Pliny the Younger

Pliny the Younger

Caius Plinius Caecilius Secundus (Pliny the Younger) the son of a landowner named Caius Caecilius was born in AD 61. hIS father died at an early age and was adopted by his uncle Pliny the Elder. After being first tutored at home, Pliny moved to Rome where he was taught by Quintilian, the city's first professor of rhetoric.

Pliny the Elder died during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 when Pompeii and Herculaneum were destroyed. Pliny the Younger inherited the estate of his uncle.

After a spell as an advocate Pliny became a successful politician. After serving as tribune in AD 91 and praetor in AD 93, Emperor Trajan appointed him Governor of Bithynia. Pliny was a great letter writer and corresponded with historians such as Tacitus and Suetonius. These letters include 107 letters (including some replies) to Emperor Trajan.

Pliny the Younger died in AD 112.

Primary Sources

(1) Pliny the Younger, letter to Laberius (c. AD 95)

Cleopatra boasted that she could spend 10,000,000 sesterces on a single banquet. Antony was keen to learn how it could be done, though he doubted its possibility, so bets were laid. Next day, when the wager was to be settled, she set before him a banquet splendid enough, but of the kind they had daily... she ordered the last course to be served. Following their instructions, the servants put before her a single vessel with vinegar... Antony was curious to see what on earth she'd do. She took one earring off and dropped the pearl into the vinegar; and when it melted, swallowed it. Plancus, umpiring... declared that Antony had lost the bet.

(2) Pliny the Elder was commander of the Misenum naval base and died while trying to rescue people living in the Bay of Naples during the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. Afterwards, Tacitus, the Roman historian, wrote to the nephew of Pliny the Elder and asked him what had happened. In his reply, Pliny the Younger described the eruption.

It was not clear at that distance from which mountain the cloud was rising (it was afterwards known to be Vesuvius)... In places it looked white, elsewhere blotched and dirty, according to the amount of soil and ashes it carried with it... My uncle ordered a 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...

As he (Pliny the Elder) was leaving the house he was handed a message from Rectina, wife of Cascus, whose house was at the foot of the mountain... She was terrified by the danger threatening her and implored him to rescue her from her fate... He gave orders for the warships to be launched and went on board himself with the intention of bringing help to many more people besides Rectina, for this lovely stretch of coast was thickly populated.

He hurried to the place which everyone else was hastily leaving, steering his course straight for the danger zone... Ashes were already falling, hotter and thicker as the ships drew near, followed by bits of pumice and blackened stones, charred and cracked by the flames: then suddenly they were in shallow water, and the shore was blocked by the debris from the mountain... but he was able to bring the ship in (at Stabiae). He embraced Pomponianus, his terrified friend, cheered and encouraged him, and thinking he could calm his fears by showing his own composure, gave orders that he was to be carried to the bathroom. After his bath he dined...

Meanwhile on Mount Vesuvius broad sheets of fire and leaping flames blazed at several points, their bright glare emphasised by the darkness of night. My uncle tried to allay the fears of his companions by repeatedly declaring that these were nothing but bonfires left by the peasants in their terror, or else empty houses on fire in the districts they had abandoned.

Then he went to rest and certainly slept, for as he was a stout man his breathing was rather loud and heavy and could be heard by people coming and going outside his door. By this time the courtyard giving access to his room was full of ashes mixed with pumice-stones, so that its level had risen, and if he had stayed in the room any longer he would never have got out... They debated whether to stay indoors or take their chance in the open, for the buildings were now shaking with violent shocks, and seemed to be swaying to and fro as if they were torn from the foundations. Outside, on the other hand, there was the danger of falling pumice-stones... after comparing the risks they chose the latter... As a protection against falling objects they put pillows on their heads tied down with cloths.

Elsewhere there was daylight by this time, but they were still in darkness, blacker and denser than any ordinary night, which they relieved by lighting torches and various kinds of lamps. My uncle decided to go down to the shore and investigate the possibility of any escape by sea, but he found the waves still wild and dangerous... Then the flames and smell of sulphur which gave warning of the approaching fire drove the others to take flight and roused him to stand up. He stood leaning on two slaves and then suddenly collapsed, I imagine because the dense fumes choked his breathing...

When daylight returned on the 26th - two days after the last day he had been seen - his body was found intact and uninjured, still fully clothed and looking more like sleep than death.

(3) Pliny the Younger, letter to a friend (c. AD 105)

The races are on, a spectacle which has not the slightest attraction for me. It lacks novelty and variety. If you have seen it once, then there is nothing left for you to see. So it amazes me that thousands and thousands of grown men should act like children, wanting to look at horses running and men standing on chariots over and over again. If it was the speed of the horses or the skill of the drivers that attracted them, there would be some sense in it - but in fact it is simply the colour. That is what they back and that is what fascinates them.