Pliny the Elder: the great scholar who died in the eruption of Vesuvius

by Roberto Iossa

Go to an excruciating death for the sake of knowledge. It is the reason why Pliny the Elder it is thus known to most, albeit with some historical inaccuracy.

The story of this great man of letters is adventurous and exciting, until the end. A death, that of Pliny the Elder, who shared another indisputable protagonist of our land: Vesuvius.

A busy man

The life of Pliny the Elder was full of political commitments. He was an efficient knight in the service of the imperial court. He was very close friends with Vespasian and of Tito, known during military campaigns and to whom he dedicated one of his most famous works: Naturalis Historia.

After a first part of a life very busy in politics and war, he spent the last years with the position of naval fleet chief stationed in Capo Miseno, in Campania. A rather quiet job, in a privileged context, which allowed him to devote himself to his main passion: literature.

Pliny the Elder
The crater of Vesuvius, the giant that terribly erupted in 79 AD. C. On that date, among the many victims, Pliny the Elder, the protagonist of our history, also died

A life in search of knowledge

Even during his busiest years, Pliny the Elder never stopped cultivating his passion for studying, taking an interest in numerous aspects of knowledge.

He produced a large number of written works, most of which have been lost. But through the testimonies of relatives and friends, we can reconstruct his character and the very high conception he had of culture.

Pliny the Younger, his adopted nephew, in a letter describes his uncle's passion for culture.

"After a meal, always very simple and light, according to the custom of our fathers, to take a few moments of leisure, he would lie in the sun reading a book, taking notes because he never read anything without extracting something, and often said that there was no such bad book that you couldn't learn from "

Pliny the Elder
Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, Eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD Death of Pliny the Elder, 1813 - Musée des Augustins, Toulouse

Pliny the Elder was the author of biographies, historical works on the Wars in Germany, treatises on combat on horseback, volumes on the history of Rome. In short, an indefatigable and always productive intelligence!

The figure of Pliny the Elder has become the prototype of the direct observer, of one who bases his knowledge on experience in the field, on the study of phenomena. And this is precisely one of the reasons, according to some, that led to a terrible death.

The tragic death of Pliny the Elder

Pliny the Elder lost his life in tragic circumstances, during the terrible days oferuption of Vesuvius in 79 d. C. which primarily interested Pompeii, but also Herculaneum and Stabiae.

It is still a letter from his nephew Pliny the Younger, addressed to Tacit, to describe in detail the circumstances in which his beloved uncle lost his life.

The August 24, while he was in Miseno, he was attracted by a gigantic column of smoke that rose from the volcano. Attracted by this curious and frightening phenomenon, Pliny the Elder decided to approach it in order to study it better.

However, he was warned of the danger facing some of his friends, owners of a villa near Stabia. He changed his plans, therefore, intent on saving his friends and with boats he came dangerously close to the mouth of Vesuvius.

The situation he found upon his arrival was truly worrying and did not bode well. It was in this context that Pliny the Elder lost his life, as described by his nephew's words.

Pliny the Elder
Angelica Kauffmann, Pliny the Elder in Miseno with his sister and nephew during the Vesuvian eruption of 79 AD , 18th century

Elsewhere it was already day, but there it was a darker and denser night than any night, although it was mitigated by numerous torches and lights from various sources. He found it convenient to go to the beach and observe closely if it was already possible to attempt the sea voyage; but it still persisted upset and impassable.

There, lying on a cloth lying on the ground, he asked twice for fresh water and drank from it. Then the flames and a smell of sulfur that heralded the flames push the others to flee and awaken him.

Supporting himself on two simple slaves he managed to get back on his feet, but he immediately collapsed: from what I can infer, the atmosphere too full of ashes choked his breathing and blocked his throat, which was by constitution sickly, swollen and often inflamed.

When the sunlight reappeared (it was the third day since the one he had last seen) his corpse was found intact, unharmed and dressed in the same clothes he had worn: the way in which his body appeared made more think of one. that slept than a dead man "

Pliny the Elder is certainly not known only for his tragic death. He is one of the most well-known and respectable characters of classical culture, whose figure still inspires great fascination and admiration today.


  • GBCOUNT, Latin literature. Historical manual from the origins to the end of the Roman Empire, Le Monnier.

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