Herculaneum hero

Updated: Jun 28

Ongoing excavations at Herculaneum are shedding more light on the dead.

About 300 skeletons came to light in the ruins of Roman Herculaneum during the 1980s. As featured in issue one of THE PAST, the flourishing city vanished under a flow of molten lava, mud and toxic gas that engulfed the community at a speed of about 80km an hour.

Years later, Italian researchers identified skeleton number 26 as an unusual soldier. He lay face down in sand, apparently thrown to the ground by the explosion. The man was aged between 40 and 45 and in good health, his body lying near a boat on the beach. The experts now believe that the 300 skeletons nearby were people waiting to be rescued.

At first, skeleton 26 seemed to be yet another casualty, but it seems he was somebody more important. He wore a highly decorated gold and silver belt, also a sword with an ivory handle, both prestigious items for a military man. Not only that, but twelve silver and two gold denarii coins lay with the skeleton. According to archaeologist Francesco Sirano, the director of excavations at Herculaneum, these were the equivalent of a month’s salary for a member of the Praetorian Guard. This elite unit of hand-picked soldiers protected important personages in battle and elsewhere. There was more. The soldier wore a bag on his shoulders that contained tools usually carried by a faber navalis, a naval engineer in the Praetorian Guard, who was an expert carpenter.

The victim may have been an officer in the rescue fleet sent by Pliny the Elder to help the inhabitants of small towns and villas along this part of the Bay of Naples shoreline. Pliny himself was a naval commander stationed at Misenum, a short distance up the coast from Herculaneum. He was famous for his writings about natural history but was also a competent naval officer.

The excavations will continue in coming months and, hopefully, we will learn more about the rescue efforts during the disaster. In the meantime, issue one of THE PAST (click the home page for your free copy) has even more on the dead at Herculaneum.

Image: The Roman soldier at Herculaneum.

Parco Archeologico di Ercolano