Remains Found by Pompeii Really Are Pliny the Elder, New Tests Indicate

A team of Italian researchers have strengthened the case that at least the cranium found near Pompeii 100 years ago really does belong to Pliny the Elder, a Roman military leader and polymath who perished while leading a rescue mission following the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 C.E. However, a jawbone that had been found with the skull evidently belonged to somebody else.

Over the last couple of years the experts, including anthropologists and geneticists, conducted a host of scientific tests on the skull and lower mandible that had been found a century ago on the shore near Pompeii, which have since been at the center of a scholarly debate as to whether they should be attributed to Pliny.

The main finding of the researchers, who presented their conclusions at a conference in Rome on Thursday, is that the jawbone belonged to a different person, but that the skull is compatible with what we know about Pliny at his death.

“This is the first scientific study of the supposed remains of Pliny the Elder, and the clues that have emerged increase the likelihood that it is him,” says Andrea Cionci, an art historian and journalist who first reported the findings in Italy’s La Stampa newspaper.

Fatal curiosity

This would mark the first positive identification of the remains of a high-ranking figure from ancient Rome, highlighting the work of a man who lost his life while leading history's first large-scale rescue operation, and who also wrote one of the world's earliest encyclopedias.

Gaius Plinius Secundus, better known as Pliny the Elder, was the admiral of the Roman imperial fleet moored at Misenum, north of Naples, on the day when Vesuvius erupted.