From 31 March to 30 August 2017 the Australian National Maritime Museum will be mounting an unusual exhibition that showcases “one of the first recorded attempted rescues by sea of civilians by a military force”. Called “Escape from Pompeii – the untold Roman rescue”, it lifts the lid on one of the lesser known stories surrounding he eruption of Mount Vesuvius more than 1900 years ago.
The catastrophe that struck the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in AD 79, obliterating both, was one of the great calamities of the ancient world. They were demolished by the massive eruption of nearby Mount Vesuvius, with the populations wiped out by blasts of hot gas and tonnes of ash that covered the area for centuries after.
What is perhaps not as well known was the attempt by the Roman Navy, under the command of Pliny the Elder, to mount a rescue mission before all was lost. Pliny had viewed the early stages of the eruption from the Roman naval base at Misenum, a location about 30 km away across the Bay of Naples to the west. The scene was later described by his nephew Pliny the Younger, who was with him at the time. The eruption appeared as a vast rising cloud…
“like an umbrella pine, for it rose to a great height on a sort of trunk then split off into branches ….In places it looked white elsewhere blotched and dirty according to the amount of soli and ashes it carried with it”.
Pliny the Elder was in charge of the Roman Navy and fully understanding the disaster that was unravelling before his eyes, he dispatched a fleet of quadriremes – large Roman galleys, each powered by sail and oarsmen, on a rescue mission to Pompeii.
Pliny himself was aboard one of these vessels and the fleet succeeded in reaching the shoreline quite close to Pompeii where volcanic debris rained down upon their decks. However an unfavourable wind forced them back to nearby Stabiae where Pliny died, possibly from a heart attack.
It is not know whether Pliny’s fleet was actually able to rescue any Pompeii citizens before the destruction of the city but his attempt revealed a humanitarian side to the Roman military seldom seen in other historical events.
The National maritime Museum exhibition includes priceless artefacts from both Pompeii and Herculaneum, including ceramics, sculptures and frescoes. These are displayed alongside the iconic body-casts of Pompeiian citizens whose moments of death are frozen in time for all to see.
Image: An artist’s impression of the rescue mission to Pompeii, mounted by Pliny the Elder, courtesy of Australian National Maritime Museum.