Pliny the Elder

(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)
0111200344-Pliny_E.jpg Pliny the Elder (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Roman science writer{$I[g]Roman Empire;Pliny the Elder} Pliny’s history of natural science preserved for later times priceless information on the ancients’ beliefs in countless areas. His work had great influence on later antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the early Renaissance, and he remains a major figure in the history of science.

Early Life

Gaius Plinius Secundus, or Pliny (PLIHN-ee) the Elder, was in his fifty-sixth year when he died during the famous eruption of Mount Vesuvius in August of 79 c.e. He therefore was probably born in late 23 c.e. His family was prominent in Novum Comum and most scholars believe that he was born there, although some prefer to use the evidence that points to Verona. Clues to his career are found in his own writing, in a life by Suetonius, and in the letters of his nephew and adopted ward Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, better known as Pliny the Younger.

It can be inferred from certain remarks in his work that Pliny came to Rome at an early age to study, as befitted his status as the son of a prominent northern Italian family. He obtained the normal education of the time and thus would have been thoroughly trained in rhetoric, a discipline to which he would later return, as well as several of the fields that he would cultivate for the next thirty years until he wrote Naturalis historia (77 c.e.; The Historie of the World, 1601; better known as Natural History). The next natural step for a young man in his position was one of military service and therefore, at about the age of twenty-three, he went to Germany as a military officer and, in addition to holding other posts, was put in command of a cavalry troop. Later comments in the Natural History lead scholars to believe that he traveled throughout the area and took copious notes on what he saw during his stay there.

Although all Pliny’s writings except the Natural History are lost, his nephew published a chronological, annotated bibliography of his uncle’s works, and the titles from this early period are instructive. His first work was a single-volume book titled De iaculatione equestri (on throwing the javelin from horseback), and his next was a two-volume biography of his patron Lucius Pomponius Secundus. His third book was a twenty-volume history of all the wars Rome had ever waged against Germany. Pliny claimed that he was instructed to begin this work at the behest of the ghost of Drusus Germanicus (the brother of Tiberius and the father of Claudius I), who was concerned that the memory of his deeds would be lost. Scholars also suspect a certain amount of Imperial flattery in this story. It was probably also during this German campaign that Pliny became close to the future emperor Titus, to whom he dedicated the Natural History. A belief that he served under Titus later during the campaign in Judaea is somewhat suspect.

After a fairly lengthy stay in Germany, Pliny returned to Rome and began the second phase of his career as a writer and public servant.

Life’s Work

During this time, generally thought to begin during the reign of Claudius I, Pliny turned to the life of a professional pleader, a natural choice for one of his station and education. There is no record of any great successes in this regard, and none of his speeches survives, but his next book, Studiosi (the scholar, sometimes translated as the student), reflects again his tendency to write about matters with which he was concerned. In it, Pliny traced the training of a rhetorician from the cradle onward. The work encompassed three books in six volumes and very likely occupied Pliny during the early years of Nero’s reign. It was consulted by Quintilian and earned some cautious praise from that author. The later, more turbulent, years of Nero’s reign were occupied with an eight-volume study of grammar. Pliny, who later would call Nero an enemy of humankind, was clearly keeping out of the maelstrom of Neronian politics by retreating to his study. It is therefore not surprising that near the end of Nero’s reign Pliny accepted a posting as procurator of Spain, perhaps to remove himself completely from the city during troubled times.

It may have been during this period that Pliny also found time to write a thirty-one-book history that continued the work of Aufidius Bassus. Bassus’s history seems to have ended with the events of Claudius’s reign, and Pliny began there and ended perhaps with the events of 69. It is likely that this work was published posthumously. It was also at this time that Pliny’s brother-in-law died and entrusted the care of his son, Pliny’s nephew, to this now-distinguished Roman figure. Pliny could not care for the lad from Spain but chose a guardian for him until he adopted him on his return to Rome. He held his post in Spain until Vespasian emerged victorious from the turmoil...

(The entire section is 2033 words.)