Literature: Ancient Sources

There exists at least four notable ancient sources which cover the eruption of Vesuvius.

Pliny the Younger:

Pliny the Younger wrote letters both for private and public consumption, conveying his experiences and ideas to educated persons. In 79 AD. Pliny witnessed the eruption of Mount. Vesuvius that took the life of his uncle Pliny the Elder, and through his letters of testimony written to Historian Tacitus, it was possible to reconstruct in detail the volcanic eruption. The Roman author Pliny the Younger, who witnessed the cataclysm from across the Bay of Naples, provided a vivid account in a letter to the Roman historian Tacitus: “Darkness fell, not the dark of a moonless or cloudy night, but as if the lamp had been put out in a dark room.”


The poet Papinius Statius made many references to the ruins caused by Vesuvius in his collection of poems “Silvae”. The poet lived in Naples for long time and was possibly there during the eruption, as he got a poetry premium in the town in 78 or 80 AD. Soon after he left and lived in Rome until 92. On that date he had to write a poem (Silvae III, 5) “Ad Claudiam Uxorem” to convince his wife to come back to Naples.

In this poem we find information on the state of the town at that date: “Non adeo Vesuvinus apex et flammea diri- montis hiems trepidas exhausit civibus urbes- stant populisque vigent (The summit of Vesuvius and the fire-storm did not made the anxious cities empty of men, they still live full of men); Hic auspice condita Phoebo tecta, Dicarchei portusque et litora mundi hospita; (Here you will see the temple of Phoebus and the port of Pozzuoli and its hospitable shores) (…) Nostra quoque et propris tenuis nec rara colonis Parthenope (Full of citizens and colonists is our dear Parthenope (Naples) (…) Has ego te sedes (…) transferre laboro, quas et mollis hiems et frigida temperat aestas, quas imbelle fretum torpentibus adluit undis (I want to to bring you to these places where the winter is sweet and the summer is fresh, where the sea lightly touches the land with lazy waves). According to these verses, we get the impression that Naples and all the region of Campi Flegrei had completely recovered from the damages of the eruption. Different was the condition in the immediate surrounding of Vesuvius.

Dio Cassius:

Dio Cassius reports some precursors of the eruption. He tells that for several days before the eruptions there were earthquakes and subterranean rumblings and giants were seen wandering on the earth (giants are a common feature associated with earthquakes and volcanic eruptions; Scandone, 1987).

The volcanic eruption of Vesuvius has been graphically described by Dio Cassius in his Roman History: “The whole plain round about [Vesuvius] seethed and the summits leaped into the air. There were frequent rumblings, some of them subterranean, that resembled thunder, and some on the surface, that sounded like bellowings; the sea also joined in the roar and the sky re-echoed it. Then suddenly a portentous crash was heard, as if the mountains were tumbling in ruins; and first huge stones were hurled aloft, rising as high as the very summits, then came a great quantity of fire and endless smoke, so that the whole atmosphere was obscured and the sun was entirely hidden, as if eclipsed. Thus day was turned into night and light into darkness … [Some] believed that the whole universe was being resolved into chaos or fire .… While this was going on, an inconceivable quantity of ashes was blown out, which covered both sea and land and filled all the air … It buried two entire cities, Herculaneum and Pompeii … Indeed, the amount of dust, taken all together was so great that some of it reached Africa and Syria and Egypt, and it also reached Rome, filling the air overhead and darkening the sun. There, too, no little fear was occasioned, that lasted for several days, since the people did not know and could not imagine what had happened, but, like those close at hand, believed that the whole world was being turned upside down, that the sun was disappearing into the earth and that the earth was being lifted to the sky.”


He is mainly remembered as the author of De Vita Caesarum—translated as The Life of the Caesars although a more common English title is The Lives of the Twelve Caesars or simply The Twelve Caesars—his only extant work except for the brief biographies and other fragments noted below. The Twelve Caesars, probably written in Hadrian’s time, is a collective biography of the Roman Empire’s first leaders, Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus and Domitian. The book was dedicated to a friend Gaius Septicius Clarus, a prefect of the Praetorian Guard in 119 AD. The work tells the tale of each Caesar’s life according to a set formula: the descriptions of appearance, omens, family history, quotes, and then a history are given in a consistent order for each Caesar.


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