Flavio Russo - Ferruccio Russo

Inquiry on the death of an Admiral

Allied Maritime Component Command Naples, Naples 2006
Translation by Jo Di Martino (*)




«Fortune favors the brave!», exclaimed the Commander in Chief of the Fleet of Misenum, ordering the helmsman to advance toward the coastline, even though ashes, pumice and lapilli were already falling on the deck of his ship. The explosive eruption of Mt. Vesuvius had by now reached its zenith and was in its most spectacular and terrifying phase: the immense cloud in the shape of an atomic mushroom hovered threateningly over the volcano and the entire littoral, fuelled by sinister vibrations, flashes of light and a thunderous rumbling, while countless earthquakes shook the entire region and the waters of the sea tossed relentlessly (2).

The Roman admiral, Gaius Plinius Secundus (Pliny the Elder), had come to the treacherous waters at the foot of Mt. Vesuvius with one purpose in mind, to evacuate the coastal inhabitants most directly threatened by the horrid eruption and who had no other means of escape (3). For this reason he had set sail from the naval base of Misenum, leading a formation of fast and powerful quadriremes. The Misenum Fleet, by far the largest of the imperial fleets of Rome (4), must have had at least a dozen of those ships, each with the name of a divinity particularly dear to the Romans - Concordia, Fides, Fortuna, Libertas, Salus, Victoria, etc. (5). Approaching the coast on board one of these ships, he succeeded in reaching the home of his friend Pomponius, who was understandably terrorized, but whom Pliny managed to hearten by affecting a manifestly composed, trusting and even jovial demeanor.

Such is demonstrated by the two letters that Pliny the Younger (6) wrote to the historian Tacitus, describing the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius and the final hours of his uncle, the heroic commander of the Fleet of Misenum. From his narration we learn that, because of the prohibitive weather conditions, the Roman admiral was not able to return on board before being suffocated by the fatal exhalations that abruptly invaded the entire area. And this has aroused within us an unconditional admiration for the courage of this one man who did not hesitate to lead his ships toward one of the most frightening scenarios imaginable, maintaining his dignified composure to the very end and giving equal consideration to both aspects of his mission, humanitarian and scientific (7). We were however left with a certain sense of bitterness, as we were not able to discover, in the writings of Pliny the Younger, any element that might help us to understand if his uncle's sacrifice had been useful. The lack of information regarding the return of the quadriremes led to the conjecture that the goddess Fortune invoked by the praefectus classis may have remained insensitive to the courage demonstrated by the Roman crews.

But no...for such was not the case.
What truly happened no one can say with any degree of certainty, but the naval rescue operation carried out by the quadriremes of Misenum must doubtless have been of vaster scope that the tragedy upon which, understandably, Pliny the Younger focused. Those warships did not flee from danger, nor were they involved in a naval disaster, for in either case we would have found some echo in the aforementioned account or in the malicious historical epitomes of the Christian apologists of the Late Roman Empire (8). The entire operation, furthermore, did not conclude in a clamorous failure, for if so the image of Pliny the Elder would have been inevitably compromised among his contemporaries, and this would not have permitted his nephew to publish, immediately following the event, the thirty seven books of Pliny's monumental treatise Natural History, a work that the highly erudite (9) Roman admiral had so patiently and intelligently written, completing it in the final years of his life, when he was already Commander of the Fleet of Misenum (10).

It is therefore worth our while to delve deeper into our analysis and to consider all the elements that may contribute to a historical reconstruction of those events. And such is accomplished in this Inquiry by Flavio Russo, an inquiry that assembles and closely scrutinizes a plethora of data from different sources, all directly or indirectly related to the activity of the Roman navy during the eruption of 79 A.D. The resulting vast and composite fresco allows the Reader to draw from a number of clues clearly indicating that the naval operation organized and carried out by Pliny the Elder did in fact contribute to saving a great number of inhabitants from the area involved in the tragedy. It follows that this first rescue operation conducted in grand style by warships in the midst of a natural disaster of massive proportions should be considered a veritable and absolute success, notwithstanding the tragic end of the Commander in Chief of the Fleet.

It is also to be noted that this mission was performed with great caution and professional capability, as implied by the numerous technical details (for example, that of having quickly identified the existence of a newly formed shoal only a short distance from the coastline toward which they were headed), evidence this of the high level of training and discipline of the Roman fleet. Nothing was left to chance or to improvisation, even though the decisions were lightning quick and included the conscious acceptance of extreme risks, as is normal in situations in which human lives are subject to an immediate threat.
All was made possible by a superhuman courage, a courage that allowed the ships to navigate in an orderly manner even in the midst of a shocking cataclysm of such scope and intensity that no human force could resist. But it truly seems that, on that occasion also, it was the very extraordinary courage of the men involved that propitiated the success of the operation, or rather that propitiated its Fortune, just as the fearless Roman Admiral had predicted.

R. Admiral
(*) Translation by Jo Di Martino, with some minor amendments introduced by the author.
English translation and images are provided courtesy of the Allied Maritime Component Command Naples
© 2006 - Proprietà letteraria artistica e scientifica riservata.

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NOTE 1. From the account by Pliny the Younger on the death of his uncle (Epist. VI, 16).

NOTE 2. Brief reports on the eruptive phases of Mt. Vesuvius, with specific reference to the eruption of 79 A.D. are available on the web site of the University “Roma Tre” and the University of Naples. The authors of the article of the first site also provide a more detailed description in a publication: Lisetta Giacomelli and Roberto Scandone, Vesuvio, Pompei e Ercolano - Eruzioni e escursioni, (Vesuvius, Pompeii and Ercolano - Eruptions and Excursions) BE-MA editrice, Milano, 2001.

NOTE 3. Upon receiving a plea for help from his friend Rectina, Pliny decided to attempt a rescue mission for all the people along the coast who were in similar danger.

NOTE 4. According to the information in our possession, we can deduce that the Misenum Fleet consisted of more than half of all the Roman maritime forces. The second most important fleet was the Fleet of Ravenna, about half the size of that of Misenum. The ships and crews of all the remaining imperial fleets based outside of Italy would have numbered less than the Fleet of Ravenna. The aforementioned force relations allow us to better assess the importance of the Misenum fleet: it was intended not only to defend the city of Rome and the Tyrrhenian coast of Italy, but through its simple presence at sea, to continuously monitor the entire Mediterranean, thus ensuring safety, respect of legality and making a decisive contribution to safeguarding peace and stability throughout the Empire.

NOTE 5. Data is taken primarily from epigraphic sources. See «Classica» XI, Appendix IX (Supplement to the Rivista Marittima, December 2002).

NOTE 6. Epist. VI, 16 and VI, 20

NOTE 7. Pliny's scientific interest in the exceptional eruption of Mt. Vesuvius is clearly evident in his nephew's description of the quadriremes navigating toward the Vesuvian coast. Furthermore, even before receiving the message for help from Rectina, the Roman admiral had already considered setting out with a small and fast liburna for closer observation of the grandiose and extraordinary spectacle offered by the volcano.

NOTE 8. I refer to such authors as Arnobius (Adversus Nationes), Commodianus (Carmen apologeticum), Lactantius (De Mortibus Persecutorum), Orosius (Historiae adversum Paganos) and others. These are important historical sources because, since these writers were favoured by the transcribers of the Middle Ages, they somewhat fill the huge gap created by the loss of most of the actual historical works of the High Empire. The declared apologetic intent of these authors does not make them very objective, but they are useful nevertheless because predictable. For our purposes, their vehement desire for apocalyptic divine punishment of the Romans because of their alleged religious errors would have encouraged them to highlight any retribution inflicted on Roman warships with a certain perfidious satisfaction, up to the most "apocalyptic" of natural catastrophes that struck the Empire. Instead, those ships are not even mentioned. Orosius, for example, limits himself to writing: «It is said that in those years the summit of Mt. Bebius also exploded, spewing tongues of fire and torrents of flames that destroyed the surrounding cities and inhabitants » (Hist. Adv. Pag. VII, 9, 14).

NOTE 9. In one of his long letters (Epist. III, 5), Pliny the Younger provides us with ample information on the studies and literary production of his uncle.

NOTE 10. In his dedicatory epistle, written in the year of Titus' sixth consulate (77 A.D.), or the following year at the latest, Pliny presents the general index of his Natural History and indicates that he will shortly finish the entire work, saying: «I will complete my project » (Nat. Hist., praef. 32). In effect, the Naturalis Historia was complete when it was published posthumously at the specific wish of the author (Nat. Hist., praef. 20), shortly after his tragic death (79 A.D).

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