Sunday, March 11, 2012

Ubi est fumus...

Pliny the Elder laid prone in the afternoon sun, anointed with oil, corpulent and content.  As was his custom, he rose as the sun began to edge toward the horizon and waddled toward the bath that his servants had prepared to rinse the oil before the late afternoon meal.  He relaxed into the steaming pool, thinking back over his previous scholarly work and forward to the evening's study ahead of him.  His Natural History, an attempt at compiling the collected scientific knowledge of humankind, was already hailed as one of the great achievements in Roman civilization.  Unknown to him in that particular bath on the cusp of the gloaming on a day like any other in the year 79 was that nearly every achievement in his luminary life was behind him at that point.  Every remarkable act save for one.

Pliny walked into the dining hall and saw his nephew, young Pliny, already reclining with a speech of Cicero unrolled before him, thoroughly engrossed in what he read.  Pliny the Elder's sister, Plinia, walked in from the balcony that overlooked the harbor and said, "Pliny, you might be interested in this.  There is a bizarre plume of smoke rising from Mount Vesuvius."

What an oddity!  Everything about the character of the curious and scientifically-minded man compelled him to investigate further.  He sent his lead servant to prepare his ship and asked Pliny the Younger if he would care to join him.  "No, thank you.  I think I would prefer to stay with my reading tonight."

Pliny climbed into the boat and looked down the beach at a man approaching at a sprint.  It was one of the sailors under his command.  "Sir!  Rectina sends a call for assistance.  She is trapped in her home at the base of Mount Vesuvius and fears for her life.  Please go at once to rescue her!"

Cutting quickly across the water, the air around them blackened.  Ash collected on their bodies with increasing thickness the closer they drew to shore.  Suddenly, burning coals began to rain from the sky, burning holes in their sails as they fell.  The helmsman said that he highly recommend that they turn back.  Pliny shouted back "Fortes fortuna iuvat (Fortune favors the brave)!"  He saw his friend Pomponianus standing on the shore, waving frantically to Pliny's vessel.  "Steer toward Pomponianus!"

Pomponianus was beside himself with fear.  He was reduced to uncontrollable sobs when Pliny stepped onto the shore.  Pliny embraced him, told him not to be afraid.  "Come inside!  Let's have a feast while we wait for this inclement weather to pass." He said with a wink.

Pomponianus' home was about a dozen yards from the shore, built on a rock.  Pliny reclined at Pomponianus' table with all of the calm he could project in hopes that his ease would diffuse the alarm in his friend.  Instead, Pomponianus stood by and nervously asked, "Don't you think this would be a good time to flee in your ship?"

What Pliny meant to say was "By no means!  I would not do you the disservice of neglecting to partake in your hospitality.  Then, upon eating our fill and at our leisure, we shall pay a call on my dear friend Rectina.  Then, if the mood suits us, the three of us can repair to my ship and head for the clearer air."

But what he actually said was "By no me- {cough} {cough} {cough} {cough} sorry {cough} breath {cough cough cough} can't {cough cough} Let's {cough cough} to the boat {cough cough cough.}"

As they walked down the beach toward the ship, Pliny fell to his knees.  Pomponianus turned to come back and try to help him up, but Pliny said, "No {cough cough} you go  {cough cough} don't {cough cough cough cough} let me slow" and siezed by another fit of coughing, waved his friend away.  His friend made for the ship, calling out to the sailor's for help.  Two jumped from the boat and ran to Pliny's side.  They draped one arm each over their shoulder and began to help the large man stand.  He said, "I thank {wheeze...}" and collapsed.  His spirit left him, and they laid his body on a torn piece of sail on the shore.

Many days later, sifting through the disaster of Pompeii, a party came upon the body of Pliny the Elder on the shore.  The fire had not touched him.  He was not a mound of ashes like those in the city proper.  He looked rather peaceful, actually.  As though he were only sleeping.

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