He was the son of a Roman eques by the daughter of the senator Gaius Caecilius of Novum Comum. He was born at Como, not (as is sometimes supposed) at Verona: it is only as a native of Gallia Transpadana that he calls Catullus of Verona his conterraneus, or fellow-countryman, not his municeps, or fellow-townsman (Praef. § I).
Before A.D. 35 (N. H. xxxvii. 81) his father took him to Rome, where he was educated under his father's friend, the poet and military commander, P. Pomponius Secundus, who inspired him with a lifelong love of learning. Two centuries after the death of the Gracchi, Pliny saw some of their autograph writings in his preceptor's library (xiii. 83), and he afterwards wrote that preceptor's Life.
He makes mention of the grammarians and rhetoricians, Remmius Palaemon and Arellius Fuscus (xiv. 4; xxxiii. 152), and he may have been their student. In Rome he studied botany in the topiarius (garden) of the aged Antonius Castor (xxv. 9), and saw the fine old lotus-trees in the grounds that had once belonged to Crassus (xvii. 5). He also viewed the vast structure raised by Caligula (xxxvi. III), and probably witnessed the triumph of Claudius over Britain (iii. 119; A.D. 44). Under the influence of Seneca he became a keen student of philosophy and rhetoric, and began practising as an advocate.
He saw military service under Corbulo in Lower Germany (A.D. 47), taking part in the Roman conquest of the Chauci and the construction. of the canal between the rivers Maas and Rhine (xvi. 2 and 5). As a young commander of cavalry (praefectus atae) he wrote in his winter-quarters a work on the use of missiles on horseback (de jaculatione equestri), with some account of the points of a good horse (viii. 162).
In Gaul and Spain he learnt the meanings of a number of Celtic words (xxx. 40). He took note of sites associated with the Roman invasion of Germany, and, amid the scenes of the victories of Drusus, he had a dream in which the victor enjoined him to transmit his exploits to posterity (Plin. Epp. iii. 5, 4). The dream prompted Pliny to begin forthwith a history of all the wars between the Romans and the Germans.
He probably accompanied his father's friend Pomponius on an expedition against the Chatti (AD 50), and visited Germany for a third time (5~) as a comrade of the future emperor, Titus Flavius (Praef. § 3). Under Nero he lived mainly in Rome. He mentions the map of Armenia and the neighbourhood of the Caspian Sea, which was sent to Rome by the staff of Corbulo in AD 58 (vi. 40). He also saw the building of Nero's "golden house" after the fire of 64 (xxxvi. 111).
Meanwhile he was completing the twenty books of his History of the German Wars, the only authority expressly quoted in the first six books of the Annals of Tacitus (1. 69), and probably one of the principal authorities for the Germania. It was superseded by the writings of Tacitus, and, early in the 5th century, Symmachus had little hope of finding a copy (Epp. xiv. 8).
He also devoted much of his time to writing on the comparatively safe subjects of grammar and rhetoric. A detailed work on rhetoric, entitled Studiosus, was followed by eight books, Dubii sermonis (AD 67).
Under his friend Vespasian he returned to the service of the state, serving as procurator in Gallia Narbonensis (70) and Hispania Tarraconensis (73), and also visiting the Provincia Belgica (74). During his stay in Spain he became familiar with the agriculture and the mines of the country, besides paying a visit to Africa (vii. 37). On his return to Italy he accepted office under Vespasian, whom he used to visit before daybreak for instructions before proceeding to his official duties, after the discharge of which he devoted all the rest of his time to study (Pun. Epp. iii. 5, 9).
He completed a History of his Times in thirty-one books, possibly extending from the reign of Nero to that of Vespasian, and deliberately reserved it for publication after his decease (N. H., Praef. 20). It is quoted by Tacitus (Ann. xiii. 20, xv. 53; Hist. iii. 29), and is one of the authorities followed by Suetonius and Plutarch.
He also virtually completed his great work, the Naturalis Historia, an encyclopedia into which Pliny collected much of the knowledge of his time. The work had been planned under the rule of Nero. The materials collected for this purpose filled rather less than 160 volumes in AD. 23, when Larcius Licinus, the praetorian legate of Hispania Tarraconensis, vainly offered to purchase them for a sum equivalent to more than £3,200 (1911 estimated value) or £200,000 (2002 estimated value). He dedicated the work to Titus Flavius in AD 77.
Soon afterwards he received from Vespasian the appointment of praefect of the Roman fleet at Misenum. On August 24, A.D. 79 he was stationed at Misenum, at the time of the great eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which overwhelmed Pompeii and Herculaneum. A desire to observe the phenomenon from a nearer point of view, and also to rescue some of his friends from their perilous position on the shore of the Bay of Naples, led to his launching his galleys and crossing the bay to Stabiae (Castellamare di Stabia), where he perished, in the fifty-sixth year of his age.
The story of his last hours is told in an interesting letter addressed twenty-seven years afterwards to Tacitus by the Elder Pliny's nephew and heir, Pliny the Younger (Epp. vi. 16), who also sends to another correspondent an account of his uncle's writings and his manner of life (iii. 5):- "He began to work long before daybreak. . . . He read nothing without making extracts; he used even to say that there was no book so bad as not to contain something of value. In the country it was only the time when he was actually in his bath that was exempted from study. When travelling, as though freed from every other care, he devoted himself to study alone. In short, he deemed all time wasted that was not employed in study."
The only fruit of all this unwearied industry that has survived to our own times is the Naturalis historia. It was used as an authority over the following centuries by countless scholars.
Like many of the finest spirits under the early empire, Pliny was an adherent to the Stoics. He was acquainted with their noblest representative, Thrasea Paetus, and he also came under the influence of Seneca. The Stoics were given to the study of nature, while their moral teaching was agreeable to one who, in his literary work, was unselfishly eager to benefit and to instruct his contemporaries (Praef. 16, xxviii. 2, xxix. I).
He was also influenced by the Epicurean and the Academic and the revived Pythagorean schools. But his view of nature and of God is essentially Stoic. It was only (he declares) the weakness of humanity that had embodied the Being of God in many human forms endued with human faults and vices (ii. 148). The Godhead was really one; it was the soul of the eternal world, displaying its beneficence on the earth, as well as in the sun and stars (ii. 12 seq., 154 seq.). The existence of a divine Providence was uncertain (ii. 19), but the belief in its existence and in the punishment of wrong-doing was salutary (ii. 26); and the reward of virtue consisted in the elevation to Godhead of those who resembled God in doing good to man (ii. 18, Deus est mortali juvare mortalem, et haec ad aeternam gloriam via). It was wrong to inquire into the future and do violence to nature by resorting to magical arts (ii. 114, xxx. 3); but the significance of prodigies and portents is not denied (ii. 92, 199, 232).
Pliny's view of life is gloomy; he regards the human race as plunged in ruin and in misery (ii. 24, vii. 130). Against luxury and moral corruption he indulges in declamations, which are so frequent that (like those of Seneca) they at last pall upon the reader; and his rhetorical flourishes against practically useful inventions (such as the art of navigation) are wanting in good sense and good taste (xix. 6).
With the proud national spirit of a Roman he combines an admiration of the virtues by which the republic had attained its greatness (xvi. 14, xxvii. 3, xxxvii. 201). He does not suppress historical facts unfavourable to Rome (xxxiv. 139), and while he honours eminent members of distinguished Roman houses, he is free from Livy's undue partiality for the aristocracy. The agricultural classes and the old landlords of the equestrian order (Cincinnatus, Curius Dentatus, Serranus and the Elder Cato) are to him the pillars of the state; and he bitterly laments the decline of agriculture in Italy (xviii. 21 and 35, latifundia perdidere Italiam). Accordingly, for the early history of Rome, he prefers following the prae-Augustan writers; but he regards the imperial power as indispensable for the government of the empire, and he hails the salutaris exortus Vespasiani (xxxiii. 51).
At the conclusion of his literary labours, as the only Roman who had ever taken for his theme the whole realm of nature, he prays for the blessing of the universal mother on his completed work.
He takes a keen interest in nature, and in the natural sciences, studying them in a way that was then new in Rome, while the small esteem in which studies of this kind were held does not deter him from endeavouring to be of service to his fellow countrymen (xxii. 15).
The scheme of his great work is vast and comprehensive, being nothing short of an encyclopaedia of learning and of art so far as they are connected with nature or draw their materials from it. With a view to this work he studied the original authorities on each subject and was most assiduous in making excerpts from their pages. His indices auctorum are, in some cases, the authorities which he has actually consulted (though in this respect they are not exhaustive); in other cases, they represent the principal writers on the subject, whose names are borrowed second-hand for his immediate authorities. He frankly acknowledges his obligations to all his predecessors in a phrase that deserves to be proverbial (Praef. 21, plenum ingenni pudoris fateri per quos profeceris). He had neither the temperament for original investigation, nor the leisure necessary for the purpose.
It is obvious that one who spent all his time in reading and in writing, and in making excerpts from his predecessors, had none left for mature and independent thought, or for patient experimental observation of the phenomena of nature. But it must not be forgotten that it was his scientific curiosity as to the phenomena of the eruption of Vesuvius that brought his life of unwearied study to a premature end; and any criticism of his faults of omission is disarmed by the candour of the confession in his preface: nec dubitamus multa esse quae et nos praeterierint; homines enim sumus et occupati officiis.
His style betrays the unhealthy influence of Seneca. It aims less at clearness and vividness than at epigrammatic point. It abounds not only in antitheses, but also in questions and exclamations, tropes and metaphors, and other mannerisms of the silver age. The rhythmical and artistic form of the sentence is sacrificed to a passion for emphasis that delights in deferring the point to the close of the period. The structure of the sentence is also apt to be loose and straggling. There is an excessive use of the ablative absolute, and ablative phrases are often appended in a kind of vague "apposition" to express the author's own opinion of an immediately previous statement, e.g. xxxv. 8o, dixit (Apelles) ... uno se praestare, quod manum de tabula sciret tollere, memorabili praecepto nocere saepe nimiam diligentiam.
About the middle of the 3rd century an abstract of the geographical portions of Pliny's work was produced by Solinus; and, early in the 4th, the medical passages were collected in the Medicina Plinii. Early in the 8th we find Bede in possession, of an excellent manuscript of the whole work. In the 9th Alcuin sends to Charles the Great for a copy of the earlier books (Epp. 103, Jaffé); and Dicuil gathers extracts from the pages of Pliny for his own Mensura orbis terrae (c. 825).
Pliny's work was held in high esteem in the Middle Ages. The number of extant manuscripts is about 200; but the best of the more ancient manuscripts, that at Bamberg, contains only books xxxii-xxxvii. Robert of Cricklade, prior of St Frideswide at Oxford, dedicated to Henry II a Defloratio consisting of nine books of selections taken from one of the manuscripts of this class, which has been recently recognized as sometimes supplying us with the only evidence for the true text. Among the later manuscripts the codex Vesontinus, formerly at Besançon (11th century), has been divided into three portions, now in Rome, Paris and Leiden respectively, while there is also a transcript of the whole of this manuscript at Leiden.
A special interest attaches to his account of the manufacture of the papyrus (xiii. 68-38), and of the different kinds of purple dye (ix. 130), while his description of the notes of the nightingale is an elaborate example of his occasional felicity of phrase (xxix. 81 seq.).
Most of the recent research on Pliny has been concentrated on the investigation of his authorities, especially those which he followed in his chapters on the history of art - the only ancient account of that subject which has survived.
A carnelian inscribed with the letters C. PLIN. has been reproduced by Cades (v. 211) from the original in the Vannutelli collection. It represents an ancient Roman with an almost completely bald forehead and a double chin; and is almost certainly a portrait, not of Pliny the Elder, but of Pompey the Great. Seated statues of both the Plinies, clad in the garb of scholars of the year 1500, may be seen in the niches on either side of the main entrance to the cathedral church of Como.
He died in Naples.