Roy Gibson lets us see how he faced the challenge of writing a biography of a Roman writer.

Pliny the Younger would not warm to the idea that his ‘life’ resembles a bus. Yet, after a long wait, two biographies of Pliny the Younger have appeared in less than 12 months: Daisy Dunn’s In the Shadow of Vesuvius (William Collins, 2019) and my own version, Man of High Empire: the Life of Pliny the Younger (OUP, 2020). I warmly recommend Dr Dunn’s book, a vivid, engaged, and deeply researched biography. Despite sharing source material, our approaches are ultimately quite different (neither knew of the other’s project). Dr Dunn built her life of Pliny around the seasons of the year, while I structured my own according to the landscapes and houses Pliny inhabited during various phases of his life. Our books complement each other well.

The life of Pliny

The basic facts of Pliny’s life are easily told. Born in Como during the reign of Nero c. 60 A.D., Pliny witnessed the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 on the bay of Naples in the company of his famous uncle, the Elder Pliny, author of the encyclopedic Natural History. The Younger entered the senate soon afterwards, around the time that Domitian became emperor, and reached the consulship in Rome under Trajan in 100 A.D. A leading courtroom orator of the day alongside Tacitus, Pliny ended his career as governor of the province of Pontus-Bithynia in modern north-west Turkey. Thanks to nine books of personal letters published in his own lifetime (and a tenth book largely made up of gubernatorial correspondence with Trajan), Pliny remains the best documented Roman individual to survive from the five centuries that separate Cicero and Augustine. He is of intrinsic interest. Quite apart from his famous account of Vesuvius and first independent view he gives of early Christian communities in Pontus, the Letters offer a portrait not just of a consul and orator, but of a patron of literature, innovating landowner, energetic civic benefactor, solicitous husband, and man with a surprisingly sharp eye for the natural wonders of the Italian landscape.

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View of Vesuvius from the raised plateau of Cape Misenum, eastward across the bay of Naples. Photo by C. Delaney. 

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View of modern Castellamare di Stabia from near the summit of Vesuvius. The town sits 9 miles / 14 km from the volcano, at the point where the bay begins to curve south-west towards Sorrento. Ancient Stabiae sat on Varano hill, visible as a dark line just above Castellamare di Stabia. It was in one of the villas on Varano hill that the Elder Pliny sheltered from the eruption. He died on the ancient beach at the foot of Varano hill. Photo by C. Delaney. 

There is little room in a biography to say how and why the book came to be written, or to talk about the ideas, places and people that shaped its composition. Ad Familiares offered me the chance to say a little on these topics, and I gratefully take the opportunity.

Why a biography?

Why write this biography? The answer is the normal one in the publishing business: because a commissioning editor suggested it. Stefan Vranka at OUP in New York wrote to me with a proposal for a Pliny biography in 2012, just after the publication of a literary study I had co-written with Ruth Morello, Reading the Letters of Pliny the Younger: an Introduction. There were personal incentives to write a life of Pliny. I was keen to change the old view that he was the ancient equivalent of Mr Collins, the unctuous vicar of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Unexamined for decades, this judgement was the product of a narrow focus on a few aspects of Pliny’s life – one assiduously supported by Sir Ronald Syme as part of a mission to demote Pliny and elevate Tacitus (with whom Syme identified closely).

Mary Beard: Confronting the Classics

There was a problem to be solved first. I had come into contact with Mary Beard in the 1980s: her first year as university lecturer in Cambridge in 1984 coincided with my arrival there as undergraduate—at my age then, the ten year gap between us might as well have been thirty years. Professor Beard’s primary research area at the time was Roman religion, and it was only in the early 2000s that my interests crossed with hers, when she published an influential piece on the letter collections of Cicero that had a direct bearing on the study of the letters of Pliny. Around the same time I began to take an interest in the reviews of classical biographies that she was publishing in various venues – later collected in the volume Confronting the Classics (2013). Mary Beard was emerging as a consistent critic of modern biographies of ancient figures. She attacked the ‘usual biographical horror vacui which drives modern writers to tell a full life story, even where there is no surviving ancient evidence at all’.The scrupulous biographer might litter the text with ‘the technical terminology of “careful” ancient history: “presumably”, “one may ready postulate”, “the odds are that”’. But such speculation produced a ‘life’ closer to fiction than history. In conversation with Mary after a talk she gave at my former university department in Manchester, she challenged me to write Pliny’s life without using the tell-tale phrase ‘would have’. If I wrote his biography as a cradle to grave narrative, I would be compelled to cover large parts of Pliny’s life about which we know next to nothing, even for so well documented an individual. If the embargoed phrase was to be avoided, some other approach was required.

Virginia Woolf and Hermione Lee
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Pliny the Younger and Virginia Woolf don’t often appear in the same sentence – although they share rather a lot socially and stylistically. The short essays on biography that Woolf authored before the second world war – ‘The new biography’ (1927), ‘The art of biography’ (1939) – were instrumental in moving the genre beyond the grave solidity and decorum that had characterized Victorian and Edwardian efforts. The essays are still well worth reading. I have never especially warmed to Woolf’s novels (I prefer her non-fiction), but it was her fiction, filtered through the work of Woolf’s biographer Hermione Lee, that provided an important impetus. In her 1997 biography of Woolf, Lee deployed a scheme that preserved broad chronology overall, while taking time to stop and focus on Bloomsbury, or Woolf’s reading habits, or the various houses in which she lived. In an interview with the Paris Review, Lee explicitly connected this technique with Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway: ‘[The characters] are going along in their lives, but they keep looping down into pools of memory and reflection. So in the biography … there are “caves,” or still points, or holding places, while the chronological life is going along’.

The idea of houses and holding places struck a chord. I had long thought that Pliny is Latin literature’s greatest observer of the Italian landscape – superior in his way even to Virgil (although I don’t normally subscribe to the idea of Latin literature as a competition). Many of his most finely rendered landscapes and vistas over water and sea are set in the regions where he owned homes: from his villas on lake Como, through the palatial ‘Tuscan’ residence in Umbria, to the villa that he owned on the Laurentine shore immediately west of Rome – including even the admiral’s residence that he lived in briefly with his uncle at Misenum around the time of the eruption of Vesuvius. Numerous letters are devoted to evoking his life in each of these regions as well as his more public existence as senator and orator in the city of Rome. These locales are Pliny’s places of ‘memory and reflection’. It made sense to structure Pliny’s life around them, and to devote chapters to each of the places where he lived or owned homes during his life. The homes could be arranged in rough chronological order, from Comum to Pontus-Bithynia. I would be able to make use of the vast amount of information Pliny supplies about his life in each region, without having to cover parts of his ‘cradle to grave’ life about which we know nothing. A chance conversation with Barbara Graziosi at Durham university, my future academic home, later directed me towards Rosamund Bartlett’s ‘topographical’ biography, Chekhov: Scenes from a Life (2007). From this I learned about the interplay of chronology and geography and how to handle an episodic narrative.

Gilbert Highet: Poets in a Landscape

If I had been approached earlier in my career with the invitation to write a biography, I might have declined. Educated as both undergraduate and PhD student at Cambridge, the very epicentre of the Theory Wars of the 1980s and 1990s, I learned to focus on the text and its literary programme rather than on the author. I still think that a biographical approach won’t get us very far with the Augustan poets. Doubts had begun to creep in about Pliny: did one theoretical size fit all? Pliny is a deeply literary author, as Chris Whitton’s magisterial study The Arts of Imitation in Latin Prose (2019) shows. There is hardly a paragraph in the Letters that does not self-consciously engage with an earlier text. Unlike Ovid, however, Pliny produces a mass of historical and personal detail that far exceeds the needs of any literary programme.

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In my undergraduate days, Gilbert Highet’s Poets in a Landscape (1957) was held up as the epitome of the poverty of a biographical approach to Latin poetry. I agree we learn surprisingly little about the poetry of the figures included in Highet’s study (Horace is perhaps an exception). Even worse, Poets in a Landscape inadvertently demonstrates how modest is the role that Mantua ultimately plays in the work of Virgil, or Verona, Assisi and Sulmo in Catullus, Propertius and Ovid. Yet two creative writer friends, Vona Groarke and John McAuliffe, adored Highet’s book – which had been reissued by the New York Review of Books in 2010. I re-read Poets in a Landscape through their eyes and discovered a writer who knew how to look at the Italian natural world and understood how to write about it. Here is Highet on Umbria:

North of Rome, the land changes. It becomes richer and more fertile, but also bolder and stranger. The rocky Apennine backbone of Italy sends out curving ribs and throws up harsh vertebrae of stone. There are high ridges of hill, with cool glens and forests among them. There are fruitful plains, often commanded by steep spurs of rock which have always made splendid natural fortresses. It is not an easy country to travel through, even now.

Highet took landscape seriously, and evoked it with real elegance. So did Pliny. I could use one as a guide to the other, and ask questions about what ancient and modern viewers ‘saw’ or found worth reporting in the world around them. Pliny’s Umbria has none of the wildness that attracted Highet. I also took confidence from a belief that Poets in a Landscape would have done well to include Pliny. If specific locales ultimately play little role in the Augustan poets, the same was emphatically not true of Pliny. No Roman writer ties his identity to the regions of Italy more successfully than Pliny. And his eye alights on different things in each locale. In Como Pliny focuses on luxury villas overlooking the lake rather than on the hillsides rising steeply from the lakeshore that have attracted others. At the Laurentine villa on the shore near Rome he returns repeatedly to views of the sea from different angles in his home. In Rome, Pliny has no eye for the public monuments that absorbed the attention of the Augustan and Flavian poets. He visualizes only indoor scenes of courtroom and senate. In Umbria Pliny scans the landscape with the eye of an estate owner, but it is also only in Umbria that he is sensitive to the numinous and to the local cults of Roman Italy. Together these locales define for Pliny an individuality that takes us well beyond the Mr Collins stereotype.

Augustine of Hippo

In Man of High Empire, I tried to find other ways of bringing out Pliny’s individuality by comparing his career, interests and personality with four other figures: Cicero, Tacitus, Epictetus, and Augustine. Tacitus plays a smaller role than one might expect – but for good reason. It is almost impossible to make him come alive in any detail. (I do not share Syme’s confidence that the character of Tacitus can be reconstructed from the Histories or Annals.) Epictetus, as the TLS reviewer of Man of High Empire recently pointed out, is perhaps the moral centre of the book: this Stoic philosopher, an exact contemporary of Pliny, was fully aware of the compromised life that a senator and consul would lead in Flavian and Trajanic Rome. The inclusion of Augustine in the quartet perhaps calls for more explanation.

Augustine, as his modern biographer Jim O’Donnell (2005) points out, virtually invented the plot for modern biography and autobiography: the journey from fragmentation to integration. The Confessions are a classic of sustained self-examination. In the estimation of one critic, ‘there was no real possibility of inner consciousness before the Christian God put man – and woman – firmly in their place and made them reflect on their isolation in the world as they stood before him’. I disagree. Catullus exemplifies a model of inner fragmentation and dialogue and discord five centuries before Augustine perfected it in the Confessions. Pliny – and most of his contemporaries – understood the theoretical possibility of this sort of inner life (they had all read Catullus); they just weren’t very interested in it. Augustine is a good ancient reference point against which to understand Pliny.

If Augustine is complex where Pliny is uncomplicated (in a way that nevertheless seems alien to us), the reverse is also true. The saint displays almost no visual sense in the Confessions. Despite the possibilities offered by his hometown of Thagaste set in a basin at the foot of mountains in modern Algeria or university town of Carthage situated on a promontory by the sea, Augustine conjures virtually nothing of their physical setting. Rome, Milan and Hippo likewise go unevoked in the Confessions. In the judgement (again) of O’Donnell, Augustine ‘dismissed the inquisitive observation that tourists practice as culpable curiosity, which he regarded as a great sin’. Pliny is rich where Augustine is poor.

There are other reasons for taking an interest in Augustine. He reminds us how soon Pliny’s world of high empire would disappear. I have become aware of the unnecessary barriers we erect between classical and Christian Latin all the same. The literary language that Cicero attempted to standardize in the first century before Christ was largely unchanged in the essentials of morphology and syntax half a millennium later; elite communication became more uniform rather than less.This is a remarkable fact: one that accounts for the dating problems that beset so many texts. My regular citation of Augustine in Man of High Empire was born of a desire to bring late antiquity into dialogue with classical antiquity. Pliny and Augustine had much in common as well as much to separate them, not least the Latin language of which they were both masters. If the upshot was an emphasis on the difference between Pliny and Augustine, the point is that the we could discuss this difference productively: Augustine underwent virtually the same education as Pliny and (despite a Christian upbringing) shared many of Pliny’s assumptions about the world, and the material, geographical and political world that both knew were not vastly different.

One other advantage of thinking about Augustine was the opportunity to study Peter Brown’s classic biography of the man (1967). I have – I assure you – no interest in Pelagianism or in any doctrinal Christian ‘orthodoxy’ or ‘heresy’ of the fourth and fifth centuries. Brown somehow makes each dispute compelling. How, I asked myself repeatedly, was he able to do this? One answer was Brown’s prose style. (He also avoids the occasional sin of late antique scholarship: the complacency of the insider to the Christian story.) I undertook to completely revise my own style. A glance back at the chapters I had contributed to Reading the Letters of Pliny the Younger revealed an impenetrable thicket of brackets, dashes, semi-colons and a tangle of academic adversatives. I tried to simplify my sentence structures, cut down the number of clauses, ration use of the semi-colon, and do my best to avoid starting sentences with a finger-wagging ‘but’, ‘yet’, ‘however’ or ‘nevertheless’.

Things I wish I had read

Once a book is submitted to a publisher, you always find something you wish you had read. Man of High Empire covers an era of consolidation and expansion of imperial borders, of peace, trade, security and urban growth and prosperity. Pliny’s personal investment in providing amenities for towns is evident from his life in Comum and Umbria as well as stint as governor of Pontus-Bithynia. Willem Jongman et al. (2019, ‘Health and wealth in the Roman empire’) have now shown that such prosperity came at great cost to the inhabitants of the empire. Skeletal evidence suggests that it was precisely in this period of economic growth that wellbeing and general health went into reverse: the increased travel for trade allowed by peace brought greater exposure to disease. Personal wellbeing actually increased as Rome declined and ‘fell’: a point that might have added a further layer to some parts of the narrative. I also regret not having re-read Keith Hopkins. Professor Hopkins arrived in Cambridge as Chair of Ancient History in my second year as undergraduate, and he and Mary Beard delivered a lecture course on imperial Rome that was evidently designed to shock the students out of their complacency. Hopkins posed a question to the lecture room: what was the most significant event for the empire during the reign of Augustus? We dutifully wrote down variations on ‘the battle of Actium’, ‘the restoration of the res publica’. Hopkins’ own answer? The birth of Jesus Christ. Dismay at a ‘trick’ question soon gave way to delight at being asked to think ‘outside the box’ (a phrase not yet current in 1985). Such audacity is everywhere on display in a recently published selection of Hopkins’ essays, Sociological Studies in Roman History (2018). The collective invitation of these papers to a more experimental style of thinking makes me wonder whether I might have written at least some paragraphs or pages of Man of High Empire rather differently.

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Roy Gibson is Professor of Classics at the University of Durham. His book Man of High Empire: the Life of Pliny the Younger was published in 2020 by Oxford University Press. He is currently working on a commentary on Pliny Epistles VI for the Cambridge ‘green and yellow’ series and on a larger project to do with the history of the transmission and ordering of all fifty surviving Latin and Greek letter collections from before the early fifth century A.D.: https://www.dur.ac.uk/classics/research/projects/