OUP (2020) h/b 320 pp £20 (ISBN 978019998192)

G. is Professor of Classics and Ancient History at Durham University and has a particular interest in letters and similar material. His previous major work, written in conjunction with Ruth Morello, is Reading the letters of Pliny the Younger—An Introduction.

He argues that the details of Pliny’s life have been sufficiently explored by Mommsen, Sherwin White and others and is not seeking to establish any new ground in this field. He describes the purpose of the present work as threefold:

  • to recreate the life of Pliny in its social, historical and cultural context;
  • to offer a contribution to biography itself;
  • to provide a background for better understanding the Letters.

Indeed a subtitle to the book might well be ‘The anatomy of a biography’.

His account develops a broadly linear account of Pliny’s life, but is divided into chapters relating to the different geographical areas in which Pliny operated: Comum and Misenum in his youth (Chapters 3 and 4); Rome (chapter 5); Italy other than Rome—Umbria, Latium, and Comum in later life (Chapters 6 and 7); abroad—Syria and Bithynia (Chapter 8). These are supported in Chapter 1 by a description of Pliny’s rediscovery and subsequent treatment by the academic world, together with two appendices—a Timeline of the key events in Pliny’s life; and an attribution of dates to his various letters. A further appendix outlines the archaeological history of the sites most relevant to Pliny’s life. There are also three maps and 13 illustrations. Notes are appended to each chapter and there is a 27 page bibliography.

Chapter 2 is a disquisition on the nature of biography, especially when directed at individuals from the classical period. G. suggests that the reader who is keen on meeting Pliny might choose to skip this, but that would be a mistake. Much of the quality of the following chapters would thereby be missed. The key issue for G. is whether it is possible to write a biography in the modern style which expects an analysis of the interior life of the subject when the written and other evidence that might support such an analysis derives from a wholly different cultural context. This is particularly relevant to Pliny because we probably have more information about his interior life than that of any other classical personality—although G. regularly uses Cicero and Augustine of Hippo in a ‘compare and contrast’ mode.

G. is also sceptical of the modern ‘life writer’ who regards speculation or imaginative conversations about the interior life of the subject as almost equally valid as the more substantive material. As an example he explores two contrasting ways in which Pliny’s apparent unwillingness to make any references to his natural father (while frequently referencing his adoptive father and his uncle, Pliny the Elder) might be explained psychologically. He therefore suggests that a more promising approach will be to set Pliny in a variety of geographical landscapes in which his life evolves, to explain the context in which these landscapes flourished and to examine what Pliny does or says he does in each of the landscapes.

The following chapters deliver this proposal. We meet Pliny the bookish youth, Pliny the aspirant official and lawyer, Pliny the rich country squire, Pliny the cautious colonial civil servant and Pliny the bountiful provincial patron. In each context Pliny displays himself in significantly different guises. G. is careful not to reinforce the standard 19th C view of Pliny the prig. Each chapter is packed with information about both the individual himself and the relevant context. The style is lucid, straightforward, fast moving and splendidly free of jargon. There is no attempt to develop a ‘complete man’ character study of Pliny—rather the reader is left to form his own judgement from the sum of the parts.

G. suggests that this book requires a great deal of specialist knowledge before it can be appreciated. He does himself a disservice because the background descriptions of the various milieus that he provides are so comprehensive and lucid that even someone with a moderate knowledge of the classical world can enjoy the book. At such a modest price it is highly recommended for the regular Classics for All reader—not least for its perceptive analysis of the role of the biographer.

As a passing contemporary aside, one might note that the citizens of Comum, who had installed statues of both the Elder and the younger Pliny as notable ancestors on the west face of their cathedral, declined to remove them after Pliny was denounced as anti-Christian during the Counter Reformation.

Roger Barnes