Roman soldier on mission to rescue condemned to Vesuvius identified in ancient remains

ROME – A 2,000-year-old skeleton belonged to a high-ranking Roman soldier who was likely sent on a rescue mission to the doomed cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum during the eruption of Vesuvius, scientists have discovered.

Originally thought to be that of an ordinary soldier, the skeleton was one of 300 found at Herculaneum in the 1980s. But now researchers have concluded that it belonged to a high-ranking officer of a Roman fleet sent on a mission to rescue to evacuate panicked residents who were running for their lives.

Pompeii and Herculaneum, popular Roman seaside resorts south of present-day Naples, were wiped out by the violent eruption of AD 79, covering people and houses with lava, mud and ash, preserving them for the future archaeologists can discover them.

Image: The archaeological site of Herculaneum in Ercolano, near Naples, with the volcano of Vesuvius in the background, Italy. (Andreas Solaro / AFP via Getty Images file)

“When I arrived at Herculaneum in 2017, I realized that a lot of research had been done on the skeletons, but no one thought to analyze the tools found next to it,” said Francesco Sirano, director of the archaeological site of ‘Herculaneum, at NBC News. “So my team and I took a closer look, and what we found was amazing.”

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When the skeleton was discovered 30 years ago, several clues distinguish it from the hundreds of others unearthed by archaeologists. He still had a leather belt around his waist, and by his side was a sword with an ivory hilt, a decorated dagger, and a bag full of coins. Still, the skeleton has been put on permanent display and identified as a generic soldier.

Further analysis revealed that the belt was once decorated with images of a lion and a cherub in silver and gold. The scabbard of the sword was also decorated with the image of an oval shield.

“All of these clues suggest that he was not a mere soldier, more likely a high-ranking officer, or even a praetorian,” says Sirano, referring to the elite units that served as personal bodyguards for the Roman emperors. . “The Praetorians wore oval shields. And the coins he had on him coincidentally were the same amount as a Praetor’s monthly salary.

Regardless of the officer’s rank, Sirano said there was no doubt he was part of a rescue mission launched by a Roman fleet following the eruption of Vesuvius.

“His skeleton was found on the beach, alongside hundreds of others, a few feet from the remains of a boat.”

The rescue mission to Herculaneum and Pompeii is one of the best-documented events of the period. It was led by Pliny the Elder, a Roman historian and naval officer who also died during the mission, and described by testimonies collected in the notes left by his nephew, Pliny the Younger.

A letter from Pliny the Younger to the historian Tacitus described the scene: “The ashes that were already falling grew hotter and thicker as the ships approached the coast and were soon replaced by pumice and burnt stones. blackened broken by fire.

Image: The skeleton was discovered in Herculaneum in the 1980s (Parco Archeologico di Ercolano)

Image: The skeleton was discovered in Herculaneum in the 1980s (Parco Archeologico di Ercolano)

“Suddenly the sea became shallow where the shore was obstructed and choked with mountain debris.”

Recently, another team of researchers performed a DNA test on the skull of another skeleton, found over a hundred years ago on a beach near Pompeii, believed to be that of Pliny the Elder. Like the skeleton of Herculaneum, it carried a richly adorned sword and was draped in gold necklaces and bracelets.

“We thought DNA testing wouldn’t work on such old skeletons. We now know that is not true. It works, ”said Sirano, who will begin a new excavation on Herculaneum beach this month with help from the Packard Humanities Institute, a nonprofit foundation.

“We are now testing the DNA of the skeletons in Herculaneum, and we are collecting incredible information,” he said. “Where they came from, what they ate, all the clues that are part of a story puzzle.”

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