Thursday, August 24, 2006

August 24

On 24 August in the year 79, the Roman naturalist and philosopher Pliny the Elder died along with tens of thousands of the less accomplished during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, which buried Pompeii and Herculaneum and destroyed several other nearby towns. The victims -- several thousand of whom have since been unearthed -- were flattened under buildings, asphyxiated by sulfur and other gases, or entombed by material disgorged from the earth in the pyroclastic surge. Serving at the time as praefect of a nearby Roman fleet, Pliny the Elder had brought several galleys to the town of Stabiae on an ill-advised rescue mission, driven at least in part by his curiosity to see what the eruption looked like at close hand. As his nephew (the imaginatively named Pliny the Younger) recounted several years later to the historian Tacitus, the eruption was indeed spectacular:
[A] deeper darkness prevailed than in the thickest night; which however was in some degree alleviated by torches and other lights of various kinds. [My uncle and his companions] thought proper to go farther down upon the shore to see if they might safely put out to sea, but found the waves still running extremely high, and boisterous. There my uncle, laying himself down upon a sail cloth, which was spread for him, called twice for some cold water, which he drank, when immediately the flames, preceded by a strong whiff of sulphur, dispersed the rest of the party, and obliged him to rise. He raised himself up with the assistance of two of his servants, and instantly fell down dead; suffocated, as I conjecture, by some gross and noxious vapor, having always had a weak throat, which was often inflamed. As soon as it was light again, which was not till the third day after this melancholy accident, his body was found entire, and without any marks of violence upon it, in the dress in which he fell, and looking more like a man asleep than dead.

His nephew’s conjecture to the contrary, the author of Naturalis Historia quite likely expired of a heart attack or stroke, a fate that would explain why his companions were unharmed by the alleged “gross and noxious vapor.”

As he toppled over dead, is quite unlikely that Pliny the Elder had sufficient time to proceed through the five stages of dying elaborated by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. As for Kübler-Ross herself, the New Age ideologue of death had plenty of time to ponder her own mortality after a volley of strokes left her partially paralyzed in 1995. By then, her reputation had been ruined by nearly two decades of increasingly bizarre pronouncements about the afterlife, including a period in which she claimed to be spending much of her time with four ghosts named Salem, Ankh, Mario and Willie. Living out her final years in Arizona, Kübler-Ross was wracked with seizures caused (pathetically enough) by exposure to sunlight. She was eventually reduced to spending her days in a darkened room, watching television with the sound turned off. By 2002, the embittered psychiatrist insisted that she was ready for death; she was visibly irritated, however, that God (whom she described as a “procrastinator”) would not allow her to pass along to what she inanely described as “the final stage of growth.” At last receiving her wish, Kübler-Ross died on this date two years ago.