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Bill Thayer

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An Eighteenth-Century Image of Pliny the Elder:
an engraving by [Claude-Augustin-] Pierre Duflos
after Clément‑Pierre Marillier

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This charming Sturm-und‑Drang depiction of the death of Pliny the Elder, poor man, proved irresistible to me.

If the volcano reminds you of the less good works of J. M. W. Turner — an 1817 watercolor of his, Vesuvius in Eruption (Collection of Mr and Mrs Paul Mellon, Upperville, Virginia), has many similarities — you do have the period right: this engraving is the frontispiece to a late‑18c French edition of Pliny's Natural History:

Caii Plinii Secundi

Historiae Naturalis Libri XXXVII.

Quos recensuit et Notis illustravit

Gabriel Brotier



Typis J. Barbou, via Mathuriensium

(for non-Latinists, that's the rue des Mathurins. . .)

Caii Plinii Secundi Historiae Naturalis Libri XXXVII

Parisiis, 1779

Now just one look at this engraving, and you might suspect it's not accurate. Well, it isn't. If you don't know the graphic and moving letter of his nephew to the historian Tacitus, you are warmly encouraged to read it (Pliny the Younger, Ep. 6.16); in the meanwhile, let's compare our picture with a few quotes from the occasionally rather quaint Loeb translation of the letter.

Our engraver got the basics fairly right, mind you:

"My uncle decided to go down to the shore and investigate on the spot the possibility of any escape by sea, but he found the waves still wild and dangerous. A sheet was spread on the ground for him to lie down, and he repeatedly asked for cold water to drink. Then the flames and smell of sulphur which gave warning of the approaching fire drove the others to take flight and roused him to stand up. He stood leaning on two slaves and then suddenly collapsed, I imagine because the dense fumes choked his breathing by blocking his windpipe which was constitutionally weak and narrow and often inflamed."

On the other hand, Pliny was 55 years old and chunky. Speaking of him taking a nap earlier that day, his nephew writes: "for as he was a stout man his breathing was rather loud and heavy and could be heard by people coming and going outside his door."

In the above engraving, on the other hand, we see an elegant young 18c gentleman in Roman military drag, more at home at a masked ball . . . .

"As a protection against falling objects they put pillows on their heads tied down with cloths." This wouldn't look so very good in the grand style. To be fair, maybe that's what that object is on the ground near Pliny: but no one else is wearing any pillows.

The knee-breeches do add a certain touch of je‑ne‑sais-quoi; but there has been a token attempt at squeezing Pliny into a tunica loricata. Of course, why the commander of a navy base in home waters and in peacetime should be wearing centurion's garb is another matter.

So is the gradual feminization of this piece of Roman military gear over the centuries: I'm preparing a webpage on the subject, but for now here's an example from the 15c. As you can see, if the tunic in that fresco is somewhat feminine already, by the time of this engraving 300 years later, it's gotten positively blousy.

Finally, Pliny was an admiral and a matter-of‑fact sort of man.

"on Mount Vesuvius broad sheets of fire and leaping flames blazed at several points. . . My uncle tried to allay the fears of his companions by repeatedly declaring that these were nothing but bonfires left by the peasants in their terror, or else empty houses on fire in the districts they had abandoned."

Hardly the dramatic style we see here, complete with tenderings of scrolls!

A curious sidelight on the calming and deceptive habits of admirals in the Bay of Naples. My mother, participating in the Italian campaign as a (very junior) chemical engineer in the French army — in 1944 I believe — happened one day to be standing over­looking this very same bay, where a large flotilla had been massed for several days. The ships were moving, and she commented on it to a (very senior) officer with her. "Oh, it's just the wind," was the admiral's comment; the next morning the bay was empty, of course. . .

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Page updated: 25 Mar 03