Aside from the usual contributions of its noble politicians and military commanders, the story of a nation also records the invaluable literary influences of its poets, dramatists, and historians. The long history of the Roman Empire is no different, for it can boast of the celebrated works of such men as Ovid, Virgil, Suetonius, and Tacitus. However, one individual often unrecognized by present-day readers surpasses all others - history simply remembers him as Pliny the Elder. More than just an author, he was a successful administrator, commander and scientist. Although not considered a philosopher, he was a man of intense curiosity whose works would garner even the respect of the medieval church. Unfortunately, this passionate curiosity would lead to an early death.
Gaius Plinius Secundus was born to a wealthy equestrian family, a family with strong political connections, in Cisalpine Gaul (northern Italy) in either 23 or 24 CE during the reign of Emperor Tiberius, a man Pliny would later describe as tristissimus hominum - the saddest and gloomiest of men. Historians, as well as his nephew and adopted son Pliny the Younger, depict Pliny as being an eccentric, a workaholic who dreaded wasting time, often writing late into the night. He devoted his life to his writing, never marrying nor having children. Since he considered walking a waste of time, he travelled around Rome in a sedan chair accompanied by a secretary walking alongside taking notes; actually an inflamed throat made breathing difficult for him and thereby affected his ability to walk. In winter he would wear a long-sleeved tunic to keep his arms warm, again so he could write as he rode. A man of intense study, he claimed to have read over 2,000 volumes by over 100 authors, cataloging more than 20,000 facts.
Because of his parents’ connections in Rome, the city where he would complete his education, Pliny was able to obtain a military command, leaving the comforts of Rome in 47 CE to do battle in Germany, serving as an officer cadet on the Rhine, and eventually rising to function as the prefect of the auxiliary infantry and later commander of a cavalry wing. Some contemporary histories record that he may have been involved in the invasion of Britain. During the Flavian Dynasty, he would resurrect his military career when he served as an admiral in charge of the western Mediterranean Sea. He took advantage of his time in Germany to author a small treatise on the difficult art of throwing a spear from horseback; one need remember that the stirrup had not been invented. Later, he would write a 20-volume history of the Germanic wars: Bella Germaniae. The historian Tacitus used these books as a source for his own Annals. It was also in Germany that Pliny became friends with the future Roman emperor Vespasian, a friendship that would reap rich rewards later. Both men suffered from insomnia and would spend many late-night hours in conversation.
After completing his time in Germany, Pliny returned to Rome and his residence on Equiline Hill, where he tired of practicing law and devoted his time to writing treatises on a variety of subjects, including his opinions on the emperors, past and present. He recognized the rather outlandish behavior of Emperor Gaius Caligula but did not consider it remarkable for the time, and while he respected Emperor Claudius and considered him as one of the most scholarly authors of his era, Pliny did comment on the emperor’s wife Messalina and her many indiscretions. However, among his more interesting topics, aside from grammar (he wrote an eight-volume series) and oratory, was his advice on women’s cosmetics. Asses’ milk removed wrinkles, while butter mixed with white lead was useful against acne, and warm cow’s placenta could remove facial ulcers.
During the time of Emperor Nero, and fearing possible repercussions, Pliny shunned any administrative assignments, avoiding political discussions in his writings. Rabbi Josephus, a friend and admirer of Nero, accused Pliny as well as other authors of harboring an intense hatred and lying about the fallen emperor. Pliny’s attitude towards the imperial house soon changed when his friend Vespasian assumed the throne from Emperor Vitellius in 69 CE. Vespasian rewarded Pliny with the position of imperial procurator in Spain, Gaul, and Belgium, where he was responsible for the finances of each province. It was during this time that he continued to gather the facts that he would later use in his writings, especially his most famous work (begun around 77 CE) - the 37 book (ten volumes) Naturalis Historia or Natural History. This immense undertaking, which still survives, encompassed a wide variety of topics, from botany, geography, and biology to mathematics, agriculture, the arts, and anthropology. Unfortunately, he was unable to revise it before his untimely death.
In August of 79 CE, all of Italy was shocked when Mt. Vesuvius erupted, burying the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. It was during this time that Pliny was serving as the commander of the Misenum fleet at nearby Campania. His intense scientific curiosity as well as his natural compassion led to his conducting relief efforts for the evacuation of the citizens of Pompeii. Unfortunately, his valiant efforts led to his death; the air around Pompeii was thick with ash and while giving orders to help, he simply lay down on the deck of his boat and died. Historian Tacitus contacted Pliny’s nephew and asked about his uncle’s death. He received this response:
Your request that I would send you an account of my uncle’s death …. deserves my acknowledgement, for, if this accident shall be celebrated by your pen, the glory of it, I am well assured, will be rendered forever illustrious. And notwithstanding he perished by misfortune … seems to promise him an everlasting remembrance … he has himself composed many and lasting works … (which) will greatly contribute to render his name immortal.
Regrettably, Pliny’s name has not become as lasting as his nephew foresaw. While remembered by some, he has not achieved the fame enjoyed by such writers as Ovid and Virgil. Most of his works have been lost; our knowledge of him comes mostly through the writings of others. However, his intense curiosity and mountain of work places him among the greatest the empire ever produced.
About the Author
- Bowder, D, Who Was Who in the Roman World (Cornell Univ Pr, 1980).
- Dando-Collins, S, The Great Fire of Rome (Da Capo Press, 2010).
- Dennison, M, The Twelve Caesars (St. Martin's Press, 2013).
- Hornblower, S, The Oxford Classical Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 2012).
- Liberati, A.M, Ancient Rome (Barnes and Noble, 2006)
- Matyszak, P, Lives of the Romans (2008)
- Pliny the Younger, The Letters of the Younger Pliny (Penguin Classics, 1963).
- Rodgers, N, Roman Empire (Metro Books, 2008)
23 CE - Aug 79 CELife of Pliny the Elder.
47 CEPliny the Elder enters the Roman army.
77 CEPliny the Elder begins his work on natural history.
Pliny the Elder Books
University Press of Southern Denmark (01 February 1998)Price: $29.50
Clarendon Press (20 April 2000)Price: $310.00
Croom Helm (01 January 1986)Currently unavailable
University of California Press (22 September 1977)Price: $18.95
Leopold Classic Library (21 February 2014)Price: $10.95