Pliny the younger, nephew of the Roman encyclopaedist of the same name, witnessed from a distance the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which destroyed Pompeii in 79 AD. He wrote about it to Tacitus, his mentor, who had prompted him for an account of his uncle’s death during the turmoil of that event. That this letter has survived is an astonishing feat of memory, and the text is itself much concerned with memory and mortality. Here is the opening passage, in the charming translation of Professor Cynthia Damon of Amherst College:
You ask me to write you something about the death of my uncle so that the account you transmit to posterity is as reliable as possible. I am grateful to you, for I see that his death will be remembered forever if you treat it. He perished in a devastation of the loveliest of lands, in a memorable disaster shared by peoples and cities, but this will be a kind of eternal life for him. Although he wrote a great number of enduring works himself, the imperishable nature of your writings will add a great deal to his survival. Happy are they, in my opinion, to whom it is given either to do something worth writing about, or to write something worth reading; most happy, of course, those who do both. With his own books and yours, my uncle will be counted among the latter. It is therefore with great pleasure that I take up, or rather take upon myself the task you have set me.
For the younger Pliny, then, his uncle has become a text. When read, he speaks again, for it was not until many hundreds of years later that people began to read silently. And his uncle will be counted among the happy because he is both read and written about. The younger Pliny was right in this regard – both he and his uncle have been remembered. But we must consider that they began with significant advantages. Their family were citizens of considerable substance and influence. Both had received the best that Roman education, or rather tutoring, could offer. Both were highly literate, disciplined and well-versed in rhetoric. Both were skilled in the politics of self-promotion and had at their disposal slaves and other servants who could see to the details of copying and disseminating the texts that they generated.
In his letters to Tacitus, the younger Pliny shows himself to have been an intelligent, observant young man (he was seventeen at the time), and it is precisely this wit and vivacity which he pits against the dark tide of oblivion that he experienced so graphically on the day of the eruption:
Now came the dust, though still thinly. I look back: a dense cloud looms behind us, following us like a flood poured across the land. ‘Let us turn aside while we can still see, lest we be knocked over in the street and crushed by the crowd of our companions.’ We had scarcely sat down when a darkness came that was not like a moonless or cloudy night, but more like the black of closed and unlighted rooms. You could hear women lamenting, children crying, men shouting. Some were calling for parents, others for children or spouses; they could only recognize them by their voices. Some bemoaned their own lot, others that of their near and dear. There were some so afraid of death that they prayed for death. Many raised their hands to the gods, and even more believed that there were no gods any longer and that this was one last unending night for the world… It grew lighter, though that seemed not a return of day, but a sign that the fire was approaching. The fire itself actually stopped some distance away, but darkness and ashes came again, a great weight of them. We stood up and shook the ash off again and again, otherwise we would have been covered with it and crushed by the weight. I might boast that no groan escaped me in such perils, no cowardly word, but that I believed that I was perishing with the world, and the world with me, which was a great consolation for death.
It was the inhaling of this ash, the younger Pliny reports, that killed his uncle after he had set forth to observe the eruption more closely, and to attempt to rescue whoever he could. Though they could not have known it, the ash was also performing its own act of memory, covering the town of Pompeii and its surrounds, freezing time for almost two thousand years.
The figure shown here was created, as I understand it, by casting with plaster or some such material into the negative space left behind in the packed ash after the ash had solidified and the unfortunate Roman’s body had leached away. In this respect, it reminds me in reverse of Michelangelo’s reported experience of ‘seeing’ the shapes he wished to create ‘inside’ the stone, and then treating his sculptural efforts as a sort of excavation which would reveal the forms. It is not a type of memory to which we would willingly submit ourselves, but it has conferred on many of the citizens of Pompeii and their slaves, servants, animals and possessions, a kind of anonymous immortality which has lasted as long as that of Pliny and his nephew.