Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The elder's end

A later portrayal of Pliny the Elder.. Note that no contemporary depictions of Pliny have survived.
Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, "Eruption of Vesuvius" (1813).
When follower Cherei linked me to this list of resources about Ancient Medicine on the fantastic site The History of the Ancient World, my eyes lit on the paper about Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.). If you are familiar with the biography of the Roman author and naturalist, have read much about volcanoes, or simply recognize the year of his death, you know that he was killed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii. Do you also know that we have a firsthand account of that event from the point of view of Pliny's teenage nephew, who was living living at his Uncle's villa in the town of Misenum at the time? Pliny the Younger, as he is known, writes to his friend, the historian Tacitus, "My uncle decided to go down to the shore and investigate on the spot the possibility of any escape by sea, but he found the waves still wild and dangerous. A sheet was spread on the ground for him to lie down, and he repeatedly asked for cold water to drink.Then the flames and smell of sulphur which gave warning of the approaching fire drove the others to take flight and roused him to stand up. He stood leaning on two slaves and then suddenly collapsed, I imagine because the dense, fumes choked his breathing by blocking his windpipe which was constitutionally weak and narrow and often inflamed. When daylight returned on the 26th - two days after the last day he had been seen - his body was found intact and uninjured, still fully clothed and looking more like sleep than death." (Read translations at The Volcanism Blog,, and - as quoted above - Eyewitness to History)  Based on this 1st c. description and previous diagnoses, authors F.P. Retief and L. Cilliers come to the following conclusion put forth in "The Eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79 and the Death of Gaius Plinius Secundus": "Various reasons have been advanced to account for his death (asphyxiation caused by respiratory problems, carbon dioxide poisoning, heart failure, advanced coronary sclerosis). Basing our findings on the description of the catastrophe in the letters of his nephew, the younger Pliny, we believe that the most probable diagnosis which also fits his description of his uncle’s behaviour and symptoms during his last hours, is that of acute and fatal bronchoconstriction in a chronic asthmatic."
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1 comment:

  1. Pretty cool, eh! There's so much out there to discover.. and we're only given one lifetime to find it. It just doesn't seem fair sometimes! lol


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