Learn Latin Harry Mount

Les­son 26

The Oldie - - CONTENTS -

On 24th Au­gust AD 79, the most fa­mous vol­canic erup­tion in his­tory let rip. The best ac­count of it is by Pliny the Younger, the lawyer and writer who hap­pened to be right next to Ve­su­vius when it erupted, and went on to write grip­ping let­ters about it to his pal Tac­i­tus the his­to­rian. To deepen the drama, Pliny’s un­cle, Pliny the El­der, a writer and philoso­pher, was killed.

You are now so good at Latin that you can trans­late Pliny the Younger’s nice, straight­for­ward prose about those dread­ful days.

Here he is, on the mo­ment he first spot­ted the vol­cano erupt­ing. His de­scrip­tion was so ac­cu­rate that sim­i­lar events to­day are de­scribed as Plinian erup­tions. Here, he com­pares the vol­canic cloud to a pine tree – what we now call a mush­room cloud. See if you can trans­late it.

‘ Nubes — in­cer­tum procul intuen­tibus ex quo monte; Ve­su­vium fuisse postea cog­ni­tum est — oriebatur, cuius simil­i­tudinem et for­mam non alia magis arbor quam pi­nus ex­presserit.’

At this point, Pliny’s brave un­cle, a keen nat­u­ral­ist, de­cided to get on a boat and sail closer to the vol­cano to study it. Pliny wisely chose to stay at home and fin­ish some writ­ing ex­er­cises his un­cle had set him – the only known

oc­ca­sion that home­work has saved some­one’s life. Grad­u­ally, the vol­cano grew more and more vi­o­lent. Trans­late please.

‘ Nam cre­bris vastisque tremoribus tecta nuta­bant, et quasi emota sed­ibus suis nunc huc nunc il­luc abire aut re­ferri vide­ban­tur. Sub dio rur­sus quamquam lev­ium ex­e­so­rumque pumicum ca­sus metue­batur.’

By this stage, even Pliny the El­der tried to find a way to sail back. But it was too late. Here is his nephew’s ac­count of his last hours.

‘ Deinde flam­mae flam­marumque prae­nun­tius odor sulpuris alios in fugam ver­tunt, ex­ci­tant il­lum. In­nitens ser­vo­lis duobus as­sur­rexit et sta­tim con­cidit, ut ego col­ligo, cras­siore calig­ine spir­itu ob­structo, clau­soque stom­a­cho.’ Again, Pliny the Younger’s mov­ing de­scrip­tion of his un­cle’s death is ap­par­ently sci­en­tif­i­cally cor­rect. It seems that his un­cle was killed by the vol­cano’s sixth and fi­nal py­ro­clas­tic surge – a mix of rock and gas – that pre­vented him launch­ing his boat. These surges are made up more of gas than rock, mean­ing Pliny the El­der wasn’t killed by fly­ing stone, or lava, but poi­soned gas.

The preser­va­tion of Pom­peii and Her­cu­la­neum is a mir­a­cle; Pliny the Younger is the best guide to the hu­man cost of that mir­a­cle. HARRY MOUNT

An­swers on page 97. The first 25 lessons are avail­able at www.the­oldie.co.uk/learn­latin. Save thirty per cent on Harry’s on­line Latin course with the Idler Academy. Go to http:/ idler.co.uk/prod­uct/course­learn-latin-with-harry-mount­part-one/.

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