On 24 August AD 79 the long dormant volcano of Vesuvius erupted with sudden and extreme violence. The seventeen-year-old Pliny the Younger, who was staying with his mother and his uncle at Misenum, 40 kilometres westward of the explosion, described the scene in a vivid letter to his friend, the historian Tacitus:
“In the early afternoon, my mother drew my uncle’s attention to a cloud of unusual size and appearance. He called for his shoes and climbed up to a place which would give him the best view of the phenomenon. It was not clear at that distance from which mountain the cloud was rising (it was afterwards known to be Vesuvius); its general appearance can best be expressed as being like an umbrella pine, for it rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches... My uncle’s scholarly acumen saw at once that it was important enough for a closer inspection, and he ordered a boat to be made ready, telling me I could come with him if I wished. I replied that I preferred to go on with my studies…”
As events turned out, Pliny the Younger’s commendable devotion to his homework saved his life, while Pliny the Elder’s insatiable curiosity – the chief relic of which is his encyclopaedic Naturalis Historia, treating of science, art, natural history and a multitude of allied subjects – proved to be the death of him. Sailing towards the curiously shaped cloud, he soon realised that it was raining a death-dealing mixture of ash and red-hot pumice on to the heavily populated coastline of the Bay of Naples. Trying to save a group of survivors fleeing from the catastrophe, he was overcome by sulphurous fumes and died on the beach near Stabiae.
Even as far...