Pliny’s Rome: Vesuvius, vice and vestal virgins

Pliny the Younger's letters are a gold mine of detail on life in imperial Rome. Daisy Dunn reveals what this lawyer, senator and orator's writings can tell us about everything from religious dissent to tyrannical emperors

In his native Como, Pliny the Younger's fame is reflected in his statue on the city cathedral's imposing west front, which was built in the 15th century. (Image by AKG Images)

Pliny on… the law courts

The silver-tongued lawyer who talked his way to the top

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Pliny the Younger’s career took off shortly after the tragedy of Vesuvius. Within months of his brush with death, he was in Rome, embarking upon a legal career in the ‘centumviral court of 100 men’. This was a system arranged over four tribunals, where the 100 (or, more often, 180) men would gather in a basilica in the Roman Forum to deliberate over civil cases. Pliny spoke before them for the prosecution or defence, and settled disputes over wills.

Pliny despaired of those who took bribes for attending the court “as openly as if they were being given in the dining room”. He also claimed that a rival in the court itself was guilty of “legacy-hunting”, a crime known to the Romans as captatio.

The court provided Pliny with an arena in which to hone his rhetorical skills. He dreamed of becoming a great orator like Cicero. Pliny also thought highly of Homer’s Odysseus, who was said to look unprepossessing until he started to speak, when “his words were like the snowflakes of winter”. Only slight in build, Pliny was prone to exhausting himself – and everyone else – by speaking for five or more hours.

Remarkably, one of Pliny’s speeches still survives and gives a taste of his sometimes elaborate style. It is not a legal speech, but one that he delivered in the senate house in AD 100 on the occasion of his appointment to the consulship, the most senior executive magistracy in Rome.

Pliny used his speech to praise Emperor Trajan. In one memorable passage, Pliny proclaimed that, if another man had excelled in just one of the areas Trajan had, “he would long since have worn a halo around his head, had a seat of gold or ivory among the gods, and been invoked with the meatiest sacrifices on high altars”.

Pliny on… emperors

How to handle a “savage beast” with “a hatred of mankind”

Pliny was born in the time of Nero, the last of the Julio-Claudian emperors, and grew up under the Flavian dynasty – Vespasian, his elder son, Titus, and younger son, Domitian. When Domitian was assassinated in AD 96, Nerva became emperor for 16 months. On Nerva’s death, power passed to his adopted son, Trajan, who reigned until AD 117.

While Pliny was highly complimentary of Trajan in both his speeches and his letters – he even spent time with him at one of his private villas – he painted a devilish portrait of Domitian, a “most savage beast” whom he claimed possessed “a hatred of mankind”. Contemporary historians found some positives in Domitian, portraying him, for example, as a man who was anxious to maintain justice in the courts, but Pliny saw only negatives.

In 93, Domitian was said to have “banished all the philosophers from Italy and Rome”, including a number of Pliny’s friends, who were stoics. The philosophers might not have posed any real threat to the authoritarian Domitian’s power, but he was apparently prepared to silence anyone who was too vocal. It fell to Pliny and his colleagues in the senate to see Domitian’s desire carried out, to condemn the stoics to exile and, in some cases, death.

These were dark times for Pliny, but he must have enjoyed a degree of support from Domitian to have been as successful under his rule as he was. Pliny’s eagerness to distance himself from Domitian after his death is often evident in his letters.

Pliny on religion

A grisly fate for the empire’s religious dissenters

Emperor Domitian revived some horribly archaic practices. One of the most horrific concerned the Vestal Virgins, priestesses who were selected to honour Vesta, the Roman goddess of the hearth, and keep her holy flame alight in the interest of protecting Rome. Domitian ruled that Vestal Virgins who failed to preserve their purity should be executed – often by being confined to a suffocating underground chamber.

When the chief Vestal Virgin, Cornelia, was accused of having broken her vows of chastity, Domitian displayed what Pliny called “the heinousness of a tyrant and immunity of a despot” and had her put to death. Pliny went to watch the woman descending into the vault, and heard her call out before she vanished: “Caesar thinks I’m unchaste, but it’s because of my sacred acts that he is victorious and triumphant!”

In his later years, Pliny witnessed a religious phenomenon of a very different kind. In the early second century, Emperor Trajan sent him to govern the province of Bithynia-Pontus. Here he encountered for the first time a group of men and women called Christians. Pliny was so perturbed by the obstinacy of these people in their peculiar faith that he conducted trials to interrogate their beliefs. Some were required to give evidence under torture. Pliny even ordered certain Christians who refused to renounce their beliefs to be executed.

Pliny on… popular culture

Peace and poetry: how a senator let his hair down

Like his famous uncle before him, Pliny the Younger believed in hard work, and dedicated as much of his time to reading and writing as he could. He did, however, attempt to break up his studies with more energetic pursuits, and wrote about how “the mind is roused by exercise and the movement of the body”.

When he was in Rome, he enjoyed attending poetry readings. “There was barely a day in the whole month of April,” he recorded one year, “when someone was not giving a recital.” While some listeners had short attention spans and slipped out early, Pliny liked to linger. He was even known to share poems of his own with friends. Pliny was by no means a natural poet, but it is clear that he took great pleasure in celebrating his “flowers and spring meadows” in verse.

Pliny owned a number of homes across Italy – in Rome, near Italy’s west coast, on the lake at his hometown of Como, and in what is now Perugia. At his Tuscan estate, he had a garden shaped out of a hippodrome.

Although horse-racing was well attended in Rome (the Circus Maximus in the imperial capital was enlarged during Pliny’s time), Pliny confessed to finding it tiresome. He far preferred the quieter pursuits of the countryside such as walking and riding in his grounds. He also delighted in Lake Como, which he would boat across. Sometimes, he would throw a line from the window of one of his villas so that he could fish from his bedroom – “and practically even from the bed”.

Pliny on… historians

Playing catch-up with a titan of history

Pliny witnessed the rise of some of the greatest historians of ancient Rome. He befriended and idolised his fellow senator, Tacitus, who later chronicled the early Roman emperors in his celebrated Annals. Pliny also took the young biographer Suetonius under his wing. Suetonius struck Pliny as curiously self-doubting in his younger years. When Pliny helped him to secure a junior post as a first step in his career, Suetonius passed the job on to a relative. And when Pliny encouraged Suetonius to publish his work, he would not stop “dallying and delaying”. It was only many years later that Suetonius produced his famous Lives of the 12 Caesars, published in AD 121.

Pliny had toyed with the idea of becoming a historian himself. If he could not do that, he hoped that he would at least be as successful in his own career as Tacitus was in his. In one of his letters, he confessed to Tacitus that he longed “to be considered ‘second best but by a long way’” to him, as if he were trying to catch him up in a race. Pliny even believed that he would do well “to imitate” Tacitus. While other friends encouraged him to write a work of history, Pliny prevaricated, thinking that it would not sit well with his oratory.

Perhaps Pliny secretly feared he would never be as talented a historian as Tacitus. Or, indeed, his own uncle, Pliny the Elder, who wrote a number of history books. Sadly, these works no longer survive, but both Tacitus and Suetonius used them as sources when they were writing their own accounts of Roman history. The younger Pliny might have failed to produce anything comparable, but his letters are valuable works of history in their own right.

Daisy Dunn is a writer and classicist. Her latest book is In the Shadow of Vesuvius: A Life of Pliny (William Collins, 2019). She will be speaking at our History Weekend: historyextra.com/events


Pliny the Younger: an eventful life

LIFE & CAREER Pliny the Younger was born in Comum, modern Como in northern Italy, in around AD 62. He became a lawyer in a civil court in Rome, a successful senator, an amateur poet and ‘curator of the bed and banks of the river Tiber and of the city’s sewers’. In his later years, he was governor of Bithynia-Pontus province, in what is now northern Turkey. Pliny hoped for children, but sadly his wife Calpurnia suffered a miscarriage, and there is no evidence she ever conceived again.

VESUVIUS ERUPTION Pliny the Younger was 17 when Vesuvius erupted and overwhelmed Pompeii, Herculaneum and the surrounding towns. When the enormous volcanic cloud first appeared in the sky, he was at a villa in Misenum, in the Bay of Naples, with his mother and uncle, Pliny the Elder, a historian and admiral of the fleet. While Pliny the Elder had a fatal urge to explore the “phenomenon” at close quarters, Pliny the Younger stayed behind with his mother because he wanted to study. The decision saved his life.

LETTER-WRITER What became of the studious young man who escaped the fate of his uncle? Pliny the Younger tells us himself in his 10 surviving books of letters. Written to friends – including the historian Tacitus, biographer Suetonius and Emperor Trajan – the letters chronicle his escape from Vesuvius, his career in Rome, his often fraught private life, and his fascination with the natural world.

TWO PLINYS In the Middle Ages, it was supposed there had been one Pliny, not two. The elder Pliny had written an extraordinary 37-volume encyclopaedia of natural history. The discovery that there was in fact a second Pliny, who had left behind an impressive body of work of his own, was cause for celebration.

HIS LEGACY Pliny the Younger died in his 50s. His greatest legacy was his collection of letters, which he said he ordered himself, “however they came to hand”. In these letters Pliny provided a rare and fascinating insider’s view into the intrigues that darkened Rome in the decades that followed the tragedy of Vesuvius.


LISTEN AGAIN: Guests discuss Pliny the Younger in an episode of In Our Time

You’ll find a wealth of content on ancient Rome, from biographies to podcasts, at historyextra.com/ancient-rome

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This article was first published in the June 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine