In the fall of 79 CE, Pliny the Elder was in a villa overlooking the Roman port of Misenum and out into the Bay of Naples. Staying with him at the time was his sister and his teenage nephew, Pliny (known as Pliny the Younger). Around midday, our Elder Pliny’s sister came to alert him to something unusual: a strange cloud had appeared on the horizon. Pliny, who at the time commanded the imperial navy, half of which was based at Misenum, decided to take a closer look. Leaving his less adventurous nephew at home, he embarked on a scientific-expedition-come-rescue-mission. When he arrived in Stabiae, a coastal town 30 km down the coast close to a mountain called Vesuvius, he found the town in a state of panic. In the ensuing disaster, like almost everyone else, Pliny was killed: his curiosity had made him an unnecessary victim of history’s most famous volcanic eruption.
Nearly two millennia later, in the early 1900s, an intrepid engineer named Gennaro Matrone discovered a cluster of seventy-three skeletons during a private excavation in Stabiae. One of these skeletons was set apart from the others and was found wearing a heavy gold chain, three rings, and small collection of bracelets. It was discovered still clutching an ornately decorated sword. Matrone claimed that he might have discovered the remains of Pliny—the encyclopedia-writing pirate-fighting admiral and naturalist whose legacy still influences modern thought. At the time, however, scholars were skeptical about the discovery and outright ridiculed Matrone. The engineer ended up selling the jewelry and burying most of the human remains but kept a portion of ‘Pliny’ and eventually bequeathed them to a museum. Now, new DNA analysis of the parts of the skeleton Matrone kept (the skull, jawbone, and sword) reveals that he might have been right after all.
After gathering figurative dust at the fabulous Museo Storico Nazionale dell'Arte Sanitaria (National Historic Museum of Healthcare Art) in Rome, the skull and jawbone were recently re-examined by anthropologists. The results, which were presented last month in Rome and reported on in La Stampa and Livescience, show that the skull (though not the jaw) might plausibly have come from Pliny.
Analysis of ash that had adhered to the surface of the skull proved that the individual had died during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Further examination of the skull revealed that it came from someone aged between 48 and 65. The jawbone, however, came from someone much younger. Luciano Fattore, a freelance anthropologist who worked on the project, speculated to Livescience that perhaps Matrone had found the jawbone near to the skull and assumed that they came from the same person.
In his own day, Pliny the Elder was believed to be the most learned man of the era and is best known to us for his thirty-seven volume Natural History; an enormously influential exhaustive compendium filled with fascinating tidbits about everything to do with geography, zoology, and botany. He amassed his information by industriously copying facts out of other books and by constantly reading or being read to by slave-readers. Some of his impressions still sit with us today: it’s from Pliny that we get expression (and concept) “in a nutshell.” He also passed on the Roman idea that elephants were afraid of mice. In a world of natural and organic everything, he advises the use of blood from lamb’s testicles as a deodorant and mouse droppings as ancient Rogaine. Some have speculated that he even influenced Charles Darwin, a member of the Plinian Society, develop his theory of inheritable traits. So valuable were his numerous notebooks that he was once offered the astronomical sum of 400,000 sesterces for them. Not everything Pliny the Elder wrote has lasting utility: he warns that the venom of basilisk serpent of Africa was so potent that it rose up the spear of a man on horseback and killed both the rider and his horse. It wasn’t until 1492 that people began to challenge whether or not his prescriptions and observations were actually correct. Considering that he discusses headless men, griffins, cannibals, a group with back-turned feet, and a people of Cyclopes, that’s probably for the best.
The update about the skull of Pliny comes just as other scientific research is revealing just how excruciating the deaths of those who died on the beaches actually were. When Vesuvius erupted it didn’t only destroy Pompeii, it also overwhelmed the nearby region. Evidence gathered from the bones of those who died at the nearby coastal town of Herculaneum suggests that people there lived longer than was previously thought. Previously researchers thought that those who fled to the beaches and hid in boathouses were instantly vaporized by the heat. In the past it had seemed that the eruption had, in the words of biological anthropologist Kristina Kilgrove, “exploded skulls and vaporized bodies.” It wasn’t pretty, but it was quick. A new study in the journal Antiquity suggests that the boathouses protected their inhabitants from the heat. Rather than perishing immediately these victims would have slowly suffocated while they baked. By contrast, another recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine claims that at least one man, who was discovered in a building on the main street of Herculaneum, suggests that the high levels of heat from the flow of lava, ash, and gases, turned the man’s brain to glass. None of these forms of death sound pleasant, but it seems there’s more to learn about how people died on that day.
Ironically, as classicist Daisy Dunn has written in her new book, The Shadow of Vesuvius, Pliny was something of an expert on volcanoes. For his Natural History he had written about Mount Etna, Mount Chimera in Lycia (Southern Turkey), as well as volcanoes in Persia, Ethiopia, and the Aeolian islands. He did not, however, write about Vesuvius here, which he elsewhere describes as a vineyard-covered mountain in a very pleasant green region. He had failed to pay attention to the geographer Strabo’s note that the rocks at the summit of Vesuvius looked as if they had been eaten out by fire. Perhaps it was this oversight and his famous curiosity that led him to the beaches of Stabiae and his death.