Today's Reading

Pliny's mother stayed close by him as the ash fell. He took her firmly by the hand so as not to repeat Aeneas' mistake. Leaving the carriages behind, they hurried on by foot while there was still enough light to see. At Pliny's suggestion they left the main path so as not to be trampled by the crowd in the darkness. At one point they paused to rest and the cloud made night of day.

This day, which had struck the people at Stabiae as blacker than any night they had ever experienced, seemed to Pliny 'not so much a moonless or cloudy night, but as if the lamp had gone out in a locked room'. He might still have been in his study had it not been for the screaming:

You could hear the wailing of women, the cries of babies, the shouting of men. Some were calling for their parents, others for their children, others for their partners, trying to make out their voices. Some wept for their own fate, others for those of their relations. There were some who prayed for death through fear of death. Many raised their hands to the gods; more reasoned that there were now no gods anywhere and that the night would last forever and ever across the universe.

Was this the end of the world? Was this the ekpyrosis the Stoic philosophers feared, the fire that closed one life cycle and opened another? Was this the moment 'Titan Sun casts out day' and 'a kind of death and chaos overcomes/ all the gods together and/ death sets itself upon itself...?'

Pliny's uncle had feared the coming of the conflagration. He had noticed that sons were now shorter than their fathers and taken this as a sign that the human seed had begun to dry in the approaching flame. If anyone needed proof of how dramatic the shrivelling of man had been, then he provided it in his description in his encyclopaedia of an ancient corpse measuring twenty metres tall that had been uncovered in a mountain on Crete. Split open during an earthquake, the mountain appeared to have yielded the body of a giant. Some believed it was Orion, whom Jupiter, king of the gods, placed in the sky as a constellation. Others said it was the remains of Otus, son of Neptune. But could it not have been human? The body of mortal Orestes, son of Agamemnon, had already been exhumed and measured at over three metres tall.

Pliny the Elder had resorted to myth to explain the inexplicable and now the younger Pliny imagined himself inhabiting epic. The desperate women and infants of Campania were like the souls of the Virgilian Underworld. Pliny was Aeneas, who in Virgil's poem is surrounded by the 'overwhelming sound of wailing/ and weeping spirits of infants, whom the black day/ stole away, ripping them from the breast at the very threshold/ of sweet life, and plunged into bitter death'. He was in a living h ell. He was not even particularly close to the volcano. He could only have imagined the depths of hell others had now entered. Pliny was as much a visitor to Misenum as Aeneas was to the Underworld. If only his escape could be as easy.

The people of southern Italy were not alone in their fear. The effects of the eruption were felt thousands of kilometres away, 'the amount of dust so great, all in all, that some reached Africa and Syria and Egypt, and some reached Rome, and filled the air above and cast the sun in shade'. This dust would later spread 'sickness and terrible pestilence' among the survivors. Its sudden appearance overhead was bewildering, even to the people of Rome, who 'did not know and could not imagine what had happened, but considered that everything had been turned upside down, and that the sun was vanishing into the earth, and the earth being raised to the heavens'. Some spoke of giants in the darkness, or spread false stories of the extent of the destruction. Others merely panicked. Pliny and his mother carried on, shaking themselves free of the ash that settled on their shoulders to avoid being 'smothered and overcome by its weight'. Unlike so many of the people around him, Pliny did not cry, because even in these dire moments he could reason, and in reasoning, he found something close to belief. His belief became his consolation when he told himself, 'Everything is dying with me, and I am dying with it.'

It was a few days before the darkness lifted. As it did, there was a glimmer of sunlight and Pliny's vision was restored. His first impression, upon turning back to Misenum with his mother to await news of his uncle, was that 'Everything had changed, buried deep in ash as if in snow.'

This excerpt ends on page 16 of the hardcover edition.

Monday we begin the book How We Learn by Stanislas Dehaene.

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