Literature: The Issues of Pliny

Literature: The Issues of Pliny

Pliny the Younger’s account of the Pompeii disaster is in the form of two letters, which was sent to the historian Tacitus. The following two letters to the distinguished Roman historian Tacitus are probably the most famous of the Younger Pliny’s 247 letters of personal correspondence. Pliny was seventeen at the time Vesuvius erupted and these two letters are the earliest recorded description of the eruption of a volcano and are regarded as the beginning of the science of volcanology.

Pliny the Younger wrote letters both for private and public consumption, conveying his experiences and ideas to educated persons. In 79 A.D. 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.”

However, this primary source has large issues dealing with bias and creditability, specifically with the death of Pliny the Elder. These two letters portray the “heroism” of Pliny the Elder, for he sent boats from across the Bay of Naples to rescue Roman civilians, as he held the position of fleet commander for the Roman Navy. Specifically, Pliny the Elder was preparing to cross the Bay of Naples to observe the phenomenon directly, however, when a message arrived from friends begging for rescue his plans changed. He also supposedly launched the galleys under his command so as to evacuate the opposite shore of people, while taking a smaller boat (and a crew) to rescue his friends, a decision that may have cost him his life. Pliny the Younger provided an account of his uncle’s death, which was obtained from the survivors, as he and his mother had decided not to go on the voyage across the bay, due to wanting to continue activities of leisure and writing.

In comparison, the written fragment from Suetonius states a less flattering view, where Pliny approached the shore only from scientific interest and then asked a slave to kill him to avoid heat from the volcano. However, this is not as credible a source, as it is clear from Pliny the Younger’s account that the persons Pliny the Elder came to rescue escaped to tell the tale of his death in detail. Suetonius continues in his fragment by hypothesising that these survivors could have either murdered him or ended his suffering, as they lived through these fatal events themselves, while Pliny the Elder did not.

Also, these the two letters, though written from different perspectives, are essentially parallel synchronous accounts of a single natural (and historical) event. Nonetheless, no scholar has sought to expand upon what Pliny tells us about the interrelationship of these two accounts, or to consider how such an interrelationship, should it exist, might bear upon the meaning of each letter taken individually.


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