I don't want to post a spoiler, of course, so I have to be careful here...
But the whole time I was reading it I was thinking of the fact that the Romans didn't know what a volcano could do, because the only volcano to have erupted near a city was Etna, in Sicily. Only an extremely highly educated and well-read citizen would have recognised the warning signs of a volcanic eruption. This was one of the gripping aspects of the story - I winced each time Attillius, the main character, pondered the strange things he was seeing.
Two of the Pliny family play a part in the story, uncle and nephew. I've just come across the nephew's account of that day. It must have been a terrifying day. Parts of it remind me of the night in 1983 when I drove through ashy smoke to the Upper Yarra Valley, trying to find my uncles, who were trapped in East Warburton during the Ash Wednesday Bushfires. There was an air of general panic, and a young constable standing at the crossroads at the town of Yarra Junction told me East Warburton was burned to the ground and everyone was dead. Pliny's account of fleeing from Misenum with his mother as part of a panicked crowd seems to have had similarities to the misinformation and fear that governed the night of our bushfires. He wrote:
We had scarcely sat down when a darkness came that was not like a moonless or cloudy night, but more like the black of closed and unlighted rooms. You could hear women lamenting, children crying, men shouting. Some were calling for parents, others for children or spouses; they could only recognize them by their voices. Some bemoaned their own lot, other that of their near and dear. There were some so afraid of death that they prayed for death. Many raised their hands to the gods, and even more believed that there were no gods any longer and that this was one last unending night for the world. Nor were we without people who magnified real dangers with fictitious horrors. Some announced that one or another part of Misenum had collapsed or burned; lies, but they found believers.As far as I know, Misenum survived the eruption okay. And my uncles were fine, by the way. They were asleep in bed!
Some trailers for the 2009 exhibition in Melbourne, 'A Day in Pompeii', give some idea of what it must have been like for those people in Roman Italy so long ago:
here and here.
I remember that I wept when I saw this one in 3D.
Here's a link to the published letters of Pliny the Younger. I couldn't find the one to Tacitus about Vesuvius, though. Perhaps I didn't persevere long enough. I'm looking forward to reading through them one by one. It's a great insight into the life of a man I'd like to have met.