Today's Reading


Darker than Night

Lucky, I think, are those men with a god-given gift for doing what deserves to be written about or writing what deserves to be read—and very lucky are those who can do both. Through his own books and yours, my uncle will be one of these.
—Pliny the Younger to Tacitus, Letter 6.16

The crisis began early one afternoon when Pliny the Younger was seventeen and staying with his mother and uncle in a villa overlooking the Bay of Naples. His mother noticed it first, 'a cloud, both strange and enormous in appearance', forming in the sky in the distance. Pliny said that it looked like an umbrella pine tree, 'for it was raised high on a kind of very tall trunk and spread out into branches'. But it was also like a mushroom: as light as sea foam—white, but gradually turning dirty, elevated on a stem, potentially deadly. They were too far away to be certain which mountain the mushroom cloud was coming from, but Pliny later discovered it was Vesuvius, some thirty kilometres from Misenum, where he and his mother Plinia were watching.

The cape of Misenum was famous for its sea urchins and even more so for its harbour, which was home to one of Rome's two imperial fleets. Its name preserved the memory of Misenus, trumpeter of Aeneas, who fought alongside Hector in the Trojan War and escaped the burning citadel only to perish 'in a death he did not deserve'. 'In his foolishness,' said Virgil, 'he happened to fill the waves with sound by blowing into a seashell, and summon the gods to a song contest.' Triton, son of the sea god Neptune, drowned him in his envy. It was in the course of gathering wood for Misenus' funeral pyre, in the volcanic region of Cumae, that Aeneas discovered the golden bough that secured his entry to the Underworld.

Pliny the Elder, Pliny's maternal uncle, was admiral of the fleet, in charge of maintaining and fitting out the boats which served predominantly 'as protectors' of the seas off Italy. On the morning the cloud appeared, he had risen early as usual, bathed, lunched, and was working when, at around midday, his sister came to tell him what she had seen. Abandoning his reading and calling for his shoes, he made his way to a higher vantage point for a better view.

Pliny the Elder was a historian and a naturalist as well as an admiral. He had recently finished writing his thirty-seven-volume encyclopaedia on natural history, a few passages of which were concerned with the world's volcanoes. He had described Mount Etna in Sicily glowing through the night and 'covering in frost the ash it ejects' when snow lay over its surface. He had described, too, the volcano Cophantus in Bactria, north of the Hindu Kush, and Mount Chimaera in Lycia (in southern Turkey), where the fires allegedly grew when it rained but could be extinguished by earth or manure. He had written of a crater in Babylon that threw up flames like fish, and of volcanoes in Persia, Ethiopia, and the Aeolian islands. But not of Vesuvius. In the Natural History, Vesuvius is simply a vineyard-covered mountain watered by the River Sarno and visible from Pompeii. If Pliny the Elder knew it was a volcano at all, he thought it was extinct.

He gave the impression that the region of Campania was too green and well-watered to burn, with 'plains so fertile, hills so sunny, glades so safe, woods so rich in shade, so many bountiful kinds of forest, so many mountain breezes, such fertility of crops and vines and olives, fleeces of sheep so handsome, bulls with such excellent necks, so many lakes, and rivers and springs which are so abundant in their flow, so many seas and ports, the bosom of its lands open to commerce on all sides and running out into the sea with such eagerness to help mankind!'. 'Lucky Campania', mused Pliny the Elder, was where Nature had gathered all her gifts.

The grapevines were especially famous. An ancient wall painting from the region shows the wine god Bacchus, dressed in a handsome bodysuit of grapes, surveying the vines on the lower slopes of a mountain—in all likelihood Vesuvius itself. An enormous snake, the 'Good Spirit' of vineyards, is depicted in the foreground of the painting. It was by snapping off these long, trailing vines, weaving them into ladders, and lowering themselves onto a plain beneath the slopes of Vesuvius that Spartacus and his men had managed to launch a surprise attack on the Romans, drive them back, and take over their camp during their uprising in 73 BC. Almost a century after Spartacus was defeated, the Greek geographer Strabo noted the presence of blackened stones towards the summit of the mountain and suggested that the ash of fires 'since quenched' had contributed to the fertility of the soil, as it had upon Mount Etna. If fires were responsible for the success of Vesuvius's grapevines, however, there was no suggestion that they had not been extinguished for good. Vesuvius first erupted about 23,000 years before and had now been dormant for approximately 700 years—dormant, but as alive as the crops which enveloped it. Like a snake, it was now sloughing its skin.

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