Gaius Plinius Secundus, better known as Pliny the Elder, was an influential administrator, officer, and author in ancient Rome. His life ended suddenly with the deadly eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. He had used his fleet of ships to rescue local citizens and carry them from Pompeii to safety. However, stories say Pliny the Elder himself did not make it out of the town alive. Pliny the Younger wrote on the horrifying eruption and asserted that his uncle was leading a group of survivors to safety when he was overtaken by a cloud of poisonous gas – he died on the beach during that rescue attempt.
Pliny the Younger told the Roman senator and historian Tacitus that he had witnessed the eruption from a distance.
Scene of destruction in the film “Pompeii 3d” (2014). (La Stampa/CC BY NC ND)
Fast forward to 1900, when Italian engineer Gennaro Matrone was excavating Pompeii and discovered the remains of 70+ people. One of the figures was found far from the others; it was graced in bracelets and rings and was wearing a large gold necklace. According to IBTImes UK, Matrone had a hunch that this was the figure of Pliny the Elder – his beliefs have never been confirmed.
Excavations of Pompeii by Gennaro Matrone in 1900. (La Stampa/CC BY NC ND)
Now, Haaretz reports that the skull of this figure from the beach is held in the collection of the Museum of the History of the Art of Medicine in Rome. It has been largely forgotten until historian Flavio Russo and Isolina Marota, an anthropologist at the University of Camerino who is best known for working on the remains of Ötzi the Iceman, decided that it could be worthwhile to check if the skull really belonged to Pliny the Elder.
Marota told La Stampa “Considering the importance of the findings, our university has the utmost readiness to start a research project on it, perhaps in collaboration with specialized scholars and archaeologists and with the experts responsible for managing the Pompeii site.”
Some of the victims of Pompeii were sitting, some lying when the superhot gas cloud enveloped them. (Bigstock photo)
According to Haaretz, the team is trying to gain the necessary funds to complete the project through crowdfunding (they write that the “Italian cultural and scientific institutions are mired in budget troubles”). The researchers plan to use stable isotope analysis of the skull’s teeth, which was also used in the identification of Ötzi’s origins, and other methods to identify the origins of the skull. As Marota explained, “When we drink water or eat something, whether it's plants or animals, the minerals from the soil enter our body, and the soil has a different composition in every place.” Matching the isotopes with the tooth enamel to those found in soil samples can help the researchers pinpoint the skull’s homeland.
Researchers want to know for certain if this is the skull of Pliny the Elder. (Flavio Russo)
A second method Marota says the team can use is to compare the shape of the head and jaw to busts of Pliny the Elder from his time period.
A previous Ancient Origins article tells us that Pliny the Elder was born in Como, Italy in 23 or 24 AD into a powerful and elite equestrian family (akin to knights). He traveled to Rome in 35 AD and learned the art of rhetoric and public speaking. Throughout the rest of his life (while on the road, and in between careers) Pliny worked tirelessly on a variety of written works.
Pliny the Elder. (Public Domain)
Pliny served the Roman army as a military officer of the forces, and later as leader of the cavalry, from 45 to 47 AD. He became acquainted with and wrote about several Roman emperors and discussed Germanic warfare, but his most famous work was the Naturalis Historia. Written around 77 AD, this is a thirty-seven chapter book written in ten volumes, which writer Riley Winters explains:
“utilized all of the experience Pliny went through during his travels and the knowledge of his youth to create a compilation of Roman life. The book dictated astronomy, geography, anthropology, zoology, botany, medicine, magic, and mineralogy, as well as a cornucopia of other topics. The information within has proven incredibly illuminating to both modern day historians, and to the Romans during their time.”
The oldest illustrated version (1513) of the Historia Naturalis of Plinius maior (right). Also showing a 1570 edition of the famous Greek speeches, the Logoi by Demosthenes. (CC BY SA 3.0)
Top Image: Scene of destruction in the film “Pompeii 3d” (2014). (La Stampa/CC BY NC ND) Insert: Remains of a skull attributed to Pliny the Elder from the Museo di Storia dell'Arte Sanitaria in Rome. (Flavio Russo)
By Alicia McDermott