• Weird History

There Was An Eyewitness To The Destruction Of Pompeii - Here's What He Saw

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.

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  • Photo: Carlo Bonavia / Wikimeda Commons / Public Domain

    Pliny's Uncle Tried To Rescue People By Boat

    When Pliny, his mother, and his uncle first observed a cloud hovering over Mount Vesuvius, they thought it was a curious sight, but not necessarily a sign of impending doom. That all changed when Pliny the Elder received a message from a friend.

    According to Pliny the Younger, his uncle's friend Rectina "was in the utmost alarm at the imminent danger from which threatened her; for her villa lying at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, there was no way of escape but by sea; she earnestly entreated [Pliny the Elder] therefore to come to her assistance."

    Pliny the Elder went into action. As commander of the Roman fleet at Misenum, he readied his boats and rushed to Rectina's aid. She wasn't alone; residents of nearby Herculaneum rushed to the beach, hoping they too could flee by boat.

    Neither Rectina nor the Herculaneum refugees were lucky. As Pliny the Younger remembered, his uncle's plans to help Rectina were foiled:

    He was now so close to the mountain that the cinders, which grew thicker and hotter the nearer he approached, fell into the ships, together with pumice-stones, and black pieces of burning rock: they were in danger too not only of being aground by the sudden retreat of the sea, but also from the vast fragments which rolled down from the mountain, and obstructed all the shore.

  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Pliny Recalled How Fiery Streaks From Mount Vesuvius Pierced The Darkness

    Pliny may have caught glimpses of the red-hot rock and lava bubbling at the top of the volcano. He recalled that "broad flames shone out in several places from Mount Vesuvius, which the darkness of the night contributed to render still brighter and clearer."

    But this bright spectacle wasn't limited to the top of Vesuvius. Pliny the Elder explained the fires as "the burning of the villages, which the country people had abandoned to the flames."

    Though a black cloud of gas and debris covered Pompeii in darkness, streaks of light still came through. Pliny the Younger remembered, "On the other shore, a black and dreadful cloud, broken with rapid, zigzag flashes, revealed behind it variously shaped masses of flame: these last were like sheet-lightning, but much larger." 

  • Photo: Carl Ludwig Rundt / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    At First, Pliny And His Family Were More Fascinated Than Alarmed By The Eruption

    Pliny's mother spotted a pine-tree-shaped cloud over Mount Vesuvius in the early afternoon on August 24, 79 CE. Though it was a strange sight, it wasn't necessarily alarming. In fact, Pliny's uncle - who was a naturalist and published author - was fascinated and wanted to get a closer look.

    "This phenomenon seemed to a man of such learning and research as my uncle extraordinary and worth further looking into," Pliny recalled. "He ordered a light vessel to be got ready, and gave me leave, if I liked, to accompany." The young man turned down the invitation: "I said I had rather go on with my work."

    Just as Pliny the Elder was about to leave, he received a desperate call for help from a friend near Vesuvius, and his scientific exploration turned into a rescue mission that ultimately led to his death.

  • The Earth Shook So Violently That It Frightened Pliny And His Mother

    Earthquakes were common around the Bay of Naples - so common, in fact, that most people discounted the tremors that foretold the eruption of Mount Vesuvius just days before the event. Even Pliny admitted he dismissed the rumbles: "There had been noticed for many days before a trembling of the earth, which did not alarm us much, as this is quite an ordinary occurrence in Campania."

    But after the volcano began erupting, terrifying earthquakes angrily rumbled. They even scared Pliny the Younger, who recalled, "It was so particularly violent that night that it not only shook but actually overturned, as it would seem, everything about us."

    That earthquake at least jolted Pliny and his mother into action and forced them to take their situation - and the natural disaster unfolding around them - seriously.