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Why scientists think they have identified the remains of Vesuvius victim Pliny the Elder

 
In the year 1900 Italian civil engineer Gennaro Matrone uncovered a cluster of bodies (73 eventually recovered) under volcanic rubble near the mouth of the Sarno River which flows from Mt. Vesuvius down to the Bay of Naples. This was only a few kilometers from Pompeii and Herculaneum, the twin towns famously buried in lava and ash by Vesuvius in 79 AD, and they appeared to be people who had fled to what was must then have been the shoreline. They were not fully encased and eerily preserved like many in Pompeii, but eroded down to skeletons, with sometimes a few coins from their pouches.

One of the men who had perished there had been wearing a considerable amount of gold when he died: armlets, serpentine bracelets, a 75-link chain about his neck, rings including one with the curious design of two lion heads facing each other, and sea shells on the marble hilt of his fine sword. Matrone declared that this must be Pliny the Elder, a Roman general and noted victim of the disaster. But he was not an archaeologist, just a municipal worker on a project to divert river water.

Experts in the field doubted it was feasible to identify an individual from such a distant time, they questioned why Pliny would be dressed as if for a theatrical production, and they noted that accounts at the time recounted that Pliny’s body had been found, so it would probably have been taken back for burial somewhere else.

Matrone was allowed to sell the gold to private collectors, and we don’t know where any of it is now. He donated the skull and jaw to the Museum of Medical Arts in Rome, which labeled it the head of Pliny the Elder. They believed him, even if the general opinion remained that this identification was an intriguing but speculative theory.

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Gaius Plinius Secundus was born in the year 23 or 24 in the northern Italian town of Novum Comum, now the pleasant lake resort Como, but founded as a military base by Julius Caesar. His parents may have come from Verona, 200 km east, since a plaque he dedicated to them was found there. They were equestrian class, which meant propertied but below senatorial class. The name indicates he had an elder brother Primus who did not survive. The only other family we know is his sister’s son and adopted heir, who took his name and is therefore distinguished as Pliny the Younger. Both wrote prolifically.

Pliny the Elder did his military service under Claudius, becoming a valued staff officer to Senator Pomponius; he practiced law but wisely avoided politics under Nero; and he governed four provinces, two in Gaul, one in Hispania, and one in Africa, under Vespasian. Pliny the Younger describes him as reading constantly, having servants read to him while he ate and while he bathed, and assigning other servants to copy down passages he wanted saved for reference, providing them with supple gloves in winter to prevent finger stiffness. He distilled his learning into the 37-volume Historia Naturalis, the earliest encyclopedia that continued to be copied down to modern times. It covered artistic and
engineering techniques of the day as well as every branch of science.

It would be unfair to cite the things he got wrong in the work. His opening, on astronomy, is right in ways that are amazing for his time. The Earth is a nearly perfect sphere, he said, and probably this is because such a shape rotates most smoothly: “that the Earth turns with great celerity every twenty-four hours, the regular sunrises and sunsets can leave no doubt.” We do not perceive this because it is on too grand a scale for our senses. From his correct understanding of eclipses he derived that the Sun must be much larger than the Earth, and the Moon only somewhat smaller. Therefore they were at great distance, and Jupiter and Saturn many times further yet. Whether the stars were on a single sphere at the edge of the universe or hanging in a space that stretched infinitely in all directions was a question he called fruitless to discuss until some way of measuring large distances could be devised. He cited ancient authors who assigned distances to the planets on numerological grounds, without disparaging them, though he clearly understood that the universe was considerably vaster than previously supposed.

In 79 he was posted as commander of the fleet base at Cape Misenum on the north end of the Bay of Naples. On August 24 he was watching the eruption of Vesuvius when he received word that Pompeii and Herculaneum were in danger, by carrier pigeon from Rectina, wife of Tascus or Tascius or Bassus depending on which copyist of Pliny the Younger’s letters one trusts. No other source tells us anything about her or her husband, or why she had a pigeon trained to seek Pliny. Some of course want to posit a scandalous love affair, though others think the never-married Pliny must have been homosexual.

A more sensible though unproven theory is that she was the librarian at the Villa of the Papyri, where a huge collection of charred scrolls was found in 1752. Researchers have tried many experimental methods to recover the writings. Unfortunately the older methods, which salvaged parts of four volumes from an early encyclopedia by the famed philosopher Epicurus, along with several works by his follower Philodemus, destroyed the originals in the process (and many were destroyed without recovering anything). In the late 20th century non-destructive methods were developed, by which a history by Seneca and works by Stoic philosopher Chrysippus were recovered; now there is hope that much of the
library can be read.

Pliny might even have requested the Misenum post for proximity to this Herculaneum library, founded by Julius Caesar’s father-in-law. He responded to the alarm message by ordering quadriremes from the fleet to row swiftly into the bay on a rescue mission. Asked by an officer if this wasn’t too dangerous, he said “Fortune favors the bold!”
while going on ahead on a fast cutter. The wind onshore was fierce as the eruption’s hot updraft sucked in air for miles. He met Pomponianus, who had achieved high rank through the patronage of Pliny’s old commander and longtime friend Pomponius.

Pomponianus told him that it was hopeless for any sailship like Pliny’s cutter to try to get out, and that he had just left a shelter because falling pumice was threatening to cave in the roof. A block of falling pumice then brained Pomponianus.

The oarships rescued about 2,000 people from the shore, but Pliny stayed too late. He sat down and could not get up, and his men had to leave him as they were beginning to be overcome by sulfurous fumes.

According to the historian Suetonius, who says Pliny went out of scientific interest in the eruption, leaving out the whole rescue mission aspect, he asked a servant to kill him with a sword so he wouldn’t burn to death. Pliny the Younger says that his uncle’s death was confirmed by men sent two days later when the smoke had cleared.

In 2014 Flavio Russo wrote a report about historic eruptions of Vesuvius for the Italian Defense Ministry, and noted that Pliny’s heroic rescue mission was the first such recorded use of the military, and that it was now possible to test the putative remains.

La Stampa in 2017 was critical of the early skeptics who pooh-poohed Matrone: we now know that in Roman times, gold jewelry was a normal way to indicate high social station, and an ornate sword the mark of a ranking officer. The paper estimated that DNA testing, carbon dating, trace mineral analysis of the teeth to determine where the man grew up, and other forensics would cost a few thousand euros and reached out to readers to raise the funds.

The report is now in, with one surprise.

The skull is from a 1st century man of completely Italian ancestry, raised in the far north by the Alps, aged about fifty. But the lower jaw is from someone else, a man about thirty of North African ancestry who spent part of his youth in Italy. Pomponianus, the only other plausible candidate for the person of rank, was from an Umbrian family (central Italy) so process of elimination leaves Pliny for the source of the skull. We cannot tell whether the younger man responsible for the jaw was slave or freedman, but he must have been closely entwined with the master in death.

Let the loving nephew have the last word: “For my part I deem those blessed to whom, by favor of the gods, it has been granted either to do what is worth writing of, or to write what is worth reading; above measure blessed those on whom both gifts have been conferred.”

— Robert Eckert

Robert Eckert is a longtime member of the Underground Bunker community and author of the historical novel The Year of Five Emperors.

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