On the Dating of the Vesuvius Eruption (2)

Part 1.
Manuscripts continued…

Among the manuscripts, one of the most well-known of Pliny’s letter 6.16 is Codex Laurentianus Mediceus 47.36, a ninth century manuscript currently residing in Florence, Italy:

Codex Laurentianus Mediceus 47.36, 9th century C.E. With the date nonum Kal · Septembres (24 August). Taken from Pappalardo, 210. (Click to enlarge)

The dating of the eruption in the codex reads as nonum Kal · Septembres (24 August), which standard texts of Pliny’s letters include.  One critical text, following the usual date, footnotes in its apparatus Septembres as coming from manuscript M (Mediceus), but the reading is omitted in another medieval manuscript, γ (codex Veronensis deperditus). [1]  Although the manuscript citation is brief, this is another indication that the conventional dating of 24 August relies entirely on the reading in the ninth century codex M.  This certainly raises uncertainty concerning the date widely accepted, especially when it is dependent upon one late codex within a number of medieval manuscripts which are not homogenous concerning the dating of the eruption of Vesuvius.  One, therefore, must look further into other evidences to gain a more accurate picture of the dating.

To be continued in part 3.

[1] C. Plini Caecili Secundi: Epistularum Libri Decem, R.A.B. Mynors, ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1963), 174.  Unfortunately, no other critical notes are given in this edition, except that a (editio Aldina anni 1508) follows M.

On the Dating of the Vesuvius Eruption (1)

This is the first in a series on which I’ll be posting.

In many publications, we read that the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius happened on a hot summer day in August of 79 C.E. (see, e.g., Wiki under Eruption of AD 79).  Recent research, however, is beginning to challenge this traditional view with a later date in the autumn of that year.  If this is so, this may paint a more accurate picture of the chronology of the disastrous events which took place in the area of the Bay of Naples in the year 79.  I will survey (surveys usually cannot do it justice!) some of the evidences which reveal a more determinative view for an autumnal date for the eruption.  Some of the items for discussion are Pliny the Younger’s account of the eruption (Letter 6.16), autumnal harvests, clothing, literary, numismatic, and inscriptional evidences.

The Plinian record
In the early years of the second century C.E., writing at the request of his friend Tacitus, Pliny the Younger retells the account of his uncle’s rescue operation and death during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in the year 79 C.E. [1]  The conventional dating for the eruption, which primarily comes from Pliny’s account (Ep. 6.16.4), is 24 August. [2] Pliny writes,

  • On 24 August, almost the seventh hour, my mother points out to him (Pliny’s uncle) that a cloud appears of both an unusual size and appearance.
  • Nonum kal. Septembres hora fere septima mater mea indicat ei apparere nubem inusitata et magnitudine et specie (Pliny, 6.16.4).

This given date has been published in many modern works without question.  On a popular level, a booklet published for the Pompeii exhibit A Day in Pompeii, having recently been concluded in Charlotte, North Carolina with its 4-city tour, opens with, ‘Pompeii is one of the most famous and tragic cities of antiquity.  On August 24, A.D. 79, Pompeii and the surround area vanished under a thick layer of volcanic ash when nearby Mount Vesuvius suddenly erupted.’ [3]  This dating, however, is entirely dependent on Pliny’s account–an account only extant in medieval manuscripts.  Scholars have noted that, among the Plinian manuscripts, there are variations of the actual dating. [4]  Berry writes that in the manuscripts the various dates are IX Kal. Semptembres (24 August), IX Kal. Decembris (23 November), Kal. Novembris (1 November), and III Kal. Novembris (30 October).  [5]  As it is very common for scribes to make matters confusing, whether accidental or intentional alterations made through the process of transmission, Roman dating within itself can be confusing.  Mary Beard comments that, ‘Pliny certainly describes the eruption, but as with almost all dates in Latin literature they get awfully mangled in the process of centuries of copying by hand.  We don’t actually know what Pliny wrote (or, of course, even if he remembered right).’ [6]

To be continued….

[1]  Pliny’s extant letters of the eruption and his uncle’s death during the rescue are letters 6.16 and 6.20.  For a printed Latin-English edition see Pliny, Book VI in Letters, Books I-VII, vol. 1 (Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969).

[2] A.N. Sherwin-White, The Letters of Pliny: A Historical and Social Commentary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), 372, writes that this dating is dependent upon Pliny.

[3] A Day in Pompeii (Seattle: Documentary Media, 2007), 4.  Casually browsing another popular-level work, by Benedicte Gilman, Ashen Sky: The Letters of Pliny the Younger on the Eruption of Vesuvius, illustrated by Barry Moser (Los Angeles: Getty Museum, 2007), one can easily find the traditional August dating (7, 8, 9, 11).  Many more examples can be given, but these are simply two current examples.

[4] A few examples, Umberto Pappalardo, ‘L’eruzione pliniana del Vesuvio nel 79 d.C.: Ercolano,’ in Volcanology and Archaeology, Pact 25, C.A. Livadie and F. Widermann, eds. (Strasbourg: Council of Europe, 1990), 210; Joanne Berry, The Complete Pompeii (London: Thames & Hudson, 2007), 20; Mary Beard, The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2008), 17.

[5] Berry, 20.  G. Rolandi, A. Paone, M. Di Lascio, and G. Stefani, ‘The 79 AD Eruption of Somma: The Relationship Between the Date of the Eruption and the Southeast Tephra Dispersion,’ Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research 169 (2007): 94, note that the manuscript indicating the date 30 October is ‘now lost.’  See the Wiki article under ‘Date of the eruption’ for a reference to this research.  The article abstract and PDF purchase can be found here.

[6] Beard, on her weblog, A Don’s Life: ‘10 Things You Need to Know About Pompeii.’

Series of posts

Blogging has been practically non-existent here for quite a while.  But I’d like to start a series of posts on the dating of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE.  I’ve done a little research on it and I’ll be sharing some of it here in a snippet series.  Hopefully, by doing this, it will get me back into the swing of posting here.

Latin verbs updated

At the Latin page I’ve updated the verbs with a ‘makeover.’  Full color and in Skia texttype.  The type may be too small, but we’ll see how you like it.  Please post a comment below if you’d like to say what you think of it.  Thanks

Podcast Courses

Here are some podcast lectures — full courses! — available at iTunes U pertaining to ancient history that some of you might find interest in.  Make sure you have iTunes to listen/download the lectures.

Phalaris and Perillus

0,1020,1522878,00.jpgAlthough I haven’t been tagged with the meme of funny moments in ancient literature (see son of the fathers, Sitz im Leben), I thought it would be fun to post on the brief story of Phalaris and Perillus in Ovid’s Tristia 3.11 (and mentioned very briefly again in 5.1).  As it is known, Ovid had been exiled by the emperor Augustus (for some ‘error’ he wrote).  3.11 has often, as in other places in the Tristia, been taken as a swipe against Augustus.  This time Ovid tells a story of one of the cruelest tyrants, Phalaris, well known for roasting men alive in a bronze bull.  Ovid may very well be comparing Augustus to Phalaris.  Although it is a gruesome story, I admit that I did chuckle while translating the passage a few months ago.  Here is Peter Green’s translation of 3.11.39-54:

harsher you are than grim Busiris, harsher even
than he [Perillus] who heated the brazen bull at a slow
fire, and presented this bull (so it’s said) to Sicilian
Phalaris the tyrant, touting his handiwork thus:
‘In this gift, my lord, there lies more usefulness than appearance
might suggest: it’s not just my art’s beauty merits praise.
Do you observe, here, how the bull’s right flank will open?
Thrust in any man you want
to destroy, shut him up, then bake him over slow-burning
coals, hear him bellow just like a real bull.
For this invention, to balance one favour with another,
give me, please, a reward
commensurate with my talent.’  ‘Most noteworthy purveyor
of torture,’ Phalaris answered, ‘handsel your own
oustanding invention in person!’  And straightway, cruelly roasted
by the fire he’d set up, he bellowed in double wise,
man and bull both. …

Green takes a step further by saying ‘man and bull both.’  Literally it is, ‘he produced double sounds with a groaning mouth’ (line 54, exhibuit geminos ore gemente sonos)!  The inventor’s ingenious creation backfires on him.  Maybe it isn’t as funny as it seems but it sure was when translating it.  Maybe I have a streak of dark humor..  At any rate, Ovid again briefly mentions the episode (my translation) in 5.1.51-54:

Do you require that no groans should follow my torments,
and do you forbid me to weep with a serious wound taken?
Phalaris himself allowed Perillus in the bronze
to emit moans and to bewail through the mouth of the bull.

Emerging from hibernation

Alas!  I’m slowly emerging from blogging hibernation.  Since my last post, several months ago, I have completed my degree in Classics from FSU and have been looking for a teaching position.  There are a couple of leads and I hope to have an answer within about two weeks for one school I’m particularly interested in teaching at.

This summer I have been spending my time mostly in biblical studies, specifically focusing on the books of Genesis, Joshua, Matthew, and Revelation.  I’ve been discussing with a friend the dating of the book of Revelation.  It is a friend who holds firmly to a pre-70 C.E. dating of the book.  But that is a different topic for another day.

Thanks to all sending e-mails and posting comments concerning the usefulness of the language charts.  Hopefully once I start teaching, I resume those things.  For now, I’ve been consumed with biblical studies.  Hopefully I will get back into the swing of blogging here soon.


It has been a very long time since I have posted anything.  But rest assured, once things slow down, I will begin posting again!  The semester has been keeping me busy with translation as I’m taking four language courses.  Hopefully sometime in the near future I’ll be posting running vocabularies of some texts from Catullus and Seneca and maybe an elegiac couplet I’ve been working on for my Catullus course.  Until then!

Sinaiticus Goes Digital

Today Codex Sinaiticus will be available for all to see.  Not all of it, but at least a bit of it.  The site’s full completion of uploading the manuscript should happen by mid-summer next year.  Sinaiticus, a fourth-century manuscript, is the oldest complete New Testament manuscript known to us today (Old Testament is lacking portions).  I had the opportunity to see it a few times at the British Library, while passing through London.  It is truly a beauty.

News has been circulating for several days about it so I thought I would go ahead and mention it here.  So check it out and bookmark it!  www.codexsinaiticus.org

Note: if the site doesn’t initially work it probably means they’re still working on it — it’s the launch day!  So try refreshing your page if it doesn’t work at first.

Ministrae in Pliny 10.96

Ben Witherington recently wrote a ‘postlude’ for his series of reviews on Frank Viola’s and George Barna’s work, Pagan Christianity.  In the latter part of the post he mentions Pliny’s comments on the Christians in Pontus-Bithynia as an outsider investigating some of their practices.  After quoting Pliny’s famous passage Ben notes that the two female servants “were tasked with the serving of the meal, since diakonia in its root meaning is ‘to wait on tables’.”

I bring this up not so much concerning the servants’ function, but rather the translation of ministrae.  Here, Ben’s comment seems a bit misleading, implying the letter was written in Greek when, in fact, it was written in Latin.  Here are my comments I made on his post, followed by a few additional thoughts:

I’m sure you know that Pliny’s letter to Trajan was written in Latin; so the word translated, in my opinion awkwardly, as ‘deaconesses’ isn’t diakonia, but rather ministrae.

Also, very recently (in April during my course on Tacitus and Pliny) I had a conversation with classicist Miriam Griffin about this passage and the awkwardness of deaconesses as the translation for ministrae. Pliny certainly knows of some of the practices, but he admits in 10.96.1 that he had never been present at ‘trials of Christians.’ With the women, Pliny is dependent on what they’re saying to him. We don’t know what they said. But they must have given Pliny some explanation concerning the status of these Christians.

We both concluded that Pliny, although he was aware of these Christian practices (how much did he know?), might not have known the particular nuances of the specific function of these ministrae. We settled on a more general translation such as ‘servants.’  We were trying to see things from a Roman point of view as Pliny wrote about his investigations.

This is not to detract these women’s function in their own church context, but it seems safer to keep it generic and understand Pliny is writing from his point of view as a Roman.


It’s interesting that Sherwin-White, Radice, Walsh, and W. Williams translate ministrae as deaconesses.  Even the OLD has that as a gloss translation.  Commenting on the Latin, Williams (Pliny: Correspondence with Trajan from Bithynia, p. 143) writes, “The Latin word ministrae is probably used to translate the Greek word diakonoi, for Paul refers to Phoebe as the diakonos (servant) of the church at Cenchreae (Romans 16, 1).” There certainly may be a reason for giving that sort of translation–even connecting the dots (anachronistically?) with Paul.  But as I try to see it from a Roman’s point of view, as I mentioned, although he knew some of their basic practices, I don’t think Pliny would have known the intricacies of these Christian people’s function and organization.  Again, I think it may be better to translate the word more generically.  (I tend to repeat myself a lot!)  It really isn’t a huge issue but I’m just nit-picky sometimes. 🙂  Does anyone else have an opinion on the passage?