By Rex Winsbury
Bloomsbury (2015) p/b 246pp £21.99 (ISBN 9781474237123)
At the beginning of this book W., a veteran journalist and historian, puts Pliny in the dock. He acknowledges that his letters give us a unique insight into the social, literary and domestic conventions of upper class life in first century AD Rome, so that we seem to know their author, a genial and bumbling lawyer, almost better than any other Roman writer, but records too that others have seen him as a fraud and hypocrite, one who wittingly falsified the details of his career to his own advantage, and as a staggering bore with a hugely inflated view of his own abilities, both literary and political. Is Gaius Plinius Secundus innocent of these offences, asks W., or is he guilty as charged?
To answer the question he embarks on a cross-examination of Pliny’s life, at pains to point out that his enquiry should not be seen as any sort of literary commentary or as a discussion of the composition and structure of the collection, but rather as an attempt to gain a glimpse of the life behind and between the letters, so that we can come to some final and considered view of their author.
W.’s approach is loosely chronological, and a series of chattily written chapters whisks us through what we can discover of the various personal, professional and political stages of Pliny’s life. His relationship with his uncle, the Elder Pliny, and the eruption of Vesuvius; his legal career, in particular in the Centumviral Court; his service of the emperors Domitian (bad) and Trajan (good); his marriages (W. is convinced that there were only two); his money and his villas; his role in the Roman literary scene; and finally his last job in Bithynia and his correspondence with Trajan on all the issues he had to contend with there, most famously the treatment of those troublesome Christians: all this W. uses to illumine for us the man whose writings open for posterity such a clear window into the daily life of his own times.
And the final verdict? Perhaps, after all, not so far different from what most would have in any case assumed. Pliny is acquitted and left free to step back into history as an honest man, perhaps a little vain and too eager to be liked, perhaps a little too pleased with himself and inclined to overstate his importance and literary prowess, but, for all that, one who took his responsibilities seriously and tried his hardest to make the best of the system he was born in without any attempt to oppose it or reform it.
This is an informative and easy read for any who haven’t been put off Pliny for life by their experience of him at school. John Millar Watt’s Eruption of Vesuvius provides the book with a striking cover.
Stephen Anderson—Winchester College