Curiosity Killed Pliny the Elder During the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius
Remembered for having written the world’s first encyclopedia, Pliny the Elder’s curiosity got the best of him as he watched clouds of smoke emerging from Mount Vesuvius during its famed eruption in 79 AD. In an ironic twist of fate—after a lifetime dedicated to understanding and documenting the wonders of the natural world—the renowned scholar met his untimely demise when his scientific curiosity spurred him to travel into the danger zone where he reportedly died of asphyxiation from the volcanic fumes.
Pliny the Elder was a respected author and Roman statesman who wrote the 37-volume Natural History. At the time of the eruption, he was stationed at Misenum—a strategic Roman naval base in the Bay of Naples just 15 kilometers (9 miles) from Mount Vesuvius—as commander of the Roman fleet charged with protecting the Roman Empire from piracy.
Despite his many literary achievements, everything we know about his death comes from the gripping testimony of his nephew, Pliny the Younger. The events surrounding the eruption and the death of his beloved uncle, were recorded in letters which provide the only firsthand record of catastrophe.
According to letter 6.16, addressed to the Roman historian Tacitus, correspondence from a friend begging for help ultimately convinced Pliny the Elder to set off on a rescue mission with a fleet of ships. Nevertheless, “the scientist in my uncle was determined to see it [the eruption] from closer at hand.”
People trying to escape the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in ancient Italy, during which Pliny the Elder met his untimely demise. (Justinas / Adobe Stock)
“Pliny’s arsenal of ships may have saved up to 2,000 refugees from the eruption’s fallout,” reported Smithsonian Magazine. However, for Pliny the Elder it was an ill-fated mission. By the time he reached Stabiae, a luxury seaside resort famous for its stunning Roman villas, including that of his close friend Pomponianus, it was too late to turn back.
Faced with treacherous waves hindering escape, Pliny reportedly rested and dined in order to calm his companions. When the situation became increasingly dire, they headed for the beach where Pliny the Elder met his death, probably due to asphyxiation. “When daylight came again 2 days after he died, his body was found untouched, unharmed, in the clothing that he had had on,” wrote his nephew.
Pliny the Elder’s remains were allegedly discovered, covered in jewelry indicative of the Roman elite, by an archaeologist in the early 1900s. A skull on display at Rome’s National Historic Museum of Healthcare Art is apparently all that is left from this historic find. In 2020 reports surfaced that scientific analysis of the skull fit the general profile for Pliny. Despite a flurry of excitement in the media, Cambridge University’s Mary Beard stated “I am 90 percent certain that this is fake news,” reported The New York Times.
Top image: The prodigious death of Pliny the Elder, in which his body was reduced to ash by the flames of Vesuvius, could be a false representation of the reality of his death. Source: Wellcome Images / CC BY 4.0