August 28, 2016 12:33:31 am
On a doom-laden day in August, 79 AD Pliny the Elder, one of the most influential writers of classical Europe, vanished from human ken on the beach in Stabiae, a fashionable resort town of the period where Roman high society maintained villas. It is now the Naples suburb of Castellamare di Stabia, an excellent base for tourists visiting the Amalfi coast, Vesuvius and the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which the volcano’s 79 AD eruption destroyed. The natural fireworks also entombed Stabiae and ended the career of the elder Pliny, who was admiral of the Roman fleet in the Bay of Naples, a close friend of the emperor Vespasian and famed for his Naturalis Historia, the world’s oldest known encyclopaedia, released in 77 AD.
Today, Castellamare is just a jumping-off place for day trips to tourist destinations in the vicinity, including Vesuvius, which is now an unremarkable hill trying to look harmless. It is way off the tourist trail, and visitors in transit gaze upon the little sliver of beach visible from their hotel balconies without quite realising that it was the stage for the dramatic scenes retold by the admiral’s nephew Pliny the Younger, in which the Roman rescue fleet taken out by his uncle was immobilised as the sea suddenly receded, leaving masses of marine life beached. Then, the ships may have been vapourised by the last pyroclastic surge from Vesuvius, a ground-hugging cloud of superheated ash which came boiling down to the sea at over 100 mph, and would have snuffed out all life in a fraction of a second.
At the request of Tacitus, the model historian of the age, Pliny the Younger wrote him two letters with detailed accounts of the final hours of the 79 AD eruption, the first real text in what would, almost two millennia later, become the discipline of volcanology. It is so detailed that similar eruptions are called Plinian. Many translations are available online and anyway, Pliny the Younger’s Latin is spare, lucid and easy to follow even if you don’t know the language. He was at Misenum, across the bay, from where his uncle sailed upon receiving a plea for help from a woman named Rectina, possibly the wife of his friend Pomponianus, who had a villa at Stabiae. It must have been a daunting task, reconstructing the last minutes of a holocaust from confused sources, with the knowledge that Tacitus, the most celebrated classical historian, could cite it in his work.
At the time, though, Pliny the Elder was the first among historians, and Tacitus quotes his history of Rome’s wars in Germania as the only source in his writing on the period. Indeed, Pliny had a ringside view, serving as a cavalry commander on the Rhine, where he may have picked up the shipboard training which eventually took him to Misenum as admiral — and to his death in Stabiae. Tacitus became popular because his version of the past was much shorter than Pliny’s, whose book was out of circulation by the 5th century.
The fact that Stabiae is only a jumping-off place for visitors headed elsewhere on the coast is quite surprising, given the number of Pliny fans the world contains. There should be millions in India, too, since fabulous stories concerning plants and animals of this region people his pages. Some of them, like the account of the banyan tree, are quite wrong — Pliny was misled by classical sources. But some stories, like that of the giant gold-digging ants of this region (taken from Herodotus), are so fantabulous that one wishes that they were true.
Actually, they could be. The ethnologist Michael Pessel suggests that these “ants” could be the marmots of Gilgit-Baltistan (you know where that is, the prime minister has made sure). Apparently, the locals remember a long tradition of lurking about while marmots dug their burrows, in order to sift the earth flung up for gold dust. Could this Pakistani version of 49ing ever have been a viable business model? But, perhaps, we treat the economic role of the animal kingdom far too disdainfully in our postindustrial age. It is interesting to learn that cormorants are still trained to catch fish in some parts of the world, like retrievers, and turncoat mallards are used to lure ducks to a shoot.
While Pompeii and Herculaneum have dominated disaster tourism in Italy, Stabiae has been late off the blocks. Only two of the villas which dotted the coast and hillsides have been excavated, but you can visit them for free without performing the dread feats of endurance and valour which are prerequisites for getting into popular Roman sites. Someday, these digs could be more interesting than the competition, thanks to Pliny the Younger’s account. Stabiae is the only place where the archaeological snapshot frozen in time almost two millennia ago can be correlated with a living account of one horrific day in 79 AD.
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