Ecce Romani III Fabulae

Chapter 68: Background Information

Culture/History: A narrative about the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D.79

Grammar: None

The Images

  1. Map (p. 162) - Notice the position of Vesuvius. Herculaneum was upwind of the volcano's eruption on the 24th of August in 79. This city received only about an inch of ash but early the next morning a violent surge sent ash and hot gasses down the mountain. This was followed by hot mud. In a few hours Herculaneum was completely buried under 65 feet of volanic debris which, when cooled, acted like a cement topping. The following morning another surge sent 12 feet of debris on Pompeii which up to this point had survived the fall of hot ash and pumice. More than 2000 people were killed in Pompeii.
    Stabia was downwind of Pompeii and thus also was covered with hot ash and pumice storm. The bay was wild with huge waves caused by the earthquakes which accompany a volcanic eruption.
  2. Painting (p. 163) - The eruption has captured the imagination of many artists especially those of the 18th century.
  3. Sketch of a liburnica (p. 165) - also spelled liburna, was so named because the Romans copied the design from the pirates of Liburna, now part of the coast of Slovakia. It had two rows of oars and was very fast. In the stern there was a 'castle'where the steersmen control the ship with two very large oars (the rudders).
  4. Drawing of the Death of Pliny the Elder - p. 169

The Readings

This letter was probably written about 106. Vesuvius has erupted several times, the latest in 1944, after which the mountain was measured at 1277 meters, considerably less than after the eruption of 79. It is the only active volcano on the continent of Europe.

There are sensors along the rim to monitor activity. It is possible to climb Vesuvius. The easy way is to motor to the top via a road beginning near Herculaneum (Ercolano today). The road was constructed in 1845. It ends at Colle Margherita at 944 meters up. This allows a pleasant but steep walk to the summit on a path of volcanic ash. Your magistra rented a walking stick from a lady at the foot of the path for 100 lire. (at the time the exchange rate was about 1800 lire to a dollar; today one would use a Euro coin, about 5 Euro cents I suspect. The woman renting the walking sticks wanted to talk with me. Her son lived in Boston and she was anxious to talk about the U.S. so our conversation was with her speaking Italian and me combining Latin and French to come up with something she could understand. It worked.

In ancient times the slopes were covered with vineyards but there was also a heavily wooded section near the top, filled with wild boar.

With the exception of a few men with scientific bent such as Vitruvius and Strabo, most did not recognize that the mountain was the site of impending danger. There had been some earth shaking and destruction but nothing like that of A.D. 79.

Pliny the Younger's letter, part of which you will read, is fast moving and full of danger and drama. It is not easy Latin so pace yourself with the text. Pliny used asyndeton (missing conjunction), the historical present tense and ellipsis (the omission of a word such as a form of 'esse' with a participle).

Reading Notes

Passage A

  1. nonum - line 1 -- shortened form of 'ante diem nonum'
  2. non...pinus- line 5 -- The same shape as a mushroom cloud from a nuclear explosion; it refers to an umbrella pine
  3. noscendum- line 6 -- Treat as a future passive participle
  4. respondi...- lines 7 & 8 -- Pliny the Elders was helping his nephew with his education in rhetoric and presumably, had given him an assignment
  5. gubernacula- line 14 -- a metaphor

Passage B

  1. ruina- line 17 -- ablative of cause
  2. ibi...-line 20 -- The earthquake prior to the eruption may have caused a rise in the sea floor, making it difficult to reach Rectina's villa.
  3. complectitur...hortatur - lines 22-23 -- asyndeton

Passage C

  1. dicitabat - line 28 -- a frequentative or intensive verb. Formed from other Latin verbs these verbs denote repeated or intensified action. Thus rather that dicebat, dicitabat. Often the intensive meaning is lost and the verb has nearly the same meaning as the original. Note canto v. cano both meaning sing. One forms or recognizes a frequentative verb by adding an 'o' to the fourth principal part, such as accepto acceptare from accipio, accipere, accepi, acceptus. Or adding 'ito to the base of the present infinitive such as rogare becoming rogito. Frequentative verbs are usually 1st conjugation.
  2. se quieti dedit - line 28-- an idiom introduced in Book I, he gave himself to quiet, ergo, he rested.
  3. quasi emota...videbantur - line 35 -- Look for the similarity of Pliny's description of the real house shaken by an earthquake with that of Fannia's family in ch. 67 whose house, meaning family, was struck by an earthquake (metaphor).

Passage D

  1. dies - line 40 -- morning of 25 August.
  2. stomacho - line 46 -- Pliny may have suffered from asthma, thus the probelme would have been lungs, not windpipe.
  3. dies redditus - line 47 -- morning of 26 August
  4. corpus...similior - lines 48-49 -- Pliny the Elder was said to have not feared death. The fact that his body remained intact drives home the point that he did die a natural death and was not killed by slaves or looters once Pomponianus and company had left.

J. Jahnige, September 2003

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