An Eruption in Pompeii Leads to Pliny’s Last Breath

by Christian DeMichiel / Oct 26, 2013 / 0 comments

My family and I were visiting the Pompeii Ruins in Italy. We had walked through cobblestone streets, ran among the ruins, lingered in the old gardens, and even played fetch with a few dogs we came across along the way.  After an exhausting morning of discovering the history of this unique area, I was ready for a much needed nap. We returned to the nearby campground we were staying at to eat lunch. I skipped our tasty meal of bread, prosciutto, cheese, and salami, and headed straight to our tent to crawl into my fluffy, green sleeping bag.

“We’re leaving in thirty minutes to finish our tour of Pompeii,” my mom called, but I was already half asleep. I got comfortable, and as soon as my head hit the pillow, I was out cold.

Pompeii, Italy

Photo courtesy of Christian DeMichiel

After what seemed liked only a few moments, I suddenly woke up with a start.  “Hey, mom, is it time to go already?” I sat up and looked at my watch. The digital date reading flashed August 24, 0079. How was that even possible?

Bewildered, I came out of the tent. “Mom! Hey, mom, I think my watch is – whoa!”

I was standing right in the middle of a wooden boat! It appeared to be a cutter - a medium sized, well- built ship. The white sails flapped on the masts, high up in the breeze. A captain’s cabin was located directly behind me. As I looked around, it became apparent that I was still in Italy. There were several other ships hovering nearby, and in the distance I could see a town. Off on the horizon was a large chain of mountains, with a very distinctive volcano in the middle, which I knew to be Mount Vesuvius. I was pretty certain that I was in the Bay of Naples, but I wasn’t sure how I had gotten here.

The crew, oblivious to my arrival, was busying themselves with tending to the mainsail and mopping the deck. One member in particular was speaking rapidly to an old man, who looked very familiar. I went closer, trying to hear what they were saying.

“Message… urgent… how?” the crew member said. As I caught bits and pieces of the conversation, I tried to decipher what was being said.

I crept closer still, until I could hear them both clearly.

“Rectina needs your help! You must aid her. You are her friend,” the crew member, obviously a messenger, said.

“Of course,” the old man said, “Set sail for Herculaneum at once!”

Just then, I realized why I recognized the old man. He was Pliny the Elder! I remembered him from my studies of Roman History. During his life, he held such positions as a lawyer, author, military and fleet commander, natural philosopher, and a provincial governor.

“Hello,” I shouted. “Pliny the Elder?”

Pliny turned around and looked at me. He had grey curly hair, a pencil thin nose, withdrawn brown eyes, and a salt and pepper beard. His face looked tired but determined.

Pliny the Elder

Photo courtesy of

“Who are you, and what are you wearing?” he asked in a stern voice. I looked down and realized that I was still wearing jeans, sneakers, and a t-shirt. I knew that most high ranked Roman men wore tunics, while the poorer Romans wore togas. I was definitely underdressed.

Thinking quickly, I responded, “I am Leandros, Lion Man of Pompeii, known to many as Leo. I apologize for my appearance. My tunic is… uh… being washed.”

“Well, Leo, I haven’t seen you before, but this is no time for formal introductions. We have business to attend to,” replied Pliny. “Come join me on my journey to Herculaneum. We could use an extra hand.”

It was strange having a conversation with someone who had died so long ago. Many thoughts and questions were running through my mind. Should I tell him that this would be his final voyage? What could I tell him? As I pondered what to say, Pliny interrupted my thoughts. “We must make haste.” He didn’t wait for me to respond, but looked out across the Bay of Naples and fixed his gaze on Mt. Vesuvius. It was beginning to send plumes of smoke high into the air. I knew that the eruption was imminent. It was only a matter of time.

Bay of Naples; Stabiae is at the southeast corner. From the Melbourne Museum “A day in Pompeii” show, 2009

Photo courtesy of
Bay of Naples; Stabiae is at the southeast corner. From the Melbourne Museum “A day in Pompeii” show, 2009.

After sailing for half an hour, we arrived just off the shore of Herculaneum. I knew what would happen next, and it was not going to be good. Just as I had expected, huge chunks of pumice, the size of basketballs, and burning cinders began to rain down on the ship.

“Sir,” a young crew member advised, looking terrified, “we have to turn back or face destruction!” A few sailors standing nearby nodded in agreement.

“No, we must not retreat! Fortune favors the brave. Steer to Pomponianus! He resides in Stabiae. He will surely provide aid,” Pliny the Elder replied.

Stabiae resided 10 kilometers to the Southeast, so it would be a short trip.

Photo courtesy of:

I stood at the helm, my telescope transfixed on the shoreline. In only a matter of minutes, Stabiae appeared, and a furious wind pushed the boat onto land. Sitting on the beach, we immediately identified Pomponianus. He was in the greatest consternation. Pliny quickly disembarked, and walked over to his friend to explain why we had come.

Worried for our safety from the threat of the erupting volcano, Pomponianus cried, “Leave. It is not safe here!”

“We shall, if that is your wish,” replied Pliny.

Feeling defeated after his friend denied him help, Pliny returned to the ship and ordered the crew to set sail. But the same winds that had pushed us ashore prevented us from leaving. Seeing as how our leave-taking was futile, Pomponianus then invited us to stay in Stabiae until the wind died down. The crew members were anxious to leave, but Pliny put their fears to rest.

“Follow me,” Pliny said. “Let us eat, drink, and rest. We will leave as soon as the wind stops.”

The crew and I followed the orders of Pliny and went into the town. We shared a small meal and made an attempt at rest, but it would not come. None of us slept a wink that night. The townspeople kept watch on the buildings and wandered the streets, unsure of what to do or what was coming their way. All through the night, pumice and burning cinders rained down on the town of Stabiae.

Once dawn struck, Pliny ordered everyone to return to the ship, for fear that the buildings we were in might collapse. As we prepared to leave , Pliny the Elder clutched at his chest and suddenly collapsed onto the cold, hard ground. Oh no, I thought. Pliny is going to die! I have to save him!

I ran to his side and watched as he gasped for air. As the life began to drain from his eyes, he struggled to say, “Go, Leandros of Pompeii. Leave me.”

There was nothing left to do for my friend, Pliny. His body quietly shook and I could hear tiny coughs trying to escape his collapsing lungs. The last thing I heard him say to me, in a small whisper, was, “Help everyone return safely to the boat!”

Tears were welling up in my eyes, I replied, “I can’t!” but I knew that I had no choice but to do what Pliny asked of me.

As I rose from Pliny’s side, a crew member came in and noticed Pliny’s lifeless body lying on the ground. “Is he dead?” he asked.

I solemnly nodded.

“It must have been from the poisonous gases in the air. He inhaled too much.”

I knew he was wrong. If it was the gases, then the entire crew and I would be affected, as well. There was nothing I could do. I had to follow Pliny’s orders and return the crew home to safety. “Leo… Wake up,” Pliny said.

“Huh? What?” I muttered.

I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and looked around. Pliny was gone. So was Stabiae. I was back in my tent, wrapped up in my comfy green sleeping bag. I heard my mom calling to me.

“Time to finish our Pompeii tour,” she said.

As I arose from my restless sleep, and pulled on my shoes, I wondered what had just happened. Was this really all just a dream? It seemed so real!

I unzipped my tent and went outside. I looked out across the Bay of Naples and thought, ever so briefly, that I saw Pliny the Elder’s ship sailing off into the distance.





Christian DeMichiel is a member of the Youth Travel Blogging Mentorship Program