Can writing save your life?

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Pliny the Elder writing his Natural History and dedicating it to Emperor Vespasian, Le Mans, Bibliothèque Municipale, 263, f. 10v

Writing has saved many mental lives, though it has also probably helped some lose theirs.

Writing dissident tracts during a totalitarian regime led to many deaths. Writing propagandist works during a totalitarian regime may have saved some lives. In those cases, it’s the quality of writing that seals the deal.

But has writing on its own actually saved anyone’s physical life?

If I say ancient calamity, you say … Vesuvius and Pompeii – arguably the most renowned disaster in ancient times and the world’s best-known archaeological site. We all know it.

We know about the effects of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD from the spectacular remains in Pompeii and Herculaneum. But the eruption itself comes to life in Pliny the Younger’s letters about the death of his uncle, Pliny the Elder. The breathtaking report of a breathtaking disaster. Literally.

Let me pause here for some unsolicited advice to forthcoming parents: avoid naming your children after your own name, especially if you’re famous. They might become famous themselves, and that will confuse later biographers and historians. Throughout the Middle Ages, the two Plinies, uncle and nephew, were thought to be one person. Pliny the Elder left us his monumental Natural History – the Wikipedia of ancient Rome -, while the younger Pliny bequeathed an impressive body of letters to us, including the famous 6.16 which describes the eruption.

Uncle Pliny learned about the eruption from his sister Plinia, the younger Pliny’s mother, whereupon the inquisitive naturalist expressed his desire to scrutinise the natural phenomenon more closely. Having ordered a galley – he had just been appointed fleet commander of the Roman navy -, he asked his nephew to join him. The latter refused.

But why?

When Mt Vesuvius blew up, the nephew was completing some homework in his uncle’s company. Neither uncle nor nephew understood how serious the situation was. For them, the eruption was like an eclipse – fascinating but harmless.

The nephew protested that he couldn’t go because he hadn’t finished his homework. His uncle had assigned him a written exercise, and he didn’t want to put it off.

Sometimes, FOMO doesn’t stand a chance against a good old Latin exercise.

The elder Pliny boarded the galley without his nephew, but just before setting sail, he had received an urgent message from friends across the Bay who were marooned and needed a ship to evacuate.

Pliny would never return from his ill-fated field trip, turned rescue mission.

On the other hand, a writing exercise saved the younger Pliny’s life. It saved both his life and the memory of his uncle’s last hours, for no other report of Pliny’s death survives.

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