Today, letters are for thanking, consoling, and brownnosing, not for thoughtful exchanges, self-expression, or, God forbid, posterity. Pity the biographer of the future and their degrading slog through the semi-literate online alternative. Nearly 2,000 years ago, the patrician Roman lawyer Pliny the Younger (circa 61–113 A.D.) wrote letters as if his legacy would depend upon them. And wisely so—for it did.
Pliny’s further claims to fame were kinship with his impossibly accomplished uncle, Pliny the Elder (circa 23–79 A.D.), and his eyewitness account of the volcanic eruption that took his uncle’s life. Daisy Dunn’s clever, engaging biography The Shadow of Vesuvius opens with the latter event.
Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining
As much as anyone, Pliny the Elder could be said to have died doing what he loved, in his case observing and experiencing arcane natural phenomena. An admiral and author of 37 volumes of natural history synthesizing more or less every text in existence—he believed that “a moment away from his books was a moment wasted” and, as Dunn translates, that “no book is so bad that there is nothing to be taken from it”—he was overseeing the fleet at Misenum when an enormous cloud began forming above Vesuvius, across the Bay of Naples. Drawn by curiosity and the desire to help, Pliny the Elder sailed directly into the gathering storm. His nephew, who was staying with him, remained behind.
Nearly 2,000 years ago, Pliny the Younger wrote letters as if his legacy would depend upon them.
The following morning proved “blacker and denser than all the nights there have ever been.” Pliny’s dire recollection bears repeating: “You could hear the wailing of women, the cries of babies, the shouting of men. Some were calling for their parents, others for their children, others for their partners, trying to make out their voices. Some wept for their own fate, others for those of their relations. There were some who prayed for death through fear of death. Many raised their hands to the gods; more reasoned that there were now no gods anywhere and that the night would last forever and ever across the universe.”
Unknowable to Pliny, if not to us, were the scientific underpinnings of the thermal shocks and pyroclastic flow (“a current of magma and gas of around 400 degrees Celsius”) that buried his uncle and locals alive. The callow 17-year-old lived to tell the tale—his was the sole firsthand report to survive from antiquity—and inherit his uncle’s wealth and distinguished name. He would spend the rest of his days trying to do it justice. (A devoted husband, Pliny mercifully disregarded his uncle’s eccentric ruminations on sex: “For man alone, one’s first time is full of regret, which is surely an accurate augury for life.”)
The Bard with a Day Job
For all its material blessings, Pliny’s birth was singularly ill timed, coinciding with the reign of Nero. Had he been more politically courageous, Pliny, as with the Pisonian “conspirators” Seneca the Younger and Lucan, might have been put to death by an aggrieved emperor (the rule rather than the exception). Instead, he served the state obligingly in various official capacities.
Dunn’s narrative, divided into four “seasons,” skips to and fro, between Pliny and his uncle, bustle and Scrooge-like seclusion, straight biography and digression. The structure and style are well suited to her subject, whose deeds and interests were keen and multifaceted. Pliny made speeches in court and wine in the country. He corresponded with Trajan and the historians and sometime imperial critics Tacitus and Suetonius. He was the staid man of affairs on the one hand and idolized the outrageous and formally brilliant poet Catullus on the other. “In reality,” observes Dunn, “Pliny was more Cato than Catullus. He could not write of affairs with other men’s wives or of ‘nine consecutive fucks’ at midday. Nor, as a lawyer, was he about to threaten fellow citizens with rape.” His own poetry is, in Dunn’s estimation, “not the lightest or freest or most elegant,” “overladen” and “overwrought and scientific.”
“He could not write of affairs with other men’s wives or of ‘nine consecutive fucks’ at midday.”
Born within living memory of Augustus, Pliny found himself pitted, at the end, against recalcitrant Christians in Bithynia (modern Turkey). Dispatched as Trajan’s personal representative around 110 A.D., Pliny promoted development, looked after provincial finances, and adjudicated petty disputes. In the course of the last duty, Bithynians accused of being Christian were brought before him. Here, untypically, Pliny acted without consulting Trajan.
It was Pliny’s considered judgment that “any Roman citizen under suspicion of being Christian deserved to be sent to Rome for trial. The accused who were not Roman citizens and who persisted in saying that they were Christian, however, were to be executed.” The otherwise reasoning, compassionate legate’s fuzzy logic is staggering: “For I had no doubt that, whatever it was they were confessing to, such obstinacy and obdurate perseverance ought to be punished.” Pliny’s “just because” rationale was matched only by his powers of prediction. “It seems,” he related to Trajan, “that [the superstition] can be stopped and corrected.” If this hardly redounds to Pliny’s credit, Dunn’s subtle portrait—earnest, dedicated, and generous—leaves much to admire.
Our reliance on letters to fill out the biographical record is highlighted by Pliny’s death, the circumstances and date of which are not known. Dunn recounts his afterlife with gusto, from the unlikely embrace of pious Renaissance scholars and dueling views on the location of the Plinys’ birthplaces (Verona and Como) to his 19th-century appeal for Mary Shelley.
To Tacitus, Pliny lionized “those men with a god-given gift for doing what deserves to be written about or writing what deserves to be read—and very lucky are those who can do both. Through his own books and yours, my uncle will be one of these.” Dunn’s book, too, deserves to be read.
Max Carter is the head of the Impressionist and Modern Art department at Christie’s in New York