A spectacular new exhibition at the Australian National Maritime Museum casts light on one of the ancient world’s most famous natural disasters – the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, which destroyed the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Escape from Pompeii curator Will Mather outlines the dramatic events and profiles Pliny the Elder, the Roman naval commander who recorded them.
Collecting material for a history of the Roman Empire, the historian Tacitus sent a letter to Pliny the Younger asking for an account of the death of his famous uncle, the polymath Pliny the Elder, who had died some 25 years earlier in 79 AD. Pliny’s gripping reply is the only eyewitness account of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which devastated Campania, burying the towns of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae. It is also the only account of Pliny the Elder’s attempted rescue of civilians from the disaster using the ships of the Roman navy – an effort that cost him his life.
An unlikely hero, Pliny was 55, overweight, asthmatic and a bookworm with a long list of published works to his name. His most famous work, his Natural History, still survives today. Published just before the eruption, it covers a huge range of natural history topics – astronomy, geography, zoology, botany, agriculture, medicinal drugs obtained from nature, mining and minerals – in 37 books. As he writes in his preface, the Natural History contains more than 20,000 facts mined from 100 authors, which he hoped would be a useful reference work for the masses, farmers and artisans. It is one of the few works to survive from antiquity, as it did indeed prove useful.
Pliny was born in Como in northern Italy at the foot of the Alps, a region that had only fairly recently been given Roman citizenship. In his discussion on wool Pliny recounts that his father remembered wearing rough woollen topcoats, while he recalled coats shaggy inside and out, as well as shaggy woollen waist bands – clearly they were not toga wearers. His family belonged to the equestrian class, just beneath the senatorial class in wealth and status.
Pliny did his military service in the cavalry on the German frontier. There he served with Titus, who would follow his father Vespasian to become emperor after the overthrow of the emperor Nero. Pliny did not seek any office under the flamboyant but murderous Nero. Only with the accession of Vespasian in 69 AD did Pliny take up public office, serving the new emperor as procurator in Roman provinces in France, Spain and North Africa. A procurator was a kind of chief financial officer of the province, there to assist the governor in financial matters but also to keep an eye on him for the emperor. When in Rome, Pliny served on Vespasian’s private advisory council, confirming he was in the inner circle of the new regime.
Around 76 AD he was appointed commander of the Roman naval base at Misenum on the Bay of Naples. This was the highest-paid and highest-ranking position outside Rome. The fleet had about 50 warships and 10,000 men, and was the largest military force in Italy, the legions being far away on the empire’s borders. Pliny was responsible for the whole of the western Mediterranean and, most importantly, Rome. In the absence of any enemies the fleet’s role was to suppress piracy and provide speedy communications throughout the empire.
Misenum was some 250 kilometres from Rome – not particularly close, but the Bay of Naples provided the best harbours along the entire west coast of Italy. Rome’s port at Ostia, at the mouth of the Tiber, was too exposed to storms and flooding to be used as a naval base, nor was it a good commercial port; 200 grain ships were destroyed in one storm there in 62 AD. With its two flooded volcanic craters Misenum proved ideal, providing an inner and outer harbour protected from winds and with beaches for careening ships. It could protect Rome’s main commercial port further along the Bay at Puteoli (Pozzuoli). The famous grain fleet from Egypt that fed Rome docked there, as the ships were too large for Ostia.
Puteoli was also the hub for luxury goods coming from the east, highly convenient for the Roman elite who chose the Bay of Naples as their favoured holiday destination, attracted by its beauty and climate. The volcanic action that made the great harbours also made the volcanic springs. The spa resort of Baiae, next door to Misenum, was particularly popular. Nowhere had more plentiful or more healing water, according to Pliny. Food was another attraction – the fish and shellfish were unequalled, and the volcanic soils made the area the most fertile in Italy.
From Pliny the Elder, Natural History III 60:
Next comes the well-known fertile region of Campania. In its hollows begin the vine bearing hills and the celebrated effects of the juice of the vine, famous the world over, and, as writers have said, the venue of the greatest competition between Bacchus and Ceres … These shores are watered by hot springs and in no seas can the repute of their famous fish and shellfish be equalled. Nowhere is the olive-oil superior, another object of mankind’s pleasure.
Across the bay, beneath Mount Vesuvius, Pompeii and Herculaneum tapped into this network. Herculaneum, favoured for its sea breezes, was more of a resort, while Pompeii with its river port – which also served three towns further inland – was more commercial. Both were wealthy and connected to the capital and to the wider Mediterranean world due to their position on the bay and, thanks to Vesuvius, the fertility of their lands.
Pliny had no wife or children of his own, and at Misenum his widowed sister and her teenage son, Pliny the Younger, lived with him. Around 1 pm on 24 August 79 AD, his sister drew his attention to a cloud of unusual shape and size, resembling an umbrella pine, rising from a mountain in the distance (later ascertained to be Vesuvius). Pliny’s interest piqued by what he thought was a relatively benign natural phenomenon, he ordered a Liburnian galley – one of the small, fast ships originally used by the pirates of Dalmatia – to be made ready to go and have a closer look.
He then received a message from his friend Rectina begging to be rescued. Her villa was at the foot of the mountain and the only escape was by sea (how she got the message to Pliny is not explained). Realising that people’s lives were in danger, he ordered out the warships to save as many people as possible. As his nephew Pliny the Younger described in Letters VI 16:
He changed his plans, and what he had begun in a spirit of inquiry he completed as a hero. He gave orders for the warships to be launched and went on board himself with the intention of bringing help to many more people besides Rectina, for this lovely stretch of coast was thickly populated.