The End of the World: in 79 CE

In 79 CE, the world did come to an end for the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum and other towns in the umbra of Mt. Vesuvius. Pliny the Younger (nephew of the great Roman admiral and naturalist who died on the beach at the Bay of Naples after inhaling noxious gases from the eruption) recounted the cataclysm in a letter to Tacitus. Nearly two millennia after the event, Pliny’s words (here translated by William Melmoth) remain the most compelling first-person account of a natural disaster I’ve ever read. One passage is especially evocative:

The ashes now began to fall upon us, though in no great quantity. I looked back; a dense dark mist seemed to be following us, spreading itself over the country like a cloud. “Let us turn out of the high-road,” I said, “while we can still see, for fear that, should we fall in the road, we should be pressed to death in the dark, by the crowds that are following us.” We had scarcely sat down when night came upon us, not such as we have when the sky is cloudy, or when there is no moon, but that of a room when it is shut up, and all the lights put out. You might hear the shrieks of women, the screams of children, and the shouts of men; some calling for their children, others for their parents, others for their husbands, and seeking to recognise each other by the voices that replied; one lamenting his own fate, another that of his family; some wishing to die, from the very fear of dying; some lifting their hands to the gods; but the greater part convinced that there were now no gods at all, and that the final endless night of which we have heard had come upon the world.

You can read a translation of the complete letter here.

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