Giaus Plinius Caecilius Secundus, better known as Pliny the Younger was a lawyer, author, and judge of Ancient Rome. Pliny's uncle, Pliny the Elder,raised and helped educated him and both were eye witnesses to the 79AD eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Throughout Pliny's life, he wrote hundreds of poems and letter, starting at the age of 14, however his historically important writings were 2 letters written at 42, sent to his friend and famous historian, Tacitus. Tacitus requested Pliny to write to him about the events leading up to the death of his uncle in 79 AD, exactly 25 years later. These letters are the only surviving documents that show us, in detail, the events of the 79AD eruption and the key to knowing what life was like before and during this event for Romans.
Pliny's first letter (6.16) describes the actions made by his uncle during the eruption which ultimately lead to his death. "my mother drew his attention to a cloud of unusual size and appearance. He had had a sunbath, then a cold bath, and was reclining after dinner with his books... The cloud was rising from a mountain-at such a distance we couldn't tell which, but afterwards learned that it was Vesuvius. I can best describe its shape by likening it to a pine tree." Here it shows that even though a curious cloud has appeared, Pliny the Elder continues his daily routine , sunbathing, followed by a cold bath and a bit of food and study. The meal eaten was most likely prandium, lunch, as it is informal which is most likely the reason why Pliny mentioned that his uncle was reclined while he ate. The cloud that rose out of Mt Vesuvius is described here to resemble a pine tree - Stone Pine to be exact - that is found along the coast of Naples. Only those with a detailed knowledge of the nature found around Pompeii would make this connection. Pliny the Elder was known as a naturalist and a natural philosopher who would've taught Pliny about the plant life in detail, found around him. This eruption is now known as a Plinian Eruption by modern volcanologists in honour of the first detailed description provided by Pliny in letters.
"I imagine it had been raised by a sudden blast, which then weakened, leaving the cloud unsupported so that its own weight caused it to spread sideways. Some of the cloud was white, in other parts there were dark patches of dirt and ash." Here, Pliny is thinking in the mind of his analytical uncle, describing the cloud in the why he would, breaking down the details he sees. Pliny the Younger tries to explain the process of the developing shape of the cloud, volcanologists say that he isn't far off of what is actually happening, which has impressed many for many to come.
"Supported by two small slaves he stood up, and immediately collapsed. As I understand it, his breathing was obstructed by the dust-laden air, and his innards, which were never strong and often blocked or upset, simply shut down." Here, Pliny the Younger describes the cause of his uncles death. The cloud of poisonous Pyroclastic gas heading towards the beach where Pliny the Elder is located, causing widespread panic and bringing even thicker air. 2 slaves, help to prop Pliny up as his lungs and airways become blocked, full of ash, noxious gas and sulphur within the air. This would've caused him to become extremely light headed as not enough oxygen was getting to his brain, his organs would have soon failed, causing him to collapse a second time. This is very significant as it shows us the type of death many Pompeians would have had to experience if the Pyroclastic surge or the collapsing of buildings didn't kill them first.
In his second letter (6.20), Pliny the Younger describes his own actions during the eruption, explaining to Tacitus what he hear and saw as he fled his uncles villa with his mother. "There had been tremors for many days previously, a common occurrence in Campania and no cause for panic. But that night the shaking grew much stronger; people thought it was an upheaval, not just a tremor." At the beginning of Pliny's second letter to Tacitus, he writes that the tremors that were felt before the eruption was a regular occurrence in Campania, this gives me a clue to see why Pliny, his family and most of Pompeii didn't flee when they were first felt them. Only when the tremors got more and more violent, the Pompeians realised that these were not just small tremors, but large earthquakes. Today, we know that the tremors and earthquakes that they felt in 79AD was caused by the process of subduction and convection currents within the mantle trigger the pressurised hydrothermal fluids and/or the noise of the moving magma to from. "Behind us were frightening dark clouds, rent by lightning twisted and hurled, opening to reveal huge figures of flame. These were like lightning, but bigger." This is the earliest written account of volcanic lightening and has helped scientists and volcanologists today with the understanding of how volcanoes work and the natural process that occurs before and during eruptions. The lightening that is seen and described by Pliny is crated due to the movement of ash, causing a frictional charge to occur. When this charged ash comes into contact with the neutral charged rock or rock fragments, a path of ionized are conducts electricity in the form of lightening. This is similar to rubbing your feet on carpet to give someone a shock, but on a larger and more terrifying scale.
The letters (6.16 & 6.20) that Pliny the Younger wrote to Tacitus shows a in-depth look at what the eruption would have been like for those in both Pompeii, Herculaneum and cities or towns close by. However, you have to keep in mind that these letters may not be 100% accurate. This is because it was written approximately 25 years after the 79AD eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which tells us that some aspects of the eruption may have changed in his mind or become hazy over the many years. Many details of his uncle Pliny the Elder may have been over exaggerated in order to heroize him and the actions he made leading to his death. However, these letters are one of the only surviving written documents that describe the sights and even sounds of the eruption in so much detail which have helped us to understand how the eruption was caused and what destruction it made. Since Pliny had been taught by his uncle, who was a natural philosopher, he had extensive knowledge and insight that many others wouldn't have had.