1st-century villa discovered near Mount Vesuvius may be where Pliny the Elder watched catastrophic eruption

Archaeological site of an excavated roman villa by the water.
The remains of the luxurious villa were found at Punta Sarparella in the town of Bacoli, which in the first century was the port city of Misenum where Pliny the Elder commanded a Roman naval fleet. (Image credit: Italian Ministry of Culture)

An excavation to build a playground near Naples, Italy, has revealed an ancient seafront villa thought to be where the Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder witnessed the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79.

The eruption destroyed Pompeii and devastated other towns in the region, possibly killing up to 16,000 people, including Pliny.

Pliny, whose real name was Gaius Plinius Secundus, had famously sailed from his home toward the eruption in an attempt to rescue some of the people afflicted by it. His nephew and adopted son, Pliny the Younger (Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus) wrote in a letter that he witnessed the elder Pliny's death a few hours later, when he was overcome by toxic gas from the volcano.

The newly excavated villa is at Punta Sarparella, northwest of Naples in the town of Bacoli, which in the first century was the port city of Misenum where Pliny the Elder commanded a Roman naval fleet.

Related: 2 hidden male skeletons discovered under pile of rubble in Pompeii's 'House of the Chaste Lovers'

While archaeologists suggest the villa also also might have belonged to another wealthy Roman, it matches Pliny's descriptions and has a prominent view of Mount Vesuvius, which is about 20 miles (30 kilometers) away, across the bay.

The newfound villa gives "maximum visibility of the entire port basin and a wide view of the entire Gulf," representatives from Italy's Ministry of Culture said in a statement. "This would have been, perhaps, the promontory [a high point of land above the sea] from which Pliny the Elder, who held the office of Praefectus classis Misenensis [the commander of the Misenum fleet] would have seen the eruption of Vesuvius."

Playground find

Archaeologists think the villa belonged to the Roman writer and military commander Pliny the Elder, who was killed while trying to rescue friends from the A.D. 79 eruption of the volcano Vesuvius, about 20 miles away. (Image credit: Italian Ministry of Culture)

The remains of the villa were found after three years of work to remove a swimming pool from the site and build a playground, according to the statement.

Italian Ministry of Culture archaeologist Simona Formola said some of the villa's remaining walls were built from diamond-shaped blocks of soft limestone called tufa, decoratively arranged like a net, that extended onto the beach and into the water.

It's thought Pliny entertained many of the Roman elite at banquets in the villa's garden courtyard. If the villa was owned by Pliny, it was one of several he maintained in picturesque locations around Italy.

The archaeological excavations will continue for several months; the researchers hope to find out more about the villa itself as well as about Misenum, which was an important Roman naval base.

Formola told CNN that the excavation of deeper layers could reveal more rooms of the villa and possibly even frescoes.

Historical volcano

Pliny was born into a wealthy Roman family and rose through the Roman Army. In his fifties he was appointed commander of the Misenum fleet, which protected the coast from pirates. He was also a prolific writer; many of his books have now been lost, but he is best known for "Natural History," in which he tried to record everything known about the world.

"Naturalis Historia remains a classic today, with some arguing it is the first encyclopaedia ever written," Sue Alcock, an archaeologist at the University of Oklahoma, told Live Science in an email.

"The 37-volume work presented contemporary knowledge of zoology, botany, geology, mineralogy, astronomy, and technology, as well as a near unique discussion of the art and artists of his day," said Alcock, who wasn't involved in the villa's discovery.

After Pliny witnessed the eruption, probably in October of A.D. 79, and made haste to save his friends, he was warned about the dangers. But he quoted the Latin proverb "Fortune favors the bold" (Audentes Fortuna Iuvat) and set out anyway, only to be killed a few hours later on the shore at Stabiae, after sailing right across the Gulf of Naples.

Alcock said Pliny's words were not original, but they have lived on as one of the phrase's most famous utterances.

Live Science Contributor

Tom Metcalfe is a freelance journalist and regular Live Science contributor who is based in London in the United Kingdom. Tom writes mainly about science, space, archaeology, the Earth and the oceans. He has also written for the BBC, NBC News, National Geographic, Scientific American, Air & Space, and many others.