ca. A.D. 61-ca. 112
Roman senator and writer
Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, known as Pliny the Younger, was the nephew and adopted son of Pliny the Elder. Although he was a Roman senator and the governor of a province*, he is mostly known for his collected letters, which provide an important source of information about Roman society in the first and second centuries A.D.
Pliny was born at Comum (the site of the modern city of Como) in northern Italy. After the death of his father, he was raised and adopted by his uncle. He studied rhetoric* in Rome before starting on a long and successful career as a government official. After serving for a year on the staff of a Syrian legion*, Pliny returned to Rome and worked on law cases in the civil courts. He skillfully practiced law for the rest of his life, specializing in cases that involved inheritance.
While still in his 20s, Pliny became a senator with the help of family friends. In the Senate, he successfully prosecuted several provincial governors charged with corruption. He ascended the cursus honorum, or Roman political ladder, serving as a praetor* and then as consul*. He served three times on the judicial council of the emperor Trajan, who appointed Pliny governor of the province of Bithynia, where he apparently died in A.D. 112.
Near the end of his life, Pliny published nine books of letters that he had written on a wide range of topics. Some of the letters commented on the political and social events of his time, while others offered advice to friends or discussed candidates for senatorial elections. Each letter is carefully composed and written in a formal and eloquent literary style.
* province overseas area controlled by Rome
* rhetoric art of using words effectively in speaking or writing
* legion main unit of the Roman army, consisting of about 6,000 soldiers
* praetor Roman official, just below the consul in rank, in charge of judicial proceedings and of governing overseas provinces
* consul one of two chief governmental officials of Rome, chosen annually and serving for a year
Although Pliny wrote about daily events, he wanted to create something of more enduring interest: a picture of Roman life in all its aspects, as seen and experienced by a Roman official with a strong moral point of view. In his letters, he criticizes the cruelty of slave masters and the insensitivity of rich Romans who cared more about money than about people. But he was not a satirist. He does not give the names of those he criticizes and generally maintains a positive attitude. Pliny praises the work of the emperor Trajan, and he writes about the virtues of friends and acquaintances, the value of education, and literary life in Rome. Other letters discuss such matters as senatorial debates, trials, and elections. Pliny’s Letters provide a valuable source of information about the Roman upper class as well as his own career.
Pliny also produced other kinds of writings. He published two volumes of his own poetry as well as a long speech called the Panegyricus, which is an expanded version of the speech he delivered in the Senate at the end of his year as consul. In the speech, Pliny praises the emperor Trajan as an example of the good emperor, comparing him favorably to the recently assassinated emperor Domitian.
The tenth book of his letters contains the official correspondence between Pliny and Trajan while Pliny served as provincial governor in the province of Bithynia (now part of modern Turkey). The most famous of these letters discusses Pliny’s difficulties in dealing with the Christians during his time as proconsul of the province. His letter sheds important light on the early history of Christianity and is one of the earliest statements we have about that religion from an outside source.
During much of the Middle Ages, Pliny and his uncle were believed to be the same person. However, in the 1300s, an Italian scholar established the distinction between the two men. Thereafter, they were distinguished by the titles of Younger and Elder. (See also Letter Writing; Literature, Roman.)
AN UNCLE'S DEATH
In a letter to his friend, the historian Tacitus, Pliny the Younger described how his uncle died. At the time, Pliny the Elder was the commander of the Roman fleet at Misenum. When Mt. Vesuvius first erupted, he sailed up the coast to assist those in need of help. As he approached Pompeii, a heavy blanket of fallen ashes, pumice, and blackened stones darkened the sky. That night the "broad sheets of fire and leaping flames" of Vesuvius continued to blaze, and the next day was "blacker and denser than any ondinary night." The elder Pliny went to the beach to see if escape was possible. Two days later, his body was found, "looking more like sleep than death."