Pliny the Younger, to whom we are indebted for the only contemporary account of the great eruption under consideration, was at the time of its occurrence resident with his mother at Misenum, where the Roman fleet lay, under the command of his uncle, the great author of the “Historia Naturalis”. His account, contained in two letters to Tacitus (lib. vi. 16, 20), is not so much a narrative of the eruption, as a record of his uncle’s singular death, yet it is of great interest as yielding the impressions of an observer. The translation which follows is adopted from the very free version of Melmoth, except in one or two places, where it differs much from the ordinary text. The letters are given entire, though some parts are rather specimens of style than good examples of description.
“Your request that I should send an account of my uncle’s death, in order to transmit a more exact relation of it to posterity, deserves my acknowledgments; for if this accident shall be celebrated by your pen, the glory of it, I am assured, will be rendered forever illustrious. And, notwithstanding he perished by a misfortune which, as it involved at the same time a most beautiful country in ruins, and destroyed so many populous cities, seems to promise him an everlasting remembrance; notwithstanding he has himself composed many and lasting works; yet I am persuaded the mention of him in your immortal works will greatly contribute to eternize his name. Happy I esteem those to be, whom Providence has distinguished with the abilities either of doing such actions as are worthy of being related, or of relating them in a manner worthy of being read; but doubly happy are they who are blessed with both these talents; in the number of which my uncle, as his own writings and your history will prove, may justly be ranked. It is with extreme willingness, therefore, that I execute your commands; and should, indeed, have claimed the task if you had not enjoined it.
“He was at that time with the fleet under his command at Misenum. On the 24th of August, about one in the afternoon, my mother desired him to observe a cloud which appeared of a very unusual size and shape. He had just returned from taking the benefit of the sun, and, after bathing himself in cold water, and taking a slight repast, had retired to his study. He immediately arose, and went out upon an eminence, from whence he might more distinctly view this very uncommon appearance. It was not at that distance discernible from what mountain the cloud issued, but it was found afterward to ascend from Mount Vesuvius. I cannot give a more exact description of its figure than by comparing it to that of a pine tree, for it shot up to a great height in the form of a trunk, which extended itself at the top into a sort of branches; occasioned, I imagine, either by a sudden gust of air that impelled it, the force of which decreased as it advanced upwards, or the cloud itself being pressed back again by its own weight, and expanding in this manner: it appeared sometimes bright, and sometimes dark and spotted, as it was more or less impregnated with earth and cinders.