When Mount Vesuvius erupted at Pompeii in 79 A.D., most people understandably tried to flee the path of the molten lava, crushed rocks, pulverized pumice, and sheets of flame that spewed from the volcano. Pliny the Elder, however, headed straight for the inferno. Exactly how he died in this cataclysm that killed more than two thousand residents remains unclear.
Pliny, a philosopher and naturalist noted especially for his Natural History, was also a prominent military commander, which is how he came to be in the vicinity of Pompeii on that fateful August day. Born in Como, Italy, in 23 A.D., Pliny, born Gaius Plinius Secundus, was the son of Gaius Plinius Celer, a Roman equestrian knight, and his wife, Marcella. He studied law in Rome, then entered the army, after which he settled in Rome practicing law and writing. When his friend Vespasian became emperor in 69 A.D., he appointed Pliny to a series of positions as procurator, or governor, of various Roman provinces, in Africa, Spain, and Gaul.
A philosophical Stoic, Pliny believed that virtue, based on knowledge, was its own reward, and the highest good was to live in harmony with cosmic reason, which governs the universe. “The only certainty,” he said, “is that nothing is certain.” Like most Stoics, he paid scant attention to the possibility of a personal afterlife. “It is ridiculous,” he wrote, “to suppose that the great head of things, whatever it may be, pays any attention to human affairs….The world, and whatever we call the heavens, we must think of as a deity, eternal and without limit, neither created nor subject to destruction. To inquire what may be beyond that is no concern of ours, nor is the human mind capable of drawing any conclusions about it.”
Pliny never married or had children, but a favorite nephew, Pliny the Younger, is the source of most of our knowledge of his death. Two months before the events at Pompeii, Pliny the Elder had been appointed commander of the Roman navy. On August 24, 79 A.D., he was stationed at Misenium across the Bay of Naples from Vesuvius, when it began to erupt. Pliny had a cold bath and a light lunch, according to his nephew, and then went up on a hill to get a better view of the volcanic action. Presumably to observe it more closely, he decided to sail toward Pompeii, when he received a message from a woman he knew named Rectina, who was stranded near the foot of the volcano, along with her friend Pomponianus, with no means of escape except by sea. She begged Pliny to come to her rescue, and what began as a voyage of scientific observation suddenly turned into a mission of mercy.
Pliny set out in a light, fast cutter, and as it approached the shore near Pompeii, lava, burning cinders, and crushed rock began to fall on him and his men. When they reached land, Pliny thought they ought to turn back, but his pilot insisted on forging ahead, saying “Fortune favors the brave.” At the town of Stabiae they found Pomponianus, but not Rectina, and then prepared to return to safety across the bay. But there was no wind, and so Pliny thought it would safe enough to wait inside a building until they could sail. Minimizing the danger of the continuing eruption, he and his men ate and drank heartily, and Pliny fell asleep, snoring loudly, according to witnesses.
Fearing the collapse of the building they were in, his men woke Pliny and urged him to get out. They headed for the shore, with pillows tied to their heads to protect them from falling rocks, but on the way Pliny sat down to rest and was unable to get up. Believing him dead, his men left him there, and when they returned three days later after the eruption was over, they found his body intact.
How he died has been widely debated. Overweight and suffering from asthma, he must have perished, say some, from inhaling the volcano’s sulphurous fumes into his weak lungs. The historian Suetonius, basing his account on hearsay, says that Pliny was overcome by unbearable heat and asked a servant to kill him—although his body was found with no apparent injuries. He may, of course, have keeled over from a heart attack or a stroke. However he met his fate, Pliny the Elder was dead at the age of fifty-six.