It must have seemed like the end of the world, and for thousands of people it was. The Younger Pliny was 17 when he witnessed the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. He described it many years later in two letters to Tacitus, who had asked him for an account of his uncle’s death. The Elder Pliny, now best known for his encyclopedic Naturalis Historia and for dying under the volcano, was also a military leader. Born in Comum (modern Como) in 23 or 24 ad, he fought a series of campaigns in Germania under Claudius in the 40s and 50s, which may have inspired him to write his lost book on the art of throwing the javelin from horseback, as well as his lost history of the German wars. He seems to have kept his head down in the dangerous later years of Nero’s reign, when he wrote his eight-volume Dubii Sermonis (in Daisy Dunn’s translation, ‘The Ambiguities of Grammar’; it too has been lost) and – unlike Seneca, Lucan or Petronius – avoided being implicated in the Pisonian conspiracy to assassinate the emperor in 65 ad. In the 70s, under Vespasian, he was appointed to a series of senior administrative positions, and in 79 was admiral of the fleet stationed at Misenum, on the north side of the Bay of Naples.
‘On 24 August,’ Pliny wrote to Tacitus, ‘in the early afternoon, my mother drew my uncle’s attention to a cloud of unusual size and appearance.’It looked like an enormous umbrella pine, ‘for it rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches … Sometimes it looked white, sometimes blotched and dirty.’ The Elder Pliny, deciding to go and take a closer look, ordered a boat to be made ready to cross the bay, and invited his nephew along. The Younger Pliny said he’d rather get on with his studies, not least because his uncle had given him some writing to do (there’s a hint of self-justification here, as if he worries that Tacitus will suspect him of cowardice, or – almost as bad – a lack of curiosity). As the Elder Pliny was waiting to embark, he received a message from the wife of a friend who was trapped below the volcano, and whose only means of escape would be by boat. ‘He changed his plans, and what he had begun in a spirit of inquiry he completed as a hero.’ He ordered the warships to be launched – there would be many other people in need of rescuing – and sailed into the inferno. Ash and pumice rained down on them.
On landing at Stabiae, four miles south of Pompeii, he took a bath at his friend’s house and had his dinner. The onshore wind that had carried his boats over the bay made it impossible to leave – the Younger Pliny suggests that his display of sangfroid was intended to reassure his companions – while above them on Mount Vesuvius ‘broad sheets of fire and leaping flames blazed at several points, their bright glare emphasised by the darkness of night.’ Pliny went to bed, and could be heard snoring as the courtyard outside his room filled with volcanic ash. The others woke him up. Earthquakes shook the house. Putting cushions over their heads to protect them from falling pumice stones, the household made their way down to the shore. The wind and waves were still against them. It was by now day, but they were ‘still in darkness, blacker and denser than any ordinary night’. Pliny lay down on the ground and asked for water. As the flames and ‘smell of sulphur’ approached, the others fled. Pliny got up and tried to join them, but, despite leaning on two slaves, collapsed. When daylight returned the following day, ‘his body was found intact and uninjured, still fully clothed and looking more like sleep than death.’
Across the bay, the Younger Pliny spent the rest of the day with his books, ‘as this was my reason for staying behind’. He had a bath, ate, tried to sleep. As the ground tremors got worse, he went outside with his mother and read Livy in the courtyard. The buildings were threatening to collapse, so they decided to leave town – along with everyone else.
We saw the sea sucked away and apparently forced back by the earthquake … Sea creatures were left stranded on dry sand. On the landward side a fearful black cloud was rent by forked and quivering bursts of flame, and parted to reveal great tongues of fire … The cloud sank down to earth and covered the sea.
Pliny’s mother urged him to leave without her, but he took her hand and they pressed on together. (By quoting from the Aeneid at the beginning of his second letter to Tacitus, he has already implicitly compared himself to Aeneas, who after the fall of Troy carried his reluctant father to safety on his back.) Worried that they might be crushed by the crowd in the darkness and confusion, Pliny led his mother off the road and they sat down to rest. Ash was falling thickly from the sky, and they had to stand up every so often and shake it off to avoid being buried. Pliny felt that ‘the whole world was dying with me and I with it.’ But the sun reappeared at last, and they returned to Misenum.
I first read the letters of the Younger Pliny for Latin GCSE, when I was a couple of years younger than he was at the eruption of Vesuvius. He struck me as a total nerd (few of the letters are as exciting as the two about Vesuvius) even in his youth, plugging away at his homework as the world disintegrated around him. But rereading Pliny’s letters now, nearly thirty years later, around the age he was when he was put in charge of managing Rome’s sewers and river banks, I find myself more in sympathy with him. Pliny collected and published the first nine books of the letters himself, as he explains to his friend Septicius Clarus in the first letter in Book One. They don’t appear in chronological order, but ‘as they came to my hand’, though it’s likely he put more thought into arranging them than he lets on. Dunn’s biography, ‘in the spirit of both Plinys’, doesn’t attempt a cradle-to-grave narrative, but is organised by season, to give ‘a flavour of Pliny the Younger’s year’. Still, it’s possible – and not unhelpful – to reconstruct a timeline for his life from the internal evidence of the letters and from external evidence such as inscriptions. Dunn includes a chronology in her book’s apparatus – it ranges from the First Punic War (264-241 bc) to Constantine’s establishment of a new capital at Byzantium in 324 ad – and there’s a more focused one in Betty Radice’s 1963 translation of Pliny’s letters for Penguin Classics, which also includes a useful potted biography.
The Younger Pliny was born at Comum in the year 61 or 62. His father died when he was a child, and a neighbouring landowner, Verginius Rufus, was appointed his guardian. After the Elder Pliny, his mother’s brother, died at Vesuvius, the Younger Pliny inherited his uncle’s considerable estate and took his name. He began working as a lawyer in Rome when he was 18, arguing cases at the Centumviral Court, which dealt with wills and inheritance. Later in the 80s he did his military service in Syria, where one of his jobs was auditing army accounts: he uncovered several instances of sloppy bookkeeping and outright theft. By the end of the decade he was back in Rome, and in 91 temporarily gave up his legal practice when Domitian made him tribune of the plebs (an important office during the republic, it was merely a ceremonial remnant in imperial times, a milestone on the senatorial career path).
Domitian, Vespasian’s younger son, had succeeded his older brother, Titus, in 81 (Vespasian had died in 79, a few months before Vesuvius erupted). Pliny, Tacitus and Suetonius, all writing after Domitian’s assassination, portray him as a vicious, homicidal tyrant, especially towards the end of his reign, but it isn’t evident that he was much worse than many other emperors: he executed fewer senators than Claudius, for example. And the victims of his alleged tyranny weren’t the vast bulk of the tens of millions – variously colonised and/or enslaved – who lived under his rule, but the senatorial elite. The traditional division of Roman emperors into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ has as much to do with the factional loyalties of our sources as with any actual moral calculus: by any modern reckoning they were all terrible, even if some were better than others at maintaining peace (or order) within the empire’s frontiers and making sure its inhabitants were fed and housed.
Just as his uncle had survived Nero, Pliny made it through Domitian’s 15-year rule unscathed. He later wrote that he would have been ‘brought to trial … if Domitian had lived longer’, and at considerable risk to himself made a visit – and an interest-free loan – to one of the Stoic philosophers Domitian had expelled from Rome in 93, ‘at a time when seven of my friends had been put to death or banished … I stood amid the flames of thunderbolts dropping all round me.’ For someone who had survived the eruption of Vesuvius, this wasn’t a casual metaphor. Yet he didn’t merely dodge the thunderbolts: he flourished under them. The trip to the philosopher was especially perilous because he was a praetor that year – a senior position, one rung below consul, which Domitian allowed him to assume earlier than he should have done. He had already been a quaestor on the emperor’s staff before he was tribune of the plebs. And for the last three years of Domitian’s ‘reign of terror’, Pliny was a senior official at the military treasury. Perhaps he knew how to play a dangerous double game, or had a gift for covering his back – or both.
Domitian was assassinated in September 96. His successor was 65 years old and childless. Nerva had served under Nero, helping to expose the Pisonian conspiracy, and been consul under both Vespasian and Domitian. His accession struck Pliny as a good time for ‘pursuing the guilty, vindicating the injured, and advancing my own reputation’. He made a speech in the Senate attacking Publicius Certus, who during Domitian’s rule had denounced one of his friends. As Pliny got up to speak, a colleague ‘rebuked me for coming forward so rashly and recklessly … I had made myself a marked man in the eyes of future emperors. “Never mind,” I said, “as long as they are bad ones.”’ (‘Esto, inquam, dum malis.’) His bravado was never put to the test: the letter in which he tells the story was written in the reign of Trajan, Nerva’s hastily adopted son, who outlived Pliny. Trajan is usually said (not least by Pliny) to have been one of the good ones, though the Dacians and other peoples he conquered – he oversaw the Roman Empire’s expansion to its furthest geographical extent – may have disagreed. Nerva declined to prosecute Certus, but ‘by coincidence, though it seemed no mere coincidence, a few days after the speech was published Certus fell ill and died.’ His death left a vacant post at the Treasury of Saturn, which was soon filled – you guessed it – by Pliny.
Trajan came to power in 98, and Pliny continued to prosper. He was consul in 100 and awarded a priesthood in 103. The following year he got the job looking after the sewers and river banks. It wasn’t glamorous but, as Radice says, ‘Pliny must have enjoyed this’: his letters are full of fascinated descriptions of the mysterious hydraulics of springs, rivers and lakes throughout the Italian peninsula. A spring near Como ‘fills and empties three times a day with a regular increase and decrease of water, and this can be seen quite clearly and is a great pleasure to watch’. The source of the Clitumnus (now the Clitunno, between Foligno and Spoleto in Umbria), is a ‘pool as clear as glass … Then it is carried on not by any downward slope of the land but by its own volume and weight of water.’ A villa was built on the site of the spring near Como in the 16th century. Percy and Mary Shelley tried to stay there in 1818; it’s now a luxury hotel. The spring ‘runs under the building’, according to Dunn, visible from a window ‘on an otherwise unremarkable corridor’.
Having retired from the sewers, Pliny argued his last major case in the Centumviral Court in early 107. ‘My appearances are less frequent than they used to be,’ he had written a few years earlier, ‘and this is the first step to a gradual retirement.’ That retirement – while it lasted, for a period in his late forties – was divided between his villas beyond Rome. As well as property in Comum and his house on the Esquiline Hill, he owned a villa on the coast south-west of Rome and another at Tifernum in the upper Tiber valley, inherited from his uncle, which he expanded by buying a plot of neighbouring land. According to one estimate, the property covered five thousand hectares. He cultivated vines, or rather his slaves did, despite a (widely ignored) attempt by Domitian to limit the amount of land given over to grapes rather than more nutritious crops, and Dunn suggests that Pliny’s vineyards may have supplied as much as 12 per cent of the wine drunk in Rome, delivered down the Tiber by barge. His inheritance from his uncle made him rich, and the things he did with it made him even richer, though that didn’t stop him complaining about losing money after a poor grape harvest.
Pliny more than once made a slightly laboured comparison between the fruits of his vines and his written work. He did most of his writing at his villa on the coast, at Laurentum, 17 miles from Rome. He describes the property in a long, loving and detailed letter: so detailed that it’s possible to reconstruct the entire villa from his account (the Ashmolean has a model made in the 1940s by the set designer Clifford Pember). Pliny slept and worked in a private set of rooms at some distance from the main house, where he could write undisturbed during the Saturnalia, when the rest of the house echoed with the festivities. Not that he objected to the slaves’ partying: as he wrote to a friend who had complained of the lewd entertainment at a recent dinner, ‘let us then be tolerant of other people’s pleasures so as to win indulgence for our own.’
He had a rigorous work ethic, modelled on his uncle’s, though he seems to have found it more pleasurable than onerous, despite the occasional bout of disingenuous grumbling. As well as writing his letters and collecting them for publication, he revised his speeches – the only one that survives is the Panegyricus, a long hymn of praise to Trajan, delivered in the Senate – and wrote second-rate poems (a few of his verses survive in the letters). He longed for fame as a writer, and took pleasure in the thought of his name being linked with that of Tacitus. He would, presumably, be happy and possibly surprised to know that his correspondence is still being read, and his biography written, after nearly two thousand years; less happy at his reputation as a decided B-lister.
Reading Pliny, you can decide more or less to trust him, taking his words at face value, or you can approach the letters with a degree of suspicion. Radice and Dunn tend towards a more generous interpretation; Ronald Syme was more sceptical, as was the late Rex Winsbury in his 2013 biography. As a schoolboy I was determined to read between the lines, distrusting everything Pliny said, congratulating myself on being able to see through him. But now I wonder if he mightn’t have been more self-aware than I gave him credit for. There’s an amusing moment in his description of the case against a corrupt governor in Africa, whom he and Tacitus prosecuted. Pliny spoke for nearly five hours. And Trajan, he says, ‘showed such an attentive and kindly interest in me’ that ‘he more than once suggested I should spare my voice and lungs.’ Can we be sure that Pliny was oblivious to the possibility that the emperor was calling him a windbag?
His ambiguities are nowhere plainer – if an ambiguity can be said to be plain – than in the way he writes about his biggest rival in the law courts, Marcus Regulus. Radice thinks that Pliny hated Regulus because he was ‘everything which Pliny is not: unscrupulous, avaricious, vacillating and superstitious, as well as crudely flamboyant’. But it seems at least possible that a deeper reason for his animosity was Pliny’s (unacknowledged) awareness of their similarities. He attacks Regulus for persuading vulnerable old women to change their wills in his favour, but elsewhere boasts of the legacies left to him by the generous elderly friends he himself has made. Regulus liked to make long speeches; so did Pliny. Regulus was superstitious; Pliny, too, believed in ghosts and omens. Regulus thrived under Domitian – as did Pliny. Regulus may seem grotesque, seen through Pliny’s eyes, as we witness him forcing a dying woman to change her will to leave him the clothes she’s wearing. But what would we think of Pliny if Regulus’ letters had survived instead of his?
Pliny’s brief period of contemplative retirement came to an end in 110, when Trajan made him governor of Bithynia and Pontus, in northern Anatolia. The tenth and last book of his letters consists of his correspondence with the emperor, most of it dating from after he left Rome for his final appointment. ‘I feel sure, sir, that you will be interested to hear that I have rounded Cape Malea and arrived at Ephesus with my complete staff, after being delayed by contrary winds. My intention now is to travel on to my province partly by coastal boat and partly by carriage.’ (In Radice’s translation it could almost be the beginning of an 18th-century epistolary novel; even more so in William Melmoth’s version from 1746: ‘I propose pursuing the remainder of my journey to the province partly in light vessels, and partly in post-chaises.’) Pliny didn’t collect and arrange the 121 letters in Book Ten himself: his audience is not posterity but the emperor alone. The book is also different from its predecessors because Pliny’s letters are interspersed with Trajan’s replies.
Pliny asks the emperor for his advice (or orders) on whether to continue using public slaves as prison warders or to replace them with soldiers; whether or not to rebuild the public baths; whether or not to form a fire brigade; whether or not to finish a half-built theatre. Trajan sometimes tells him what to do: keep using slaves to guard the prisons; restore the baths (if the money’s there to do it); don’t form a fire brigade, as it’s ‘societies like these which have been responsible for political disturbances in your province’ (fire brigade unions apparently as radical then as they are now). Sometimes – ‘the future of the unfinished theatre’ – Trajan tells Pliny to use his own judgment. Pliny repeatedly asks Trajan to send an engineer from Rome to help with a project to dig a canal. ‘There is no lack of such experts in the provinces where you are,’ Trajan replies. In one of his most famous letters, Pliny describes ‘the line I have taken with all persons brought before me on the charge of being Christians. I have asked them in person if they are Christians, and if they admit it, I repeat the question a second and third time’ – are you now or have you ever been? – ‘with a warning of the punishment awaiting them. If they persist, I order them to be led away for execution.’ Anonymous pamphlets, he says, have been circulating accusing people of belonging to the ‘degenerate cult’. Trajan tells him to avoid a witch hunt, and to ignore the pamphlets, but to persist in punishing the confirmed Christians.
In their final exchange, Pliny asks Trajan’s indulgence for giving his wife an imperial travel permit – usually reserved for official business – to visit her aunt after her grandfather’s death. Trajan forgives him. There are no more letters after that. Pliny is presumed to have died in Bithynia in 113, some time before 18 September, Trajan’s birthday; in previous years he had always sent the emperor his best wishes, but no such letter from 113 survives. He would have been 51 or 52 years old.
We know more about Pliny than we do about most ancient Romans, but there are still considerable gaps in our knowledge. We don’t know exactly when or how he died. We know that he was married more than once, and had no children, but there’s uncertainty about whether he had two wives or three (A.N. Sherwin-White, in his monumental 1966 commentary on the letters, argues for three; Dunn reckons two; it all hinges on whether a letter to Trajan in which he mentions being married twice was written before or after his last marriage), and only the name of the second or third wife, Calpurnia, is known. Dunn does less than you might hope – though perhaps as much as is possible – to fill in the cracks. It would be odd to read her biography without having read the letters, and if you have read the letters much of her book will be familiar. But the very fact of its existence points to the enduring fascination of this least extraordinary of Romans.
In his generosity and his vanity, his tolerance and his petty-mindedness, Pliny comes across in his letters as a fully recognisable human being, someone you could meet any day of the 21st-century week. But then he’ll say something that reminds you just how alien to us ancient Roman culture in many respects was – the rights and wrongs of slavery, empire or suicide. He’s full of admiration, for instance, for a woman who tied herself to her husband and leaped into Lake Como, drowning them both, because the man had incurable genital ulcers. This simultaneous proximity and distance – this parallax view – has material manifestations too. One of the many bodies of water that fascinated Pliny was a lake near Ameria (now Amelia) in Umbria, ‘perfectly round and regular in shape’, pale blue in colour, and with floating islands that cows would wander onto, drift across to the other side and wander off again. It sounds unlikely – though the Uru people live on floating islands made from reeds on Lake Titicaca in Peru and Bolivia – but there’s no way to check Pliny’s story, because the lake in question has shrivelled over the past 1900 years, and is now a murky pond barely fifty metres across.
He tells other tales that are just as hard to verify but retain the narrative and allegorical force they had when he wrote them. ‘I have come across a true story which sounds very like fable,’ he wrote to a friend. In the Roman town of Hippo, on the North African coast, a boy who swam further out to sea than his friends met a dolphin that swam and played with him. The dolphin came back day after day, and the boy gradually grew to trust it, would climb on its back and be taken out to sea and brought back to the beach. Then one day the governor, for reasons best known to himself, poured scented oil on the dolphin’s back, perhaps as a blessing.
It did not reappear for many days, and then seemed listless and dejected; but as it regained strength it returned to its former playfulness and usual tricks. All the local officials used to gather to see the sight, and their arrival to stay in the little town began to burden it with extra expense, until finally the place itself was losing its character of peace and quiet. It was then decided that the object of the public’s interest should be quietly destroyed.