Ancient Roman Officer’s Skeleton Linked to Historical Vesuvius Rescue Effort

ROME — Scientists have recently identified a 2,000-year-old skeleton as that of a high-ranking Roman officer, previously thought to be a regular soldier, who was likely part of a rescue mission to the doomed towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum during the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

Discovered among 300 skeletons in the 1980s in Herculaneum, this particular set of remains has now been reevaluated by researchers. Both Pompeii and Herculaneum, once bustling Roman seaside resorts south of modern-day Naples, were devastated by the eruption in A.D. 79. The towns were engulfed in lava, mud, and ash, which preserved their remains, providing a unique snapshot of ancient life for archaeologists.

Francesco Sirano, the director of the archaeological site at Herculaneum, explained to NBC News the significance of the new findings. “When I arrived at Herculaneum in 2017, I realized that although much research had been done on the skeletons, the artifacts found alongside them had not been thoroughly analyzed,” he said. His team’s closer inspection of the items found with the skeleton, including a sword with an ivory hilt, a decorated dagger, and a leather belt laden with coins, revealed their remarkable nature.

The belt was adorned with silver and gold images of a lion and a cherub, and the sword’s scabbard featured an oval shield. “These clues suggest that he was not a mere soldier but more likely a high-ranking officer, possibly even a praetorian,” Sirano noted, referring to the elite units who served as personal bodyguards to Roman emperors. Praetorians were known to carry oval shields, and the amount of coins found with the skeleton matched a praetorian’s monthly wage.

The skeleton was located on the beach, close to where hundreds of others were found, near the remnants of a boat. “There is no doubt that he was part of a rescue mission launched by a Roman fleet following the eruption of Vesuvius,” Sirano added.

This rescue mission, one of the most well-documented events from the period, was led by Pliny the Elder, a historian and Roman naval officer who perished during the mission. It was vividly described in notes left by his nephew, Pliny the Younger, who collected eyewitness accounts of the tragedy.