In the Shadow of Vesuvius: A Life of Pliny
Daisy Dunn
William Collins
338pp, 17 colour and 11 black-and-white illustrations
Hardback, £20

When the historian Tacitus asked his friend Pliny the Younger to recollect his experience of the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in AD 79, when he was 17 years old, the writer and statesman obliged willingly. Pliny the Younger's vivid account is not only the sole surviving eyewitness description of this extraordinary calamity, it is surely one of the most arresting contemporary records of notable events that occurred in antiquity. It makes a fitting and dramatic introduction to Classicist and historian Daisy Dunn's hugely entertaining and compelling biography of Pliny the Younger (referred to simply as 'Pliny' throughout).

At the time, Pliny was staying with his mother in her brother's villa – he was the renowned historian and naturalist Pliny the Elder – at Misenum on the Bay of Naples. Here, the older Pliny served as admiral of the Roman fleet. But when he set off to investigate the terrifying eruption and to rescue a friend, he sailed to his death. His nephew Pliny, who survived, chronicled his uncle's end in his gripping account of the unfolding catastrophe. He also described his uncle's ferocious work ethic and high standards of behaviour which, for him, served as a lifelong inspiration.

Eschewing a strictly chronological narrative, Dunn explores the eventful career of the two Plinys. Both were immersed in the highest echelons of Roman society and were devoted to public service. Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus) (circa AD 23–79) was born in Comum (now Como) in Italy, and served in the army with the emperor Titus when they were both young men. After writing books on grammar and history, he embarked on his vast survey of the natural world – the 37-volume Naturalis Historia (Natural History) which was dedicated to Titus and which became Pliny the Elder's illustrious legacy.

Also born in Comum, Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, known as Pliny the Younger, circa AD 62–circa 113, embarked on a career in the law at 18, modelling himself on the great orators that came before him and preparing his cases assiduously. Later he became a senator, poet, collector of luxurious villas, curator of sewers, and the representative of the emperor overseas. A tireless worker, Pliny often shut himself away in his various villas, including the one at Laurentum, south of Ostia, the remains of which were uncovered in 1874. He had a great love of his birthplace Comum and owned two villas there – which he called 'Tragedy' and 'Comedy' – no traces of which have yet been found.

Pliny was a generous philanthropist endowing the town with a library and funding education for children. A keen countryman, Pliny carefully managed his rural estates, especially the one in Tuscany which provided the funds for him to maintain his lifestyle. He also diligently served the state: he was the prefect of the Treasury of Saturn where money and civil documents were stored and, at 38, became a consul. The Emperor Trajan appointed him as the Augur of Bird Signs and as Curator of the Bed and Banks of the River Tiber and the City Sewers.

In AD 109, the emperor posted him to Bithynia as the imperial legate where, amongst other concerns, he was considerably exercised as to how to manage the troublesome new religious sect known as the 'Christians'. It was not until the Middle Ages that it was discovered that there was not just one Pliny, but two. The printing of Pliny the Elder's Natural History in 1469 aroused great interest in him and his work among key figures of the Renaissance including Leonardo da Vinci.

Fortunately for us, Pliny the Younger was a prolific writer of letters and a huge cache of them was found in an abbey in Paris in 1500. Through reading them, we can become acquainted with a man who was not just a successful farmer, lawyer and statesman, but also a devoted husband and a good friend to many.

Diana Bentley

 

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