Pliny the Elder was stationed at Misenum on the Bay of Naples when the mountain blew apart. In response to a call for help from a friend, he set sail, a voyage from which he never returned. He died on the beach across the bay two days later, most likely of a heart attack. He was 56 years old.
He had invited his nephew to join him. The Younger declined, opting to stay behind with his mother. None of them realized how dire the situation was. Here is part of what the nephew wrote well after the fact:
Ashes were already falling, not as yet very thickly. I looked round: a dense black cloud was coming up behind us, spreading over the earth like a flood…You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying…I could boast that not a groan or cry of fear escaped me in these perils, but I admit that I derived some poor consolation in my mortal lot from the belief that the whole world was dying with me and I with it.
This is from a letter to his friend, Cornelius Tacitus. It is a fine piece of reporting, the kind of thing you might expect to read in the old Manchester Guardian. But there is something even more remarkable about finding Pliny the Younger on the façade of the cathedral at Como. Here is a quotation from a letter he wrote to the Emperor Trajan sometime around 111AD asking Trajan's advice about how to treat Christians. He was governor of the combined provinces of Pontus and Bithynia (now part of modern Turkey) at the time:
Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed.
Trajan approved of his handling of the matter.
This makes the appearance of Pliny the Younger on the façade of the Como Cathedral an even deeper puzzle. It is barely understandable that Pliny the Elder might be there. After all, he was a scholar, a philosopher, a naturalist and an admiral. But Pliny the Younger? Executioner of Christians?
I think the answer is rather straightforward. The Plinys were going to adorn the façade of their cathedral, Christian or not, because they were Comaschis first, Lombardese second, Italians third and Christians? Well, being a Christian may have been in there somewhere.
The Plinys were hometown heroes, so they got the most prominent spots. You can go elsewhere to find some saints in stone.
Samuel Jay Keyser is the Peter de Florez Professor Emeritus in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at MIT and currently holds the position of Special Assistant to the Chancellor. Aside from books and articles as a professional linguist, he has published two books of poems, Raising the Dead and The Pond God and Other Stories. The latter was named a Lee Bennett Hopkins Honor Award for children's poetry. His most recent books include Mens et Mania: The MIT Nobody Knows and I Married a Travel Junkie. Excerpts from his A Safari Journal: Faint of Heart in the Heart of Darkness appeared in The Atlantic Monthly.
Jay and his photographer wife, Nancy Kelly, have visited 52 countries as a writer/photographer team. To learn more about Professor Keyser or to read his travel journals and see more of Nancy Kelly's photographs, visit MIT School of Humanities, Arts & School Sciences and his blog at The Reluctant Traveler.
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