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This 2,000-Year-Old Skull May Belong to Pliny the Elder

The Roman statesman launched a rescue mission when Vesuvius erupted but lost his life in the process

A statue of Pliny the Elder at the Cathedral of Santa Maria Maggiore in Como, Italy (Public domain)
smithsonianmag.com

On a warm afternoon in 79 A.D., a Roman statesman and writer named Gaius Plinius Secundus watched Mount Vesuvius explode. As his fellow Romans fled the eruption—the beginnings of a catastrophic chain of events that would soon leave as many as 16,000 dead—he readied a small fleet of ships to sail straight into the volcano’s path of destruction.

That day, the man better known as Pliny the Elder launched what would become one of history’s first formal rescue missions, risking it all to save some of the doomed citizens on and near the mountain’s fiery flanks. The decision almost certainly cost Pliny his life: By the next day, the great commander had died, likely from asphyxiation or a heart attack, on the shores of the town of Stabiae, where his men were forced to leave him after he collapsed.

What ultimately happened to Pliny’s body, discovered wreathed in pumice the day after his death, has long remained a mystery. But a recent spate of scientific tests suggests a team of Italian researchers may have finally pieced together a critical clue: a skull that could belong to the Roman leader himself, reports Ariel David for Haaretz.

The link the team proposes isn’t a new one. First unearthed near the shores of Stabiae about a century ago, the skull was originally part of a body found equipped with a heavily ornamented short sword and draped with golden necklaces and bracelets, as David reported for Haaretz in 2017. One of roughly 70 skeletons buried together shortly after the devastation of Pompeii, the bedazzled body seemed like a promising candidate for a high-ranking Roman naval officer who’d sailed into the fray.

At the time, Gennaro Matrone, the engineer and archaeologist who discovered the cache of remains, was quick to evoke Pliny’s name, but he had little additional evidence to back the claim up. Discouraged, he sold most of the artifacts and bones to unknown buyers, then donated the skull and an accompanying jawbone to Rome’s Museum of the History of the Art of Medicine.

Skull and jawbone
A skull and jawbone found at the ancient Roman town of Stabiae. The skull may belong to Pliny the Elder, while the jawbone may hail from a soldier, servant or slave who accompanied Pliny on his ill-fated trip. (Luciano Fattore)

A few years ago, researchers led by engineer and military historian Flavio Russo decided to use modern DNA sequencing technology to test Matrone’s original theory in earnest. Their preliminary results, reported last week at a conference in Rome, can’t identify the skull’s original owner conclusively, according to the Times’ Tom Kington. But its DNA and overall shape fit Pliny’s general profile: a man who could trace some of his lineage to Italy, and who likely died in his forties or fifties.

“On average, these numbers are compatible with the possibility that the skull belonged to Pliny,” who died at the age of 56, physical anthropologist Luciano Fattore tells Haaretz.

But the jawbone, long assumed to have hailed from the same corpse, may actually belong to someone else entirely: a man with North African ancestry who grew up in Northern Italy before perishing sometime in his 30s—perhaps a soldier, servant or slave who had accompanied Pliny on his ill-fated trip to Stabiae, Russo tells Haaretz.

So far, the team hasn’t yet come across anything that contradicts the Pliny theory, Andrea Cionci, an art historian and journalist who originally reported on the researchers’ work in 2017, tells Haaretz. But, he adds, “we can never be completely certain” of the skull’s identity.

Luckily for Pliny, his legacy extends far beyond an ancient set of bones. A naturalist and philosopher, he was long enamored with both science and literature, and he wrote one of the world’s earliest encyclopedias.

Though the Vesuvius rescue mission ended poorly for him, Pliny’s arsenal of ships may have saved up to 2,000 refugees from the eruption’s fallout, Russo told Haaretz in 2017. Had he never sailed for Stabiae, the bodies unearthed from its shores would likely have numbered far more.

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a Boston-based science journalist and Story Collider senior producer. She holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard University. Previously, she served as a Digital Editor at NOVA Next and was Smithsonian magazine's 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow.

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