Preface

In Chapter 4 of her novel The Last Samurai, Helen DeWitt’s heroine Sibylla promotes the marvelously daffy idea of fashioning multiple Rosetta Stones for the world — books that would encapsulate and encompass the knowledge of works in other languages, while providing the linguistic keys to unlock and explain them. Sibylla argues that this would “preserve other languages to posterity. You could have Homer with translation and marginal notes on vocabulary and grammar, so that if that single book happened to be dug up in 2,000 years or so, the people of day would be able to read Homer…” I read this novel in the year 2000, when I was coproducing The World of Pompeii with John Dobbins. More than a decade later, upon assigning her book at DePauw, I reread the passage and realized that this was what a long-gestating project was about. The thought had tickled me to tackle Pliny the Younger’s two letters about the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79 (Epistulae 6.16 and 6.20), in which his uncle Elder Pliny died, and which appear in practically every scholarly and popular account about Pompeii. Commentary seemed to have gone stale; too many studies tended to repeat others’ conclusions without critical evaluation of the original sources. These letters appeared to be some of the most reproduced, yet least fundamentally understood, passages to survive from classical antiquity. Sibylla’s challenge beckoned.

Scholars have not ignored these letters; quite the opposite, given the recent and brilliant renaissance in Plinian studies, which has tended to examine either Pliny’s sociocultural-historical world or his literary world and, recently, their intersection. Scientific teams have also reassessed the dynamics and characteristics of the Vesuvian eruption and its effects on the populations, settlements, and landscapes around the Bay of Naples. What hasn’t existed, however, is a multidisciplinary assessment: the conditions of the letters’ creation, their journey through the medieval manuscript tradition, and the minute details of their content, in the spirit of “our modern extremist mode of close reading,” as John Henderson puts it.

This is not a book about the buried cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, although those appear in the course of analysis. Pliny mentions neither place. This book is about the two letters and their people: who made them happen, for whom they were written, who feature in their stories, and who copied them for centuries after ancient Rome had shrunk to a medieval village. This book is also about those who “rediscovered,” collated, compiled, and commented upon the early scholarly editions of the texts, who applied the letters to the new archaeological discoveries of the 18th-century Bay of Naples, and whom the letters inspired to fashion works of art about two ashy days and a night.

Recently, Gibson, Marchesi, Whitton, and Woolf have discussed recent scholarly treatments of Pliny’s letters as gathering in “literary” (including “intertextual”), “historical,” “realist,” or “instrumentalist” categories. Like those authors, I agree that such categories are useful and that they bleed into each other. My approach tries to encompass these, but in an archaeological (by which I mean both highly interdisciplinary and sequenced) way. I examine the letters as artifacts, consider their interleaved social, historical, political, literary, cultural, personal, and use contexts — while reading the story as something that (more or less) happened to actual people in late AD 79. By examining every angle and cranny of the text, by looking around verbal corners, can we discern what influenced the Younger’s narrative choices, how he blended memory and history with the opportunity to embellish events, polished a portrait of the Elder, and made his own literary statement? Can we reconstruct the kind of world in which he was living (as he watched others go mad or die)? What did either Pliny comprehend at the time of the event? What spun through the Younger’s head when, over the years, others asked him what had happened? Finally, what did he come to understand as he composed the letters and revised them for publication?

The approach is multifaceted, from volcanology to verb forms; from chiasmus references to retracing coastlines. Perhaps it emulates a modern annotated source-book, or recalls the dense, nesting marginalia of Catanaeus’ 1506 edition. Perhaps it echoes the commentarii, “notebooks,” that the Elder Pliny kept when he was gathering sources for his Natural History (Ch. 1). Or, to imagine a temporal twist, perhaps it is the sort of book the Elder Pliny might have written about his nephew’s two letters: a forensic examination that tries not to take anything for granted, enjoys sidetracks, and presents a wide array of scholarly opinions. It is a philology: a patient sifting of words for the rewards of insight. It is also an archaeology, in which context forms through digressions that arc from the text and return, swirling into a cognitive and experiential narrative nebula.

I try to make accessible the stream of sources behind the letters and not shroud them too much in arcane discipline-specific conventions, abbreviations, and jargon (though sometimes that is unavoidable). For instance, in Chs 4–5, I do not provide a traditional apparatus criticus, but rather list important variants in the source texts, keyed to the collation spreadsheets in Online Resources. The reader can delve as deep into specific detail as they wish. Elder Pliny, Pliny the Elder, or simply (the) Elder all reference the same man; likewise, Younger Pliny, Pliny the Younger, or (the) Younger. In the same spirit of variety, I refer to their primary works as Natural History or Historia Naturalis (abbrev. HN), and as Letters or Epistulae (abbrev. Ep.). Other abbreviations are also necessary. When discussing and referencing the textual tradition, ms. = manuscript (plural mss.); fol. = folium, -a (literally “leaf/leaves”, and so “page/s”); and r = recto, that is, the right hand-side of a manuscript page, while v = verso, the back of that same page (on the left, after it’s turned). Abbreviations for ancient sources follow the Oxford Classical Dictionary and Oxford Latin Dictionary. The timeline uses a 24-hour clock.

I hope that even if the reader is only slightly famliar with Latin (for some sources, Greek), or academic dialogue generally, they should be able to follow the discussion, and hopefully become inclined to study the topic, or (even better) the ancient languages more fully. Accordingly, this book aims to assist teachers and students who might use these letters in their courses, as well as general readers curious about the Latin, the story, and the reality. Nevertheless it should still be useful to experts, if only because it attempts comprehensively to compile and address the relevant references and debates. The reader is given the tools to find sources and assess them for themselves (I try to put nearly all scholar-to-scholar arguments in the endnotes to keep them from plugging up the prose), and I beg pardon for the sin of pedantry, if the result succeeds in being thorough and useful. Following the Plinys’ studium, or “scholarly zealotry,” this book’s motto riffs off the Elder: in contemplatione [epistularum] nihil possit videri supervacuum, “during consideration of [the letters], nothing should be considered irrelevant.” (HN 11.4).

To four persons I owe immense gratitude. To Roy Gibson for his conversations and advice; I began this project subsequent to a swell of Plinian conferences in which he was central, and have been fortunate to mine the rich dialectic that has come into print. Michael Reeve has been incomparable; without our hundreds of emails, Chapter 2 could never have happened, and he shares credit for any breakthroughs (and no blame for any breakdowns) that have resulted. Prof. Bryan Hanson, emeritus in Chemistry and Biochemistry at DePauw, carried out months of statistical analysis on the collation database. Beth Wilkerson at DePauw’s Geographic Information Systems Lab reconstructed an AD 79 Digital Elevation Model (DEM) for the Bay of Naples, based in part on Florian Seiler, Michael Märker, and Sebastian Vogel’s generously shared AD79 DEM of the Sarno River plain built by their SALVE Project at the German Archaeological Institute Berlin. Beth also did the viewshed calculation to locate the Elder’s villa at Misenum.

So many others to thank. First, every librarian—though those at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence first gave me hope. Also, Stephen Ferguson, Laura Nuvoloni, Gregory Pass, Claudia Montusci, Vito De Nicola, Sheelagh Bevan, Mauro Penchini, Catherine Uecker, Jon Seydl, Ken Laptin, Ettore Napione, Gail Patrick, and much after the fact, two Midwestern colleagues, E.T. Merrill and S.E. Stout, twentieth-century giants of Plinian studies, who left copies of manuscripts and early printed editions (and notes) to their libraries at the University of Chicago and Indiana University. (And thank goodness, during a pandemic, for digital versions available through Archive.org, Google Books, the Hathi Trust, and various European libraries.)

Julia and Ed Prentice provided a vital clue toward finding Phillipps ms. 9416, and Toby Burrows and Laura Cleaver shared information about its ownership. Thanks also to Christopher de Hamel and Martin Schøyen. In summer 2016, Paolo Braconi generously gave tours of what is likely Pliny’s Tuscan villa and the splendid museum at the Villa Graziani di Celalba, in Umbria. Anna Bates Patel and the Tabley House staff in Manchester offered tea and kindness as I studied John Martin’s second painting of Vesuvius and chatted with Bryan Sitch of Manchester Museum. Catherine Viola and Alan Greaves provided hospitality and help as they so often have. In Perugia, Giampiero Bevagna, Cristiano Ragni, Marco Bagli, Francesco Burzacca, and Massimo Nafissi gave aid and encouragement (Giampi found and photographed the Perugia manuscript for me; grazie, amico).

At DePauw, Alexander Komives in Physics and Astronomy made calculations for moonrise during 24–25 August, AD 79 and assisted my understanding of solar and lunar eclipses. Jim Mills in Geosciences reviewed and advised my reconstruction of the eruption timeline. I would not have been able to complete this project if not for university sabbatical funding in 2012–13 and 2020–21, a subvention from the DePauw Classical Studies department Kairos Fund, and a DePauw Faculty Fellowship from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations from 2016–18.

Many DePauw students were involved: Manon Carter, Alisha Grider, Marcus Lobo, Charlie Locke, Luke Lohrstorfer, Anna Nagy, Caleb O’Brien, Daniel Schultz, Marissa Sorini, Shirley Tandy, Jessica Tilley, and Yuran Zhou contributed while taking Latin 223; Luke Hessburg did bibliographical research. Rebecca Kerns supplied wit, wisdom, a snappy translation of Ep. 8.17, and scans from the Blegen Library in Cincinnati. Nevertheless, I take responsibility for all translations unless otherwise indicated. Thanks also to Elizabeth Risch and Amy Davis-Poynter at Routledge for their support and incredible patience, and to Jayanthi Chander at Deanta Global for her editorial acumen.

On 18 February 2018, Eleanor Winsor Leach, Professor of Classical Studies at Indiana University, passed away. She had invited me just weeks before to present at her seminar; sadly, fate intervened. 17 July 2021 saw the loss of the legendary H.D. Cameron, Professor of Classics at the University of Michigan, who gave me my first teaching opportunity; I use his Thucydides translation in Ch. 4. Requiescant in pace. This volume also remembers my grandfather, Major John Swerda, US Army, who saw Vesuvius long before I did, under wartime conditions in 1944. It is his cigarette card reproduced as Figure 5.2.

Lastly, hugs to my soccer team: Simon (who scanned sources at the U. Chicago library), Jakob, and Micah. This book is dedicated with love to my sister Jenni, and to Rebecca, a partner and colleague I scarce deserve.

September 2021 Green castle Indiana

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