For the past few weeks, many news outlets have reported that the skull of Pliny the Elder
(Gaius Plinius Secundus, ca. 23-79 CE), the Roman naturalist and statesman who died at Pompeii, has been identified. The latest story, in the New York Times, expresses some skepticism but admits the skull could have been Pliny’s.
To scholars, Pliny is best known for his thirty-seven-volume Natural History, a compendium of all that was known in the first century of our era in the Roman Empire – or at least the parts Pliny was interested in, which was a lot. As a member of the equites or knightly class, Pliny fulfilled his military obligations on the German frontier during his twenties. He managed to keep his head down during the era of Nero and the civil wars that followed, devoting his time to writing. He re-emerged in the year 69 as an ally of the new emperor
Vespasian, and for the next several years served as procurator at various sites across the empire, administering the imperial funds. Pliny took every opportunity to record everything he saw or heard. According to his nephew Pliny the Younger, he was never without a scribe by his side, and traveled around Rome in a sedan chair rather than walking, so he could write.
Pliny’s style in Natural History is vivid, personal, and filled with anecdotes both from his own observations and borrowed from a vast array of authors in Greek and Latin. While often scorned for his credulity, Pliny compiled a treasure trove of facts and fables that scholars have mined for two millennia. His Natural History survived throughout the Middle Ages, plagiarized and extracted, abridged and distorted. In 1469, it was among the first books to be printed.
Human skulls only briefly merit discussion in Natural History, in the context of a comparative anatomy of animals. His account follows one an assertion that baldness in men “never occurs in any case before sexual intercourse has taken place.” (Book XI, chapter XLVII). The bones of the human skull, he continued, are “flat and thin… constructed with interlockings serrated like the teeth of a comb,” a metaphor used by anatomists well into modern times. “When broken,” he added, “they cannot form again,” but loss of a piece of the skull may not be fatal. (Chapter XLVIII). It enclosed the brain, which he described as “the crowning pinnacle, the seat of government of the mind. But the brain of all animals slopes forward, because our senses also stretch in front of us. It is the source of Sleep and the cause of drowsy nodding; species without a brain do not sleep.” (Chapter XLIX)
Human body parts, including skulls, served as common remedies for a number of ailments until the nineteenth century. Pliny was extremely skeptical about such cures, expressing disgust that epileptics should drink the blood of gladiators, or drink water from a dead man’s skull, or that pills made from that skull would cure the bite of a mad dog. Prolonging life by means of such “horrors” was sinful. Pliny was a Stoic, and he wrote, “of all the blessings given to man by Nature none is greater than a timely death, and herein the brightest feature is that each man can have the power to bestow it on himself.” (Book XXVIII, chapter II).
Pliny died on a beach near Pompeii, where he had sailed, as an admiral of the Roman fleet, to rescue victims of Vesuvius. As the sea boiled and the air grew too hot and poisonous to breathe, he collapsed on the beach with dozens of others, gradually blanketed by layers of ash. While the skull thought to be his was dug up in the early 1900s, only in 2017 did scientists begin to test it to confirm long-held rumors. They found that it belonged to a man of approximately the right age and origin, but its identity remains uncertain, and no contemporary portraits survive for comparison. I think Pliny would be bemused by these efforts. Whether or not he believed his death was timely, he would not, I think, believe that his long-dead skull somehow captured his essence. For that, we must return to his work.
- All quotations are from the Loeb Classical Library translation and edition of Pliny’s Natural History, published in ten volumes by Harvard University Press.