Pliny the Elder

Pliny the Elder or Gaius Plinius Secundus (23-79): Roman officer and encyclopedist, author of the Natural History.


Portrait of a Roman man (c.70-100 CE)

Gaius Plinius Secundus - or, to use his English name: Pliny - was born in 23 or 24 CE in Novum Comum (modern Como), a small city in the region known as Gallia Transpadana. We do not know much about his family, except for the fact that he had a sister, and that his father was wealthy enough to be a member of the equestrian class, which means that he possessed at least 400,000 sesterces.

As a result, Pliny was able to study, and in the 30s he was in Rome. In his Natural History, the encyclopedia that he was to write forty years later, he recalls several incidents he had witnessed. For example, when he describes the statue known as the Apoxyomenos of Lysippus, he tells this.

Lysippus, Apoxyomenos
Lysippus, Apoxyomenos

It was dedicated by Marcus Agrippa in front of his Baths. Tiberius also much admired this statue [...] and removed the Apoxyomenos to his bedroom, substituting a copy. But the people of Rome were so indignant about this that they staged a protest in the theater, shouting 'Bring back the Apoxyomenos!' And so despite his passion for it, Tiberius was obliged to replace the original statue.note

Was the boy present during the protest in the theater? We cannot be certain, but it is certainly possible.

Like all Roman boys of his rank, Pliny had to study rhetoric, which is essentially the art of speaking in public. However, since a speech is only convincing when the speaker looks reliable, there was a lot more to rhetoric than just speaking properly: it was a complete program of good manners and general knowledge.

After 37, Pliny's teacher was Publius Pomponius Secundus, who was regarded as the best tragic poet of his age. The young man must occasionally have stayed at the imperial court of Caligula and Claudius. Pliny considered Caligula's wife a parvenu.

I have seen Lollia Paulina [...] celebrating her betrothal covered with alternating emeralds an pearls, which glittered all over her head, hair, ears, neck and fingers, to the value of 50 million sesterces. She was ready, at the drop of a hat, to give written proof of her ownership of the gems.note

Pomponius gave Pliny the connections that were needed to make a career, and is probably responsible for his pupil's curious style of writing.


The Low Countries in the Roman age
The Low Countries in the Roman age

In 45, when he was twenty-one years old, Pliny left Italy and went to Gallia Belgica, where he served as military tribune. This administrative office was a very common step in the career of a young men of the senatorial or equestrian order, especially when they aspired to a position in the administration of the Empire. Pliny, however, developed a liking for the military, and was soon promoted to the rank of prefect of a cavalry unit. He was a fighting officer. His unit was stationed in Xanten (Castra Vetera) in Germania Inferior on the Lower Rhine. One day, he must have lost the bridle of his horse, because after many centuries, it was found back by archaeologists.

In 47, the new commander of the army of the lower Rhine, Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo, arrived, and invaded the country of the Frisians and Chauci, two tribes living along the Wadden Sea. Pliny's unit took part in this campaign. Later, he recalled Lake Flevo, which the Romans had had to cross before they reached the country of the Frisians and Chauci:

The shores are occupied by oaks which have a vigorous growth rate, and these trees, when undermined by the waves or driven by blasts of wind, carry away vast islands of soil trapped in their roots. Thus balanced, the oak-trees float in an upright position, with the result that our fleets gave often been terrified by the 'wide rigging' of their huge branches when they have been driven by the waves - almost deliberately it would seem - against the bows of ships riding at anchor for the night; consequently, our ships have had no option but to fight a naval battle against trees!note


The campaign was successful: the Frisians and Chauci surrendered, and Corbulo was already building a fort for a garrison, when he was ordered to return. We do not know why the emperor Claudius issued this order, but it is probable that he did not want to get involved in a war in Germania when the conquest of Britain had not been completed.

Pliny seems to have stayed in the Rhine army for some time, because in 50/51, he took part in the campaign against the Chatti, a tribe that lived opposite Mainz. His commander was his former teacher Publius Pomponius Secundus. It was a remarkable campaign, not in the least because the Romans discovered in the Germanic villages several old slaves, who turned out to be Roman soldiers taken captive in the battle in the Teutoburg Forest, forty years before. During this campaign, Pliny visited the thermal sources at Wiesbaden and the sources of the Danube.

In these years, Pliny wrote his first book, a short treatise on spear throwing from horseback, now lost. It has been assumed that he had seen how the Germans threw spears, and wanted to teach this technique to his fellow Romans.

Nero and Agrippina Minor (Aphrodisias, Sebasteion)
Nero and Agrippina Minor (Aphrodisias, Sebasteion)

In 52, he was in Italy. He was probably escorting Pomponius back to the capital. Pliny was present when the emperor Claudius organized a very special spectacle:

I have seen Agrippina, the wife of the emperor Claudius, at a show where he was presenting a naval battle, seated by him, wearing a military cloak made entirely of gold cloth.note

This naval battle took place on the Fucine lake, and Pliny tells us that Claudius had drained this large lake by digging a channel through a mountain. The author of the Natural History was impressed by the operations, which had been carried out in darkness.

In these years, Pliny wrote a second book, a Life of Pomponius Secundus. Probably, the teacher had died, and the pupil felt he owed this book as a homage. From a literary point of view, this was an important work, because the Romans had not yet developed the biographical genre.

Pliny returned to the Rhine army, and wrote a long History of the Germanic Wars in twenty volumes. His nephew Pliny the Younger tells about his uncle:

He began this during his military service in Germania, as the result of a dream; in his sleep he saw standing over him the ghost of Drusus, who had triumphed far and wide in Germania and died there. He committed his memory to my uncle's care, begging him to save from the injustice of oblivion.note

Pliny's bridle
Pliny's bridle

It is not known when Pliny the Elder published this work, but it is intriguing that he states that Drusus, the father of the emperor Claudius, had to be saved from oblivion. Is this a silent commentary on Claudius' unambitious Germanic policy? Did Pliny try to influence the new emperor Nero, hoping that he would renew Drusus' program to conquer large parts of Germania?

In these years, Pliny also met Titus Flavius Vespasianus, the son of another Titus Flavius Vespasianus. Both men were to rule as emperors: father Vespasian from 69 to 79, his son Titus from 79 to 81.

In 59, Pliny returned to Italy, thirty-six years old. A remarkable man, already: the author of three books, and a bachelor. A serious man, who had trained himself to live with a minimum of sleep, and wanted the world to benefit from his knowledge. He may have had some ambitions when he arrived in Rome, and could expect an appointment as procurator. However, things turned out differently.