When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE near the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, it killed thousands of people and wiped entire cities off the map - and a Roman teenager named Pliny the Younger saw it all. Though there were no survivors in Pompeii, there were witnesses from other cities and towns around the Bay of Naples who also experienced the eruption. Pliny the Younger was one of them, and his firsthand account of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius is the closest thing historians have to a record of what it was like in those terrifying final hours in Pompeii.
Pliny the Younger was around 18 years old when Vesuvius erupted. He and his mother, Plinia, were staying at his uncle Pliny the Elder's villa in Misenum, a Roman naval base on the Bay of Naples. Pliny the Elder, a celebrated scholar, commanded the Roman fleet at Misenum. On August 24, 79 CE, members of this small family went about their day as usual. But what began as a normal day in Misenum took a dramatic turn when Vesuvius began to erupt in the early afternoon.
Many other people likely saw the eruption that destroyed Pompeii, but none of them recorded their experience for historians to find. Pliny the Younger seems to have been the only witness who left a firsthand account of what happened in 79 CE. Several years after the event, he composed his recollections in a set of letters for the Roman historian Tacitus. Thanks to these ancient letters, scholars and armchair historians alike can get a sense of what it was like to live through one of the most infamous natural disasters in history.
The first real sign that trouble was brewing came in the form of a chilling cloud that stretched into the sky above the volcano. In the early afternoon on August 24, 79 CE, Pliny's mother pointed out the strange scene to her son and his uncle. Pliny the Younger later wrote:
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.
Although Pliny, his mother, and his uncle probably didn't realize it, the cloud they saw was actually a column of volcanic debris that had been spewed out of Vesuvius and into the sky.
The curious cloud that Pliny observed basically blotted out the sun, and an unsettling darkness spread across the Bay of Naples. In the cities closest to the volcano, Pompeii and Herculaneum, day became night. Pliny recalled that "a deeper darkness prevailed than in the thickest night."
Pliny and his mother were several miles from Pompeii, but even there, "a thick darkness settled upon" Misenum - an eerie darkness like "that of a room when it is shut up, and all the lights are put out."
When daylight was finally able to pierce through the terrifying darkness, Pliny remembered, "At last this dreadful darkness was dissipated by degrees, like a cloud or smoke; the real day returned, and even the Sun shone out, though with a lurid light, as when an eclipse is coming on."
The portentous cloud, the ominous rumbles, the bleak darkness - it's no wonder people around the Bay of Naples began to panic when Mount Vesuvius started erupting. Many people fled, fearing imminent death. Many others felt the world was ending.
As Pliny and his mother were trying to escape, they heard sounds of despair from others fleeing the volcano. Pliny recalled that the scene felt like the apocalypse:"Some [people were] lifting their hands to the gods; but the greater part [were] convinced that there were now no gods at all, and that the final endless night of which we have heard had come upon the world."
Those dark thoughts did not spare Pliny either, and he admitted:
I might boast that, during all this scene of horror, not a sigh, or expression of fear, escaped me, had not my support been grounded in that miserable, though mighty, consolation, that all mankind were involved in the same calamity, and that I was perishing with the world itself.
Pliny and his mother left Misenum when it became clear things were getting serious. They traveled a road with other evacuees, all of whom were absolutely terrified. Though the two couldn't see much - darkness had fallen - they could hear the voices of other people who feared their lives were about to end.
Pliny explained to historian Tacitus several years after the event:
You might hear the shrieks of women, the screams of children, and the shouts of men; some calling for their children, others for their parents, others for their husbands, and seeking to recognize each other by the voices that replied; one lamenting his own fate, another that of his family; some wishing to die, from the very fear of dying.
These ancient Romans, in what they thought were their last minutes of life, simply wanted to be reunited with loved ones.