Arts & Books Books

Pliny: A second-rate author with a mysteriously good press

The statue of Pliny on the façade of the Cathedral of Santa Maria Maggiore in Como

Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith praises a lively study of an unappealing character

In the Shadow of Vesuvius: A Life of Pliny
By Daisy Dunn, William Collins
324pp, £20/$29.95

Every schoolchild used to know something about Pliny. He left behind a huge corpus of letters and speeches, but is famous for two things: years after the event, he wrote a description of the eruption of Vesuvius, which killed his uncle, Pliny the Elder, and which happened when he was 17.

The second most well-known fact about him is that when working as an imperial legate in the province of Bithynia, he corresponded with Trajan, and asked his advice about how to deal with the Christians. Pliny was all for having them put to death, and thought, incorrectly as it turned out, that they could be persecuted to extinction. Trajan was a little more moderate, and opposed to the use of anonymous informers. The correspondence is one of the very few sources we have for how early 2nd-century Romans viewed the young faith.

Daisy Dunn, in writing a book about Pliny, must have some affection for her subject, but Pliny’s real character shows through from time to time despite her best efforts. Pliny served for most of his career under the ghastly Domitian, which hardly makes him a hero. He did not much like Nerva, Domitian’s successor, who is generally held up as an exemplar of virtue.

Pliny was favoured by Trajan, Nerva’s adopted son, but his speech addressed to him, the Panegyricus, the second earliest Roman speech to survive, is a work of obsequious flattery, as Dunn has to admit.

There are other drawbacks to writing a life of Pliny. Despite the speeches and letters, we know frustratingly little about him. We do not know who his first wife was; we do not know the identity of his real father; and we do not know where or how he died.

But Dunn manages to get around these lacunae by providing us with a discursive work that avoids being a linear narrative. Her thematic approach allows her to take in not just Pliny and his opinion of virtually everything he saw, but also the world of his uncle (who wrote an encyclopaedia of natural history, which, being pre-scientific, is full of entertainingly loopy ideas). She also reflects on the way Pliny has been received over the centuries.

Rather oddly for someone who approved of putting Christians to death, his statue (with that of his uncle) is on the façade of Como cathedral. For centuries, Verona and Como quarrelled over who “owned” Pliny, so great was his prestige. Pliny, to put it mildly, has had a good press over the centuries.

He is by no means the most accessible of Roman authors or even consistently interesting. I cannot remember ever having to translate him either, during my exams. He was friendly with Suetonius and Tacitus, both of whom outshine him, particularly the latter – who can ever forget that collapsible ship that almost killed Nero’s mother, Agrippina?

But if Pliny is a genius of the second rank, Daisy Dunn is to be congratulated for producing a book from the material he provides that will certainly satisfy our ever-increasing craving for all things Roman.

Using Pliny as a pair of eyes to give us a picture of daily life in the Roman Empire in the decades around the year AD 100 is a clever authorial strategy.

Dunn has already written on Catullus; judging by her work on Pliny, there can be few other Roman characters who would not come to life thanks to her discerning judgment, her eye for detail, her wide research and her lively pen.