and downe they hasten headlong into brookes and land floods. The aire is thickened with clouds, and ragteth with winds and stormes. . . .

from Plinius Secundus, "The Historie of the World" (trans Philemon Holland, London, 1601)

Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore said...

From the virgin-thirsty Aztecs to now, volcanos have always fascinated us, and hellish visions (or hell's appeasement — "throw another virgin on the barbie, or another Barbie into the flames...") somehow so much a part of that fascination. Here's a take on it... with all honor due to all Plinys everywhere...


Approach the rim of a volcano
notice its molten ruby cast
the fiery frothing restlessly of roiling spew
walk a little closer to the grate of Hell
and look down past the flimsy iron bars and note
how redder how hotter how angrier and ready to

Well I’ve lost interest in describing it any further
it’s past my bedtime and past my
powers of description or perhaps I just don’t
want to believe in Hell I just want to believe in
grottoes of ivy-clinging rock walls and fountains so
crystalline and plentiful at every turn and in
every vista

Let Hell burn in its own fires
let its roar be muffled in my ears

but authorities better than I warn that it’s near
and won’t be ignored when the body’s spirit is
loosed into its native world
and the pendulum hung from unfathomably high
swings way back this way to show the cool snows and
green valleys of bliss’s endlessness

and then swings way forward to reveal
the atomic migraine the bone-crushing endless cancerous
neuralgia of Hell without letup
and our souls nudged toward the
pendulum’s judicial slice forever into either
one or the other
10/302001 (from Where Death Goes, The Ecstatic Exchange)

Hazen said...

under a red and black sky
the stink of sulphur and
a life coming undone
as the world cracks apart.
wait a minute,
are we leaving Hell
or arriving at that storied place

TC said...

Steve, Daniel, Hazen,

Many thanks, and it is strangely consoling to know I am not the only person impelled to meditation by such phenomena. There's something eerie about the way a great volcanic eruption seems to freeze human time in its moment.

Friedrich Hölderlin: Empedokles (Into the Volcano)

The Gardens of Pompeii

I shall now attempt to coax my grotesquely deformed digits to erupt with such typing as required to give what I was too lazy to provide earlier, that is, the run-up to the passage I've quoted from the letter of Pliny the Younger to Tacitus, about this uncle's final hours.

"He was at that time with the fleet under his command at Misenum. On the 24th of August, about one in the afternoon, my mother desired him to observe a cloud which appeared of a very unusual size and shape. He had just taken a turn in the sun and, after bathing himself in cold water, and making a light luncheon, gone back to his books: he immediately arose and went out upon a rising ground from whence he might get a better sight of this very uncommon appearance. A cloud, from which mountain was uncertain, at this distance (but it was found afterwards to come from Mount Vesuvius), was ascending, the appearance of which I cannot give you a more exact description of than by likening it to that of a pine tree, for it shot up to a great height in the form of a very tall trunk, which spread itself out at the top into a sort of branches; occasioned, I imagine, either by a sudden gust of air that impelled it, the force of which decreased as it advanced upwards, or the cloud itself being pressed back again by its own weight, expanded in the manner I have mentioned; it appeared sometimes bright and sometimes dark and spotted, according as it was either more or less impregnated with earth and cinders. This phenomenon seemed to a man of such learning and research as my uncle extraordinary and worth further looking into.

TC said...


"He ordered a light vessel to be got ready, and gave me leave, if I liked, to accompany him. I said I had rather go on with my work; and it so happened, he had himself given me something to write out. As he was coming out of the house, he received a note from Rectina, the wife of Bassus, who was in the utmost alarm at the imminent danger which threatened her; for her villa lying at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, there was no way of escape but by sea; she earnestly entreated him therefore to come to her assistance. He accordingly changed his first intention, and what he had begun from a philosophical, he now carried out in a noble and generous spirit. He ordered the galleys to be put to sea, and went himself on board with an intention of assisting not only Rectina, but the several other towns which lay thickly strewn along that beautiful coast. Hastening then to the place from whence others fled with the utmost terror, he steered his course direct to the point of danger, and with so much calmness and presence of mind as to be able to make and dictate his observations upon the motion and all the phenomena of that dreadful scene. He was now so close to the mountain that the cinders, which grew thicker and hotter the nearer he approached, fell into the ships, together with pumice-stones, and black pieces of burning rock: they were in danger too not only of being aground by the sudden retreat of the sea, but also from the vast fragments which rolled down from the mountain, and obstructed all the shore. Here he stopped to consider whether he should turn back again; to which the pilot advising him, "Fortune," said he, "favours the brave; steer to where Pomponianus is." Pomponianus was then at Stabiae, separated by a bay, which the sea, after several insensible windings, forms with the shore. He had already sent his baggage on board; for though he was not at that time in actual danger, yet being within sight of it, and indeed extremely near, if it should in the least increase, he was determined to put to sea as soon as the wind, which was blowing dead in-shore, should go down. It was favourable, however, for carrying my uncle to Pomponianus, whom he found in the greatest consternation: he embraced him tenderly, encouraging and urging him to keep up his spirits, and, the more effectually to soothe his fears by seeming unconcerned himself, ordered a bath to be got ready, and then, after having bathed, sat down to supper with great cheerfulness, or at least (what is just as heroic) with every appearance of it."

TC said...

And by the by, in case anybody else has considered the possibility, however remotely, however briefly, of an impulsive leap down a narrow stairwell, it's hard to imagine such an ending as preferable to, say, a leap into the crater of an erupting volcano.

Just saying... in any event, Diego Gambetta's narrative (see link) makes for compelling reading, and gives rise to a fair amount of afterthought as well -- particularly on the subject of foregone conclusions causing impulsive limited-view leaps into foam-cushion piles of bias and received opinion.

Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore said...

This is interesting, considering our recent volcanic contemplations —

Wooden Boy said...

It's an odd thing, the uses people make of such deaths. They have to serve as a term within a myth.

A chemist's poem if ever there was one.

I love the matter-of-factness of the second text.

TC said...


Interesting indeed. The mystery deepens.

"Where did this old ash come from?" the archeologist said, poking about in the ruins.


Some people will believe what they wish to believe. This must be the origin of mythology. Desire, need.

The epistle of the Younger Pliny to Tacitus is indeed a wonderful piece of reporting, and respectful to boot.

Perhaps if Tacitus were alive and writing his history now, his correspondents would be encouraged to a similar acuity and generosity of response.


TC said...

When asked by an interviewer about his Pliny poem, in which it's suggested the natural philosopher's "old body's atoms / Will be whirling, dissolved in the vortices of the universe, / Or live again in an eagle, a young girl, a flower...", Primo Levi answered: "I am not thinking of anything metaphysical. It is an idea as old as the world. It is found in Pythagoras and Lucretius. And besides, the fathers of chemistry in the last century taught that the oxygen we breathe comes from plants, and that the substance that plants and woods are made of comes from the carbon dioxide that we, and all the other animals, produce during our life and after our death."



Thanks for the "run-up" to the passage from Pliny -- good typing! What calm amid such chaos, how he "ordered a bath to be got ready, and then, after having bathed, sat down to supper with great cheerfulness, or at least (what is just as heroic) with every appearance of it." And how, just before the end, how he "called twice for some cold water, which he drank, when immediately the flames, preceded by a strong whiff of sulphur, dispersed the rest of the party, and obliged him to rise. He raised himself up with the assistance of two of his servants, and instantly fell down dead." "Heroic" indeed, and "respectful to boot."

By the way, the passage above from "The Historie of the World" comes from my next door neighbor Sean Thackrey's website (, who's put together a wonderful compendium of texts on the making and understanding of wine from Xenophon, Vitruvius and Pliny the Younger through to the 19th century. (Maybe you knew him?) You might want to check it out. . .

TC said...


Natural philosophy must have provided a wonderful character-bulwark against vicissitude. And in the case of Pliny Senior, that is one serious case of vicissitude. (It's now generally thought it was the ashthma did him in. An acute attack.)

A whiff of the legendary vintages of your next door neighbor reached as far as my willing imagination c. a decade ago, when Hanford generously announced he had a bottle of Sean's wine saved up for us ... and then began to drift away, when Hanford showed up and announced he had, alas, forgotten it. But I can still attest to the power of the anticipatory imagination of its virtues!



Just now finding this -- I should bring you a bottle of one of those "legendary vintages" (one of these days) . . . .