Adrian Murdoch is a historian, journalist and broadcaster. A former senior correspondent and editor for Reuters, he is the author of a number of books, including “Rome’s Greatest Defeat: Massacre in the Teutoburg Forest”. Andrew Roberts named it one of the books of 2006 in the “Daily Telegraph” and Tom Holland called it “surely the definitive work on the massacre in the Teutoburger Wald”. He is also the co-translator of a book of Latin and Greek erotic literature, “Emperors of Debauchery: The Dedalus Book of Roman Decadence”. He has presented and appeared in a number of documentaries for the History Channel, National Geographic, PBS, ZDF and others. He has also worked as a consultant on a couple of films. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.
*The photograph taken by the news agency AFP/Getty makes it come alive. In the aftermath of the explosion of the Mount Sinabung volcano on Sumatra island, Indonesia, a group of five ladies is hurrying along the road. Behind them, the mountain can barely been seen, but its presence looms from the muddy blackness of the sky. All five ladies have thick clothing on and cushions on their heads.
This eruption is not one from ancient times, in fact Mount Sinabung erupted in mid June this year. But the photograph brings into focus the events of August AD79, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the destruction of Herculaneum, Pompeii, Stabiae and the other towns that lived on the mountain’s flanks in a way that other sources do not.
The problem that any modern writer has in trying to reconstruct a timeline for the eruption of what is arguably the most famous volcanic explosion in history is twofold. First is a lack of understanding of volcanoes. Indeed it could be argued that many writers choose the profession precisely because it involves a great deal of sitting down in libraries and very few geological explosions. Second, and more seriously, it tends to involve an overreliance on the Roman author Pliny the Younger.
Thanks to Pliny the Younger, it is possible to reconstruct what happened in the forty-eight hours that Vesuvius exploded in some detail. He wrote a famous eye-witness account of the eruption in two letters to his friend, the historian Tacitus who wanted to include an account of the eruption in a now missing part of his Histories.
As an historical account it is unique. But while numerous historians have focused on what Pliny says, very little has been written about how he says it. Indeed any flaws in his narrative tend to be conveniently brushed under the carpet.
For a start, the account isn’t remotely contemporary. It was written 25 years or so after the events it describes – probably in AD106-107. It is also a clever literary conceit/pastiche rather than reportage. One of the reasons that Pliny’s letter was saved and put into the collection of his writings is not just its unique perspective on the eruption, but also its style. Tacitus had originally written to Pliny to ask for the account of the death of his uncle, Pliny the Elder, who had a heart attack during the eruption.
Pliny the Elder, was prefect of the Roman fleet on the naval base at Misenum at the northern end of the Bay of Naples. He had served in Germany, Spain and Africa, but like his time in the army, his physical days were long behind him. He was fat, in his fifties and probably asthmatic. One of the great intellectuals of his ages, he was best known for his Natural History, one of the largest works to have survived from the Roman empire.
Pliny the Younger’s account of the events of 24-25 August is cleverly written in the style of his grandfather’s most famous book. As a literary construct it is brilliant, but inevitably there are flaws, and Pliny’s letters do not answer every question that one has.
Back to the ladies hurrying down the street. That single image manages to answer at least two questions about the eruption. First of all it confirms one point that Pliny makes. He writes: “As a protection against falling objects [the people of Pompeii] put pillows on their heads tied down with cloths.”
It is an image has always struck writers as slightly ridiculous and in many accounts of Vesuvius it is told in an almost humorous way – a lighter side of the eruption. But the grim look on the leader’s face is a useful reminder that this is not done for comic effect. The pillows fulfil a useful and essential role.
The photograph also helps with a more serious point: the date of the eruption itself. It is generally given as 24-25 August AD79 but not all scholars agree.
There is certainly considerable confusion of the date of the eruption in the manuscripts that preserve Pliny’s letters. The traditional date is given as “IX Kal. Septembris”. In the way that the Romans calculated days of the month, this means nine days before the Kalends or the beginning of September. Given that the Romans counted inclusively, this gives us the date of 24 August.
But although all manuscripts agree that the eruption happened in the autumn, the difficulty is that a number of different dates are given in different manuscripts including 30 October, 1 November and 23 November. It is clear that some of them are scribal error, but which ones?
Those in favour of a later date point to the clothing that the people of Pompeii were wearing. Plaster cast bodies in Pompeii show that many were wearing thick clothes and this is taken as proof of a drop in temperature as longer nights draw in.
Except that the photograph shows that that is not a valid argument. All of the ladies in the photograph are wearing thick, long-sleeved tops. Clothing has little to do with climate and more to do with protection.
Pliny the Younger’s accounts of the eruption of Vesuvius is a splendid resource, but it cannot be the only one. When trying to piece together the events of those fateful days, the writer must look beyond the literary for any hope of making sense of what happened.
*We are unable to use the photograph in this article.