Born in Como, northern Italy, the son of Lucius Caecilius Cilo and Plinia Secunda, Pliny the Younger was also a maternal nephew of Pliny the Elder. His father was perhaps the Lucius Caecilius born ca. 15 BC who was a great-grandson of Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius Scipio. He revered his uncle, Pliny the Elder, and provides sketches of how his uncle worked on the Naturalis Historia.
Pliny's father died at an early age when his son was still young; as a result, Pliny probably lived with his mother. His guardian and preceptor in charge of his education is known to have been Lucius Verginius Rufus, famed for quelling a revolt against Nero in 68. After being first tutored at home, Pliny travelled to Rome where he furthered his education and was taught rhetoric by the great teacher and author Quintilian and Nicetes Sacerdos of Smyrna. It was at this time that Pliny became closer to his uncle Pliny the Elder, and when the elder Pliny died during the Vesuvian eruption, the terms of the will passed the estate to the his young nephew. In the same document he was adopted by his uncle. As a result, he changed his name from Gaius Caecilius (or Gaius Caecilius Cilo) to Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus.
Pliny was considered an honest and moderate man and rose through a series of Imperial civil and military offices, the cursus honorum (see below). He was a friend of the historian Tacitus and employed the biographer Suetonius in his staff. Pliny also came into contact with many other well-known men of the period, including the philosophers Artemidorus and Euphrates during his time in Syria.
He married three times, firstly when he was very young, about eighteen, to a stepdaughter of Veccius Proculus, of whom he became a widower at age 37, secondly to the daughter of Pompeia Celerina, at an unknown date and thirdly to Calpurnia, daughter of Calpurnius and granddaughter of Calpurnus Fabatus of Comum. Letters survive in which Pliny records this latter marriage taking place, as well as his attachment to Calpurnia and his sadness when they were unable to have children.
Pliny is thought to have died suddenly during his appointment in Bithynia-Pontus, around 112 AD, since no events referred to in his letters date later than that.
Pliny was active in the Roman legal system, especially in the sphere of the Roman centumviral court, which dealt with inheritance cases. Later, he was well-known for prosecuting (and defending) at the trials of a series of provincial governors, including Baebius Massa, governor of Baetica, Marius Priscus, the governor of Africa, Gaius Caecilius Classicus, governor of Baetica and most ironically in light of his later appointment to this province, Gaius Julius Bassus and Varenus Rufus, both governors of Bithynia-Pontus.
Pliny's career is commonly considered as a summary of the main Roman public charges and is the best-documented example from this period, offering proof for many aspects of imperial culture. Effectively, Pliny crossed all the principal fields of the organization of the early Roman Empire. It is no mean achievement for a man to have not only survived the reigns of several disparate emperors, especially the much-detested Domitian, but also to have risen in rank throughout.
|c. 81||One of the presiding judges in the centumviral court (decemvir litibus iudicandis)|
|c. 81||Tribunus militum (staff officer) of Legio III Gallica in Syria, probably for six months|
|80s||Officer of the noble order of knights (sevir equitum Romanorum)|
|Later 80s||Entered the Senate|
|88 or 89||Quaestor attached to the Emperor's staff (quaestor imperatoris)|
|91||Tribune of the People (tribunus plebis)|
|94-96||Prefect of the military treasury (praefectus aerari militaris)|
|98-100||Prefect of the treasury of Saturn (praefectus aerari Saturni)|
|100||Consul with Cornutus Tertullus|
|103||Propraetor of Bithynia|
|104-106||Superintendent for the banks of the Tiber (curator alvei Tiberis)|
|104-107||Three times a member of Trajan's judicial council.|
|110||The imperial governor (legatus Augusti) of Bithynia-Pontus province|
However, the largest body of Pliny's work which survives is his Epistulae (Letters), a series of personal missives directed to his friends and associates. These letters are a unique testimony of Roman administrative history and everyday life in the 1st century. The style is very different from that in the Panegyricus and some commentators affirm that Pliny was the initiator of a new particular genre: the letter written for publication. This genre offers a different type of record than the more usual history; one which dispenses with objectivity but is no less valuable for it. Especially noteworthy among the letters are two in which he describes the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in August 79 during which his uncle Pliny the Elder died (Epistulae VI.16, VI.20), and one in which he asks the Emperor for instructions regarding official policy concerning Christians (Epistulae X.96). Pliny's attention to detail in the letters about Vesuvius is so keen that modern vulcanologists describe that type of eruption as Plinian. In his letter he relates the first warning of the eruption:
My uncle was stationed at Misenum, in active command of the fleet. On 24th August, in the early afternoon, my mother drew his attention to a cloud of unusual size and appearance. He had been out in the sun, had taken a cold bath, and lunched while lying down, and was then working at his books. He called for his shoes and climbed up to a place which would give him the best view of the phenomenon. It was not clear at that distance from which mountain the cloud was rising (it was afterwards known to be Vesuvius); its general appearance can best be expressed as being like an umbrella pine, for it rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches, I imagine because it was thrust upwards by the first blast and then left unsupported as the pressure subsided, or else it was borne down by its own weight so that it spread out and gradually dispersed. Sometimes it looked white, sometimes blotched and dirty, according to the amount of soil and ashes it carried with it. My uncle's scholarly acumen saw at once that it was important enough for a closer inspection. Pliny, Epistulae VI.16.
Pliny then goes on to describe his uncle's failed attempt further study the eruption and to save the lives of refuges, using the fleet under his command. Pliny's two letters regarding the eruption were written to the historian Tacitus, a close friend, who had requested from Pliny a detailed account of his uncle's death for inclusion in his own historical work. Other major literary figures of the late first century A.D. appear in the collection as friends or acquaintances of Pliny's, e. g. the poet Martial and the biographer Suetonius. However, arguably the most famous literary figure to appear in Pliny's letters is his uncle. His nephew provides details of how his uncle worked tirelessly to finish his magnum opus, the Historia Naturalis (Natural History). Since Pliny the Younger was heir to his uncle's estate, he inherited his uncle's large library, and benefited by the acquisition.
The Epistulae are usually treated as two halves: those in Books 1 to 9, which Pliny prepared for publication, and those in Book 10, all of which were written to or by the Emperor Trajan during Pliny's governorship of Bithynia-Pontus. This final book was, significantly, not intended for publication.
As already mentioned above, highlights of these books include Pliny's description of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the death of his uncle and mentor, Pliny the Elder. The first letter (1.1), directed to Gaius Septicius Clarus, is also notable for giving Pliny's reasons for collecting his letters. Those which give details of Pliny's life at his country villas are important documents in the history of garden design. They are the world's oldest sources of the information on how gardens were used in the ancient world and the considerations which went into their design.
The content of this section of the letters evolves over time. Pliny's career as a young man is very fully described in the earlier letters, which include tributes to notable figures such as Marcus Valerius Martialis, Pliny's protege (3.21). Advice is offered to friends, references are given, political support is discussed and Pliny comments on many other aspects of Roman life, using established literary style. However, by the last two books the subject matter is more contemplative.
Chronologically, it is suggested that Books 1 to 3 were written between 97 and 102, Books 4 to 7 were composed between 103 and 107 and Books 8 and 9 cover 108 and 109. These books were probably intermittently published between 99 and 109.
As already mentioned, the letters of Book 10 are addressed to or from the Emperor Trajan in their entirety, and it is generally assumed that we have received them verbatim. As such, they offer a unique insight into the administrative functions of a Roman province of the time, as well as the machinations of the Roman system of patronage and wider cultural mores of Rome itself. In addition, the corruption and apathy which occurred at various levels of the provincial system can be seen clearly. The letters also contain the earliest external account of Christian worship, and reasons for the execution of Christians X.96
The letter regarding Christians deserves mention because its contents were, in the view of many historians, to become the standard policy toward Christians for the rest of the pagan era. Taken together, Pliny's letter and Trajan's response constituted a fairly loose policy toward Christians. Christians were not to be sought out, but executed if brought before a magistrate by a reputable means of accusation (no anonymous charges were permitted) and they were to be given the opportunity to recant. While some persecutions represent a departure from this policy, many historians have concluded that these precedents were nominal for the Empire across time.
Fortunately, Trajan's replies to Pliny's queries and requests were also collected for publication, making the anthology even more valuable. The letters thus allow us a wonderful glimpse of the personalities of both Pliny and Trajan.
Stylistically, Book 10 is much simpler than its precursors because it was not intended for publication by Pliny. It is generally assumed that this book was published after Pliny's death, and Suetonius, as a member of Pliny's staff, has been suggested as one possible editor.