The Tragic Death of Pliny the Elder and Pompeii’s Final Days

Pliny the Elder became an unexpected Roman hero during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Read on to discover more about this devastating natural disaster that destroyed the town of Pompeii.

Jul 4, 2022By Laura Hayward, MA Classics, PGCE Classics, BA Latin with Greek
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Mount Vesuvius in Eruption (depicting the death of Pliny the Elder), by Jacob More, 1780, via National Galleries Scotland; with a print engraving of Pliny the Elder, circa 1584, via British Museum

 

The 24th August 79 CE is one of the most famous dates in the history of the Roman world. On this day, just under 2,000 years ago, the landscape of the Bay of Naples changed forever as a result of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. This devastating natural disaster led to the apocalyptic destruction of the towns of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Oplontis, and it caused the deaths of many thousands of people.

 

Among these victims was the Roman author and naval commander Pliny the Elder. Pliny is an historical figure who is almost as famous for the events that led to his death as he is for his achievements during his lifetime. This is largely thanks to the harrowing eye-witness account of his final hours recounted by his nephew Pliny the Younger. This detailed narrative provides a fascinating portrait of a courageous man and a valuable record of one of the most fateful days in Roman history.

 

Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger

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Image of Pliny the Elder at work from an illuminated manuscript of the Natural History, 1476, via Bodleian Library Oxford

 

Pliny the Elder was born around 23/24 CE into a wealthy equestrian family. His ancestral home was in Comum (modern-day Como), but he spent much of his life either in Rome or in service across the empire. As a young man, during the tumultuous reign of Emperor Nero, Pliny the Elder trained and worked as a lawyer. But his talents were soon noticed by Nero’s successor Emperor Vespasian, and he was promoted to an important role at the imperial court.

 

Pliny the Elder was also a well-respected author and naturalist. He was a prolific writer, and his most famous work is the Natural History, a vast encyclopedia covering an array of topics, from botany to wall paintings. Early in the reign of the Emperor Titus, Pliny the Elder was appointed as commander of the Roman naval fleet. In 79 CE, this prestigious military position saw him stationed at the fleet’s base at Misenum, just 50 kilometers up the coast from Mount Vesuvius and Pompeii.

 

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Statue of Pliny the Younger from the façade of the Cathedral of Santa Maria Maggiore, Como, Italy, pre-1480, via Britannica

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Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, known to us today as Pliny the Younger, was born in 61 CE. His father died during his childhood, and afterward, he and his mother went to live with his uncle Pliny the Elder. The young Pliny was much in awe of his uncle, and he was particularly inspired by his scholarly pursuits. Indeed, it was his desire not to interrupt his studies that prevented him from accompanying his uncle on the day he died.

 

Following his uncle’s death, Pliny the Younger went on to have an illustrious political career. Around 100 CE, he became one of Rome’s youngest consuls at the age of 39. In 110 CE, during the reign of Emperor Trajan, he was appointed governor of the province of Bithynia and Pontus, where he is believed to have died around 112/113 CE. Pliny the Younger also published a large collection of letters that provide one of the most extensive sources on Roman life and politics in the first century CE.

 

24th August 79 CE

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A modern statue of the Roman historian Tacitus, situated outside the Austrian Parliament Building, via Wikimedia Commons

 

It is Letter 6.16 from Pliny the Younger’s collection that provides the narrative for his uncle’s final hours. From the opening lines of the letter, it is clear that a request has been made for an accurate account of his uncle’s death and the events leading up to it. This request was made by none other than Tacitus, one of Rome’s greatest historians and the author of great works such as the Annals and the Histories. Pliny is acutely aware of the implications of Tacitus’ interest in his uncle: “I know that immortal fame awaits him if his death is recorded by you.

 

Our story starts in the early afternoon of the 24th August 79 CE. Pliny the Elder is hard at work on his latest manuscript, and his sister, the mother of the younger Pliny, is also present. It is his sister who first notices the appearance of a strange and ominous cloud in the distance.

 

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An umbrella pine in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius,via the Vergilian Society

 

Pliny the Elder decides to take a closer look and climbs to a point where he can get a better view of the cloud. Pliny the Younger compares the cloud to an umbrella pine in shape, given that it rose upwards in a column and then branched out at the top. Pliny the Elder immediately realizes that all is not well. He orders for a boat to be made ready to make further investigations. However, just as he is leaving, a note arrives from a friend, Rectina, requesting his help.

 

At this point, Pliny the Elder’s mission changes from one of inspection to one of rescue. He launches a small fleet of warships with the purpose of helping others along the coast as well as Rectina. Once he reaches Rectina’s house, located about five kilometers (three miles) from Pompeii, his helmsman advises him to turn back. But Pliny refuses, and instead he pushes on to reach another friend, Pomponianus, based at Stabiae.

 

The Terror of Mount Vesuvius

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Vesuvius in Eruption, by J. M. W. Turner, circa 1817-1820, via Yale Center for British Art

 

When Pliny the Elder arrives at Pomponianus’ house, he attempts to calm his friend by carrying out normal tasks. He bathes, rests, and then has dinner, with the intention of sitting out the worst of the danger. But, by the early evening, it is clear that the situation is becoming increasingly more dangerous. Pliny describes seeing “broad sheets of fire and leaping flames.” Meanwhile, houses visible in the distance are set alight by a flow of lava that is making a hasty path down the mountain.

 

Pliny and his friends decide to remain indoors and try to sleep. However, Pliny is woken a few hours later by his slaves who point out the new dangers outside the window. The internal courtyard is fast filling up with ash and pumice stones, making an escape increasingly difficult. Meanwhile, the building itself is starting to shake from small tremors caused by the eruption.

 

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An Eruption of Vesuvius, Johan Christian Dahl, 1824, via Met Museum

 

Pliny and friends way up the advantages and disadvantages of leaving and remaining in the house. Outside the falling pumice stones are getting larger, but inside the foundations of the house are becoming unstable. After a short discussion, they decide that it is best to try to escape while it is still possible to leave the house. The group presents an unusual image as they leave with pillows tied to their heads to protect them from the falling pumice stones.

 

Dawn has arrived by this time, but they are still surrounded by darkness caused by the sheer build-up of volcanic matter in the air. As they make their way through the smog of ash and pumice, Pliny describes the darkness as being “blacker and denser than any ordinary night.”

 

The Death of Pliny the Elder

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Plaster casts of some of the victims of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, via Antiquarium Museum of Pompeii

 

Pliny the Elder decides to head for the beach to investigate whether an escape by sea is still possible. However, once he reaches the sea it is very clear that the waves are now too high to launch even a large boat. It is at this point that Pliny starts to struggle physically, and he repeatedly asks for cold water to drink. His friends come running down the beach to warn him of the approaching flames. All too soon, the flames are upon them, along with the intoxicating smell of sulfur.

 

The last known detail about Pliny the Elder is that he was seen leaning on two slaves trying to stand with little success. Two days later, his body was found on the beach. Pliny the Younger suggests that his uncle died as a result of asphyxiation. He was apparently known to suffer from respiratory problems, and it is believed that the poisonous fumes fatally restricted his windpipe.

 

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Pliny the Younger and his Mother at Misenum AD 79, by Angelica Kauffmann, 1785, via Princeton University Art Museum

 

In Letter 6.20, Pliny the Younger recalls his own experiences while he and his mother waited for news of his uncle. Once the tremors became more frequent and more violent, Pliny and his mother decided to leave the house at Misenum. However, as they did so, they were caught up in a great crowd of people also attempting to flee.

 

Pliny describes the terrifying moment that daylight disappeared, and they were left in an impenetrable darkness. Ash and pumice stones began to fall on them, and they were unable to move forward safely. In a chilling detail, Pliny recalls the poignant cries of children separated from their parents in the chaos.

 

Eventually a smoky daylight returned. Pliny and his mother had no option but to return to the house at Misenum, which, although damaged, was still standing. There they waited until the tragic news was brought of Pliny the Elder’s death.

 

The Destruction and Preservation of Pompeii: A Primary Source

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A photograph of a Plinian eruption of Mount St. Helens, 1980, via United States National Park Service

 

Pliny the Younger’s account of his uncle’s death includes a wealth of detailed information about the various stages of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Although he was writing 27 years after the event, his primary evidence was based on his own eye-witness account, detailed notes dictated by his uncle, and reports from survivors. This ancient source has been used by archaeologists and volcanologists in the intervening centuries to understand more about the devastating destruction of towns such as Pompeii.

 

The events described by Pliny the Younger have allowed historians and volcanologists to reconstruct the timeline of the eruption quite accurately. Advancements in technology, particularly in the twentieth century, have shown that Pliny’s narrative is largely accurate. As one of the earliest eye-witnesses to a volcanic eruption, Pliny has also contributed more widely to the field of volcanology. Indeed, a particular type of volcanic eruption or phase of an eruption is known today as “Plinian”. A Plinian eruption refers to an initial or explosive stage of widespread air-fall pumice.

 

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A small selection of the houses and shops that have been excavated at Pompeii over the last two centuries, photographed by the author

 

The account of Pliny the Younger has been particularly useful for those studying the destruction and incredible preservation of the nearby town of Pompeii. In an important study, Sigurdsson et al. (1982) argued that Pliny’s account revealed that the eruption of Mount Vesuvius took place in two main phases. The first Plinian phase of air-fall ash and pumice was later followed by the second phase of hot ash avalanches. This has helped archaeologists to understand more clearly how the inhabitants of Pompeii died.

 

This development has also had important implications for the stratigraphy of the site at Pompeii. Once archaeologists could determine the composition of the different layers at the site, they were able to appreciate why so much evidence at Pompeii had been so well preserved.

 

The Death of Pliny the Elder: New Evidence?

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The excavated villa of San Marco at Stabiae, via Antiquarium Museum of Pompeii

 

For nearly a century, an unremarkable Roman skull lay in storage at the Museo dell’ Arte Sanitaria in Rome. It had been discovered in 1900 by Gennaro Matrone, while he was digging on his land in the area of ancient Stabiae. Seventy skeletons were found in total, and all were believed to be victims of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE.

 

One of the skeletons was adorned with gold jewelry, specifically a ring, a necklace, and two armlets. The story goes that one of the members of the excavation team made an unsubstantiated claim that this could be the remains of Pliny the Elder. His reasoning was that the skeleton was decorated in a fashion befitting a high-ranking naval official such as Pliny the Elder. The find site was also the approximate location of Pliny’s death, as recorded by the younger Pliny. However, this claim was resoundingly rejected by the academic community at the time.

 

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Memento mori floor mosaic from Pompeii, 1st century CE, via National Archaeological Museum of Naples

 

A century later and this skeleton, specifically its skull, was plucked from anonymity once more. In 2019, Italian military historian Flavio Russo decided that the time had come to discover whether the remains really were those of Pliny the Elder, using scientific analysis. The results, which were published in January 2020, were inconclusive. Analysis of the skull’s teeth showed that the victim could well have grown up in the Comum area, as Pliny the Elder had done. However, parts of the jaw belonged to a much younger man, while the rest of the skull could have belonged to a man in his 40s or 50s. Pliny was 55 when he died.

 

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The unsubstantiated skull of Pliny the Elder, via The New York Times

 

It is extremely unlikely that this skull actually belonged to Pliny the Elder. The academic community certainly does not feel that the evidence weighs in his favor. However, this interesting postscript illustrates the enduring appeal of Pliny’s story. He was, after all, a fascinating and notable man who died while trying to save others from one of the most devastating disasters of the Roman period.



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By Laura HaywardMA Classics, PGCE Classics, BA Latin with GreekLaura Hayward is a contributing writer and researcher from London, UK. She is a specialist in the field of Classics, in which she has either studied or worked for over twenty years. She holds a B.A. and M.A. in Classics from University College London. She has also worked as a teacher of Classics in a leading independent school in London. Her particular areas of interest are Latin language and literature as well as Roman art and epigraphy.