It was a gloriously sunny August afternoon and the Bay of Naples was filled with pleasure-craft.
|Escaping Vesuvius: danger for asthmatics|
From his couch on the terrace of his villa, Pliny the Elder could just make out the distant peak of Mount Vesuvius. He gazed at it lazily, only half aware that something was not quite right. A large cloud of dust and steam could be seen pouring from its peak. The dust was shooting upwards and outwards and was threatening to obscure the sun.
Pliny struggle up from his couch - he was overweight and had just eaten a generous lunch - in order to look at the volcano more closely.
‘The cloud was rising from a mountain…’ wrote his young nephew who was with him on that day in AD 79. ‘I can best describe its shape by likening it to a pine tree. It rose into the sky on a very long trunk from which spread some branches.’
|Pliny: large and asthmatic|
He would later recall Pliny’s curiosity at the shape of the cloud. ‘The sight of it made the scientist in my uncle determined to see it from closer at hand.’
This was easily arranged. Pliny the Elder was commander of the Roman fleet at nearby Misenum and he was able to put to sea almost immediately. As his quadrireme was being prepared, he received a desperate message from one of his friends, a lady named Rectina.
Her country villa lay at the foot of Vesuvius and she was close enough to feel the earth beneath her growling and gurgling. She knew that the volcano was about to blow its top.
|Vesuvius: a wall of fire|
Pliny realized that if Rectina was trapped, then so were thousands of others. The Vesuvius shoreline was popular with the wealthy Roman elite who had built luxurious villas in the shadow of the volcano. For all of them, the only escape was by boat.
As Pliny set out across the bay, the dangers intensified. ‘Ash was falling onto the ships now, darker and denser the closer they went. Now it was bits of pumice, and rocks that were blackened and burned and shattered by the fire.’
|The fit and healthy stood the best chance of survival|
The volcanic eruption grew increasingly menacing and it was soon belching ash, rock and highly toxic chemicals. The air was soon so choked with ash that it became hard to breath, especially for Pliny who suffered from asthma.
A violent wind drove the vessel in to the bay of Stabiae and it was not long before Pliny was stepping ashore. He was greeted by an old friend named Pomponianus and the two men started discussing how best to deal with the growing crisis.
Pliny realized that everyone in Stabiae faced serious danger. The wind that had helped him into the bay was now preventing anyone from leaving.
As the sky grew darker, the rumbling of the volcano increased in intensity. ‘Broad sheets of flame were lighting up many parts of Vesuvius; their light and brightness were the more vivid for the darkness of the night.’
Pliny remained calm in the face of crisis. He was weary after the sea journey and his belly was empty. His first priority was to eat.
On the mountain, a highly sinister chain of events was unfolding. The volcano had started to self-destruct, sending a lethal tide of toxic gas and molten rock down the slopes.
|Preserved as ash: the ones who didn't make it.|
Soon, rivers of burning lava and mud were cascading downwards, destroying everything that lay in their path. There was no hope of escape for those who’d remained in their homes. They were gassed to death and then buried under a blanket of lava.
When Pliny glanced outside, he was horrified to see that the street was already half filled with ash. He realized that he and Pomponianus had only two choices: to remain in the building and risk being buried alive, or to flee and take their chances with the falling rocks.
But fleeing presented him with a problem. His large belly and asthmatic condition meant that he was slow on his feet.
As the building shook violently, they chose the latter option, tying pillows to their heads and making for the shore. But Pliny soon found himself struggling to make headway and gasping at the noxious air.
‘He drank once or twice from the cold water he had asked for. Then came an smell of sulfur, announcing the flames, and the flames themselves, sending others into flight but reviving him.’
|Bay of Naples: as it is today|
With the help of two slaves, he once again struggle to his feet. But then his knees gave way and he collapsed, wheezing and spluttering as he slowly suffocated.
‘As I understand it,’ wrote his nephew, ‘his breathing was obstructed by the dust-laden air, and his innards, which were never strong and often blocked or upset, simply shut down.’ Within a few minutes, Pliny was dead.
The fate of Pomponianus remains a mystery. He was probably among the 16,000 citizens of Pompeii and Herculaneum who were buried alive.
Many died of thermal shock; others suffered a more agonizing death, roasted alive by the burning lava.
Pliny was one of the few whose corpses was recovered from the disaster. ‘His body was found untouched, unharmed, in the clothing that he had had on,’ wrote his nephew. ‘He looked more asleep than dead.’
I am the author of seven works of narrative history including the best-selling Nathaniel's Nutmeg and, most recently, Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War. If you'd like to buy my books, click here for UK readers and here for US readers. For more information about my books, visit www.gilesmilton.com