The Soldier of Ancient Herculaneum: Was He a Hero?

   Let’s go back in time.
   It’s August 24th, 79 CE, and the place is an Ancient Roman town called Herculaneum which along with Oplontis, Stabiae, Boscoreale, and Pompeii sat below the large, powerful Mount Vesuvius. Thing is, there was a secret that the Ancient Romans likely had no idea of: Mount Vesuvius was a volcano. It had been dormant for centuries, so the inhabitants of the region wouldn’t have realized the potential danger that the mountain posed.
   Early that morning, people of the town would have gotten up and gone about their lives working, preparing food, going to the market, and so on. Though some may have been a little nervous about things because multiple earthquake tremors had shaken the area over the previous several days, and considering how there was still damage from a large earthquake that had struck in 62 CE, some concern wouldn’t have been a surprise. Still, they would not have realized the catastrophic horror that was a just hours away.
   It appears that a cloud of gas and ash began coming out of the mountain sometime during the morning. Around midday to early afternoon, the eruption got really violent as it explosively spewed large amounts ash and pumice miles into the sky.
   Shock and fear must have gripped everyone, for none of them had ever seen such a thing. Ash and pumice started falling to the ground southeast, east, and south of the volcano due to wind direction. While Oplontis, Pompeii, Boscoreale, and Stabiae were being hit by the ash and pumice due to their locations, Herculaneum was likely spared much of that since it was to the west of the mountain. But seeing the gigantic cloud of ash being spewed miles into the sky, the inhabitants of the town seemed to have done what they could to flee. Since it was a community on the water, most probably made their way to waterfront to try to get on a boat to make their escape.
   For years, archaeologists wondered if everyone from Herculaneum had possibly escaped because they weren’t finding any skeletons (whereas quite a few were being found in Pompeii). But in the 1980s, that changed. Around 300 to 350 skeletons were discovered at the site of Herculaneum’s ancient waterfront. The vast majority were inside boat sheds where they had been huddling for shelter, but a few were in front of the sheds on what would have been the ancient beach.
   The question arose: who were these people, and why had they been left behind?
   As research into the skeletons went on, something was being noticed, and this was that the vast had few to no possessions. The reason for this is that in all likelihood, most were slaves and the very poor. The Ancient Roman world was a pretty class conscious society so that it would not be a surprise that those considered to be the bottom of society (slaves and the extremely poor) would have been the last to be evacuated, and since there was probably not enough room on the boats to get everyone out, they would have been the ones most likely to be left behind.
   While the significant majority of skeletons were likely of slaves and the very poor, there were a few exceptions like one of a woman wearing jewelry. But the most notable stand out was the skeleton of a Roman soldier.
   Who was this individual, and why was he there?
   Examination of the skeleton and artifacts found with it have revealed quite a lot considering it’s been over 1900 years. First, the skeleton is that of someone who was physically male, around 40-45 years of age, and was found face down on what would have been the ancient beach in front of the boat sheds of Herculaneum’s waterfront. There is evidence of arthritis in a number of his joints, and many of his lower teeth were missing. At least some of the teeth in question had probably been knocked at some point in the past since the bone there had healed. He had on a leather belt, a military sword, a dagger, a pouch of coins, and a bag of tools. The military equipment (like the scabbards and belt) had decorations which look to have been quite elaborate and included some silver and gold.
   So the question arises: who was this man and how did he end up left behind on the waterfront? There are multiple theories.
   Herculaneum was not known to have had a large military presence or bases as far as experts understand. The town had a population of probably around 4000 to 5000. Being on the water, there would have people who made their living fishing in addition to others working in various jobs such as running thermopolia (fast food type places), bath houses, brothels, and so on. It was also likely a resort town for the rich who had villas there so that in addition to fishing and merchant boats being present on the waterfront, there would have been pleasure craft as well. Knowing this, one wonders about why the soldier was there.
   Just because there wasn’t a military base present, doesn’t mean there weren’t some soldiers stationed in the coastal town for one reason or another. Since he had a bag of tools, perhaps he was there helping rebuild damage from the 62 CE earthquake. Or considering how it was a resort town, the soldier may have been there delivering a message to an important official or something similar. Also remember that his military equipment was very well decorated, and as a result, we can’t rule out the possibility that perhaps he was there for pleasure.
   Another question is what kind of soldier was he? Considering that his military equipment appears to have been cutting edge for the time, he was likely an active member of either the Army or Navy, and since it was well decorated, he may have been an officer or member of an elite unit. One of the decorative designs on his sword’s scabbard seems to show an oval shield. This has made some researchers wonder if he could have been a member of the Praetorian Guard (the elite unit designated to protect the Roman Emperor) because they had oval shields at the time. Also, the amount of money he had on him seems to correspond with 1 month’s pay for a Praetorian Guard. While being a member of this elite unit is a possibility, the design in question and money amount he had don’t automatically mean that he was. Another theory speculates that he might have part of the Roman Navy (having a bag of tools would go along with this idea too).
   Across the Bay was a Roman naval base at Misenum. The commander there, Pliny the Elder, was curious about what was going on when he saw the cloud above the mountain. He was going to take a galley out to investigate but then received a message from a friend begging for help. He quickly took action and ordered naval ships to go across the Bay on a rescue mission. According to 2 letters written by his 17 year old nephew, Pliny the Younger, they went to Stabiae, and while there, Pliny the Elder died. It should be noted that in Pliny the Younger’s account, nothing is said about naval ships or personnel going to Herculaneum or Pompeii. But seeing that we are relying on just 2 letters written by a young man who was in Misenum the entire time, it is possible that a contingent of Roman naval ships did head to Herculaneum. Another option would be if the Roman soldier (or sailor) made his way from Stabiae to Herculaneum by land. The problem with this idea is that such a land journey would have been extremely difficult and dangerous considering how ash and pumice was falling and accumulating on the ground for a significant part of the route.
   Whether he was a member of the Roman Army or Navy, I’m going to continue referring to him as a soldier. He found himself at the waterfront during this terrible disaster. Seeing that he was a soldier (and considering his fine military equipment, probably an officer), people would have looked to him for guidance and leadership. So unless he arrived after all the boats were gone, he probably helped in trying to evacuate the population, and since there’s a good chance that he was an officer, he likely had a leadership role in the endeavor.
   So why did he die on the beach?
   While we can’t say with total certainty, there is a good chance he was helping organize the evacuation using any available boats and ships. But considering the size of the population, there almost certainly was not enough room for everyone. Seeing that the Ancient Roman world was often class conscious, it’s no surprise that slaves and the very poor would have been the last to get a spot if available.  When the final boat set off, 300-350 people (most likely being slaves and the very poor) were left behind. So unless the soldier arrived too late, he either decided to stay behind with them voluntarily, accidentally got stuck there in the confusion, or was ordered to stay put.
   It’s safe to say we’ll never know for sure why he was on the beach when the end came, but if he did decide to stay behind voluntarily, that would speak well of him considering that most of those with him were very likely people who would have been considered the bottom of Roman society.
   Late that night (probably around Midnight to 1 am), a deadly pyroclastic flow of super hot gas and volcanic debris surged down the mountain at rapid speed and engulfed the entire town. When it struct the waterfront, everyone present would have died very quickly. Mount Vesuvius continued its eruption into the next day (August 25th) with several more pyroclastic flows occurring. When things finally ended, Herculaneum, Pompeii, and the other nearby communities had been buried.
   And as to our Roman soldier, we’ll never be able to say with total certainty the exact circumstances that led him to be on the that beach when the end came. Did he accidentally get stuck on the beach in all the confusion, or was he ordered to stay behind due to a lack of space on the boats? Perhaps. But I can’t help but hope instead that at the end, he was a decent person who rose to the occasion, and when the last space in the last boat was needed to be filled, that he decided to put someone else on board opting to stay behind himself with the others even though the majority of them were slaves and the poor.

Some of the boat sheds at Herculaneum’s ancient waterfront. Courtesy of Photo 242056221 / Herculaneum Skeletons © pedro pereira | Dreamstime.com
Some of the skeletons in one of the boat sheds. Courtesy of Unsplash.
Some of the boat sheds of Herculaneum’s waterfront
Some of the boat sheds of Herculaneum’s waterfront

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/vesuvius-victim-identified-elite-soldier-attempting-rescue-mission-180977734/

https://www.britannica.com/place/Herculaneum

https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/vesuvius-erupts

https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/2-000-year-old-skeleton-identified-senior-roman-soldier-vesuvius-n1267056

https://www.livescience.com/soldier-skeleton-mount-vesuvius-rescue-mission.html

https://www.history.co.uk/article/the-eruption-of-mount-vesuvius-in-79-ad-and-the-destruction-of-pompeii

https://www.britannica.com/place/Pompeii

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