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from the series

Through the Eyes of...

Pliny the Younger (Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, a.d. 62-113)

Account of the eruption of Vesuvius

It was almost dawn, but it was slow and seemed to hesitate. Around us, houses began to crack open and even though we found ourselves outside, the narrowness of the streets made us fear their inevitable collapse. We then decided to flee the town; the dazed populace followed, choosing, as their panic converted into caution, to make theirs the advice of others. Soon an immense horde pushed us hurriedly toward the outskirts of town. As soon as we escaped the city walls we halted, overcome with shock and fright. Although the ground appeared firm, the carts we hauled were sliding in every direction, even when we wedged their wheels with stones. Also, the sea had noticeably retreated, as if driven away by the quaking earth. 

The tidal region was enlarged and a great number of  marine creatures lay stranded on the exposed sand. On our other side, a horrendous black cloud, pierced by fiery vapors twisting convulsively, threw up long flames like huge thunderballs. No sooner had we sat to rest, than all became dark, not like a moonless night or overcast weather, but like a closed room without light. We heard women lamenting, babies complaining, men calling, some for their parents, some for their children ; some called their wives and tried to recognize their voices ; here some complained of their fate, there others complained of the fate of their loved ones. Others, out of the fear of death, begged the darkness to take them. Many reached toward their gods, many more maintained their gods had abandoned them and that this final night would be eternal.

Amidst all the real dangers were also false rumblings and the frightening lies of those who wandered about proclaiming to all who would listen that in Misene this quarter had collapsed or another was burningall of which was untrue. A pale light reappeared which we recognized, not as the day, but an advance sign of fire. Fortunately, it went no further and we were again buried in darkness accompanied by the heavy rain of ashes. We had to wash ourselves often to get rid of it, otherwise we might have been entirely coated and suffocated under the weight.

Finally the black clouds began to fade, diluting like smoke or fog, and then the real day appeared, the sun as well, but with that sickly look it gets during an eclipse. To our troubled eyes, the countryside seemed strange under its heavy coat of ashes instead of snow.

We returned to Misene and recouped our strength as well as we could, spending the night torn between hope and fear.

-Epistolae, Liber VI, 20,6 et sequ.

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