The Hearth of Vulcan

2011 Jeff Lynch

Vesuvio or Mount Vesuvius near Naples is still an active volcano. In the early spring of 1944 the last eruptions of the mountain occurred. The Fascist government of Benito Mussolini had been long since deposed in 1943. General Eisenhower had been made supreme commander of the Allied Forces over General Marshall’s head and planning for operation Overlord was well advanced. While the semi fascist Field Marshall Pietro Badoglio attempted uselessly to juggle power in Italy, the allied forces had been well and truly bogged down in the seemingly endless battles in central Italy. In the main the battles were by allied forces against German forces headed by General Kesselring.

Set battles such as Monte Cassio raged out of all control for months and nothing seemed to push the mainly American and English forces closer to Rome. In the mountains anti fascist partisans conducted classic guerilla sorties. Nearly all of Italy was by now thoroughly sick of war. Then the eruptions on Vesuvio began on January 8 and continued in a series of eruptions over the succeeding months. The villages of San Sebastiano and  San Massio were destroyed by massive lava flows on March 21 in that year. In fact the death toll might have been much worse had it not been for the prompt action of US officer Lt Col Kincaid who assembled twelve trucks to effect the rescue of locals in strife as the lava raced down. There was much confusion and panic in Naples too where 300 people had just been killed by a German air aid. They had not time to bury these people when the eruption on Vesuvius occurred.

Since that time the mountain has bided it’s time and there has been no more major eruptions since 1944.The Ancient Romans were aware that Vesuvio was a volcano alright but they believed that that the volcanic mountain was a dormant one. The Roman geographer Strabo who was born in either 63 or 64 AD, wrote of how Vesuvius had once been a dangerous volcano but was now extinct. He also was one of the Latin authors who waxed lyrical about the lushness of the Campania. In particular he pointed out that the slopes of Vesuvius were a marvel of nature

They would not have been aware either, of the massive devastation caused by the volcano in times immemorial. For in what is called the Avellino eruption devastated a far greater area of the one that so famously wiped out Pompeii later on. But this had occurred sometime around 1700 BC, in what we call the Bronze Age and although some folks may have been curious about some of the formations left behind, little would have been reckoned on those massive events.

But it would seem that the region of Campania has been devastated by serious earthquakes a long way back in time. So much so, that they are reckoned to be common place. Seventeen years before the eruptions that wiped out Herculaneum, Pompeii and other places in Campania there were serious and devastating earthquakes. In fact Pompeii had been severely damaged in the quakes of 62 AD. The town had not yet recovered from those blows when Vesuvio blew its top in 79 AD. The small town of Herculaneum was very rapidly overwhelmed. The larger Pompeii was struck by successions of pyroclastic attacks and people were dying up to say forty kilometers distance to the west, the south and the south west from Vesuvius.

This small essay was inspired by me coming across a new publication of Pliny the Younger’s famous letters to Cornelius Tacitus concerning the death of his famous Uncle, Pliny the Elder during the eruptions of 79 AD. The writer was but seventeen years old at the time and was an eyewitness to much of the activities during those two devastating days of destruction. It says a lot that Pliny that younger lived in this region with his uncle (Pliny the Elder) at all. The area around the Bay of Naples during these times was a place the Campania and where aristocrats lived and played.

About sixty years before Pliny the Younger was born the emperor Tiberius left Rome to retire on the island of Capri in the Bay of Naples. Nero’s wife was a Campanian and often lived here. All kinds of rich people kept holiday houses here and Pompeii was possibly already known to be a rather licentious if rather unremarkable country town. Pompeii stood back from the coastline a little. Herculaneum a little further to the north of Pompeii was wiped out even faster that Pompeii. It was a smaller town then the more famous Pompeii and was right on the coastline of the Bay. Naples was somewhat further to the north again and lay approximately at twice the distance away from the exploding volcano.

The first inkling of massive trouble was a massive explosion of Vesuvius at midday on August 24. The major effects continued on through the following day when Pompeii, Herculaneum and other places were successively destroyed. The huge cloud that formed above the mountain is carefully explained in Pliny the Younger’s most interesting letters. He describes the cloud as ‘resembling an umberella pine, since it rose up high just like a tree-trunk and then branched out in different directions, as I believe, because it was carried up by the first emission, and then, as it grew weaker or was overcome with it’s own weight, the cloud began to spread out and disappear.’

Pliny begins in a very matter of fact way, stating precisely where his famous uncle happened to be on august 24 in 79 AD.  He was with his family (including Pliny the Younger) at the port of Misenum lies near the western tip of Campania and is approximately 17 kilometres from Naples and maybe some 22 kilometres from Herculaneum as the crow flies directly across the Bay of Naples. Misenum lies far to the west of Mount Vesuvius but it too was affected by the eruption for Pliny was left there with his mother when his uncle took to the Bay of Naples in one of his galleys. Pliny has left us most graphic descriptions of the scenes at Miseneum as well.

Although he wrote these descriptive letters many years after the fact, Pliny’s s observations are reckoned by volcanologists to be scrupulously observed and described. In fact one of the earlier phases of volcanic eruptions in general, bears the name of the Plinial phase, as a tribute to the historian and essay writer’s enduring powers of description.

Pliny continues, ‘Meanwhile, from many places on Mount Vesuvius, broad bands of flames and soaring fires again began to blaze, their sparkling brightness increased by the dark  of night.’ Here, it really was night time as Pliny watches the bursts of flames from afar. The next day will dawn with very little light. Day will be almost like night then.

The magnum which had been building up for so long in the volcano had blown it’s way out of the mountain. The flames that Pliny describes are a part of the aftermath of the first explosions. But there are far worse effects to come soon. If we wonder how it came to be that we had these records of Pliny the younger at all, an interesting story appears. Pliny was already a mature man when he came to write down his famous descriptions of the eruptions. It seems that his friend Cornelius Tacitus had asked Pliny to write to him about the death of his famous uncle Pliny (the Elder) who died as a result of suffocation, chest aliments, or burns from the falling ash during the big blow on August 25, 79 AD. As I said before Pliny was writing about events that had occurred a long time ago. But he was for all that, an actual eyewitness.

I intend to use Pliny the Younger’s letters to the historian Tacitus in order to ascertain if the letters seem an accurate a picture of what occurred. Pliny was writing down his memories of the seventeen year old boy he was at the time. I wonder too, how much Naples was affected and I will try to point out to my reader what conditions pertained, to either ruin or save the various areas and towns in the Campania region.

Gaius Plinus Caecilius Secundis ( Pliny the younger) is well known to be a careful composer of speeches and letters. Some 248 of his letters have come down to us and they are said to be full of information and some might be better considered as ‘formal’ compositions on political and social events. He wrote eleven letters to Tacitus and the two letters, which concern us here are the letters which are known as letter 6.16 and letter 6.20.

Pliny opens the first letter by thanking Tacitus for his interest, ‘Thank you for asking me to write to you about my uncle’s death, so that you can give a more accurate account of it in your history.’

Already we know that it was Tacitus who initiated this interest in Pliny’s uncle. Pliny believes that Tacitus requires the information to use it in one of his famous histories and he appears glad to be able to help his friend in his project. I think that the knowledge that Pliny was asked to write these details down somehow gives his observations even more depth than if it was the case that he was writing them off his own bat so to speak.

Essentially it is not Pliny’s own project here then. It seems to give his opinions and observations more of the sense of accuracy or objectivity right from the outset. Now I attempted to follow up any of writings, which may have used what Pliny had told him. I cannot find it in his Annals, which his last (and unfinished) work. That is to say it has been handed down us incomplete. In fact the Annals ends in mid sentence, the conclusion being lost to us at least for ever. If we cannot see Pliny’s news from the two famous letters to Tacitus, it could be because it was in this missing section of his Annals . Or Tacitus might not have used the letters at all. We just cannot tell the truth of this matter now.

The famous man who is also an admiral, was as I have already said, based with his fleet at Miseneum. He received a note from one Rectina the wife of Tascius (not to be confused with the historian Tacitus). She pleaded with the admiral to save her and her family. She was apparently quite near the volcano and she thought that escape was only possible by boat. One wonders just how this message came to Pliny the Elder’s hands? Was it delivered by a messenger on land, or was it carried on the sea? It was during the early times of confusion after the initial eruptions. Many of the roads were probably already blocked. So I wonder how the message got to him at all? Perhaps it came to the Admiral of the Fleet by sea. We cannot know the answer to this at all, so we must accept the writer’s chronicle for the now and read on.

The Admiral immediately boarded a ship and started out onto the Bay of Naples to head in a south easterly direction towards the distressed people. He had made a decision to head for Stabiae where a friend called Pompanius lived. It was no great distance foe his galley or tireme to travel at all, but very soon the ship got into strife. There was a great hail of ash pumice and stones blackened by the fire raining down onto their ship.

We are told that the helmsman cried to the admiral to turn his trireme back but the admiral obstinately refused to. To make matters worse the water had become shallow by movement of the earth. The shore too was now blocked by the collapse of the mountain. I have read elsewhere that the land in places pushed out up to 400 metres into the sea so Pliny’s record of events does seem very accurate here.

The Admiral seems to have had second thoughts about his destination at this moment. Pliny the Younger has him say, ‘Fortune favours the brave: head for (my friend) Pomponianus’. Pomponanius was at Stabaie, separated by the middle of the bay (for the shore gradually curves around where the sea pours into the bay.)’

So Pliny the younger sees the dawn of the day after the eruption. He is in Misenum and  he says, ‘By now it was early morning (August 25), but the light was still faint and uncertain. Up to this point the surrounding buildings had been shaking and, although we were in the open air, we were still in great and real danger from collapsing buildings, for it was a confined space.’

The ash which has been blown out of Mount Vesuvius has caused the darkness that morning of the 25th that Pliny talks about. The first of the letters is basically about the fate of the writer’s uncle Pliny the Elder. The second letter informs Tacitus of what occurred to Pliny the younger and his family at Misenum. So it would seem that Pliny the Elder has given up the task of saving Rectina and her people now and headed for Stabaie instead. We are told that there was a strong tailwind, which was the reason that he could get ashore at all. Now when we look at the map of the Bay, we can see that the areas worst affected by the blasts lay either to the west or the south of Vesuvius. The Admiral begun his journey almost at the same latitude as the exploding mountain and was heading almost due south west to get to Stabaie.

And Stabaie is just to the south of the badly affected Pompeii. So it does appear then that the wind’s force was truly behind him as he headed for Stabae in his ship. It would seem that the prevailing winds were affecting the areas to the south and south west of the volcano. The sizeable town of Naples was further to the north and was then less affected. Coming ashore might have been the biggest mistake that the Admiral made though for he is immediately under attack from the ash, pumice stones and (presumably) the toxic gasses streaming on the winds from Vesuvius. He never manages to launch his ship again and finally he perishes there.

At Misenum the seventeen year old Pliny the Younger and the rest of his family have at least missed out on the pyroclastic blasts, the nuee ardente and hot mudslides that overtook Herculaneum and Pompeii. They decide that they should attempt to get away from Misenum. They were being followed by a throng of people. Apparently these folks believe that they will lead them into safety. Pliny sees and hears many strange and devastating sights in this short time.

He writes,
‘Then we saw the sea sucked out as if it was driven back by the upheaval of the earth. In any case the shore-line had receded, and many sea creatures were left stranded on dry sand.’

Ash is now falling densely all around them and as they fear that are about to be completely engulfed they leave the road before blackness falls. They sat down and this is what Pliny records now, ‘You could hear the howls of women, the wailing of babies, and the the shouts of men: some were looking for their spouses, trying to recognize their voices; some lamented their own misfortune, others that of their relatives; their were some who in their fear of dying begged for death; many raised their hands to the gods; still more concluded there were no gods left and that harsh and everlasting darkness had descended on the world.’

So Pliny the Younger’s group were alive, but struggling to stay together and keep alive. A little more light filters down to them soon. They could easily see the fiery blasts Coming from Vesuvius but at least the fires kept away from them at some distance. At last the ‘true’ daylight returns to the land and they begin to make their way back to Misenum. He is now almost at the end of his second letter but he leaves us with observations of a changed Campania.

He writes,
‘Our frightened eyes beheld a changed world-all around us everything was covered by deep ash, as if it were snow ... Fear predominated, for the earthquakes continued, and many frantic people, thanks to their terrifying prophecies, made their own and that of others seem ridiculous.’

We have experts who tell us that these letters are basically likely to be very accurate. Certainly they do paint a most graphic and pungent account of the events in Campania in just after the grape harvest period in the year 79 AD. Pliny wrote letters prolifically. I am I am told that many of the letters are most entertaining but I have not read them. Perhaps this little entry may inspire me to look further. 


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