If you were writing a biography of Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus—or Pliny the Younger, the author of one of the most famous collections of letters surviving from the early Roman Empire—it would be hard not to start with the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, on the Bay of Naples, in 79 A.D., for Pliny was the only writer to leave us an eyewitness account of the catastrophe. The English classicist Daisy Dunn, in her book “” (Liveright), wisely does not resist the temptation. For Westerners, that explosion is probably the paradigmatic natural disaster. When we think of the worst thing Mother Nature could do to us, we are likely to think of Vesuvius. Likewise, Pompeii, the hardest hit of the communities lying at the base of the volcano, is, for many people, the world’s most compelling archeological site. Although some two thousand of the town’s inhabitants were killed, much of their world—the tools they gardened with, the paving stones they walked on, the graffiti they scratched on the walls of their brothels (“Posphorus fucked here”), the loaves of bread left baking in the oven, marked off into eight portions, just like a modern pizza—survived, however altered, under the layers of ash and pumice and rock that the volcano dumped on it.

Today, these things stand as a kind of textbook of how the citizens of Campania, the region over which Vesuvius loomed, lived in the late first century. Who, before the excavations of Pompeii, knew that many ordinary Romans, having only small, rudimentary kitchens, seem to have eaten takeout for dinner? But if you go to Pompeii, as millions of tourists do each year, you can view the storefront food shops with the pots, sunk in their counters, that once contained fish stews, boiled lentils, and so on, ready to be bought and carried home.

And who, apart from those who have survived a war, knew what a person dying from thermal shock looked like? Archeologists examining Pompeii and neighboring cities eventually came upon rooms full of skeletons, many of them surrounded by a bubble of empty space, which marked the outline of the victims’ flesh. At a town just south of Vesuvius, known in ancient times as Oplontis, you can see the so-called Resin Lady, a facsimile created by pumping transparent epoxy resin into such a void. The Resin Lady is lying face down and spread-eagled, just as she was when she was found. Around her are the objects she was carrying when she died: some jewelry, an iron key (to what?), the traces of a cloth bag holding a small collection of coins, five silver and seven bronze. Apparently she thought that, wherever she was going, she might need money. Her mouth is open, in a silent scream. In front of this, one turns away, ashamed of having looked.

2020欧洲杯最新战况There is more, at least quantitatively. Herculaneum, on the coast, lay upwind from Vesuvius, giving the inhabitants time to seek shelter from the blast. Hundreds of people, Dunn writes, “made their way to the shore, where a series of arched vaults, probably boat stores, was set back from the coast.” Each vault was barely ten feet wide by thirteen feet deep. The people who could not fit inside one of the vaults—many men ceded their places to women and children—remained exposed on the shore. A recent study suggests that those in the shelters may in fact have met slower and more agonizing deaths, perhaps by asphyxiation, than those outside, who were probably killed instantly by the heat. Other researchers have identified some glassy black material found in Herculaneum as the brain matter of one of the victims, vitrified by the eruption’s pyroclastic flow—burning clouds of gas and ash. As this avalanche poured down on the coast at a speed of at least sixty miles an hour, the temperature on the ground rose to about seven hundred and fifty degrees Fahrenheit. Lead melts at six hundred and twenty-one degrees Fahrenheit.

2020欧洲杯最新战况The terrible day dawned prettily. Pliny the Younger, seventeen years old, was staying at a villa in Misenum, across the Bay of Naples from Vesuvius, with his mother, Plinia, and her brother, Gaius Plinius Secundus, usually known as Pliny the Elder. (I will call the nephew Pliny, and the uncle the Elder.) Plinia was the first to notice that something strange was going on across the bay. Atop Vesuvius, there was a cloud that looked like an umbrella pine, Dunn says, “for it was raised high on a kind of very tall trunk and spread out into branches.”

2020欧洲杯最新战况Plinia went into the house and spoke to her brother. The Elder was the admiral of Rome’s navy, which, at that time, was docked at Misenum. He put down his book and called for his shoes, so that he could climb to a higher vantage point and see what was happening.

A loaf of bread found in a bakery in Pompeii. Much of the world of the town’s inhabitants has been preserved.Photograph from De Agostini / Getty

2020欧洲杯最新战况The Elder, who was fifty-five, was not just a military man. He was also a naturalist—the greatest, perhaps, that the ancient world produced. He proudly claimed that his thirty-seven volume “Natural History” contained facts gleaned not just from observation but from as many as two thousand volumes by Greek and Roman geographers, botanists, physicians, artists, and philosophers. In the book, he described his homeland, Campania, as a blessed spot, with

2020欧洲杯最新战况plains so fertile, hills so sunny, glades so safe, woods so rich in shade, so many bountiful kinds of forest, so many mountain breezes, such fertility of crops and vines and olives, fleeces of sheep so handsome, bulls with such excellent necks, so many lakes, and rivers and springs which are so abundant in their flow, so many seas and ports, the bosom of its lands open to commerce on all sides and running out into the sea with such eagerness to help mankind!

The fertility of the region’s vineyards was famous. Some said that this was because of soil enriched by volcanic explosions, but Vesuvius had been dormant for around seven hundred years. Who remembered? There were frequent earthquakes in the area, but people were used to this. They didn’t suspect that it was owing to anything going on inside their noble mountain.

2020欧洲杯最新战况, by John F. Healy—is not merely huge but piquant and readable. Of bees, for example, he writes:

The bees have a wonderful way of supervising their work-load: they note the idleness of slackers, reprove them and later even punish them with death. Their hygiene is amazing: everything is moved out of the way and no refuse is left in their work areas. Indeed the droppings of those working in the hive are heaped up in one place so that the bees do not have to go too far away. They carry out the droppings on stormy days when they have to interrupt work.

As evening draws in, the buzzing inside the hive diminishes until one bee flies round, as though giving the order for “lights out,” and makes the same loud buzzing with which reveille was sounded, just as if the hive were a military camp. Then suddenly all becomes silent.

2020欧洲杯最新战况How wonderfully, punctiliously factual that is, but also with a subtle moral. Reading the Elder’s work, you come to feel that you know him. In fact, however, he told us almost nothing about himself.

2020欧洲杯最新战况That, no doubt, is the reason that Dunn chose to concentrate not on him but on his nephew. Pliny’s letters, as published in his lifetime, ran to nine volumes, and a tenth was added after his death. (Here, too, there’s a Penguin Classics abridged edition, translated by Betty Radice.) In them, we learn pretty much everything about this man’s public life, and also a lot about the other well-placed Romans whom he corresponded with, such as the historians Tacitus and Suetonius, not to speak of the emperors he served, Domitian and Trajan. Pliny went to work as a lawyer at the age of eighteen, and he had other vocations as well. He was a poet, a senator, a public official. But in all his jobs he seems to have landed in the second- or third-best spot. The law court he worked in was the one that handled civil cases—wills, inheritance, fraud—not the juicy murders and other foul deeds for which the Roman Empire is famous. Later, he was appointed to a public office, but as the Curator of the Bed and Banks of the River Tiber and of the City’s Sewers. Is that the job you would have wanted in imperial Rome? Later still, he was sent, as Trajan’s imperial legate, to Bithynia (northern Turkey), where his main responsibility was to inspect the colony’s finances. He wrote long letters to Trajan, asking whether he should do this or that. The letters took two months to arrive in Rome, and the answers took two months to get back. Reading them, you sense that Trajan often wished Pliny would just go ahead and make whatever decision seemed reasonable.

We do hear about some celebrated crimes: Agrippina, the Emperor Claudius’ wife, poisoning him in order to secure the succession for her son, Nero; Nero then killing Agrippina and also kicking his pregnant wife, Poppaea, to death. (That’s after he arranged for the poisoning of his stepbrother, Brittanicus.) Then, there’s Domitian, going off with, they say, whatever implement he had at hand, to terminate his niece Julia’s pregnancy, engendered by him. This, Dunn writes, inspired a locally popular ditty: “Julia freed her fertile uterus by many / an abortion and shed clots which resembled their uncle.” (Julia died from the procedure.) Next to such reports, the regular rubouts, as in the notorious Year of the Four Emperors, in 69 A.D.—Nero, to avoid execution, stabbed himself in the throat and was replaced by Galba, who was assassinated after seven months by the Praetorian Guard and succeeded by Otho, who ruled for three months before, faced with a rebellion, he committed suicide, yielding his place to Vitellius (soon murdered by the soldiers of Vespasian, but let’s stop there)—look like business as usual. Or they would seem so if they didn’t involve those little Cosa Nostra touches, such as a victim’s being found with his penis cut off and stuffed in his mouth.

“I just threw a little olive oil in the pan, then chopped and cooked and cleaned for hours and hours and hours.”
Cartoon by Bruce Eric Kaplan

2020欧洲杯最新战况Of course, many of the most appalling episodes are well known from more famous accounts, in Tacitus’ “Annals of Imperial Rome” and Suetonius’ “Lives of the Twelve Caesars.” Dunn has no scoops, and she knows it. Furthermore, she is trying to be faithful to Pliny’s account, but, as she notes, he made a point, when he published his correspondence, of excising all the dates and arranging the letters, as he put it, “however they came to hand.” She thinks that he was trying, by this means, to show “a life of ups and downs, uncertainties, and questions rather than certain progress.”


If so, he achieved his goal. The letters have a weirdly drifting quality, as if these people woke up, went to the law courts, sentenced some people to death, burned a few Christians, and then went home to dinner. With such a source, it is no surprise that Dunn’s book contains a number of challenges to our understanding. One is the treatment of the widely hated Emperor Domitian. Dunn quotes Suetonius to the effect that Domitian amused himself at night by stabbing the flies over his desk with a stylus, and she repeats the stories of his alleged dealings with his niece. Pliny, she says, pictured him as “a monster from Hades, hiding in his lair and licking his lips with the blood of relatives.” But later she writes that the emperor was said to have been “a man of justice.” Really? What do we do, then, with the jokes about the aborted fetuses that supposedly looked like their uncle Domitian? No matter how distant you feel from the morals of imperial Rome, you can’t quite figure this out, and Dunn doesn’t help us much.

At the risk, in such a context, of seeming sentimental, it must be said that the most striking thing about Pliny’s letters is the lack of tender feeling. Dunn makes much of Pliny’s affection for his third wife, Calpurnia, and of his sorrow when she had a miscarriage. (In the end, she died childless.) Dunn points out, too, that Pliny took Calpurnia to Bithynia with him. Somehow, though, these seem small tributes. When the two were apart, he wrote begging her to send him a letter once or even twice a day—“to delight and to torture me.” She wrote back that her consolation, when they were separated, was to take his books to bed with her and hold them in the place where he usually lay. Why does her tribute sound so much more serious than his?

Pliny knew the art of fine words. In 100 A.D., he gave a speech—the Panegyricus, famous in its day—in praise of Rome’s recently installed emperor, Trajan, who had to sit in front of him, in the Senate house, the whole time. He then revised and expanded it for publication. Scholars disagree about how long the speech would have lasted, but no one seems to think that the running time was less than three hours. Elsewhere, Pliny proudly mentions giving a speech that lasted seven. Describing the Panegyricus, Dunn comes close to mocking Pliny. “To modern ears his chosen style is somewhat grating and turgid,” she says. With such statements, however, she does succeed in making Pliny, whom she clearly considers a sort of dry stick, a poignant character, the kind of person who has to do the dirty jobs of an empire and, having done them, gets no compliments.

2020欧洲杯最新战况Pliny’s deepest feeling seems to have been his love of nature. By my count, he had at least five villas, and many of the most ardent passages in his letters are devoted to agricultural matters. Dunn writes that at his Tuscan estate he grew so many grapevines that they threatened to invade the villa:

One of the bedrooms was constructed almost entirely from marble and contained a cabinet-like alcove for a bed. There were windows on every facet, but in summer the vines shrouded them in shade. Being in bed then, as flickers of light fought through the foliage, was “like lying in a wood, but without feeling the rain.”

Here one feels the Romans’ love of the world, and of that especially beautiful piece of it that is the Italian peninsula. In this sentiment, at least, Pliny was truly his uncle’s nephew, which may go some way toward explaining the curious fact that, after the fall of Rome, anyone who still knew the name Pliny assumed that he was just one person. It was not until the early fourteenth century that a cleric at the cathedral of Verona figured out that there were two Plinys. And it was only in the fifteenth century that their books made it back into circulation. The Elder’s “Natural History” had its first printed edition in 1469; his nephew’s letters returned to publication in 1471. “The release of books by two Plinys,” Dunn writes, “was met with considerable emotion across Italy.”

2020欧洲杯最新战况Neither Pliny knew that his homeland’s great mountain, Vesuvius, was nourishing in her bosom the extermination of so many of her people. This somehow makes the two men’s kinship closer. In my mind’s eye, I see Pliny, on the terrace of his mother’s villa, watching the Roman quadriremes, under the Elder’s direction, make for the opposite shore. Should he have gone with them? Perhaps, but it is typical of this cautious young person that he stayed back. In any case, his decision joined the two men permanently, at least in Roman history. Not only did Pliny live to tell the tale but the next day, when his childless uncle died on the beach of Stabiae, he became, by the directives of the will, the Elder’s adoptive son and the inheritor of his property. And so he spent his later life gathering grapes on the hillsides that had been the old man’s joy. ♦