Pliny, martyr of volcanology

One morning in the year 79 of the 1st century, a curiously shaped cloud that looked like “a stone pine” could be seen from Miseno, a town 30 kilometers from Vesuvius that soon after would enter the vertiginous eruption that would end the lives of the inhabitants of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Pliny the Younger, who was more so than ever because he was 17 years old, and his mother were there. Both observed the rare phenomenon and alerted the uncle and brother, respectively, the fabulous Pliny the Elder, a whole walking encyclopedia and possibly the man with the greatest capacity for curiosity of his time who had led him to write 37 volumes of his Natural History, or what is the same, the compilation of all the knowledge known at that time. A Herculean company that with the same ambition would only be fulfilled with the Encyclopédie and the Enlightenment 1,700 years later. It is told by the British historian Daisy Dunn in Under the shadow of Vesuvius (Siruela) and these days we are all aware of the infernal flows and the clouds of toxic gas from the Cumbre Vieja volcano on La Palma and when Vesuvius itself continues I live as a volcano, although no movements have been detected in it since the 40s, it is good to remember the end of old Pliny, who was, among many other things, a martyr of volcanological science.

For a long time, it was believed that the two Plinios were one. And the truth is that they couldn’t be more different. Austere, the eldest, he used to steal hours of sleep to collect all the knowledge, he was also an admiral of the imperial fleet and a hard-working student of human races, of the history of Rome until the mandate of Nero, of botany, zoology, medicine, geography, cosmology and metallurgy. His nephew, adopted posthumously, more worldly, was a friend of the main intellectuals of his time, Tacitus or Suetonius, with whom he corresponded and was the heir to the legacy of his uncle, who left him his Natural History, the only one preserved work of Pliny the Elder. The young man dedicated his life to keeping the memory of his uncle alive with such effectiveness that the work was crucial in the knowledge of the Middle Ages.

Reality and fantasy

Read, with a 21st century mentality, today that magnum opus may seem simple and naive to us, but it cannot be denied entertainment. Plinio, it must be said, collected information but did not verify it, especially that which came from distant lands. Hence, a good part of his zoology mixes churras with merinas: real animals with dragons, basilisks capable of killing with their breath, and the catoblepas, which does so with their eyes. Or that in gynecological aspects, Plinio, who was never known as a woman, affirmed that “if pregnant women eat food with too much salt, the child can be born without nails.”

It is not uncommon for a lover of unleashed imagination like Borges to use Natural History as the starting point for his story Funes, the memorable one.

The immeasurable ‘Natural History’ is the only work of Pliny the Elder that is preserved


Let’s go back to Pliny, at the moment when he contemplated from the other side of the Bay of Naples the smoke that began to thicken in a strong pyroclastic flow. He decided to approach a phenomenon that he did not know first hand. In his defense, it must be said that although there had been many seismic movements in the area, then no one had linked the earthquakes with the volcanoes. The nephew wanted to stay and saved his life to witness the most famous eruption in history that he left described in his letters.

Image of Pliny the Elder The province

As an admiral, it was easy for the older Pliny to charter several quadriremes and a small troop to, as a good naturalist, carry out a more in-depth inspection (Daisy Dunn also points out a military motive, helping some troops installed south of Pompeii). While they passed ships fleeing the place, Plinio, without showing the slightest fear, did not change his route, dedicated to taking notes of the transformations of that cloud and the rain of ash and pumice stone. When they reach land, phlegmatic, he is able to take a bath.

The sage collected information but did not verify it, especially that of distant lands


The next day in Estabia, after trying to protect himself from the avalanche with a pillow over his head, he died on a beach, suffocated by smoke. He was the most famous victim of that tragedy. It gave its name, Plinian, to this type of eruption marked by fast and explosive gases and also to something, much more poetic, some cherries that grew on the slopes of Vesuvius, when the vegetation returned to that place and made us forget that for centuries. tragedy.


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