In 79 CE, Mount Vesuvius erupted, releasing 100,000 times the thermal energy of the atomic bombs the US dropped on Japan in 1945. The volcano destroyed several nearby towns, including Pompei and Herculaneum. The exact death toll is unknown, but some 1,500 bodies were discovered by archaeologists at the sites.
Pliny the Younger was about 29 kilometers (18 miles) away when the eruption occurred. He feared for his life as the ground shook for many hours afterwards, and the ash obscured the sun for most of the day. He wrote a letter to Tacitus describing the explosion:
The cloud could best be described as more like an umbrella pine than any other tree, because it rose high up in a kind of trunk and then divided into branches. I imagine that this was because it was thrust up by the initial blast until its power weakened and it was left unsupported and spread out sideways under its own weight… Like a true scholar, my uncle saw at once that it deserved closer study and ordered a boat to be prepared. He said that I could go with him, but I chose to continue my studies.
He was with his uncle, Pliny the Elder, who had initially wanted to go closer to investigate, but then received a distress call from a close friend, Rectina, so his research mission became a rescue mission, sending galleys to evacuate the coast.
As his boat neared the coast, the pilot warned that it would be too dangerous and difficult to leave again, Pliny famously stated, “Fortune favors the brave,” and instructed him to continue.
It turned out that the helmsman was correct, and the wind made it impossible for them to leave. They were forced to stay overnight. In the morning, the others woke Pliny and they wanted to set off by land. But Pliny sat down on the ground and was unable to rise, even with the help of his friends. They were forced to leave him there.
His body was recovered the following day. Pliny the younger thought his uncle had died from inhaling poisonous fumes from the eruption, but modern researchers think it more likely that the overweight 55-year-old Pliny probably died from a heart attack or stroke. He was the most famous casualty of the eruption, though the second most famous was the Jewish princess Drusilla, daughter of Herod Agrippa, who also died there, along with her son.
Pliny (the elder) is most famous for writing the world’s first encyclopedia, which became the model for all future encyclopedias and scholarly works, and which was one of the foremost reference books for over 1,500 years.
The 37-volume work is a repository of all the knowledge of the ancient world. Pliny had a team of slaves working for him. One would read out from a source, a second would take dictation from Pliny of what to include in his book. Because of his busy schedule as a military commander, often the dictation would happen while Pliny was in the bath.
While Pliny included many stories that even he didn’t trust much, and despite the fact that there are many “facts” in Natural History that we now know to be wrong, there is also a great deal of information that seems now to be well ahead of his time. Many of the tools or artworks he describes are known only from his encyclopedia, though many others have subsequently been verified by archaeologists and historians.
Books VIII to XI of Natural History deal with zoology. In Book IX Pliny does not sound convinced about something that many people believe to be true — that every land animal and bird has a counterpart in the sea, along with many inanimate objects:
Hence it is that the vulgar notion may very possibly be true, that whatever is produced in any other department of Nature, is to be found in the sea as well; while, at the same time, many other productions are there to be found which nowhere else exist. That there are to be found in the sea the forms, not only of terrestrial animals, but of inanimate objects even, is easily to be understood by all who will take the trouble to examine the grape-fish, the sword-fish, the sawfish, and the cucumber-fish, which last so strongly resembles the real cucumber both in colour and in smell
This idea that there were marine counterparts to all terrestrial and aerial animals objects became widely accepted in the Western and Muslim world.
This is the reason that many marine animals are called by the same names as land animals. So in English, we have sea horses, sea dragons, sea lions, sea urchins, sea snakes, sea spiders, sea slugs and even sea cucumber.
The rabbis of the mishaic period also believed that, with only one exception, all land animals had marine counterparts. In the Tosefta (Kilayim 5:6) it says:
Everything that there is on land there is in the sea. There are many things in the sea that are not on land. But there is no type of weasel (chulda) in the sea.
This Tosefta is quoted in the Babylonian Talmud (Chullin 127a) and Rabbi Zeira brings a biblical verse as a prooftext:
The Rabbis taught: Everything that there is on land there is in the sea, except for the weasel. Rabbi Zeira said: What is the proof text? ‘Listen all you inhabitants of the world (chaled),’ (Psalms 49:2).
Rashi explains that dry land is referred to as “chaled” because the weasel (chulda) lives only there.
It was only in the 17th century that the idea was rejected. Sir Thomas Browne wrote in his 1672 book, Pseudodoxia Epidemica, (book 3 chapter 24):
That all Animals of the Land, are in their kind in the Sea, although received as a principle, is a tenet very questionable, and will admit of restraint. For some in the Sea are not to be matched by any enquiry at Land, and hold those shapes which terrestrial forms approach not; as may be observed in the Moon fish, or Orthragoriscus, the several sorts of Rays, Torpedos, Oysters, and many more, and some there are in the Land which were never maintained to be in the Sea, as Panthers, Hyenas, Camels, Sheep, Molls, and others … And therefore, although it be not denied that some in the water do carry a justifiable resemblance to some at Land, yet are the major part which bear their names unlike; nor do they otherwise resemble the creatures on earth, then they on earth the constellations which pass under animal names in heaven: nor the Dog-fish at Sea much more make out the Dog of the Land, then that his cognominal or name-sake in the heavens.
It is interesting to note that even though the Talmud found a biblical source to prove that (almost) every land animal has a marine counterpart, the Bible (almost) never names any species of marine creature. When Jonah is swallowed, it is simply by a big fish. Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 list many specific kosher and non-kosher types of birds and animals, but not a single specific example of a fish, simply, “You may eat whatever has fins and scales.”
The only exception is the Leviathan, a kind of semi-mythical sea monster mentioned in Isaiah 27:1, in Psalms 74:14 and 104:26 and in Job 3:8 and 40:25.
Fish became the ultimate metaphor of fecundity, an undelineated mass of life. For example, when Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons, he uses the word for fish when he says they should grow to a multitude (Genesis 48:16).
Yet the ancient city of Jerusalem had a fish gate (II Chronicles 33:14), which was presumably where the fish market was. So fishmongers must have had names for the types of fish they were selling.
Why are the names of fish not mentioned in the Bible?
This weeks’ Torah portion, Bereishit, begins with the creation of the world. Then, God brings all the animals and birds to Adam to be named (Genesis 2:19-20)
He brought them to the man, to see what he would call them, and whatever the man called the living souls, that was its name. And the man gave names to all the animals and the birds of heaven…
Two 13th century commentaries, the Provencal Rabbi David Kimhe (Radak) and the French Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah (Hizkuni) both point out that God did not bring fish to Adam to be named. They explain that the fish would have died if they had been taken out of water to come to the Garden of Eden.
And so the fish remain nameless in the Bible.
Because without words and names, we do not have the tools to speak about, or even think about, things.
You may know words for a few different types of cow, and if you are from New Zealand you can possibly name a dozen types of sheep. How many types of snake can you name? There are hundreds of names for different types of dog. Yet we probably don’t know more than one word for sloths, crows, or cockroaches.
When the Torah describes the creation of man, Onkelos famously translates “a living soul” (Genesis 2: 7) as “a speaking spirit.” Our speech is connected to how we live. The words we have and use define the way we live our lives and understand the world around us.
Pliny’s Natural History was an attempt to collate all of human knowledge. But his endeavor was limited not only by his mortality, but also by the language he had which defined what he could include in his encyclopedia.