The Story Book of Science  by Jean Henri Fabre

The Story of Pliny

"T O teach you what the cinders thrown up by a volcano can do, I am now going to tell you a very old story, just as it was transmitted to us by a celebrated writer of those old times. This writer is called Pliny. His writing is in Latin, the great language of those days.

"It was in the year 79 of our era. Contemporaries of our Savior were still living. Vesuvius was then a peaceful mountain. It was not terminated then, as to-day, by a smoking cone, but by a table-land slightly concave, the remains of an old filled-up crater where thin grasses and wild vines grew. Very fertile crops covered its sides; two populous towns, Herculaneum and Pompeii, lay stretched at its base.

"The old volcano, which seemed forever lulled, and whose last eruptions went back to times beyond the memory of man, suddenly awakened and began to smoke. On the 23d of August, about one o'clock in the afternoon, an extraordinary cloud, sometimes white, sometimes black, was seen hovering over Vesuvius. Impelled violently by some subterranean force, it first rose straight up in the form of a tree-trunk; then, after attaining a great height, it sank down under its own weight and spread out over a wide area.

"Now, there was at that time at Messina, a seaport not far from Vesuvius, an uncle of the author who has handed down these things to us. He was called Pliny, like his nephew. He commanded the Roman fleet stationed at this port. He was a man of great courage, never retreating from any danger if he could gain new knowledge or render aid to others. Surprised at the singular cloud that hovered over Vesuvius, Pliny immediately set out with his fleet to go to the aid of the menaced coast towns and to observe the terrible cloud from a nearer point. The people at the foot of Vesuvius were fleeing in haste, wild with fear. He went to the side where all were in flight and where the peril appeared the greatest."

"Fine!" cried Jules. "Courage comes to you when you are with those who are not afraid. I love Pliny for hastening to the volcano to learn about the danger. I should like to have been there."

"Alas! my poor child, you would not have found it a picnic. Burning cinders mixed with calcined stones were falling on the vessels; the sea, lashed to fury, was rising from its bed; the shore, encumbered with debris from the mountain, was becoming inaccessible. There was nothing to do but retreat. The fleet came to land at Stabiæ, where the danger, still distant, but all the time approaching, had already caused consternation. In the meantime, from several points on Vesuvius great flames burst forth, their terrifying glare rendered more frightful by the darkness caused by the cloud of cinders. To reassure his companions Pliny told them that these flames came from some abandoned villages caught by the fire."

"He told them that to give them courage," Jules conjectured, "but he himself well knew the truth of the matter."

"He knew it well, he knew the danger was great; nevertheless, overcome by fatigue, he fell into a deep sleep. Now, while he slept, the cloud reached Stabiæ. Little by little the court leading to his apartment was filled with cinders, so that in a short time he would not have been able to get out. They woke him to prevent his being buried alive and to deliberate on what was to be done. The houses, shaken by continual shocks, seemed to be torn from their foundations; they swayed from side to side. Many fell. It was decided to put to sea again. A shower of stones was falling—small ones, it is true, and calcined by the fire. As a protection from them, the men covered their heads with pillows, and going through the most horrible darkness, hardly relieved by the light of the torches they carried, they made their way toward the shore. There Pliny sat on the ground a moment to rest, when violent flames, accompanied by a strong smell of sulphur, put everybody to flight. He rose and then instantly fell back dead. The emanations, cinders, and smoke from the volcano had suffocated him."

"Poor Pliny! To be stifled to death like that by the horrible mountain, and he so courageous!" lamented Jules.

"Whilst the uncle was dying at Stabiæ, the nephew, left at Messina with his mother, was witness of what he relates to us. 'The night after my uncle's departure,' he tells us, 'the earth began to tremble violently. My mother hastened in alarm to waken me. She found me getting up to go and waken her. As the house threatened to collapse, we sat outside in the court, not far from the sea. With the carelessness of youth—I was then eighteen—I began to read. A friend of my uncle's came along. Seeing my mother and me both of us seated, and me with a book in my hand, he blamed us for our confidence and induced us to look out for our safety. Although it was seven o'clock in the morning, we could hardly see, the air was so obscured. At times buildings were so shaken that their fall was imminent at any moment. We followed the example of the rest and left the town. We stopped some distance off in the country. The wagons that were brought away swayed continually with the shaking of the ground. Even with their wheels blocked with stones they could hardly be held in place. The sea flowed back on itself: driven from the shore by the earthquake shocks, it receded from the beach and left a multitude of fish dry on the sand. A horrible black cloud came toward us. On its flanks were serpentine lines of fire like immense flashes of lightning. Soon the cloud descends, covering earth and sea. Then my mother begs me to flee with all the speed of my youth, and not to expose myself to imminent death by adapting my pace to hers, weighed down as she was by years. She would die content if she knew I was out of danger.' "

"And Pliny left his old mother behind in order to get away the faster?" queried Jules.

"No, my child, he did what you would all have done. He remained, sustaining and encouraging her, resolved to save himself with her or else die with her."

"Good!" cried Jules. "The nephew was worthy of his uncle. And then what happened?"

"Then it was frightful. Cinders began to fall; darkness descended, so intense that they could see nothing. There was general confusion, outcry, and moaning. Wild with terror, the people fled at random, knocking down and treading on those who were in their way. The greater part were convinced that that night was the last, the eternal night that was to swallow the world. Mothers went groping for their children, lost in the crowd or perhaps crushed under the feet of the fugitives; they called them with doleful cries to embrace them once more and then die. Pliny and his old mother had seated themselves apart from the crowd. From time to time they were obliged to get up and shake off the cinders which would soon have buried them. At last the cloud dispersed and daylight reappeared. The earth was unrecognizable; everything had disappeared under a thick shroud of calcined dust."

"And the houses, were they buried in the cinders?" asked Emile.

"At the foot of the mountain the dust thrown up by the volcano lay deeper than the height of the tallest houses, and whole towns had disappeared under the enormous bed of cinders. Amongst these were Herculaneum and Pompeii. The volcano buried them alive."

"With the inhabitants?" inquired Jules.

"With a small number, for most of them, like Pliny and his mother, had time to flee to Messina. To-day, after being buried eighteen centuries, Herculaneum and Pompeii are exhumed by the miner's pick, just as they were when caught by the cloud of volcanic cinders. Vineyards cover them where they are not yet cleared."

"These vineyards, then, are the roofs of houses!" said Emile.

"Higher than the roofs of houses. The traveler who visits the quarters not yet uncovered, but made accessible by means of wells dug for the purpose, descends underground to a great depth."