"If you start your account with such a humdinging narrative as the eruption of Vesuvius, then nothing is ever going to be as gripping again"
In the autumn of 79 AD, a studious 17-year-old was staying with his uncle, a portly academic type who nonetheless served as admiral of the fleet at Misenum, that great Roman port at the north-west end of the Bay of Naples. One afternoon, the teenager’s mother noticed “a cloud, both strange and enormous”, resembling an umbrella pine. The uncle, a keen naturalist, resolved to set out and examine the phenomenon, a decision which was transformed into a rescue mission when he received a plea from a friend living under the volcano whose eruption they were witnessing.
The uncle gave his life to this adventure, staggering about in the blackness until a blazing weight of gas, ash and rock overwhelmed him. The nephew and his mother were forced running into the streets. There “a terrifying black cloud, burst by twisting, quaking flickers of flame, began to gape to show long fiery tongues, like lightning, only bigger.” The mother begged her son to abandon her, saying she could “die happy, if only she was not the cause of [his] death”. He
refused, dragging her away from the stampeding crowd.
Thirty years later, he wrote: “You could hear the wailing of women, the cries of babies, the shouting of men. Some were calling for their parents, others for their children, others for their partners, trying to make out their voices. Some wept for their own fate, others for those of their relations. There were some who prayed for death through fear of death. Many raised their hands to the gods; more reasoned that there were now no gods anywhere and that night would last forever and ever across the universe.”
Two thousand years on from the eruption of Vesuvius, the story continues haunt us. Witness the cracking Pompeii exhibition at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum from July 25 (of which I have been fortunate to have a preview); the British Museum’s blockbuster in 2013; or the post-9/11 take on the disaster staged by the Naples Archaeological Museum in 2003. The staggering archaeological evidence left in the aftermath of the eruption is one thing. However, in Pliny the Younger’s tale of the death of his uncle, Pliny the Elder, and his own flight for life, we have one of Western culture’s great eyewitness reports.
In the title of her biography, classicist Dr Daisy Dunn suggests that the younger Pliny’s life was lived in the wake of this epochal moment. In purely technical terms, of course, it was. And yet our hero demonstrates no great obsession with the catastrophe in his endless letters, no fashionable post-traumatic stress disorder. Indeed, as Dunn herself points out, when Pliny writes to his friend Tacitus asking to be memorialised in the historian’s writings, the material he proffers is a tedious account of his prosecution of a general. It takes Tacitus’s news editor’s eye to prompt: “OK—and the mountain spewing rock and flame?”
The problem with Dunn’s book is that it must itself occupy tenebrous ground. If you start your account with such a humdinging narrative, then nothing is ever going to be as gripping again. This becomes an issue not least when your subject is one of literature’s most plodding pen-pushers. Those lucky enough to have studied Latin will remember Pliny the Younger from school—not necessarily fondly. Think: an abstemious, self-aggrandising pedant, long-winded in his oratory, always fretting about what the future will make of him, spawning letters to stupefy centuries of schoolchildren, plus one of the world’s most nauseating encomia.
Unlike Dunn’s erstwhile subject Catullus, poor Pliny could bore for Rome. Friends with Tacitus, Martial and Suetonius he may have been, but one feels they merely tolerated the company of this ardent administrator and curator of drains. As an enthusiast for the ancient world, one is forever tantalised by the prospect of missing texts. In Pliny’s case, one feels only relief that his two, perhaps three volumes of poetry remain lost to us.
Naturally, Dunn comes clean about all this, noting that her hero “could be rather pompous and self-regarding” with “a logical rather than creative mind”. Even his finest hour, the Panegyricus, his 95-chapter encomium of Trajan, is “somewhat grating and turgid” and “can be difficult to stomach”. “‘Risk-taker’ was not the first word that anyone would have used to describe Pliny,” she notes; his beloved Court of One Hundred (the centre for civil cases) was “by Pliny’s own admission, very often tedious”.
Compared with his rival Regulus—who sported an eye-patch that he moved to remind him which side he was arguing for—Pliny’s approach was to leave no stone unturned. Hence the anecdote in which he came to the end of a seven-hour speech rejoicing that he still had an audience: “In front of him stood a lone man in ripped clothes; the throng that had gathered at the beginning of the reading had torn them in their eagerness to escape.” Then there was the matter of his continuing to climb the greasy pole under Domitian’s reign of terror; not least during the expulsion of the philosophers, with which Pliny was complicit while seeking praise for championing their cause.
Dunn does her best with a figure who many of us remember with an eye-roll rather than great interest. Her decision to eschew a chronological structure in favour of a seasonal one that draws on his uncle’s Natural History can lead to a somewhat lurching account. Still, there is great charm in the tale’s many byways, such as the eco-warrior uncle and his railing against the corrupting luxuries of rings and shellfish.
Pliny never did compose the great history he promised. However, in swerving this task, he provided us with great history: a record of everyday life in the first century, which—in one of fate’s more pleasing ironies—makes the perfect accompaniment to the finds at Pompeii. One just doesn’t go there for thrills—apart from that one account of 79 AD.
In the Shadow of Vesuvius: A Life of Pliny
By Daisy Dunn
William Collins, 324pp, £20/ebook £11.99