My dear Tacitus,
You ask me to write you something about the death of my uncle so that the
account you transmit to posterity is as reliable as possible. I am
grateful to you, for I see that his death will be remembered forever if
you treat it. He perished in a devastation of the
loveliest of lands, in a memorable disaster shared by peoples and cities,
but this will be a kind of eternal life for him. Although he wrote a great
number of enduring works himself, the imperishable nature of your writings
will add a great deal to his survival.
Happy are they, in my opinion, to
whom it is given either to do something worth writing about, or to write
something worth reading; most happy, of course, those who do both. With
his own books and yours, my uncle will be counted among the latter. It is
therefore with great pleasure that I take up, or rather take upon myself
the task you have set me.
He was at Misenum in his capacity as commander of the fleet on August 24, when between 2 and 3 in the afternoon my mother
drew his attention to a cloud of unusual size and appearance. He had had a
sunbath, then a cold bath, and was reclining after dinner with his books.
He called for his shoes and climbed up to where he could get the best view
of the phenomenon.
The cloud was rising from a mountain-at such a distance
we couldn't tell which, but afterwards learned that it was Vesuvius. I can
best describe its shape by likening it to a pine tree. It rose into the
sky on a very long "trunk" from which spread some "branches." I imagine it
had been raised by a sudden blast, which then weakened, leaving the cloud
unsupported so that its own weight caused it to spread sideways. Some of
the cloud was white, in other parts there were dark patches of dirt and
ash. The sight of it made the scientist in my uncle determined to see it
from closer at hand.
He ordered a boat made ready. He offered me the opportunity of going
along, but I preferred to study-he himself happened to have set me a
writing exercise. As he was leaving the house he was brought a letter from
Tascius' wife Rectina, who was terrified by the looming danger. Her villa
lay at the foot of Vesuvius, and there was no way out except by boat. She
begged him to get her away.
He changed his plans. The expedition that
started out as a quest for knowledge now called for courage. He launched
the quadriremes and embarked himself, a source of aid for more people than
just Rectina, for that delightful shore was a populous one. He hurried to
a place from which others were fleeing, and held his course directly into
danger. Was he afraid? It seems not, as he kept up a continuous
observation of the various movements and shapes of that evil cloud,
dictating what he saw.
Ash was falling onto the ships now, darker and denser the closer they
went. Now it was bits of pumice, and rocks that were blackened and burned
and shattered by the fire. Now the sea is shoal; debris from the mountain
blocks the shore. He paused for a moment wondering whether to turn back as
the helmsman urged him. "Fortune helps the brave," he said, "Head for
At Stabiae, on the other side of the bay formed by the gradually curving
shore, Pomponianus had loaded up his ships even before the danger arrived,
though it was visible and indeed extremely close, once it intensified. He
planned to put out as soon as the contrary wind let up. That very wind
carried my uncle right in, and he embraced the frightened man and gave him
comfort and courage. In order to lessen the other's fear by showing his
own unconcern he asked to be taken to the baths. He bathed and dined,
carefree or at least appearing so (which is equally impressive).
Meanwhile, broad sheets of flame were lighting up many parts of Vesuvius;
their light and brightness were the more vivid for the darkness of the
night. To alleviate people's fears my uncle claimed that the flames came
from the deserted homes of farmers who had left in a panic with the hearth
fires still alight. Then he rested, and gave every indication of actually
sleeping; people who passed by his door heard his snores, which were
rather resonant since he was a heavy man. The ground outside his room rose
so high with the mixture of ash and stones that if he had spent any more
time there escape would have been impossible.
He got up and came out,
restoring himself to Pomponianus and the others who had been unable to
sleep. They discussed what to do, whether to remain under cover or to try
the open air. The buildings were being rocked by a series of strong
tremors, and appeared to have come loose from their foundations and to be
sliding this way and that. Outside, however, there was danger from the
rocks that were coming down, light and fire-consumed as these bits of
pumice were. Weighing the relative dangers they chose the outdoors; in my
uncle's case it was a rational decision, others just chose the alternative
that frightened them the least.
They tied pillows on top of their heads as protection against the shower
of rock. It was daylight now elsewhere in the world, but there the
darkness was darker and thicker than any night. But they had torches and
other lights. They decided to go down to the shore, to see from close up
if anything was possible by sea. But it remained as rough and
uncooperative as before.
Resting in the shade of a sail he drank once or
twice from the cold water he had asked for. 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 two days after
he died, his body was found untouched, unharmed, in the clothing that he
had had on. He looked more asleep than dead.
Meanwhile at Misenum, my mother and I--but this has nothing to do with
history, and you only asked for information about his death. I'll stop
here then. But I will say one more thing, namely, that I have written out
everything that I did at the time and heard while memories were still
fresh. You will use the important bits, for it is one thing to write a
letter, another to write history, one thing to write to a friend, another
to write for the public.