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Pliny the Elder
Relevant Non-Istrians
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Pliny the Elder
by Jona Lendering ©

[This mirror page excludes some images from the original site - see]

Zwar weiss ich viel, doch möchte ich alles wissen



Apoxyomenos (Musei Vaticani, Roma; ©

Caius Plinius Secundus - or, to use his English name, Pliny - was born in 23 or 24 at Novum Comum (modern Como), a small city in the region known as Gallia Transpadana. We do not know much about his family, except for the fact that he had a sister, and that his father was wealthy enough to be a member of the equestrian class, which means that he possessed at least 400,000 sesterces (100,000 normal day wages).

As a result, Pliny was able to study, and in the 30's he was in Rome. In his Natural history, the encyclopedia that he was to write forty years later, he recalls several incidents of which he had been an eyewitness. For example, when he describes the statue known as the Apoxyomenos of Lysippus [see M.C. note], he tells this.

It was dedicated by Marcus Agrippa in front of his Baths. Tiberius also much admired this statue [...] and removed the Apoxyomenos to his bedroom, substituting a copy. But the people of Rome were so indignant about this that they staged a protest in the theater, shouting 'Bring back the Apoxyomenos!' And so despite his passion for it, Tiberius was obliged to replace the original statue.

[Natural history 34.62; tr. J.F. Healy]

Was the boy present during in the theater? We can not be certain, but it is certainly possible.

Like al Roman boys, Pliny had to study rhetoric, which is essentially the art to speak in public. However, since a speech is only convincing when the speaker looks reliable, there was a lot more to rhetoric than only speaking: it was a complete program of good manners and general knowledge. After 37, Pliny's teacher was Publius Pomponius Secundus, who was regarded as the best tragic poet of his age, and sometimes stayed at the imperial court of Caligula and Claudius. Pliny considered Caligula's wife a parvenue.

I have seen Lollia Paulina [...] celebrating her betrothal covered with alternating emeralds an pearls, which glittered all over her head, hair, ears, neck and fingers, to the value of 50 million sesterces. She was ready, at the drop of a hat, to give written proof of her ownership of the gems.

[Natural history 9.117; tr. J.F. Healy]

Pomponius gave Pliny the connections that were needed to make a career, and is probably responsible for his pupil's odd style of writing.


Pliny's bridle. British Museum, London (Britain). Photo Marco Prins.
Pliny's bridle (British Museum, London)

 In 45, when he was twenty-one years old, Pliny left Italy and went to Gallia Belgica, where he served as military tribune. This administrative office was a very common step in the career of a young men of the senatorial or equestrian order, especially when they aspired to a position in the government of the empire. Pliny, however, developed a liking of the military, and was soon promoted to prefect of a cavalry unit. He was a fighting officer. His unit was stationed at Xanten (Castra Vetera) in Germania Inferior on the Lower Rhine ( One day, he must have lost the bridle of his horse, because after many centuries, it was found back by archaeologists.

In 47, the new commander of the army of the lower Rhine, Cnaeus Domitius Corbulo, arrived, and invaded the country of the Frisians and Chauci along the Wadden Sea. It is possible that the two men already knew each other, because Corbulo's sister had been married to Caligula. However this may be, Pliny's unit took part in this campaign. Later, he recalled Lake Flevo, which the Romans had had to cross before they reached the country of the Frisians and Chauci:

The shores are occupied by oaks which have a vigorous growth rate, and these trees, when undermined by the waves or driven by blasts of wind, carry away vast islands of soil trapped in their roots. Thus balanced, the oak-trees float in an upright position, with the result that our fleets gave often been terrified by the 'wide rigging' of their huge branches when they have been driven by the waves -almost deliberately it would seem- against the bows of ships riding at anchor for the night; consequently, our ships have had no option but to fight a naval battle against trees!

[Natural history 16.5; tr. John Healy]

The campaign was successful. The Frisians and Chauci surrendered, and Corbulo was already building a fort for a garrison, when he received an order that he had to return. We do not know why the emperor Claudius issued this order, but it is probable that he did not want to get involved in a war in Germania when the conquest of Britain had not been completed.

Pliny seems to have stayed in the Rhine army for some time, because in 50/51, he took part in the campaign against the Chatti, a tribe that lived opposite Mainz. His commander was his former teacher Publius Pomponius Secundus. It was a remarkable campaign, not in the least because the Romans discovered in the Germanic villages several old slaves, who turned out to be former Roman soldiers taken captive in the battle in the Teutoburg Forest, forty years before. During this campaign, Pliny visited the thermal sources at Wiesbaden and the sources of the Danube.

In these years, Pliny wrote his first book, a short treatise on spear throwing from horseback, now lost. It has been assumed that he had seen how the Germans threw spears, and wanted to learn this technique to his fellow Romans.

In 52, he was Italy. He was probably escorting Pomponius to Rome. Pliny was present when the emperor Claudius organized a very special spectacle:

I have seen Agrippina, the wife of the emperor Claudius, at a show where he was presenting a naval battle, seated by him, wearing a military cloak made entirely of gold cloth.

[Natural history 33.63; tr.  J.F. Healy]

This naval battle took place on the Fucine lake, and Pliny tells us that Claudius had drained this large lake by digging a channel through a mountain. The author of the Natural history was impressed by the operations, which had been carried out in darkness.

In these years, Pliny wrote a second book, The Life of Pomponius Secundus. Probably, the teacher had died, and the pupil felt he owed this book as an act of homage to Pomponius. From a literary point of view, this was an important work, because the Romans had not yet developed the biographical genre.

Pliny returned to the Rhine army, and wrote a long History of the Germanic wars in twenty volumes. His nephew Pliny the Younger tells about his uncle:

He began this during his military service in Germania, as the result of a dream; in his sleep he saw standing over him the ghost of Drusus, who had triumphed far and wide in Germania and died there. He committed his memory to my uncle's care, begging him to save from the injustice of oblivion.

[Letters, 3.5.4; tr. B. Radice]

It is not known when Pliny published this work, but it is intriguing that he states that Drusus, the father of the emperor Claudius, had to be saved from oblivion. Is this a silent commentary on Claudius' unambituous Germanic policy? Did Pliny try to influence the new emperor Nero, hoping that he would renew Drusus' program to move the frontier from the Rhine to the Elbe?

In these years, Pliny also met Titus Flavius Vespasianus [Titus], the son of another Titus Flavius Vespasianus [Vespasian]. Both men were to rule as emperors: father Vespasian from 69 to 79, his son Titus from 79 to 81.

In 59, Pliny returned to Italy, thirty-six years old. A remarkable man, already: the author of three books, and a bachelor. A serious man, who had trained himself to live with the minimum of sleep, and wanted the world to benefit from his knowledge. He may have had some ambitions when he arrived in Rome, and could expect an appointment as procurartor ( However, things turned out differently.


Renaissance statue of Pliny the Elder. Duomo of Como (Italy).
Renaissance statue of Pliny the Elder [in the facade of the Duomo of Como?]

When Pliny returned to Rome in 59, he was thirty-six years old, a reliable officer in search for a new occupation. A procuratorship would have been possible. However, this did not happen. We do not know why. Of course, his patron Pomponius was dead, but Pliny was a veteran officer and had published two important books on military matters and a biography, so it is not exaggerated to say that he was "someone". He did not really need a patron to proceed his career.

The real reason must have been a change in the political climate. Claudius was by now dead, Nero was in the fifth year of his reign, and other rules applied. Under the old emperor, historians had been welcome, but Nero was more interested in musicians, singers, dancers, and other performers. 59 was the year in which Nero disgraced himself by giving a recital - something a member of a royal family simply was not supposed to do. This was not the kind of court in which the serious veteran could play a role.

Perhaps, Pliny understood that worse was to come. A performing emperor was not only a disgrace to his high office, but also a danger to the quality of government. There were rumors that Nero had murdered his mother. Pliny must have known that he was not the man to cope with this type of situation. He retired from public life -after all, he was a wealthy man- and devoted his talents to the study of literature. The result is described by Pliny the Younger: three books.

  • The scholar - three volumes divided into six sections on account of their length, in which he trains the orator from his cradle and brings him to perfection.
  • Problems in grammar - eight volumes; this he wrote during Nero's last years when the slavery of the times made it dangerous to write anything at all independent or inspired.
  • A Continuation of the History of Aufidius Bassus - thirty-one volumes.
[Pliny the Younger, Letters, 3.5.5-6; tr.B. Radice]

As the younger Pliny seems to admit, these were not "independent or inspired" works. The scholar was a haphazard collection of incidents and suggestions, which was quoted ironically by the great rhetorician Quintilian, and forgotten. The same fate befell the works of the man who had taught Pliny rhetoric, Pomponius Secundus. The style of writing of Pliny and his master were considered strange, and we may assume that the Problems in Grammar suffered the same fate. The Continuation of the History of Aufidius Bassus must have dealt with the years after 47 (the year in which Pliny had taken part in the campaign against the Chauci), and was not finished when Nero died.

Meanwhile, Pliny had become uncle. His sister Plinia had given birth to a son, Caius Caecilius Secundus (62). Unfortunately, the boy's father Lucius Caecilius died soon after, and Pliny, who had no wife and children, would adopt his nephew (posthumously). As was usual, the young men would adopt his uncle's name and become known as Caius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, or, to use his English name, Pliny the Younger. He was educated in his uncle's Roman house.

In the meantime, the political situation was deteriorating. Nero was becoming more and more of a tyrant and many people were killed, or forced to commit suicide, as was the fate of Corbulo, the general whom Pliny had served. In 68, the governor of Gallia Lugdunensis, Caius Julius Vindex, revolted, but the general of the army of the middle Rhine, Lucius Verginius Rufus (a friend of Pliny), suppressed the rebellion. However, the Senate declared that Nero was an enemy of the state and proclaimed Servius Sulpicius Galba, an ally of Vindex, emperor. Nero committed suicide.

This was the beginning of a terrible civil war. Galba despised the soldiers of the Rhine army, who first offered the throne to Verginius Rufus (who refused) and then to the general of the army of the lower Rhine, Aulus Vitellius. Galba panicked, made mistakes, and was lynched by soldiers of the imperial guard, which placed a rich senator named Marcus Salvius Otho on the throne, but he was defeated by the army of Vitellius. He had only just reached Rome, when the news arrived that in the east, where the Romans were fighting a war against the Jews, another general had revolted: Vespasian, the father of Pliny's friend Titus. The armies of the Danube immediately sided with the new pretender and defeated Vitellius' army.

All this happened in 69. Although an incomplete inscription suggests that Pliny was in the east, he probably was in the city. He must have heard eyewitnesses about the death of Galba, he must have seen how Vitellius entered Rome, he must have seen how the Capitol was afire. This must have been the subject matter of the Continuation of the History of Aufidius Bassus, and it is likely that Pliny's history influenced the Histories of his younger contemporary Tacitus.  

Procurator and prefect

Because he was befriended with the new emperor and his son Titus, Pliny suddenly had a spectacular career: he obtained several procuratorships, which took him through the entire western part of the Roman world. In 70, he was in Gallia Narbonensis, in 72 in Africa, in 73 in Hispania Terraconensis, and in 75 in Gallia Belgica. During the two first jobs, Pliny was not only responsible for the emperor's personal possessions and finances, but also for the administration of justice. During the two last procuratorships, Pliny was responsible for all taxes of his provinces.

He was never in Rome and cannot have done much for the education of his nephew. A guardian was appointed: Verginius Rufus, the man who in 68 had refused the throne. To him, there was no chance upon a further career, and he founded a literary salon. It had several important members, such as the famous orator Nicetes of Smyrna, who became the younger Pliny's teacher in Greek and rhetoric.

On his return from Gallia Belgica, where he must have interviewed people who had witnessed the Batavian revolt (69-70), Pliny must have finished the Continuation of the History of Aufidius Bassus. Perhaps the work was dedicated to the emperor, because Pliny now belonged to the emperor's advisory council and had a function in the imperial palace, the Golden House. We do not know his function, but the prefecture of the fire brigade (the vigiles) is a possibility. The younger Pliny, who seems to have been living in the elder Pliny's urban residence, was impressed:

He would rise half-way through the night; in winter it would often be at midnight or an hour later, and two at the latest. Admittedly, he fell asleep very easily, and would often doze and wake up again during his work. Before daybreak he would visit the emperor Vespasian (who also made use of his nights) and then go to attend to his official duties. On returning home, he devoted his spare time to his work. After something to eat (his meals during the day were light and simple in the old-fashioned way), in summer when he was not too busy he would often lie in the sun, and a book was read aloud while he made notes and extracts. He made extracts of everything he read, and always said that there was no book so bad that some good could not be got out of it.

After his rest in the sun he generally took a cold bath, and then ate something and had a short sleep; after which he worked till dinner time as if he started on a new day. A book was read aloud during the meal and he took rapid notes.

[Pliny the Younger, Letters, 3.5.8-12; tr. B. Radice]

The next stage in Pliny's career was a military function again: he was made prefect of one of the two Roman navies. It was stationed at Misenum, and Pliny was responsible for the safety of the entire western half of the Mediterranean. He must have been a terribly busy man, but he was able to finish an encyclopedia, the Natural history, which contained all knowledge he had, both from reading and from autopsy. It was dedicated to his friend Titus, and was written for the masses, for the horde of farmers and artisans, and, finally, for those who have time to devote time to these pursuits.

[Natural history, Preface 6; tr. J.F. Healy]

We will discuss this work, which was published in 77...

In August 79, Pliny's sister and her son were staying with him at Misenum, when the Vesuvius became active. On the twenty-fourth, after he had been out in the sun and had taken a bath, Plinia drew the admiral's attention to the umbrella-shaped cloud. Pliny the Younger says:

My uncle's scholarly acumen saw at once that it was important enough for closer inspection, and he ordered a fast boat to be made ready, telling me I could come with him if I wished. I replied that I preferred to go on with my studies, and as it happened he had given me some writing to do.

[Pliny the Younger, Letters 6.16.37; tr. B. Radice]

However, the admiral changed his mind. What had begun in a spirit of inquiry, became a humanitarian mission. He gave orders for the warships to be launched, so that the people from the towns around the volcano could be evacuated. But it was impossible to reach the far side of the bay, and Pliny landed at Stabiae, where he spend the night with a friend named Pomponianus. However, he died during the evacuation; the exact cause of his death is unknown, but it seems that he was asthmatic and overcome by the sulphurous fumes.

In this way the elder Pliny died. His nephew erected a literary epitaph, when he wrote:

The fortunate man, in my opinion, is he to whom the gods have granted the power either to do something which is worth recording or to write what is worth reading, and most fortunate of all is he who can do both. Such a man was my uncle.

[Pliny the Younger, Letters 6.16.3; tr. B. Radice]

M.C. Note: Another statue of Apoxyomenos was recently found off the shores of the island of Lošinj (Lussino).

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Created: Monday, January 23, 2006; Updated Sunday, March 06, 2016  
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