Saturday, April 07, 2012


Vesuvius by moonlight
It all started with the dreams. I had been having them for months. Well you couldn't really call them dreams once you saw what was inside them. It was fire and rivers of flaming death, people of Pompeii being engulfed by the blaze in the horrific streets and children screaming for their guardians with black sooty tears streaming down their blackened cheeks.

I used to wake from those dreams in a cold sweat, trying to shake off the nightmarish visions shooting like daggers into my mind. I shakily sat up and looked around with bleary eyes, and breathed a sigh of comfort.

I was not in a Hade's furnace but in the cool moonlit bedroom of our house in Pompeii. I threw back the light covers of the bed and silently slid my feet over the edge of the bed and onto the cold, stone floor panels. I needed a drink.

As quietly as I could I navigated my way through the dimly lit Atrium to the kitchen, my bare feet echoed through the house. I quickly got hold of the rope hanging like a snake over the top of the well, it was a modern inside well so the cook and maids would not have to go outside to wash or for water. I looked over the side and tried to see the bottom of the well, but it seemed to go to the centre of the earth, (good job the world is flat.) I said to myself recalling what my father had said to me the day before. The bucket came into view, I couldn't be bothered to get a glass. I lifted the heavy pale to my lips and let the water run down my parched throat.

I felt more alert now, and then I noticed a sound. There was a small growling coming from outside. I dropped the bucket back down the well and winced as it sploshed loudly into the water below, (guess it did have a bottom after all).

I warily tip-toed over to the window; the stars were glinting like precious stones in the velvet of the sky. Leaning out of the granite sill I peered down the street, expecting to see a stray dog wandering around, but there was nothing but the monochrome streets of Pompeii stretching far into the out of sight shadows.

I listened.... There it was again I scanned the horizon of moon swathed hills and a movement caught my eye. It was over the biggest mountain of all. Vesuvius. Squinting into the darkness I stared for a moment, then a burst of fiery, glowing sparks made me jump. I just froze with my eyes wide in terror. The ground shuddered beneath me. It jerked me into action I took to my heels and ran through the door and was over taken by the dog as I dashed back through the atrium, down the corridor and into my room and leaped like a hurdler into the covers. I yanked the covers over my head and clamped my hands over my ears, trying to block out the terrifying sound that had been haunting my dreams only minutes ago, the rumbling had grown louder but now it was calming into nothing again. The only thing that could keep me from screaming was the thin belief that this was not real and that I was dreaming." I'm dreaming" I whispered as the world fell away.Tm just dreaming..."

I opened my eyes groggily and pullingthe sheet off my head sat up. A maid bustled past the doorway and there were voices in the street outside, of merchants, slave dealers and children. I fell back against the pillows again, and studied the ceiling. Had it all been a dream? It was so real though, the shudder of the earth, the sparks, the cold of the stone floor. My little brother Acanthus rushed in pulling a wooden horse on heels behind him. He held it up to my face and attempted to make horse noises. I smiled and picked him up " Good morning Acan'" I said tickling his chubby tummy "Cassia!" he gurgled through ticklish laughs. He seemed to only be able to pronounce people's names so far.

Father seemed to be a little concerned about Acanthus, saying that most children aged 3 could speak fluently but Acanthus could only squeal and play make believe games with his toy animals. But to me he was the best little brother ever born. He ran out again, making unsuccessful dog noises as he went.

I fetched my robes from a neatly folded pile near the door, then promptly dropped them as a crash sounded from the street. I ran to the window clutching the crumpled garments round my bare arms. The crash had come from a stall selling chickens, one of the crates holding the birds had seemingly fallen off and the merchant was leaning down to pick it up, but no sooner than he had stooped, another chicken crate rolled off the pile. The merchant looked on in bewilderment before the chickens could escape any further down the street. I looked in the other direction and noticed the pandemonium that was breaking out with the animals. Bulls pulling at their nose rings, dogs yanking savagely on their leads and weirdest of all was the centurions sleek black horses rearing up in terror and making in gallop for the gates of Pompeii.

I ducked inside the window again and shivered, something wasn't right. The thing that unnerved me the most was the horses, they usually didn't flinch is they were prodded with a hot poker. But this was different, it seemed that they thought the only way to live was to get out of Pompeii. It was just so surreal.

Father suggested that we went around the market that day. I protested that I had a head ache in attempt to stay inside and ponder about the odd happenings. But my mother only said that the fresh air would do me good.

So after worshiping the house hold gods for the morning, we set out in our good robes and Acanthus in my mother's arms with pinched cheeks to make them look rosier than usual. We strolled down through the different stalls and tents browsing at the assorted merchandise that was on sale.

As we walked I noticed the air was anything but fresh, there was a stench of rotten eggs in the air and still the animals in the street were acting oddly. It seemed to me that any animal that was not tethered or ridden had disappeared. I shook my head, no it was just a coincidence.

I stopped at a stall selling bread and a plump woman smiled warmly at me from behind the table. The rolls were golden and risen so I smiled back and reached for my purse, then jumped back in alarm as a small brown object landed with a thump on the table. The woman screeched and I took a closer look at the thing, then gasped. It was a sparrow.

I picked it up, it was dead, but still warm. As I stroked the tiny bird, more soft thumps were happening around us. There were a few screams and then a stunned silence fell over the town. I turned round, to my horror the cobbles were strewn with feathered bodies. I put down the sparrow under a tree stump and choked back a tear. Suddenly the silence was broken and the townspeople started to chatter again. Some pinched themselves dazedly.

I was the first to move. I simply ran, I heard my father call after me but I didn't turn around I carried on running dodging around d the birds lying in my path. All of a sudden there was a sound, not quite a rumble, not quite a growl. Then I screamed that scream I had bottled up. All manner of living creatures came scuttling, running, crawling, running and slithering up behind me the townspeople had not screamed, but simply parted like the red sea in awe to let the creatures past. They were all heading for the gates and so was I. in the crowd of animals there were mice, rats, snakes, worms, lizards, cats, insects, and so many others. Then I turned to face them and the animals rushed past, in a stampede of fear, but I stood my ground the ground shuddered violently and in front of me the road buckled and I fell over as the earth itself tried to regain control of itself. Then my head snapped upward. And the sight was incredible. The mountain was swelling at the peak. The animals continued to flash past me but I could only hear my own heart in my ears. Then the summit exploded, sending boulders flying into the air and tumbling down onto nearby houses, the mountain started to bleed molten rock and I suddenly Knew the end was hear, with that my heart tried to beat out a life time's worth of beats in one minute, then one last rock came falling down towards me, I didn't try to move I just let it's shadow grow bigger around me and closed my eyes, what happened was right it was meant to be. It is destiny.

I love this entry in the 2011 Golden Sponge-stick Writing Competition by 12 year old Anna from Stamford High School. It is so descriptive and dramatic. It puts you right there during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Bene fecisti, Anna! 

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Letters to Procula

Facere Scribenda et Scribere Legenda: Words and Deeds in Pliny's Vesuvius Letters

Mark Wells as Pliny the Younger
IV a.d. Id. Aug.
Plinia Marcella sends greeting to Procula,
Although I most fervently protested our foolish excursion, Gaius Caecilius insisted that a summer at Misenium would do me good. There is no slight intended to you, my dear, but you must understand that he is yet a young man, and the looming prospect of impending marriage this fall seems only to encourage him to linger longer here by the Bay of Naples. Of course, he needs little encouragement to stay here with his uncle; the two of them have become thick as thieves ever since Gaius went away to Rome. The rhetoric he studied with Quintilian and Nicetes of Sacerdos was certainly evident when he so eloquently convinced me to venture to Misenium this summer! Though I know he is a grown man who has received a notable education and will soon marry you, a beautiful young woman of the best family, Procula, my heart still longs for my little boy whom I raised in my house after his father died when he was so young. I long for the days when Lucius Verginius Rufus (his guardian, you know) ordered his tutoring at home, and we would escape to Stabiae in the summers. Oh how wonderful were those days! In parting, I assure you that Gaius Caecilius looks forward to the wedding, and I shall remind him about writing to you. He will not forget his duty, do not worry!

Id. Aug.
Gaius Caecilius Cilo sends greeting to Procula,
So sorry to have put this off so long. Quite rude of me, I know. Anyhow, I remain entirely faithful and look forward with great anticipation to our wedding come fall. My Uncle Pliny is a great character, and I am sure you two would get along famously. A bit of an odd bird of course, but with a sharp mind like his, one cannot fault him! I should imagine that he would practically risk death to make an interesting scientific discovery. Well then, until the fall!

XIV a.d. Kal. Sept.
Plinia Marcella sends greeting to Procula,
You must have patience for Gaius Caecilius, my dear. Misenium has him quite distracted, and I can only imagine that his correspondence must be brief! But he is a learned man with his uncle's thirst for knowledge. You must allow him this summer to explore scholarly pursuits before the wedding and the start of his political career. You need not worry about him as a husband; he is not one to take needless risks, and he is far more likely to have his head buried in a book than to go out cavorting at all hours. His letters may seem flippant, but gravity of character is one thing that my son has been blessed with to an extreme degree. Ever since his father died when he was very young, Gaius has attempted to shoulder a responsibility as my protector, even though his guardian, Lucius Verginius Rufus, was entirely capable of providing for us. In short, dear Procula, do not fret about any reluctance Gaius Caecilius may show in his letters (or in his lack of letters). His intentions are good, his heart true, his intellect vast, but he is awfully shortsighted, and he is utterly devoted to scholarly pursuits with his beloved Uncle Pliny at the moment.

XI a.d. Kal. Sept.
Gaius Caecilius Cilo sends greeting to Procula,
This letter writing business is not my forte, I suppose, but I shall endeavor to persevere, Procula, just as you must endeavor to bear with my hurried correspondence. Perhaps time will improve my letters. My intellectual venture with my uncle are simply engrossing; do forgive me for this neglect. Uncle Pliny is always intent on new scientific discoveries, but I find myself favoring less adventurous paths to knowledge. He has posed many questions to me, and I find myself writing of them in a scholarly fashion. I can only imagine how fabulously you two will get along. Misenium is a fine place to spend one's summer, and indeed I think that I may purchase a villa out here eventually and we may spend our summers here. What with Uncle Pliny so nearby, there would be very fine company and the seashore itself is beautiful. I can imagine that you must be longing to leave the stifling heat of Rome, but be warned: this area is oft afflicted by earthquakes, little tremors that serve to frighten the women and annoy the rest of us. We have had a rather lot of these little tremors in the past few days, it seems that the gods are angry, which worries Mother (her respect for the gods crosses frequently into blind terror, I am afraid). I shall write again soon, but be also prepared for a letter from my mother, whom I have seen furiously writing away, presumably attending to wedding details. Until my next letter, vale!

X a.d. Kal. Sept.
Plinia Marcella sends greeting to Procula,
I have enclosed a list of wedding preparations, and I hope that you will oblige me in looking them over. I attempt to while away my time here by planning for the wedding, but there is only so much that I can do in Misenium. My brother Pliny truly enjoys it here, and I can tell that Gaius Caecilius does as well, for they adore their scholarly pursuits and their long baths and their dozes in the sun. Unfortunately, I fear that my brother takes a far too foolhardy approach to his research. Do you know, I think he would even risk his own life in pursuit of his beloved sciences! But he is also a greatly selfless man, though I am not sure that he considers protecting his own life for our sakes to be a selfless act.  My time here at Misenium is made ever more uncomfortable by these little earth tremors, which grow more frequent all the time. Pliny and Gaius assure me that they are a harmless, even everyday, occurrence, but they do rather trouble me. Please do look over those arrangements for the wedding, and let me know what you think!

IX a.d. Kal. Sept.
Plinia Marcella sends greeting to Procula,
My son and brother have spotted a dark cloud over Mt. Vesuvius, and though they do not seem concerned, I must admit it frightens me that the gods must be angry, and so I am writing to you. Gaius has continued studying, but Pliny decided about an hour ago to examine the phenomenon more closely, and ordered a boat made ready. However, just now before he left, he received a message from Rectina, wife of Tascius, requesting help in escaping from their villa which lies directly underneath the mountain. Pliny has now ordered his warships launched and set off to rescue the people leaving along the Bay of Naples close to Vesuvius. He himself headed for the villa of his friend Pomponianus, at Stabiae. Gaius and I have remained at Misenium, where we shall be safe.

IX a.d. Kal. Sept.
Plinia Marcella sends greeting to Procula,
My dear, I must keep writing to you in order to keep my head. We had very violent tremors overnight, and I was fiercely afraid. Pliny has not yet returned, and I have no intention of leaving without him, so Gaius has continued to read his books in the library despite the admonition of a dear friend of his uncle's who is visiting from Spain. We finally chose to leave the house, but knew we could not abandon my dear brother. The ash fell down all around us, the sky went black. I just knew that it was the end of my life at the very least, and I begged Gaius to continue on without me, so that he could marry you and live out a long life. Not at all dramatic in the moment, I assure you. My son refused, Procula, and I think that speaks greatly to his character. Instead, we left the main road, and sat down against a building, shaking the ash off our backs every so often. It was a long and awful wait, but finally a hazy yellow daylight dawned, and we found our way back to the villa. We have just discovered that Pliny has not yet returned, and I am sick with worry over what this means. Procula, thank you for putting up with the long-winded letters of an old, fearful, and rambling woman; I know that your union with Gaius will be very blessed.

IV a.d. Kal. Sept.
Gaius Caecilius Cilo sends greeting to Procula,
Awfully sorry not to have written, dashed awful few days, you know. My uncle Pliny has turned up dead after a very brave attempt. It seems that some fumes from Vesuvius simply snuffed the life right out of him. His slaves tell me that he was calm until the last, first arriving at the villa of Pomponianus and taking a bath, dining, and sleeping soundly. When ash began to fall heavily, he was wakened, and joined his friends on the beach, where the fumes of Vesuvius overcame his weak windpipe, and he passed away suddenly. My uncle's great love of science and his bravery and selflessness proved his undoing, but I can take comfort in the fact that he died with a good friend, after helping numerous people escape with their lives, and after witnessing an amazing and terrible phenomenon of nature. The dark cloud did not lift until the VII a.d. Kal. Sept., and then his body was discovered, looking more asleep than dead. I am sorry to place a burden of such sad news at your feet, Procula, but it may cheer you to know that I was named my uncle's heir, which is a great honor to be accorded to me. We shall still marry in the fall, though I will most likely remain in Misenium for a short while to take care of affairs before returning to Rome. I shall see you in Rome quite shortly, dear Procula.

Eleventh grader Marina Macklin from Warrenton, Virginia, USA took first place in the International category of the Golden Sponge-stick Competition for 2011 with this impressive epistolary story alternately narrated by Pliny the Younger and his mother.