The eruption of Mount Vesuvius remains one of the most dramatic events in history. While the eruption and the subsequent destruction it wrought were nightmarish for Europe in 79 AD, the preservation of the city of Pompeii under volcanic ash has taught modern-day researchers much about life in that era. The eruption, which likely seemed apocalyptic to the people of the time, acted like a snapshot of a moment in history. Indeed, Europe’s own fascination with the destructive power of volcanoes might have started with Vesuvius and continues to this day with the current eruption in Iceland.
Archaeological discoveries are still being made near Pompeii. Just recently, researchers reexamining a body recovered from the Herculaneum, a site north of Pompeii, announced a fascinating new conclusion about what happened to him.
Researchers investigating one of the recovered skeletons made a deduction based on the remains’ position and surrounding objects. Now, they believe that man to have been a rescuer sent by Pliny the Elder to evacuate the townspeople from villages around the Bay of Naples.
The body of the presumed rescuer was first discovered in the 1980s, during the initial dig that uncovered some 300 sets of remains under the mud and silt that was kicked up by the pyroclastic flow. Researchers first thought the man was a soldier, due to his garb and the items found near him. He was in his late 40s or early 50s when he was struck by the lava, and experts believe he was in good health at the time.
However, this man is now believed to have been sent by Pliny the Elder, a naval officer and historian, to rescue civilians in the area. The body was found near a boat, and the assumption is that the remains found at the Herculaneum indicate a large group that was being evacuated. The man was likely only moments from safety when a fast-moving wall of ash overtook them.
Pliny the Elder himself would not survive the events of the eruption, but his legend lives on. His nephew, Pliny the Younger, recounts his uncle’s attempts to evacuate the area in a historical document written after the fact. In Pliny the Younger’s account, his uncle was advised against sailing toward the falling ash but disregarded the advice, seeking only to rescue as many people as possible.
Not long after, Pliny the Elder suffered either a heart attack or asphyxiation from the fumes. It’s unclear which was the case, though modern historians suggest the older officer was much more likely to have expired due to a heart attack as a result of the extreme stress of the situation and the unfavorable conditions of the ash in the air.