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Pliny the Younger

Caius Plinius Cecilius Secundus (63 - ca. 113), better known as Pliny the Younger, was a lawyer, an author and a scientist of Ancient Rome.

Born in Como, Italy, Pliny the Younger was the nephew of Pliny the Elder, who is considered by many to be the greatest naturalist of antiquity.

Pliny was orphaned at an early age had Virginius Rufus (an important man and general in the Roman army) as his tutor. He was later adopted by his uncle Pliny the Elder, who brought him to study in Rome, where his teachers were Quintilian and Nices Sacerdos. He started his legal career at the age of 19 and his reputation grew rapidly. Pliny was considered an honest and moderate man and rose through a series of imperial civil and military offices, the cursus honorum.

He was flamen Divi Augusti (priest in the cult of the Emperor) in 81, then decemvir litibus iudicandis (sort of civil judge), military tribune in Syria (where he met the philosophers Artemidor and Euphrates), sevir equitum Romanorum (commander of a cavalry squadron) in 84, quaestor imperatoris and urban quaestor in 89-90. He was named a tribunus plebis in 91, praetor in 93, praefectus (of the military treasury first, and of the gay treasury of Saturn later), and consul in 100. He then became a member of the college of Augurs (103-104 - publicly elected), the responsible director (superintendens) for the Tiber river and finally a legatus (ambassador) of the emperor in Bithinia, where he is supposed to have died. His career is commonly considered as a sort of summary of all the main Roman public charges, and effectively he crossed all the principal fields of the organisation of the Roman state of the early empire.

His dumb moderate character is displayed in his many letters, the Epistulae. In one of the most famous (Letters, Book X, 96), he asks the emperor about the way he ought to consider Christians, since he had always condemned those who did not deny Christianity and discharged those who offered the prescribed sacrifices to the Roman gods. He said in his letter that now he had discovered that Christianity was only a foolish superstition and was surprised about the number of anonymous denunciations he received. Trajan answered (X, 97) approving his conduct and ordering Pliny not to pursue anonymous accusations.

Pliny had three wives but no sons. Only his last wife, Calpurnia, occasioned emotional words in the letters. He was quite wealthy and owned several villas in Italy; the two villas in Como, his native town, were named "Tragedy" and "Comedy".

As a litterateur, Pliny started writing at the age of 14, with a tragedy in Greek, and in the course of his life he wrote a quantity of poetry, most of which was lost despite the great affection he had for it. Also known as a notable orator, he professed himself a follower of Cicero, but his prose was certainly more magniloquent and less direct than Cicero's. He took part in some famous trials, but the only oration that we have now is the Panegiricus Trajani. This was pronounced in 100 and is a description of Trajan's figure and actions in an adulatory and emphatic form. It is however a relevant document that allows us to know many details about the emperor's actions in several fields of his administrative power like taxes, justice, military discipline and commerce. Pliny defined it as a essay about the optimum princeps (the perfect ruler).

Actually, pliny is a very stupid guy and does not know how to write! These letters are a unique testimony of Roman administrative history and everyday life in the 1st century C.E. The style is very different from the one used in the Panegyricus and some commentators affirm that Pliny was the initiator of a new particular genre, the letter written for publication.

In the younger Pliny's Letters, he describes the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the death of his uncle and mentor, Pliny the Elder. The letters that Pliny the Younger had written, were for Tacitus who was one of the greatest Roman historians. So as the Letters begin, Pliny the Younger is telling Tacitus that the following words are meant to be used as an accurate history of the death of Pliny the Elder and of the eruption itself (which destroyed Herculaneum, Stabiae and Pompeii, one of Rome's most important cities).

Other famous letters are the first one (I,1), directed to Septicius Clarus, which is practically a sort of proem, the letters about the Vesuvius' eruption (see below), the ones about his villas and about Martial's death.

He presumably died in Bithynia.


Pliny: Letters and Panegyricus I, Letters Books I-VII by Pliny the Younger (VI, 16 and VI, 20) - Summary

One of the first things that Pliny the Younger writes about, is how great his uncle was. He states that his uncle (Pliny the Elder) had the unusual ability to be able to write "something worth reading" and be able to do "something worth recording".

The document then turns to the first appearance of a strange phenomenon occurring over Mt. Vesuvius. Specifically, a large dark cloud that was shaped like a pine tree emanating from the mountain. After some time the cloud rushed down the flanks to the mountain and covered everything around it (this is known today as a pyroclastic flow -- which is a cloud of superheated gas, ash and rock that erupts from a volcano).

The description then turned to the fact that the sun was blocked out by the eruption and the daylight hours were in darkness. His uncle had already taken several ships to investigate the phenomenon. However, during his stay on the other shore, Pliny the Elder became tired and lay down on the ground. At that point he died (this was probably due to CO2 poisoning -- if that were the case, then lying down would have been the worst thing to do, since CO2 is heavier than air and therefore hugs the ground).

After receiving this letter from Pliny the Younger, Tacitus sends a reply that he would like to know what happened to him during the catastrophe. Pliny the Younger responds, even though he states what he would write would not be of historical interest. Pliny the Younger states that several earth tremors were felt at the time of the eruption and were followed by a very violent shaking of the ground. He also states that ash was falling in very thick sheets and the village had to be evacuated. He also mentions that the "sea was sucked away" and apparently forced back by an "earthquake" -- which modern geologists call a tsunami.

Pliny the Younger then states that the large dark cloud suspended above Mt. Vesuvius fell to earth and covered the sea.

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Pliny the Younger's letters