With one of Como’s historical naval commanders called Pantero Pantera and the other Pliny the Elder as opposed to the Younger, the attraction of an alliterative title to this article was irresistible.
Pantera was a commander in the Papal Navy based in Civitavecchia from 1597 to 1615 while Pliny the Elder was appointed by Emperor Vespasian in 76 CE as ‘Prefect’, or overall Admiral of the senior fleet of the Roman Imperial Navy based in Miseno in the Bay of Naples. Whilst Pliny, also known as Gaio Plinio Secondo, is known even to this day for his work and publications as a naturalist, Pantero Pantera has sunk into obscurity despite the fact that he published one of the first and certainly the most complete manual on naval warfare entitled ‘L’Armata Navale’ in 1614. Both are thus illustrious sons of Como.
Pliny the Elder
Pliny the Elder was born in Como into a wealthy ‘equestrian’ order family. He was raised in Como as was his sister and her son who took on the name of Pliny the Younger when Pliny formally adopted him. He was appointed by Emperor Vespasian as prefect (akin to Admiral) of the Classis Misenum – the largest of the Imperial fleets based at Miseno in the Bay of Naples and charged with patrolling the western Mediterranean.
This appointment followed a long and successful career as a lawyer and procurator in various provinces of the Roman Empire. However his time as the admiral of the fleet was cut short tragically by his death in the major eruption of Vesuvius in 79CE. Mount Vesuvius, which was not known at the time to be volcanic, lay across the Bay of Naples from Miseno. Pliny took to the sea in his flagship and headed for Pompeii and Herculaneum on hearing news of the first earthquakes and on seeing the plumes of smoke from those early eruptions. He had initially intended just to investigate this unusual natural phenomenon but he set his fleet on a rescue mission as soon as the scale of the danger became apparent.
His fleet did manage to save many of those residents from Pompeii and Herculaneum before the main eruption but Pliny himself was overcome by the fumes and ash as he tried to escape from Stabia to the south of Pompeii. He died aged 56. His sister and nephew, Pliny the Younger, were living with Pliny at Miseno at the time and his nephew later came to give the only existing first hand account of the Mount Vesuvius eruption in letters written to Tacitus, the Roman historian. Here is a small excerpt from one of those letters.
[Pliny the Elder] ..changed his plans, and what he had begun in a spirit of inquiry he completed as a hero. He gave orders for the warships to be launched and went on board himself with the intention of bringing help to many more people besides Rectina, for this lovely stretch of coast was thickly populated…..
Ashes were already falling, hotter and thicker as the ships drew near, followed by bits of pumice and blackened stones, charred and cracked by the flames: then suddenly they were in shallow water, and the shore was blocked by the debris from the mountain. – Pliny the Younger, Letters VI
I recommend those who are interested in the story of Pliny’s mission to Vesuvius to follow up on the suggestions for further reading at the end of this article. The poem quoted below by Primo Levi, scientist, author and holocaust survivor, illustrates the extent to which the Vesuvius eruption and Pliny’s end have retained their fascination on our collective consciousness to the present day:
Primo Levi: Pliny
Don’t hold me back, friends, let me set out.
I won’t go far; just to the other shore.
I want to observe at close hand that dark cloud,
Shaped like a pine tree, rising above Vesuvius,
And find the source of this strange light.
Nephew, you don’t want to come along? Fine; stay here and study.
Recopy the notes I gave you yesterday.
You needn’t fear the ash; ash on top of ash.
We’re ash ourselves; remember Epicurus?
Quick, get the boat ready, it is already night:
Night at midday, a portent never seen before.
Don’t worry, sister, I’m cautious and expert;
The years that bowed me haven’t passed in vain.
Of course I’ll come back quickly. Just give me time
To ferry across, observe the phenomena and return,
Draw a new chapter from them tomorrow
For my books, that will, I hope, still live
When for centuries my old body’s atoms
Will be whirling, dissolved in the vortices of the universe,
Or live again in an eagle, a young girl, a flower.
Sailors, obey me: launch the boat into the sea.
23 May 1978
Primo Levi (1919-1987): Pliny, translated by Ruth Feldman with Brian Swann, in Collected Poems, 1988
The ships launched by Pliny for the rescue were the largest in the fleet – quadriremes – consisting of four banks of oars (remi in Italian). These boats were 39 metres long and four metres wide and powered by 232 oarsmen. These galleys did have a sail but it was of secondary importance and never used when in conflict. Mediterranean warships from pre-Roman times until the early 17th century were propelled by oarsmen.
Pliny was admiral of the main Imperial Navy charged with maintaining the security of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Western Mediterranean. The second most important fleet was the Classis Ravennitis, based in Ravenna and responsible for patrolling the Adriatic Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean. There were a number of other Imperial navies based across the Roman Empire including the Classis Comensis – Como’s own Imperial Fleet charged with maintaining the security of transport on Lake Como and ensuring free access to the Val Chiavenna and thus across the Alps into Germany via the Splugen Pass.
Como’s origins are as a military fortress established by Julius Caesar in recognition of its strategic position in giving access to Alpine crossings and as a key defensive location protecting Milan from Transalpine invasion. He in turn established colonies of Greek immigrants in both Como and around the lake to encourage settlement but also to provide local skills in shipbuilding. The lake’s military fleet did not deploy the massive quadriremes deployed on the Mediterranean but instead they used the much smaller ‘liburnians’ modified from their original Greek design. These much smaller boats usually had a single row of oars but were light, fast and less visible and so were well designed to tackle piracy which was the main security threat on the lake. Later on around the 4th and 5th centuries in the Byzantine period, Como’s fleet was sufficiently important to warrant it being commanded by one of only four admirals of the imperial fleets. Two of these admirals commanded the traditionally important fleets based in Miseno and Ravenna. The other admiral managed a fleet based in Aquileia at the head of the Adriatic positioned to protect the Empire from invasion from the north, as was also the case at Como.
Not only did Como have a military fleet under the command of one of only four Imperial admirals but, in keeping with its military origins, it also boasted a naval military training school – the ‘Collegio dei nauti comensi’. This military school had two main responsibilities. One was to provide sufficient horsepower and carriages to maintain public services and the other was to teach ‘centurions’ how to conduct protection and warfare on lakes and rivers. The college also provided technical training for the three main artisan crafts needed to support the navy and military. These were training of ‘centonari’ – those who made defensive fabrics for sailors and other woven material including sails, ‘dolabrari’ who made the iron weapons for sailors (picks and axes) and ‘scalari’ who made the ladders used for boarding enemy vessels. Como was known as a centre for iron production and no doubt the navy protected the transport of iron ore down the Valle Albano to Dongo and then down the lake to Como. Steel production in Dongo only ceased very recently.
So with this well established naval tradition in Como, it may not be too surprising that another local citizen should achieve a remarkable career as a sailor, albeit this time in the Papal rather than the Imperial Navy. This was the much lesser known figure of Pantero Pantera born to a noble Como family in 1568. He was sent to Rome following his father’s death and under the protection of Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio. However he was not suited to either of the two principal careers on offer in Rome – within the church or apprenticed to an artist’s studio. He therefore enlisted in the Papal Navy as a captain aboard the galley San Bonaventura. This was one of the ten galleys under Pope Sixtus V. These were deployed to protect the Papal States from Barbary pirates.
Pantera’s challenges as a galley captain were twofold. Firstly he needed the seamanship skills needed to handle the relatively fragile boat and prevent it from sinking. The 16th century galleys deployed in the Papal Navy had evolved from the triremes (three rows of oars) and biremes( two rows of oars) of the Roman Imperial Navy. Seven of these vessels from the Papal Navy had been deployed as part of a combined European fleet at the major sea battle of Lepanto against the Turks in 1571 when Pantera would have been three years old. Pantero himself described these galleys in his manual ‘L’Armata Navale’ published in 1614:
‘The galley is long, thin and low. It has a single cover which is divided into six rooms. The room at the prow is for the captains, gentlemen and others ‘of respect’. The ‘scandolaro’ is the room adjacent to the prow. Here some of the arms are stored and other possessions of those in the prow along with some barrels of good wine. After the ‘scandolaro’ is the company’s room which serves as a dispensary of wine, preserved foods, oil, vinegar and cheese. After that there is the ‘pagliolo’ where biscuit, flour, rice, water, bread, beans and garlic are stored.’
His second challenge was maintaining order amongst the crew so they obeyed commands and did not mutiny. In this respect, his task was probably much harder than a captain in Pliny’s fleet since the Romans did not deploy slaves. Most of Pompey’s crew would have been recruited from Egypt and could hope to be granted Roman citizenship after 25 or 27 years service whereupon they would receive a reasonably generous cash payment. In Pantera’s day the crew was formed from Turkish slaves (many of whom may have been captured following the Battle of Lepanto) and so-called ‘galeotti’ who were prison inmates deemed suitable for service onboard – hence the modern day Italian term ‘galera’ for a prison. These slaves and prisoners remained chained to their oars. Pantera describes their daily food ration as follows:
‘Two pounds of biscuit, half a pound of cheese or four sardines, a pint of wine, an ounce of oil and a head of garlic’.
Pantera was promoted Commander of the galley Santa Lucia in 1597 which captured four pirate vessels just in the one year of 1598. He continued his career at sea for a total of fifteen years in which he tried to improve conditions for his crews. He then took up an administrative post on land. He served at a time when warships driven by ranks of oarsmen were being replaced by those using sail. The hybrid form known as ‘Galleazza’, developed by the Venetians, first appeared at the Battle of Lepanto. These massive boats armed with cannon used both manpower and sail for propulsion and manoeuvre. As the 17th century progressed, manpower gave way increasingly to sail and the long era of galleys ended.
In 1614 Pantera published his manual on seamanship entitled ‘L’Armata Navale’. It covered a comprehensive set of subjects including the principles of boat construction, battle tactics, logistics and fleet administration. In the following year he retired from the Papal Navy and returned to Como to take up a role in public administration. Here he lived in a villa on the edge of Piazza Verde where the Torre Pantera is still visible. In 1617 he had a villa built on the lakefront at Blevio which no longer stands but has been replaced by the Villa da Riva which has passed through many different owners, recently including the Istituto Angelicum di Milano which provided accommodation for young unmarried mothers. While living in Blevio he published another account of his time with the Papal Navy before he died in 1625, at the age of 57 – just one year longer than Pliny the Elder.
Unlike Pliny the Elder, Pantero Pantera remains relatively unknown and unrecognised. Throughout Italy there is just one street named after him in Como along with a piazza in Rome. Strangely enough Pliny the Elder has given his name to a craft beer from Portland, while Pantera’s name was adopted by a Como-based company producing a line of clothing. Initially the use of the name Pantero Pantera was challenged unsuccessfully in the courts by the French jewellers Cartier who claimed it was too close to their series of jewellery named ‘Panthère’.
There are no significant further sources of information about Pantero Pantera but there is a lot out there for Pliny the Elder. In particular the blog article by Will Mather for the Western Australia Museum provides a detailed description of Pliny’s rescue mission to Pompeii and his death. The article by Tom Clark entitled ‘The Death of Pliny the Elder’ includes the Primo Levi poem quoted above and excerpts from Pliny the Younger’s letter to Tacitus describing the eruption of Vesuvius and his uncle’s involvement.
The British author Daisy Dunn wrote ‘In the Shadow of Vesuvius: A Life of Pliny’ available in all formats on Amazon.
The Italian archeologist and author Flavio Russo has also written many books on the eruption of Vesuvius including an account of the scientific analysis of the presumed remains of Pliny the Elder uncovered in an archeological dig in 2014.
Refer to Como’s Historical Fabric and its Pot of Roman Gold for more information on Roman Como and the recent discovery of an amphora containing more than 500 gold coins from the Byzantine period. This horde might be associated with the importance of Como as a military base including its fleet and nautical school.