Visitors to the abandoned settlements of Pompeii and Herculaneum might look at the remains of those who perished and wonder who they were and what they were doing in their final moments. Thanks to new analysis on two sets of remains, archeologists are tentatively able to identify two people who set out to assist the residents of Pompeii in their greatest hour of need.
Not to be confused with the modern city of Pompei, the ancient city of Pompeii was located near Naples, in the Campania region of Italy. Although today the sea is 700 meters (2,300 feet) away from the settlement, when Pompeii was a thriving city, it was much closer to the coastline. It is generally thought that around 11,000–11,500 people lived there initially, growing to 20,000 by 79AD.
The restored version of John Martin’s Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, oil on canvas, 1821. (Photo Credit: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)
Pompeii stood at the base of Mount Vesuvius. In fact, it was built on a plateau that appeared following an earlier eruption of the volcano. The area of Campania often suffered minor earthquakes, so little notice was taken of the small earthquakes that took place in 79AD. But they were the precursor to a very deadly event.
Pliny the Younger was staying in a town about 18 miles away and witnessed the eruption of Mount Vesuvius from a distance. He wrote about his experiences 25 years later, giving historians great insight into the event. The rest of what we know has been pieced together through archeological studies.
While we have no exact date for when Vesuvius erupted, current thinking places it around October/November. First of all, small fissures in the mountainside formed and released smoke and ash. Then, around midday, the volcano violently erupted, sending a cloud of ash, smoke, cinders, and pieces of pumice spurting into the air.
Modern-day Mount Vesuvius. (Photo Credit: _M_V_ / Unsplash)
For the next 18 hours, this cloud rained ash and pumice down on Pompeii, Herculaneum, and other outlying villages. Those who fled during this time were the ones who survived. Pliny the Younger describes how “it was daylight now elsewhere in the world, but there the darkness was darker and thicker than any night.”
Later that night, or possibly the next day, pyroclastic flows from the volcano ran down the mountainside, knocking down structures, incinerating anyone not quick enough to get out of the way.
A study published in 2010 showed that being even 10 kilometers (6 miles) from a pyroclastic flow with a temperature of at least 250℃ (480℉) could be fatal — even if you were sheltering inside a building. It was concluded that such intense heat was how most Pompeiians met their end, a conclusion backed up by the fact that at least one victim’s brain was found vitrified (turned to glass) by the temperature.
Pliny the Elder’s rescue mission
Pliny the Elder was the uncle of Pliny the Younger. As a scholar, Pliny the Elder was intrigued when he saw the cloud billowing from Mount Vesuvius. But when he got a message from his friend Rectina saying they couldn’t escape, he decided to launch a rescue mission.
Since he was an admiral of the fleet stationed at Misenum, he ordered Imperial Navy ships to assist in evacuation attempts. He boarded one boat himself and set off for Stabiae, about 2.8 miles from Pompeii.
Statue of Pliny the Elder at the Cathedral of S. Maria Maggiore in Como. (Photo Credit: Wolfgang Sauber / Wikimedia Commons SA BY-SA 3.0)
When Pliny the Elder reached the other side of the bay, they came under a deluge of hot cinders, pumice, and pieces of rock falling from the sky. While the wind brought Pliny safely to harbor, its direction meant that no other ships could leave. As such, the rescue party was obliged to stay there overnight.
The next day, the group had to fight their way out of the building as ash and rock started to block all exits. They fled through the fields with pillows over their heads to protect them.
Pliny the Elder never returned from Stabiae. It is unclear how he met his end, but given his corpulent nature, it’s likely he suffered a stroke or heart attack brought about by exhaustion and fear. It’s possible that he succumbed to poisonous gases, although this seems unlikely since the rest of his party survived.
Pliny the Elder’s skull
While the total number of fatalities will never be known, so far archaeologists have made 1,044 casts of bodies in the ash and collected bones from another 100 bodies found in Pompeii. In addition, the remains of 332 bodies have been found around Herculaneum.
With so many remains scattered throughout the area, individual identification is almost impossible. But research in the last year has suggested that two sets of remains might actually belong to this heroic rescue mission.
For a long time, there have been questions about whether a particular skull belonged to the Pliny the Elder. Further scientific tests carried out in 2020 revealed that while the cranium might belong to Pliny, the jawbone didn’t.
The skull believed to belong to Pliny the Elder beside a jawbone believed to belong to a soldier or attendant who accompanied him. (Photo Credit: Luciano Fattore)
When the remains were first unearthed in the early 20th century, they were part of a group of 70 skeletons found near the coast of Stabiae. Since this particular set of remains had a golden necklace and bracelets as well as a sword decorated with ivory and seashells, the finder theorized that this skeleton had been someone important, like Pliny the Elder.
Gennaro Matrone was the man who discovered the remains and put forward this theory. After his ideas were dismissed by other scholars, he sold the jewelry and reburied the bones. But he kept the skull and sword, eventually donating them to the Museo di Storia dell’Arte Sanitaria in Rome.
When engineer and military historian Flavio Russo came to write a book on Pliny, he pulled together funding and experts to examine the skull. Using DNA tests and analysis of the teeth, scientists concluded that while the lower jaw belonged to a man whose ancestry could be traced to North Africa, the cranium itself was consistent with someone who’d spent their childhood in northern Italy.
Since Pliny the Younger described how his uncle died as he tried to “raise himself up with the assistance of two of his servants,” there’s a possibility that the lower jawbone could belong to one of these servants who perished alongside his master.
Of course, it’s not possible to say for certain that this is the skull of Pliny the Elder. But Andrea Cionci, art historian and journalist, comments that “so far none of our findings have contradicted this theory, and if anything, the evidence in favor of it just keeps mounting.”
An elite Roman soldier who perished trying to save others
Francesco Sirano, director of the archeological excavations at Herculaneum, described how many people had examined the skeletons found in the 1980s, but no one had thought to analyze the tools and other items found next to the remains.
Body cast in storage along with other items from Pompeii. (Photo Credit: Larry / Flickr, CC BY 2.0)
In one case, it was discovered that a man aged between roughly 40–45 years old was wearing armor and a leather belt decorated with gold and silver. He also had a scabbard with the likeness of an oval shield. Praetorian guards had oval shields, and coins found in the man’s possession amounted to a month’s salary for a praetorian guard.
However, a knapsack that he had with him contained carpentry tools, suggesting that he might be an engineer from one of the military ships.
With such evidence, Sirano theorizes that “he may be an officer of the fleet that took part in the rescue mission launched by Pliny the Elder to help the people in the towns and villas nestled on this part of the Bay of Naples.”
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Whether he was a regular officer or part of the elite Praetorian Guard is something that Sirano hopes will be clarified from further analysis of the weapons found with him.
From the position of the remains — with the man lying face down, his arms forward — it seems likely that he was knocked down by the force from a volcanic blast. Such a tragic end for a man and his commander who were only trying to help people in their hour of need.