The remains of the most famous non-emperor Roman may have been found
January 26, 2020 7:20 PM   Subscribe

Remains Found by Pompeii Really Are Probably are Pliny the Elder, New Tests Indicate Pliny the elder, author/admiral/polymath died attempting to rescue the citizens of Pompeii from the erupting volcano. A skull that was found in the early years of the 20th century on the shores of Stabiae along with a jawbone, jewels and a sword befitting a man of Pliny's stature have recently been re-evaluated and the cranium most likely does belong to one of Rome's most famous citizens.

Pliny the Elder's death by smoke inhalation was dutifully recorded by his nephew, Pliny the younger. The elder Pliny was the author of the Naturalis Historia, arguably the world's first encyclopedia.

Previously and Previously.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis (55 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
 
Just because Pliny the Elder wrote a book about natural history doesn't mean he was right about what he wrote about- and as such he's the patron saint of Sawbones, a podcast about misguided medicine. They referenced some of his misconceptions so often they recorded a whole episode dedicated to the man.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 7:22 PM on January 26 [17 favorites]


I love Sawbones but one thing about their love/hate of Pliny that always rubbed me the wrong way was the implication that he believed or was offering as fact what he wrote. He was simply trying to record, on any given ailment (in Sawbones' case), every possible treatment that he heard. Not treatments he tested, believed, or concocted. He collected information, that was his bag man!
I have a fond place in my heart for Pliny because he was a recurring source in my keystone research paper for my undergrad degree. Oh such heady days...
posted by wellifyouinsist at 7:35 PM on January 26 [36 favorites]


I can hear Alan Davies banging his head on the desk on the set of QI all the way from Chicago.
posted by tzikeh at 7:50 PM on January 26 [13 favorites]


Did they find the pillow?
posted by Freelance Demiurge at 7:52 PM on January 26 [1 favorite]


Can we clone him? That would be cool.
posted by Heywood Mogroot III at 8:04 PM on January 26


Well, if he died at Pompei, he must not have been that much Elder...
posted by oneswellfoop at 8:06 PM on January 26 [2 favorites]


Local man wrong about science, dies rushing towards an exploding volcano in an attempt to help survivors, what an asshole.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 8:27 PM on January 26 [44 favorites]


Wow what an aggressive comment! I love Pliny the elder, he's a fascinating man and he died quite heroically but the linked sawbones episode is hilarious and a good look at how one can be so so certain in ones beliefs and be very very smart and still be wrong because you're looking at things through the wrong angle.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 8:39 PM on January 26 [9 favorites]


Article is paywalled, but holy shit seriously? The bones of Pliny? Do we even have the skeleton of any other important person from that long ago other than like pharaohs?
posted by Sterros at 9:05 PM on January 26 [6 favorites]


Fair enough and I apologize if that was aggressive. I learned about Pliny the Elder in school where he was portrayed as; foolish elder scientist who was hoist on his own petard getting too close to a volcano. I will absolutely check out Sawbones.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 9:11 PM on January 26 [2 favorites]


*raises a beer*
posted by Pronoiac at 9:14 PM on January 26 [14 favorites]


It shouldn't be pay-walled- But there is some aggressive "subscribe now" banners and stuff clogging up the page.

We really really don't have non-pharaonic old dead guys and that's why this is cool. It's just his cranium (if it is) and it was postulated as his a while ago. Also we can never know for certain- but the sword and the tests on the cranium showing where it's owner grew up and the fact that Pliny's death was well recorded means it's most likely him.

Also no problem ActingTheGoat! I get it now!- sarcasm can be hard to detect in text, and as an autistic person sarcasm is hard for me to detect IRL so you can imagine how my wires can get crossed. I am shocked that's how you were taught about him, I was taught that he was the first modern encyclopedia-n and one of the first natural scientists, (who happened to be dead wrong about a lot) who heroically tried to save civilians in Pompeii- His wrongness in my classes was mostly viewed as a lesson in not making assumptions and testing hypothesis etc etc.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 9:16 PM on January 26 [8 favorites]


Archived version of the article.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:17 PM on January 26 [2 favorites]


Does it rhyme with “piney” or “mini”?
posted by double bubble at 9:22 PM on January 26 [1 favorite]


Do we even have the skeleton of any other important person from that long ago other than like pharaohs?

There's very well preserved remains of Xin Zhui aka Lady Dai, which are slightly older than Pliny's.
posted by peeedro at 9:25 PM on January 26 [8 favorites]


Oh yes Lady Dai is amazing! we still aren’t sure about the reasoning and method of preservation used there- but her body was specifically made to last- Pliny died in a volcanic eruption- which is why this is so cool to me. Finding his skull (again if it is...) is like needle in a haystack lucky!

I think the thing about Pliny that stands out is that he was a person well known in his time and 2000 years later- like he’s a legit historical figure of medium great importance who wasn’t a king/emperor/ruler, wasn’t a member of the senatorial class (was an equestrian) and became famous in his own and later generations through his own writings. That sad thing is- he wrote more then the Naturalis Historia- that’s just all that survived. This whole thing gives me the good goosebumps.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 9:51 PM on January 26 [7 favorites]


Does it rhyme with “piney” or “mini”?

GAYYoos PliNEEoos SeKOONdoos.

Or PLEEnee to his friends.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:52 PM on January 26 [15 favorites]


Thank you!!!
posted by double bubble at 10:00 PM on January 26 [2 favorites]


One of the bodies bore a golden triple necklace chain, golden bracelets and a short sword decorated with ivory and seashells.
The engineer-cum-archaeologist was quick to theorize that the sword, the precious jewels and their sea-related iconography marked the remains as those of a naval commander like Pliny. Indeed, the place and the circumstances were right, but other scholars at the time laughed off the hypothesis.
Humiliated, Matrone sold off the jewels to unknown buyers (laws on conservation of archaeological treasures were more lax then) and reburied most of the bones, keeping only the supposed skull and jawbone of Pliny as well as his sword, Russo said.


Jeez this is a sad story. What's the purpose of laughing off a theory? If you can't prove it you can just say well unfortunately we don't know how we'd prove that. You didnt need to laugh the guy off stage. And he should have kept more of the stuff.

The thing I'm wondering about is if they really wore all those gold & jewels around all the time, which makes sense but it's not something I ever thought about. I would think on a rescue mission you would want to be dressed for action but then again the gold & stuff is how get people to listen to you.
posted by bleep at 10:32 PM on January 26 [4 favorites]


The promotion for Beer Week and this year's edition of Pliny the Younger has really reached a whole new level.

(Oddly enough, the beer is pronounced differently than the man.)
posted by zachlipton at 10:57 PM on January 26 [3 favorites]


I sing of beer and a man!
posted by The Tensor at 11:22 PM on January 26 [4 favorites]


GAYYoos PliNEEoos SeKOONdoos.

*all the whales in all the oceans stop for a second and look around*
posted by pracowity at 11:47 PM on January 26 [39 favorites]


It shouldn't be pay-walled- But there is some aggressive "subscribe now" banners and stuff clogging up the page.

I get "looks like you're blocking our tracking software, so how about fuck off?"

posted by pompomtom at 1:52 AM on January 27 [3 favorites]


Jeez this is a sad story. What's the purpose of laughing off a theory? If you can't prove it you can just say well unfortunately we don't know how we'd prove that. You didnt need to laugh the guy off stage. And he should have kept more of the stuff.

19th century archaeology had a regrettable penchant for assigning stuff to legendary figures. In short, Agamemnon never wore the "mask of Agamemnon" in death, "Priam's treasure" never belonged to the Iliad character and none of the various "Cleopatra's Needles" had anything to do with the Ptolemaic queen.
posted by sukeban at 3:30 AM on January 27 [5 favorites]


This is where I embarrass myself by admitting that I had no idea who the Pliny apart from being namesakes for beer. I'd like history more if there just wasn't so much of it.
posted by octothorpe at 3:35 AM on January 27 [4 favorites]


I get "looks like you're blocking our tracking software, so how about fuck off?"

My counter-offer - not fucking off, and using a browser with NoScript and Bypass Paywalls installed instead - appears to be acceptable.
posted by flabdablet at 3:38 AM on January 27 [4 favorites]


(But if you're doing the kind of everyday Anglicized pronunciation where Aristotle rhymes with "bottle" and Plato sounds like "Play-doh" — and why shouldn't you, if you're speaking English? — then Pliny rhymes with "mini.")
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:32 AM on January 27 [6 favorites]


Not to knock Pliny the Elder at all, but most famous? Brutus? Marc Antony? Pilate?
posted by Easy problem of consciousness at 5:02 AM on January 27


where Aristotle rhymes with "bottle"

How could it not the song wouldn't work otherwise.
posted by each day we work at 5:42 AM on January 27 [11 favorites]


I would think on a rescue mission you would want to be dressed for action but then again the gold & stuff is how get people to listen to you.

On that day, I think having boats would do the trick
posted by thelonius at 6:09 AM on January 27 [2 favorites]


Does it rhyme with “piney” or “mini”?

Well, the third and least-celebrated member of the family was Pliny the Tiny.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:24 AM on January 27 [7 favorites]


Too bad that the jawbone ain't connected to the skull-bone.
posted by Capt. Renault at 7:06 AM on January 27 [2 favorites]


would think on a rescue mission you would want to be dressed for action but then again the gold & stuff is how get people to listen to you.

I’d imagine he knew the chance of dying was higher than average and wanted his body to be identified.
posted by corb at 7:17 AM on January 27 [3 favorites]


I just assume the gold bracelets and triple chain were like his everyday wear. Man had some stature- liked his bling!
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 7:20 AM on January 27 [3 favorites]


Just because Pliny the Elder wrote a book about natural history doesn't mean he was right about what he wrote about-

Okay but that's the case for everyone, including our best informed and evidenced backed writings and practices today. Either future people find better and more accurate ways to look at things, or this is the pathetic zenith of humanity. I mean, our best doctors and scientists barely understand what a headache is or how medicine to treat it works. I'm sure there's plenty of entertainment to be mined from examining folk medicine and shit from the past, but before getting all smug punching down, seems important to remember we are the backwards primitive dipshit idiots to people in the future. Or, we could be if we weren't destroying future people's habitat and food.
posted by GoblinHoney at 7:46 AM on January 27 [13 favorites]


GAYYoos PliNEEoos SeKOONdoos.
Or PLEEnee to his friends.

Better to use IPA:
GAIVS PLINIVS SECVNDVS
/ˈgaj.jʊs ˈplɪn.jʊs sɛˈkʊ̃n.dʊs/
posted by likethemagician at 8:01 AM on January 27


most famous? Brutus? Marc Antony? Pilate?

If we're talking "people who lived under the authority of the Roman Empire," I can think of an even famouser one, although he wasn't a Roman citizen per se.
posted by praemunire at 8:49 AM on January 27 [3 favorites]


hold me closer pliny dancer
posted by poffin boffin at 9:01 AM on January 27 [13 favorites]


Does it rhyme with “piney” or “mini”?

Pliny rhymes with finny in modern English.
posted by pracowity at 10:05 AM on January 27 [1 favorite]


most famous? Brutus? Marc Antony? Pilate?

Julius Caesar? Not actually an Emperor, I think?
posted by Segundus at 10:37 AM on January 27


As an Internet Expert I'm skeptical. The only actual evidence this skull is Pliny's is that it's from a man of roughly 50, the right age. Also it's said the skull was found with jewelry, etc (now missing) that suggests a man of Pliny's social stature. Only all that stuff is missing now.

There's also evidence the jawbone belonged to a man born in northern Italy (where Pliny is from) but that man was 35, way too young. The article misleads a bit because initially it was thought the jawbone was also Pliny's. But it's not. It also then gets confused about how maybe the younger man was a sailor.. or maybe a servant of Pliny's? Or... they don't really have any idea. It's bad writing.

Beyond that it's all speculation of Pliny the Younger's dramatic account of his father stumbling and suffocating on a beach, supported by his servants. So from that they make the leap that the whole ensemble must be this set piece out of a 1900 year old piece of literature.

Really the whole thing is a great testament on why modern archaeological methods are so important. Instead of wildcatters looting beaches and selling off the gold they found.

(I will say this though; the Roman written record is amazing. I just finished reading a history of the Celts and by far the best source for what we know about Celtic culture, a civilization of 1000+ years, was Caesar's Commentarii de Bello Gallico. As problematic as a hearsay book by a conqueror is, there's precious little direct written record from the Celts and even the archaeological evidence is severely limited.)
posted by Nelson at 10:48 AM on January 27 [7 favorites]




You seem to have misread the article. The jawbone was from a younger man of North African descent while the cranium had markers of having grown up in the same area of Italy that Pliny did and was the right age. The jewels were sold, but the sword was retained in the museum.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 12:13 PM on January 27


You're right I left out that bit of evidence for Pliny: "the skull’s haplogroup was typical of Italic populations in the Roman period, which would still make it possible to identify it as Pliny’s." That's an awfully broad category though.

The jawbone is a little more interesting. The teeth indicate the person grew up in Northern Italy, but the DNA indicates the person is of North African heritage. That could mean a lot of things, but it's less typical. OTOH that jawbone belongs to some random younger person, not Pliny.

Given the skull and jawbone were mis-associated, I do wonder about whether the sword really belongs to either body. I wonder if Matrone kept any sort of documentation of locations of things from the dig. The article says he found 70 skeletons.
posted by Nelson at 12:18 PM on January 27 [1 favorite]


by far the best source for what we know about Celtic culture, a civilization of 1000+ years, was Caesar's Commentarii de Bello Gallico. As problematic as a hearsay book by a conqueror is, there's precious little direct written record from the Celts and even the archaeological evidence is severely limited.)

I have been told that a lot of what's asserted about Celts in neo-pagan circles is....fanciful, and that very little is known. No one knows who they were, or what they were doing, perhaps.
posted by thelonius at 12:27 PM on January 27 [2 favorites]


A fair amount is known academically about the Celts; that book I linked (The Ancient Celts by Barry W. Cunliffe) is quite authoritative and definitely not fanciful. (It's also kind of boring.) The Wikipedia article isn't bad either as a place to start. There's some argument about how you define "Celts": there's a shared language group, and a shared culture, and they sort of overlap but not exactly. But at one time ~2500 years ago there was a large shared culture across most of Western Europe that's quite different from what's there now. The Romans had a lot to do with that, both conquering many Celts and also installing their own culture remarkably efficiently.

What's surprising to me is that the pre-Roman Celtic archaeological record is so limited. There's surprisingly few excavations of villages, there's almost no written records at all. So there's a lot of guesswork. Which is how a book by a Roman conqueror ends up being such a useful source. I'm not sure how fanciful Caesar's own account was, the stuff Cunliffe cites all seems quite mundane and carefully analyzed.
posted by Nelson at 1:13 PM on January 27 [2 favorites]


Really the whole thing is a great testament on why modern archaeological methods are so important. Instead of wildcatters looting beaches and selling off the gold they found.

Agreed, but I also think that the article could have gone a little deeper into the unknowns. My first question dating back to 2017 was, what exactly was the situation in which the body was found?

Rewind the tape a bit. In the younger Pliny's account of the aftermath, we read "as soon as it was light again, which was not till the third day after this melancholy accident, his body was found entire, and without any marks of violence upon it, in the dress in which he fell, and looking more like a man asleep than dead."

Okay, so the body was found in AD 79. What to do with it? This is, after all, a personal friend of the emperor Titus, a rich man full of honors, dying in a good cause. Transporting it back to Rome was theoretically an option, but it's autumn and they're running out of ice, and besides, emergency crews were kind of busy at the time. Immolation? Probably not a lot of unused wood around, not after the blast. That leaves a burial somewhere near by, suitable to the man's station, as nicely done as possible. As noted above, it seems highly unlikely that the admiral set off from Misenum decked out gold. For a proper burial, however, it is quite reasonable to suppose that respectful survivors wanted him gotten up with emblems of his office.

Fast forward to 1899. Gennaro Matrone the engineer puts his spade to the place (much of the area, NB, sloshing with water), and piques the interest of one Mariano E. Cannizzaro. In 1901, Cannizzaro writes up a brief account of Matrone's work and its stunning implications, entitled Il Cranio di Pliny. (The book is published in Italian in London of all places.*) A short read, it includes the dispiriting observation that "if an exact drawing of the site and the disposition of the bodies had been made...." Not so good. And not unique.

Nearly as bad, his description of the structure where all this material was found - let's just say it leaves a good deal to be desired. (And him an architect!) He does, however, have some interesting things to say that did not make it into the article. The good stuff starts on page 21.

Basically, the ancient burial detail seems to have taken over some kind of commercial structure, likely a warehouse with outside portico, and made due. Some fifty of the seventy skeletons were scattered about in no particular order, panicked in their final moments, clutching a few pathetic personal treasures, chiefly bronze, waiting for the relief boat that never came. They lie where they fell, buried without ceremony. Again, we are dealing with a catastrophe zone.

And then:

“In the center there was a group of about twenty corpses, which, unlike all the others, had necklaces, bracelets and gold rings, precious stones, gold and silver coins, nearly all beautiful Vespasian specie. The necklaces still hung from the neckbones, arm-bands and rings adorned tibias and phalanges; these were not people suddenly seized with panic and fleeing to escape death.”

The alleged Pliny was centrally placed against a wall, emblems of office intact, surrounded also with other estimable objets d'art.

Photographs and drawings are, as noted. wanting. Perhaps if Matrone had done a better job he would have gotten some more respect. As it stands....

Don't know what kind of excavations have been done since then, or if later renderings have been made of the place. I'll assume so, but who has time? As to the ID of the DOA, I'm a little less skeptical than I was two years ago.

*The book is dedicated to his good friends Therese Mathias and Said Ruete, who figure in this book and I suspect are of much interest in their own rights.
posted by BWA at 1:16 PM on January 27 [9 favorites]


Better to use IPA:
GAIVS PLINIVS SECVNDVS
/ˈgaj.jʊs ˈplɪn.jʊs sɛˈkʊ̃n.dʊs/


OK, my Latin is pretty rusty, but (a) the first vowel is long, so /iː/ (Classical) or /i/ (Vulgar), not /ɪ/, and (b) I think stem-final /i/ remains a vowel rather than becoming a /j/ onset for a suffix. So /ˈpliː.ni.us/ (Classical) or /ˈpli.ni.ʊs/ (Vulgar), not /ˈplɪn.jʊs/.
posted by The Tensor at 1:47 PM on January 27 [2 favorites]


But if they bothered to go get his jewelry, presumably from his villa at Misenum , why wouldn't they just wrap the body in a sail and take it back across the bay instead? And from the description of his death, it sounds less like "everyone there died suddenly from asphyxiation from overwhelming poisonous gasses" and more "Pliny individually died due to a bad reaction to the noxious air":

"There my uncle lay down on a sail that had been spread for him, and called twice for some cold water, which he drank. Then a rush of flame, with the reek of sulfur, made everyone scatter, and made him get up. He stood with the help of his servants, but at once fell down dead, suffocated, as I suppose, by some potent, noxious vapor. He had always had a weak respiratory tract, which was often inflamed and obstructed."

I'd think that if everyone on the beach died, it would have been mentioned, and the Younger wouldn't have mentioned his weak respiratory system as a reason he died. Certainly, eyewitnesses to the whole thing survived.

I guess it is possible that the rest of his party fled on the boats, and then returned with gear to bury him in place when the worst died down, but it seems a little odd they'd put on funeral jewelry but not actually... bury him? I guess they could have treated the whole warehouse as a tomb, but then who were the other 19 rich guys in there?
posted by tavella at 3:56 PM on January 27


but then who were the other 19 rich guys in there?

The Bay of Naples was kind of the Hamptons of the day, wasn't it? Pliny wasn't coming to rescue people he had no connections to. out of pure humanitarian impulse; he was coming to rescue his connected, wealthy friends and social peers.
posted by thelonius at 4:26 PM on January 27 [4 favorites]


But if they bothered to go get his jewelry, presumably from his villa at Misenum , why wouldn't they just wrap the body in a sail and take it back across the bay instead?

Presumably his companions had escaped to Misenum that first day without him and when they and/or the burial detail showed up on the third day they were carrying the gear with them, knowing full well that he was dead. With corpses in quantity and much emergency work to do, making a special trip for one body likely seemed pointless.

I'd think that if everyone on the beach died, it would have been mentioned

Pliny the Younger is writing specifically about his uncle the hero (who, incidentally, had made him sole heir to his considerable fortune). He got the story second hand. No reason for him to complicate the narrative with other people, even assuming he knew them. In any event, the nineteen likely died in other circumstances, not along with Pliny, but were near enough the burial site to join him there. A quick job, in any event - note the lack of inscription identifying the man. These were people in a hurry to be rid of some putrefying corpses. There was, after all, presumably a backlog of the dead.

it seems a little odd they'd put on funeral jewelry but not actually... bury him?

Which is why the lack of excavation records is so irritating. As you say, it reads as if the twenty were entombed in a cubicle, a small room that had been a ware house, that was walled up, to be dug out two thousand years later. As to the other nineteen - impossible to know. Drowned sailors who washed up on the beach? Fallen heroes of some sort, in any event.

The Bay of Naples was kind of the Hamptons of the day, wasn't it?

Yes and no. Stabiae and Herculaneum were tony, Baiae rich and louche (think Ibiza), Pompeii, rather more down market. Plenty of blue collar workers in the area (all that rich soil and fishy water), as there used to be potato farmers and (more) fishermen in the Hamptons.

Pliny wasn't coming to rescue people he had no connections to. out of pure humanitarian impulse; he was coming to rescue his connected, wealthy friends and social peers.

Initially, he set out purely to get a closer look at the eruption as a natural phenomenon (he had written that Natural History, after all). It was only after he got word that a friend who had not left in time was begging to be saved that he ordered a rescue mission. Instead of one boat, he now called out the entire fleet. One cannot read minds, but that kind of action suggests he was open to more than simply cherry picking a handful of People Like Us.
posted by BWA at 5:37 PM on January 27 [8 favorites]


most famous? Brutus? Marc Antony? Pilate?

For some reason, CLAVDIVS comes to mind...
posted by y2karl at 8:56 PM on January 27 [3 favorites]


...Claudius of the Julio-Claudian emperors, you mean?
posted by praemunire at 12:13 AM on January 28


Clavdivs of the MetaFilterian emperors.
posted by pracowity at 9:20 AM on January 28 [2 favorites]


That indeed puts the Aye before CLAVDIVS
posted by y2karl at 9:09 AM on January 29


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