BMCR 2022.12.08

Pliny and the eruption of Vesuvius

, Pliny and the eruption of Vesuvius. Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2022. Pp. 352. ISBN 9780415705462 $160.00.

Within Pliny the Younger’s epistolary corpus, the two letters on the eruption of Vesuvius (Ep. 6.16 and 6.20), with Tacitus as their famous addressee, have attracted most of the attention in scholarship on the Epistles. Numerous studies on these texts (which also have a long tradition of being read at school) have been published not only by philologists but also archaeologists, historians and vulcanologists. One would expect that by now everything important has already been said about these letters, but Foss succeeds in showing that there are still several aspects which deserve further discussion and analysis. An archaeologist, he examines the two Vesuvius letters from an interdisciplinary perspective, choosing a “multifaceted” approach, “from volcanology to verb forms; from chiasmus references to retracing coastlines”, as the preface announces (xv).

After a short prologue, the first chapter (“Two Plinys”) deals with the biographies of the elder and younger Pliny by providing the relevant sources with a translation (both literary and epigraphic). Regarding the Elder’s Historia Naturalis, which has often been tagged as an encyclopaedia, Foss argues that this label is anachronistic; instead, one could say that the work “became an encyclopaedia over time” (26). In addition to the epistolographer and his uncle, Foss also discusses the other characters who appear in the Vesuvius letters (Plinia, Rectina, Pomponianus, the anonymous friend from Spain and, of course, Tacitus the addressee) before rounding up the chapter with a section on how the two Plinys were often confused from antiquity until the 15th century.

The second chapter (“Two Letters”) is dedicated to the transmission of the text of Ep. 6.16 and 6.20. It provides figures of the stemma for Pliny’s manuscript tradition (figure 2.1, following the editions of Mynors and Stout)[1], a table with the key texts for Pliny’s letters with their sigla, shelfmarks, dates and contents (table 2.1), as well as a diagram of the genealogy of the manuscript and printed book tradition from antiquity to modern times (figure 2.2a–e). Foss discusses the history of the text of the Epistles, with a focus on the Vesuvius letters, and concludes that γ, θ, Μ, i, 04, and α are the principal sources for Ep. 6.16 and 6.20 (101).

In the third chapter (“Two Days”), Foss starts with examining literary, archaeological and volcanological evidence on the Bay of Naples before the eruption of AD 79. The central part of this chapter is dedicated to the question of the date of the eruption. For the year AD 79 our main source is Cassius Dio (66.20.3). Dio’s remaining account of the eruption, however, “mixes fancy with fact” (125) and seems to have been influenced by Pliny’s letters or Tacitus’ lost narration in the Historiae (128). For the time of the year, the oldest and best manuscripts of Pliny’s letters offer the reading nono (or nonum) kal. Septembres (August 24th). The date nonum kal. Novembris (October 24th), suggested by Borgongino and Stefani and adopted by Osanna[2] in connection with a charcoal inscription discovered in 2018, on the other hand, is based on incorrect presumptions, as Foss argues: “None of these studies have offered any new source arguments; they have just tried bending a corrupt date from the least reliable manuscript family into a shape that fits their preferred reading of the archaeological evidence” (132). Regarding the charcoal graffito, Foss argues that the inscription could have been written before AD 79, as “charcoal inscriptions can last indefinitely, especially if protected from sun and rain, as this one was” (132). Foss then continues to examine epigraphic, numismatic, climatological and botanical evidence for clues to whether the eruption was more likely to have happened in August or October. The last part of chapter 3 analyses the eruption sequence which is divided into three phases: the “opening act” (phase 1), the “towering cloud” (phase 2), and the “big blast” (phase 3). A diagram with a timeline (figure 3.4) as well as images (figures 3.5-3.12) illustrates the course of events over the two days.

Chapter Four is dedicated to letter 6.16 (“The Elder’s Story”) and leads us through the text paragraph by paragraph. Each section is first presented in the Latin original with a translation and a critical apparatus; Foss then discusses syntax, style and other literary techniques as well as archaeological and vulcanological evidence. The analysis is based on recent research on Pliny’s literary strategies and also contains stimulating observations, such as that by dramatizing the narration of Pliny the Elder leaving his house and starting his rescue mission, the Younger manages to make the reader “forget that the Elder did not personally save anyone at all” (185). A puzzling case in the narrative is the letter sent by a certain Rectina who asks to be rescued. The elder Pliny receives it in the moment where he wants to leave his residence in Misenum in order to study the cloud (6.16.8). If Rectina’s messenger was able to travel, why did Rectina stay in her home and not escape? Foss does not believe that this scene is entirely fabricated, as some scholars do, and discusses possible explanations. Regarding the narrative of the Elder’s sea journey Foss observes that “We almost forget Younger never witnessed any of this except by remote imagination and his uncle’s evidence …” (187). One aspect which is conspicuously absent in Pliny’s account of the eruption in letter 6.16 is the sound of the catastrophe: whereas visual descriptions dominate the narration, the only acoustic elements are the Elder Pliny quoting the proverb fortes Fortuna iuvat (6.16.11) and then loudly snoring in the house of Pomponianus at Stabiae (6.16.13).

Chapter Five on letter 6.20 (“The Younger’s Story”) proceeds in the same way as the previous chapter by examining the text paragraph by paragraph. Allegedly motivated by Tacitus, who wanted to learn more about the younger Pliny’s own fate during the eruption, the epistolographer composes a parallel narration. In connection with Pliny’s account of how he and his mother escaped from their house, Foss tries to reconstruct the route which they might have taken: “Judging by the geography of the promontory of Misenum and the timing of the story, the procession is likely to have moved WNW of the Roman port of Misenum toward the valley between Monte di Procida (Mons Misenus) and the hills southwest of Baiae (Figure 4.1, “A”, 234). Whereas letter 6.16 is dominated by visual elements (such as the famous ekphrasis of the volcanic cloud) and Pliny the Elder as the only acoustic source, in letter 6.20 the younger Pliny describes the sound of the panic which was caused by the eruption and the sudden darkness (6.20.14). Pliny’s use of the term lymphati (“deranged persons”), a hapax in the Epistles, might, as Foss suggests, have been inspired by a passage in the Historia Naturalis (8.185) on greges lymphati at the festival of Apis in Egypt (254). Both chapters on Ep. 6.16 and 6.20 are nicely illustrated and accompanied by images of paintings from the 18th and 19th century depicting the eruption, such as those by Felice Boscarati, John Martin and others.

The book is rounded off by a short epilogue, bibliography and index. Moreover, additional material, especially on the textual transmission, is available as an Online Resource at the Routledge website and will periodically be updated.

I have profited much from reading this book. It is well-researched, and its main strength lies in providing a welcome synopsis of the various disciplines which deal with Pliny and the eruption of Vesuvius. The book will certainly become a standard work for those studying and teaching the Vesuvius letters and, hopefully, encourage more interdisciplinary projects on the Epistles in general.

I have noted only a few typos and errors, such as “Helvidius Senecio” instead of Herennius Senecio (39) or the opening of Chapter Two with “Pliny’s Epistles had all been published near the end of the first decade of the first century” (68) instead of “the first decade of the second century”.[3]



[1] R.A.B. Mynors, C. Plini Caecili Secundi Epistularum Libri Decem (Oxford 1963); S.E. Stout, Plinius, Episulae. A Critical Edition (Bloomington 1962).

[2] M. Borgongino and G. Stefani, “Intorno alla data dell’eruzione del 79 d.C.”, Rivista di Studi Pompeiani 12/13 (2001-02): 177-215; M. Osanna, Pompei. Il tempo ritrovato, p. 138-53 (Milan 2019).

[3] I am indebted to Matthew Mordue who helped me polish the English of this review.