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“I think we can all empathize with someone who’s like a son, or in this case, an adopted son, trying to kind of make his own mark and escape the shadow of his father, and leave something on the world of his own.”
In the year 79 CE, Pliny the Elder set out to investigate a large cloud of ash rising in the sky above the Bay of Naples. It was the eruption of Vesuvius, and Pliny did not survive. A trailblazing naturalist, he is best remembered today for his multivolume encyclopedia of Natural History, and we are able to retrace his final hours thanks to a vivid account by his nephew, Pliny the Younger. Inspired by his beloved uncle, the young Pliny became a lawyer, senator, poet, and representative of the emperor. His published letters are fascinating reflections on life and politics in the Roman Empire.
In this episode, Daisy Dunn, classicist and author of The Shadow of Vesuvius: A Life of Pliny, and Kenneth Lapatin, curator of antiquities at the Getty Museum, discuss the two Plinys and their profound impact on our understanding of ancient Rome.
JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
DAISY DUNN: I think we can all empathize with someone who’s like a son, or in this case, an adopted son, trying to kind of make his own mark and escape the shadow of his father, and leave something on the world of his own.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with author Daisy Dunn and Getty curator Ken Lapatin about Daisy’s recent book, The Shadow of Vesuvius: A Life of Pliny.
British classics scholar and author Daisy Dunn introduces her new book on the life and legacy of Pliny the Younger with the eruption of Vesuvius and its volcanic cloud rising suddenly into the sky like an umbrella pine tree. Pliny witnessed the eruption from a villa overlooking the Bay of Naples. He was there with his mother and uncle, Pliny the Elder, admiral of the fleet and author of the Natural History, the world’s first full-length encyclopedia. Pliny the Elder would die in the eruption, while Pliny the Younger would go on to become a Roman lawyer, senator, poet, and representative of the Emperor. He would also inherit his uncle’s notebooks. Daisy’s book is a fresh look into the working of two of the greatest minds of the Roman Empire. I recently spoke with Daisy and Getty Villa curator Ken Lapatin about the book, The Shadow of Vesuvius: A Life of Pliny.
Daisy, thank you for joining me on this podcast episode, and Ken, thank you for joining us, as well. Now Daisy, you begin your book with the dramatic eruption of Mount Vesuvius and how it was experienced by Pliny the Elder, historian, naturalist, and admiral of the naval fleet in the area. And by his seventeen-year-old nephew, Pliny the Younger. Set the scene for us and tell us more about why the two Plinys were in the area and how they reacted to the moment.
DAISY DUNN: So the year is 79 AD. And Pliny the Younger is staying with his mother and his uncle, in a villa overlooking the Bay of Naples, in a place called Misenum, and this is home to one of Rome’s two imperial fleets. It’s about thirty kilometers away from Vesuvius.
And it’s early afternoon. And suddenly Pliny’s mother notices an enormous, very, very peculiar cloud rising in the sky in the distance. And Pliny the Younger has a look at this and he compares it to a huge, umbrella pine tree that you get everywhere, in Italy. It’s sort of raised up in a trunk and spreads out into branches.
And Pliny the Elder, immediately, he wants to have a closer look at it. He’s a great naturalist—he’s written an encyclopedia of Natural History and in this book he’s written quite a bit about various volcanoes in the world. And what’s really curious is he does not mention Vesuvius in this volcano section of the book. And I think in all probability he does not know that this was a volcano.
He describes it merely as a vineyard-covered mountain. And what we now know is that Vesuvius had been dormant for about 700 years, until this point in history, so there’s no reason why he or anyone else at this time would’ve known that Vesuvius was a volcano. So, having seen this cloud, Pliny the Elder decides he wants to explore it and get a little bit closer.
And he asks his nephew, whether he would like to come with him. But Pliny the Younger is incredibly studious and he says, “No, no, no, I’d rather stay at home with my mother and continue with my work.” He’s kind of like no other seventeen-year-old boy you’ve ever met.
So Pliny the Elder ends up going alone and he’s just on the point of leaving when he receives a written message from a woman, a friend called Rectina, who lives somewhere near Vesuvius. And she’s telling him that there’s now no escape except by boat, and she’s really begging him for help. And Pliny the Elder, he has the whole fleet at his disposal. So in that moment he changes his plan and what had really began as a trip made out of curiosity, he then turns into a rescue mission.
And he sails across the Bay of Naples with the fleet. Pumice is really raining down from the cloud onto the boat. And eventually, this pumice grows so heavy that it actually forms island-like masses on the water. This impedes the advance of the fleet. This means that the boats cannot reach the point that they wanted to. They have to put in at Stabiae, which is a port town south of Pompeii, about sixteen kilometers from Vesuvius.
And Pliny the Elder has a friend here, and he finds him and he joins him for dinner and tries to jolly him along a bit. He tries to put him at ease, he has a bath with him, and then they all go to bed eventually. In the night, they’re awoken by worsening earthquakes, which is taking place at the same time, as part of this eruption. And they realized that if they stay within the villa, there’s a very good chance that they could be trapped inside. Pumice is mounting up outside their doorway.
So they decide they’ve got to leave the villa. And in order to try and protect themselves from all the debris that’s falling down on them, they put pillows on their heads and venture out. And they head towards the coast. And it’s Pliny the Elder’s plan to try and see that they can escape by boat. Unfortunately, the sea’s really wild and the wind is against them, and there’s nothing he can do. So, he is now on his own. His companions have presumably fled to safety, or attempted to.
And he’s with his slaves. And he says to his slaves, “Well, could I have a drink?” He suddenly is overcome by thirst. So he has some cold water, he lies down. He gets up, and then eventually, he collapses and he dies. And what seems to happen is that he’s asphyxiated. We know that there are various surge clouds coming from this volcano; surge clouds very, very low in oxygen. We also know from the descriptions of Pliny the Younger, his nephew, that Pliny the Elder had very raw and narrow airways. So we’d probably say that he was asthmatic.
So unfortunately, he perishes there. Pliny the Younger and his mother, meanwhile, are at Misenum. They’re that much further away. They’re in a better position to escape. And Pliny the Younger later writes a couple of letters in which he describes how he and his mother eventually did manage to escape and find safety.
CUNO: How do we know the details of Pliny the Elder’s experience on land under the volcano?
DUNN: This is a really good question. We know everything that I’ve said so far from two letters that the younger Pliny wrote about twenty-five or thirty years later, to the historian Tacitus. How do we know what he sort of knew about his uncle’s experience? It’s very, very difficult to say.
My feeling is that he’d have spoken to people who were with Pliny the Elder in his final moments, or as close to as possible.
CUNO: Now, Pliny the Elder was born around 24 AD. And he’s famous, we all know, for his multi-volume encyclopedia Natural History, which you mentioned, in which, as you write in your book, he made observations on everything from the moon to elephants to the efficacy of ground millipedes in healing ulcers. Tell us about Pliny the Elder: when and where he was born, how he managed his career, and the origin of his massive intellectual project.
DUNN: Well, Pliny the Elder was born Gaius Plinius Secundus, in a place called Comum, which is modern Como, which is very near to Milan, in Northern Italy. And he was born in either AD 23 or 24. We know he was of equestrian stock, which meant that he was of the kind of second highest social order.
And by virtue of that, he begins his career with a period of military service. We think that he conducted three main tours of Germany in his youth. And it’s also here that he began his writing career. Later, he came to Rome and he served a couple of emperors—initially, the Emperor Vespasian. And he worked in the imperial administrations. He undertook a number of administrative posts, such as overseeing the imperial finances in Hispania, in Spain.
And then eventually, he became the admiral of the fleet. But sort of alongside all of this, he’ll always be remembered for his encyclopedia of natural history, in which he really tried to set out everything that had been learned to date, as kind of a volume, a compendium of all the knowledge which had been accumulated historically, so it would never be forgotten.
And it was really a life-long project, and you actually find observations and information in the book which he clearly gathered in his military days in Germany as a young man.
CUNO: Now, Pliny’s nephew, Pliny the Younger, once described his uncle as having a sharp intellect, incomparable concentration, a formidable ability to stay awake. So what was Pliny the Elder’s private life like, and how did he manage his literary and military careers?
DUNN: I think that’s completely the right thing to say first. Pliny the Elder was a complete workaholic. Apparently, in winter, he would get up in the middle of the night, so sort of soon after midnight, and start work, and then just carry on all day long. He’d work while he was eating his dinner. His nephew actually describes slaves reading to him while he’s eating and he’s kind of making notes alongside. He’d even be working at the baths themselves. And his sort of one chief regret in life was that he couldn’t actually work while he was in the water itself.
We don’t read of him getting married or having children. I think we get the impression that he was very much wedded to his scholarship, to his work. At the very least, we can say that he very probably didn’t have a son, because what we do know is that by order of his will, he actually adopted the younger Pliny, his maternal nephew, as his own son. So he became his heir. And this was a posthumous adoption.
So the younger Pliny was clearly very, very dear to him, in terms of family. And the elder Pliny left the nephew 160 of his notebooks. The younger Pliny said they were double-sided, and they were written in the very smallest handwriting. And he also left him one of his estates, as well. But I love his sort of— the mention of the handwriting, because it’s actually Pliny the Elder who gives us one of our popular phrases today.
He described a copy of Homer’s Iliad, that it was so small that it could actually be concealed within the shell of a single nut. And that is thought to be the origin of our phrase “in a nutshell.”
CUNO: Now, we’ve described the Natural History as his sole surviving work. You describe the extent of it, and others have described it as having 20,000 pieces of information. How did it survive, and what earlier Roman or Greek texts might compare with it?
DUNN: Well, it’s an interesting piece of work. As you say, it’s the sole surviving one. We know that the elder Pliny wrote a number of other works, including a history of Rome’s wars with Germany, and a book about throwing a javelin from horseback. And unfortunately, all of these works are lost. So the Natural History acquires a kind of greater significance, by virtue of being the only surviving work of Pliny’s that we have.
As you say, he gathered information for it from a number of different sources. He says he used at least 2,000 different books. But he also compiled a lot of personal, first-hand research, as well. He personally undertook to study plants, for example, with an elderly plantsman, who apparently lived beyond his hundredth birthday. And his encyclopedia is constantly full of plant-based medicines and cures and remedies and treatments.
And as a collection, this book was really the first of its kind. The Greeks had made compendia; they’d made a couple of sort of similar works. A couple of Roman writers also had made kind of encyclopedic collections. I think of ones by Varro and Celsus, who had a kind of medical compilation. But nothing at this point was quite as comprehensive. And certainly, nothing on this scale and with this breadth.
As a book, the Natural History is covering so many different areas. It’s covering minerals, pigments, countries, peoples, animals, birds, insects— all kinds of things. The Natural History is also really important because it’s the oldest surviving complete encyclopedia that we have from the Greco-Roman world more widely.
CUNO: We know that it was treasured in the Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci is said to have a copy, and so too did Christopher Columbus. And the art historian Giorgio Vasari seems to have consulted it. How did it survive into the Renaissance, and from the Renaissance to today?
DUNN: Well, we’re really lucky, actually, with both Plinys, in that for both works, we have some of the earliest classical manuscripts. Often, we’ll find the earliest manuscripts date from about the ninth century.
With both Plinys, we have fragments, at least, of manuscripts dating back to the fifth century. So even though we don’t have anything in either Pliny’s hand, we have very, very early sources. You know, elements of their books. And for the elder Pliny in particular—in the medieval world, in particular—his encyclopedia was really, really popular. So people actually extracted it and compiled it— their own kind of versions.
There’s something called the Medicina Plinii, which is almost a medical book, compiling all the different sort of medical treatments from the book. So we have Pliny quoted really, really widely through other authors, as well as sort of have a sort of manuscript edition.
And with the younger Pliny, I think it was the year 1500, an almost complete manuscript of his letters was discovered in an abbey in Paris. And so that enabled the humanists in the Renaissance to get to work on creating a sort of authoritative edition of that.
And Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, I think, was one of the earliest classical texts to be printed at Venice. That was 1469. And the letters of the younger Pliny is in 1471. So these works were recognized in the Renaissance as being of incredible importance.
CUNO: Well, Pliny the Younger was almost as hard-working and productive and well-connected as his uncle, Pliny the Elder. He counted among his friends the satirist Martial; a prefect of the Praetorian Guards, Septicius Clarus; and Suetonius, the author of the most important biographical work of its day, Lives of the Caesars. Tell us about the literary culture of Rome in which his uncle and, well, Pliny the Younger participated in the first century AD. And how important were the two Plinys to that culture even then?
DUNN: Well, when we’re looking at the first century AD, I think it’s probably safe to say that a lot of the finest Latin poetry has already been written by this date. So Catullus, Virgil, Ovid all belonged to the earlier period. But we have Martial, we have Juvenal, who was a great satirist. So kind of satire is coming into its own, and history and biography in Rome are really, really coming into their own in this period.
And Pliny the Younger actually befriended Tacitus and Suetonius, who today are really our chief sources, really, on the Roman emperors and of the empire at large. And I mean, the very reason that we have Pliny the Younger’s account of the eruption of Vesuvius is because Tacitus asked him to write it.
And we think that Tacitus probably used that account to write a part of his Histories, one of his great works, which is actually now missing and lost to us. So he was incredibly important from that perspective. With Suetonius as well, it’s really interesting. We kind of meet Suetonius in the work of Pliny’s letters. And when we meet him, he’s actually quite a scaredy-cat. He’s kind of— he’s very young, he’s almost a commitment-phobe.
Pliny the Younger actually gets him a position, a kind of junior position. And Suetonius passes the job on to one of his relatives, which is strange. Pliny the Younger really encourages him to try and publish some of his early work, but Suetonius is too nervous to do so. So he’s kind of really encouraging him as a young man. Maybe Pliny the Younger had a part in kind of encouraging him and building up his confidence so that decades later, in 121 AD, Suetonius finally published his great Lives of the Twelve Caesars.
CUNO: How did they, the writers of the time, disseminate their work in ancient Rome? What kind of literary culture did ancient Rome have?
DUNN: Well, it’s actually not hugely different from today. You had public readings of work, of poetry, for example, and speeches, as well as more kind of private gatherings where people like Pliny, for example, would gather with his groups of friends and read them his work. These mainly sort of male occasions we hear of in one of the letters, for example, Pliny describing sort of reading out his work to his friends. And his wife is sitting behind a veil or a curtain, listening in at the same time.
There’s also a physical publication of books, as well. We’re pretty sure that Pliny the Younger published at least the first nine of his ten surviving books of letters in his lifetime. And by books, at this date, I mean scrolls—papyrus scrolls.
CUNO: Well, that’s actually a good point to bring Ken into the discussion. Ken, the Getty Villa, where you work as curator, is modeled after the Villa dei Papiri, a luxurious seaside villa northwest of Pompei, which was famous for its library. Tell us about the library, it’s role within the culture of the villa, and the content and fate of its papyrus scrolls, and how it was that they could, have, like, editions of papyrus scrolls. How was that possible?
KEN LAPATIN: Well, the distribution of books, as Daisy has just said, was based on an ancient Roman publishing industry that didn’t have the volume of modern publishing, but certainly had wide circulation among the elite. And this was based on cores of literate scribes and copyists, who were often enslaved people, copying out the texts on papyrus scrolls for distribution, but also trading of them. And wealthy Romans, you know, had their private libraries. And in time, the emperors and other benefactors endowed public libraries.
And having a well-appointed library was part of being cultured, and so this was part of what it was to be a good Roman. And the Villa dei Papiri, just outside of Herculaneum, the city that Pliny the Elder’s friend Rectina wrote to him that started his rescue mission, lived in the area. The villa is named, in modern Italian, after the discovery, in the 1750s, by early excavators tunneling some seventy-five feet underground through volcanic debris. Recovering bronze and marble statues and cutting frescoes out of walls and lifting beautiful marble pavements, they actually found the remains of an ancient library.
We have many library buildings from antiquity. At Ephesus, we have the library of Celsus, which is one of the most sumptuous buildings. But the scrolls are all gone. At the Villa dei Papiri, we have actual scrolls that have been carbonized by just the right amount of heat from the volcano that kind of flash fried the scrolls. So they’re carbonized, some of them are charred, but they could be, some of them, unscrolled soon after discovery in the 1750s through the 1800s. Some of them would be sliced open like onions and peeled, and some of them were crushed and destroyed, unfortunately.
And today, computer scientists are working on new imaging techniques using medical technology—CTs, CAT scans, MRI-like technology—to try to virtually unscroll these texts without opening them, to read them. And these texts from the Villa dei Papiri, the vast majority of them are philosophical texts.
We think the Villa dei Papiri belonged to Lucius Calpurnius Piso, who was the father of Calpurnia, Caesar’s third wife. So we’re talking about a Roman aristocrat of the highest order. But he lived at the time of Caesar, in the first century BC. His son of the same name was a high imperial official under Augustus and Tiberius. And we really don’t know who owned the villa in the time of Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger, at the time of its eruption.
But the library, which was also a symbol of great status, to have a library, was still there. And it’s our only sizeable collection of ancient texts, although as I said, we have library buildings from throughout the empire.
CUNO: And when we use the word library, do we use it the way we would use it today? Did people then go into a room and sit in a chair and read privately and quietly to themselves? Or was it a more public activity?
LAPATIN: Well, both. There were private libraries. And the library at the Villa dei Papiri really, where most of the scrolls [were] found, it wasn’t so much a library as a kind of stacks, a storeroom, with a table and shelves. And a number of the scrolls were found outside, in better appointed rooms, overlooking the peristyle gardens. Because you’d like to go somewhere pleasant to read. And in fact, you might well not even read yourself; you could be read to by one of your slaves. But there were also libraries for study. And we know for example, that in the first century BC, one of Rome’s wealthiest senators, Lucullus, had an extensive library, where others would come to study and read and conduct research in his library.
And this was a matter of status. Seneca complained that people who never read books still stocked their homes with libraries, just for show. And then we have public libraries. There were such libraries also in Athens and at Rome. Pliny the Elder’s patron, Emperor Trajan, built two libraries, a Greek and a Latin library, on either side of his famous column in downtown Rome. And the walls of those libraries survive, but of course, the scrolls are lost.
And these libraries were also cultural centers. They could be university extensions, places for readings and recitals, as well.
CUNO: Well now, Daisy, at the age of eighteen, Pliny the Younger began his career as a lawyer, in something called the Court of 100 Men, where it’s said that oratory was of greatest importance.
You write that Pliny modeled himself after the greatest orators in history—Demosthenes, Cicero, Caldus—and that he once argued for seven hours straight. What were his early professional years like, and what was the arc of his career?
DUNN: Yes. This Court of 100 Men, it was a civil court in Rome. And Pliny loved it here. It was quite sort of serious work, a lot of it. But he loved oratory; he loved the power and the drama of being able to talk in this great basilica. And he was kind of of the opinion that a short speech just wasn’t as authoritative or as serious as a long one. So he could talk for hours and hours. You’d hear him talking for five hours, for seven hours, and people trying to escape because he’s going on for so long.
And also, he had these great people like Cicero that he aspired to be like. He also took some of his inspiration from the weather, as well, which I quite like. He talks about trying to speak like snow, for example. So having a sort of blizzard of words, and then kind of cut and thrust with ice, at the body of the jury. And even though some of the work was quite [inaudible], it’s kind small-print stuff—it’s wills and inheritance in particular, was the kind of work that he was looking at—he did actually come across some quite exciting cases in the course of his work here.
So he started off here. And having joined the court, he kind of proceeded to a senatorial career in Rome. He worked his way up the ranks of the Roman senate, especially in the nineties AD. So we have him becoming praetor, which is quite a senior position, in 93; and then consul, which is sort of the top magistracy in the senate, in AD 100.
And the apex of his professional career came under the Emperor Trajan. He made him an imperial legate, almost a sort of personal representative to him in the East, in the province of Bithynia.
CUNO: Well, I know that Pliny the Younger was eighteen years old when his uncle Pliny the Elder died. What kind of shadow did Pliny the Elder cast over the younger, as the younger was building his career, as you’ve described it?
DUNN: Well, it’s sort of interesting. Looking at the two of them together, you think, Pliny was so young. He only, probably didn’t see his uncle all that often, if the uncle was down being admiral of the fleet, down in Southern Italy, and the nephew was up in Como, in the north of Italy. But the uncle seems to have made a massive impression on the young boy, and this stayed with him all his life. And I think this is partly because the uncle achieved such fame. He achieved real recognition and respect. Not only as a scholar, but for his work for the imperial household, as well.
And I think we can all empathize with someone who’s like a son, or in this case, an adopted son, trying to kind of make his own mark and escape the shadow of his father, and leave something on the world of his own, at the same time.
CUNO: So we know that Pliny the Younger was an orator and a, as it were, a lawyer in the court. When did he start writing his poetry? And did he write both poetry and prose from the very beginning?
DUNN: As far as we know, he began his oratorical writing while he was still a teenager. So when he started at this court. But I think he kind of steadily branched out. So the main body of work that he left behind to us are his letters, these ten books of letters.
And all of these letters actually postdate the death of Emperor Damitian, and Damitian died in AD 96. So that puts all of these letters from sort of Pliny’s mid-to-late thirties onwards. But I think with his poetry, we read about him sort of writing poems and we have kind of a few snippets of these poems within the letters themselves. But I feel like it’s something that he turned to for relaxation, rather than anything else, and as kind of a distraction away from his more kind of serious work in the law courts and in the senate.
And if I’m honest, he wasn’t very good as a poet. I think he really wanted to be really good as a poet. But he just didn’t quite have the kind of— the natural ability to do it.
CUNO: Well, let me ask a rather silly question, but since these— he was known for his letters, one might think that he wrote a letter and sent it off and it then depended on the recipient of the letter to maintain the letter and keep it and put it together then with the other letters later on, when they formed the letters of Pliny the Younger. How did it work? When you write a letter, what happened to it then?
DUNN: Well, it’s a really really good question. I think in this particular case with Pliny’s letters, copies were made of all of the letters that he sent to people because he actually had a mind to publish his letters as a collection, as a body of work. So it would not have been a case of him kind of approaching all the people he’s written to over his life and saying, “Could you possibly send that back to me?”
Copies would’ve been made and compiled, we think, into these books. And we’ve got them sort of laid out in ten books now. They’re not chronologically arranged, really, at all. They’re kind of sometimes thematically arranged.
We kind of think of all of these things being written down on papyrus, which of course, they were. But when Pliny was writing a sort of important letter, he probably would have drafted it first on these sort of wax tablets which he had, so there’d have been sort of various stages in this whole process.
CUNO: Were letters considered a particular literary genre at the time? Or were they actually letters, the way we think of them today, as processing information?
DUNN: We don’t find very many comparable collections of this surviving from Rome at this time. We tend to have more sort of speeches, works of history, works of satire, plays, poems. I’d say it’s sort of more on the unusual side. But I think in Pliny’s case, it was partly because he had this anxiety of wanting to leave something big, some big part of himself. And a lot of his friends sort of pressured him into trying to write a work a history, some kind of a history of Rome or something.
But he always felt throughout his life that he couldn’t juggle that work alongside his work in the law courts. He kind of felt that writing a work of history, a big, serious work, wouldn’t sit alongside his rhetoric and his other work. So I think, you know, when he was actually putting these letters together, he was thinking about them as a work of history. They are his magnum opus. You know, they’re history, but not in a kind of long narrative sense.
They’re sort of individual, almost like little chapters of a life, which actually reveal so much more than you think they’re going to about the empire, the way it functions, about the emperor itself. And sort of another unusual aspect of them is that in the tenth book of these letters, we actually have the Emperor Trajan’s replies to Pliny. And I can’t think of anyone else where we have that.
LAPATIN: Daisy, do you think he was in some way maybe, though, looking to Cicero, the other great lawyer and orator who published his letters?
DUNN: I think definitely. I mean, I was going to say, you know, and Cicero’s are the main precedent for this. Going back, over a hundred years, really, to Cicero’s time, he had these fantastic letters he wrote to his friend Atticus, for example, you’ve got [inaudible] and several other people.
And I think Pliny realized that Cicero, by this time, he doesn’t say, well, his reputation has survived; everyone still speaks of Cicero in our Rome today. So there’s a sense that if he does the same, that maybe he’s got a sort of better shot at immortality, which is what he really, really desires. As a man, he wants his name and his reputation to live on beyond his own lifetime.
CUNO: Which he would’ve done if people collected the letters. And Ken, I want to ask you about collecting, if that’s the right term. Thinking of the library in Herculaneum, at the Villa dei Papiri, people putting together things of literary note, were there examples in these libraries, were there examples of Pliny’s work? Was there a culture of collecting books, as well as works of art at the time?
LAPATIN: Certainly there was a culture of collecting both art objects and literature and libraries. And as today, in both cases, there are people who collected because they loved poetry or reading or art and history. And they knew a lot about it and were interested. And there were people who collected for show, who didn’t really care but collected for status. For literature, people needed to show that they were erudite, they were culturally aware, and having art collections was part of this too. But I don’t think that Pliny the Younger, although he did buy some art, he was a great collector. We know a lot about his villas which he describes in great detail. And they would’ve been decorated in the current styles of wall painting, which we know best from Pompeii and Herculaneum, but he doesn’t mention statuary at all. And this, we know from other villas, like the Villa dei Papiri, was a very large part of the decoration.
Pliny the Elder, meanwhile, was a great collector of facts. And his Natural History, interestingly enough, being all about the natural world, in its chapters on stone and metals, is one of the great surviving sources for the history of art, because he writes about bronze sculpture, about marble sculpture, about pigments and painting.
So several of the later books of Pliny’s Natural History are key importance to the history of art. And that’s why they were read so avidly in the Renaissance by people like Vasari, and are still read by art historians today.
CUNO: Now Daisy, Pliny wrote so much. And he wrote of a man suffering from genital herpes, whose wife, when shown them by her confessing husband, joined him in committing suicide. Pliny wondered if she ever had thought of seeking a remedy instead of committing suicide, especially when his uncle, Pliny the Elder, had compiled such a long list of remedies for sores and ulcers. Tell us that story again, and tell us if Pliny the Elder’s Natural History was ever consulted for such domestic things as that.
DUNN: Well, this is quite an alarming story. I have to say, I was quite alarmed when I— when I read this in the letters. Not the kind of story you expect to find in Roman letters. But basically, it’s a story which Pliny himself was told by a friend, as they were sailing out over Lake Como, snooping around looking at the neighbors. And this friend points up towards a window and he says, “That’s a bedroom window.” And he said, “A woman from our town, Comum, she once threw herself and her husband to their deaths. They threw themselves out that window and drowned in the lake.”
And the reason they did this, supposedly the husband confessed that he’d been suffering from some kind of— some kind of nasty rash on his genitals. And we’re uncertain, if I’m honest, exactly what this is. But we do know that genital herpes was quite a problem in ancient Rome. And so much so that Pliny the Elder actually provided a huge list of supposed treatments and remedies to try and cure this, or at least to kind of help clear it up a bit, in the encyclopedia.
And apparently in this case, the wife presumably just didn’t consult the book. Or maybe she was worried that he had something else more serious wrong with him. Maybe she was alarmed by it and thought it was, a life-threatening illness of some kind. But if she had stopped to consult Pliny’s Natural History, she’d have found some really, really creative treatments in there. For herpetic sores in particular, Pliny the Elder recommended a stringent concoction of hemlock, wheat, wine, and white sedum. And then he has sort of other cures besides, for sores and ulcers.
More generally, he advised using honey, butter, the ashes of a cremated dog’s head, millipedes, ground up smashed snails, and animal dung. So you wonder how effective some of these would have been. But maybe some of them. Maybe honey would’ve been quite soothing. People use honey for all kinds of things today, don’t they? So it never surprises me when I look at all these ingredients, that these treatments were still really popular in the medieval times.
CUNO: Yeah, well, the question, I think, what’s so interesting about it, in addition to the efficacy of these various treatments, is the whole question of suicide. And Pliny the Younger is said to have reflected on the idea and morality of suicide, using the example of when Emperor Nero famously decried that Seneca commit suicide, on grounds of having conspired against him. Seneca was a Stoic. So tell us about Pliny’s thoughts on suicide and his regard for Stoicism.
DUNN: Well, it’s really sad when you read the letters. You find that quite a number of Pliny the Younger’s friends did actually commit suicide. It’s a thing which is happening sort of quite a lot at this time, and Seneca put forward a popular Stoic view. He said that it was foolish to prolong life for the sake of enduring pain. But at the same time, it was cowardly to seek death because of pain alone.
At the same time, Stoics were meant to sort of weigh up their own discomfort against the discomfort, or rather the pain and the agony, that they would cause their family if they were to end their own lives. Stoicism, it was sort of the prevailing philosophy of Rome at this date. And certainly, Pliny the Elder subscribed to quite a lot of facets of it. You find a lot of Stoicism in the encyclopedia of natural history.
But certainly, Pliny the Younger really struggled to see suicide as a kind of viable option. He did not see it as a positive thing at all. And you know, certainly other people would’ve agreed with him. Because it wasn’t only that it was painful for him to see his friends end their lives when they didn’t have to. Some of them were ill, for example. He felt that they should be prolonging their lives and trying to sort of rest up, rather than finding another way out.
As he saw it, anyway, he thought that some people were committing suicide in order to kind of go down in history with a certain glory before their eyes. And this kind of idea really repulsed him. He didn’t think people should be trying to do this at all. So, you kind of find a different viewpoint in the two Plinys, actually, over suicide.
If there’s one aspect of Stoicism that the two Plinys probably agreed on and subscribed to more, it was kind of the regard for nature and seeing nature as a kind of goddess, as someone to sort of revere and respect, and see nature as providing you with something to enrich your own life. With all these kind of remedies and cures and medicines, as well, they hoped that nature could really help you out, if you help nature.
CUNO: Now I want to maybe start with Daisy and then to Ken. But in the year 100, Pliny was appointed to a consulship, and a few years later, he was elected to the priesthood, which occasioned a grand inaugural speech. What was the significance of that? And what was the relationship of it to Trajan’s Column, which was completed thirteen years after Pliny’s speech?
DUNN: Okay, maybe I’ll say something about the speech. Then maybe Ken can come in with the column a bit more. Basically, it’s that Pliny got this fantastic promotion. And in thanksgiving to the Emperor Trajan for awarding him this position, he delivered this speech, which we know now as the Panegyricus. And it’s hugely important because it’s the earliest complete Roman speech that we still have since the Philippics that Cicero wrote. And that’s back in the first century, so 43 BC.
He delivered it in the senate, before Trajan himself. And it’s very, very over-the-top. I mean, you read it. I kind of laugh a little bit, if I’m honest, when I read parts of it. I mean, he kind of says, you know, “If another man had excelled in just one of these areas that you have, Trajan, then he’d have worn a halo on his head and he’d have had this mighty gold and ivory throne among the gods.” It’s very, very over-the-top.
At the same time, in the speech you find Pliny describing Trajan’s great military feats. And among these are descriptions of his victory over Dacia, which is a place— which is modern Romania. And Trajan had these tremendous victories in the Dacian wars, and he drove the Dacian king to commit suicide. And he returned to Rome laden with spoils. And it’s with these spoils that he actually helped to finance the construction of his forum. So Trajan’s Forum, at the center of which was the column.
And on this column, we find representations of these victories, almost echoing the words that Pliny used in the speech thirteen years earlier.
LAPATIN: The column, to this day, is one of the major monuments in Rome. And I’ll note that on either side, it was flanked by Trajan’s Greek and Latin libraries. So this was all part of this complex that Trajan built. And the column itself is about 120 feet tall, and it’s got a spiraling low-relief frieze wrapped around and up it, that if it were stretched out, would be 625 feet long, showing episodes of Trajan’s campaigns. And they, like Pliny’s speech—and I think Daisy was really insightful here in her book—they show us the emperor.
He appears over fifty times, repeated in the frieze in these various guises, such as Pliny talks about in his speech. He’s wearing different hats. He’s a general, he’s an orator, he’s an administrator, he’s a priest. He’s being forceful, benign, clement. And so although the speech is over-the-top and really reads to us as very sycophantic, I think Pliny’s setting out not just to describe or to flatter Trajan, but also to shape his behavior, to provide reinforcement and appealing examples of the right way to behave, so as to receive further praise.
And this was especially important to Rome at the time, after the negative example of previous emperors that Pliny had lived through, like Damitian and Nero in his youth. It’s a kind of managing up, which is a dangerous thing when you’re in an autocracy. And I think the parallels between the column’s rhetorical language, and Pliny’s oratorical skill, over-the-top as really both of them are, give us a lot of insight into the operation of the Roman state at the time.
CUNO: This idea that one could equate or one could relate this speech by Pliny the Younger to the great, magnificent, large-scale column, Trajan’s Column, gives us a sense of the ambition he had and the preoccupation he had with the idea of leaving something big behind after he died. Daisy, you talk about Pliny as being preoccupied with the ephemeral nature of life and with doing something big, a magnum opus, a history of Rome. Tell us about that.
DUNN: Well, there’s a sense that Pliny, he’s so aware of what his uncle’s done. He’s aware of these huge pieces of work that he’s produced. Not least of all the Natural History itself. And he’s conscious that he probably needs to do something to equal that, if his name is going to be passed down to posterity. And this is a very ancient concern. I mean, you can trace it back to Homer. You can look in The Iliad, for example. All the heroes are obsessed with kleos, sort of reputation. It’s reputation that outlives you. And that’s kind of more important than fame in your own lifetime.
Pliny is a lawyer. And the kind of speeches he’s delivering, they’re over when they’re done, if you know what I mean. He kind of— he delivers them and people hear them, but there is no guarantee that they’re going to survive beyond the walls of the building itself.
And he has to try and do something to overcome this. So I think it’s partly for this reason that he gets his letters published in his lifetime. And also, he builds up the Panegyricus, this great speech, into a work in its own right. So it becomes a work of history, in a sense, kind of history in motion. And it gives us a real indication of sort of the nature of the relationship between Pliny the Younger and the emperor.
And the key, really, as to why Pliny ended up at the end of his life in the position that he did, he befriended Trajan. We know that they dined together. We know that Pliny the Younger went to one of his villas and helped him to build a sort of a new harbor, for example. And it was partly because of this relationship that Trajan then sent him to the east and to sort of the most senior position that he’d held to date.
CUNO: Yeah, I was just gonna get to that. Sometime between 109 AD and 111 AD Pliny was dispatched to Bithynia, a Roman province in today’s Turkey, on the Black Sea. There, he was to serve as an imperial legate—a personal representative of the Emperor Trajan. And where his first personal experience with Christians occurred. Tell us about that.
DUNN: Well, it is hugely significant, in terms of Pliny and the letters. And a huge surprise, actually. When you go through these ten books of letters, you read about all these villas, you read about his wife, you read about his life and his sort of legal career. And then you get this very, very puzzling letter about Christians toward the end of the collection. Pliny had gone over to this Roman province, the north coast of what is now Turkey, just south of the Black Sea. And he thought he had a kind of fairly— sort of standard, important, but kind of standard job, if you know what I mean.
It’s kind of administrative. He had to do things like chase up errant builders, oversee the improvement of various sort of creation of baths and buildings and temples and sort of overseeing the connection of lakes to the sea and— very practical tasks, he had to oversee. And he was sort of writing letters back and forth to Rome, to Trajan, to ask his permission to do certain things in this province.
And some of these things were quite sort of small, but he still felt the need to get permission first. But bear in mind these letters would’ve taken probably about two months to reach Rome from this point in the province. And one day Pliny starts to be confronted by streams of people brought before him, under accusation of being Christian. And he’s so alarmed by this, he’s so panicked, that he decides that he better act straightaway and of his own sort of volition, his own choosing, without actually consulting the emperor first, ’cause he thinks, you know, it’s obviously urgent. It needs his attention right away.
So as people are led before him under accusation of being Christian, he decides to put them to a test. He asks them, basically, to repent of this and to deny their faith. And he places statues of Trajan and places statues of the Roman gods in front of them and he asks them to do honor to these statues and to blaspheme Christ. And if these people agreed to do that, they were allowed to go. But if they refused, and if they carried on, you know, insisting that they were Christian and they weren’t Roman citizens, then Pliny actually saw them put to death.
He actually even tortured a couple of people to try and exact information about them and about sort of what this Christianity actually meant. And he kind of saw it as a cult. He described it in Latin as a superstitio, which isn’t quite in our meaning of superstition, but it’s something weird.
So only after he’d started to enact this did he write to Trajan and tell him what he’d been doing. And Trajan actually told him— He didn’t say exactly that he’d been behaving badly, he didn’t say that he was wrong. But he said, “From now on, you really shouldn’t be hunting out Christians and punishing them.” You know, if people were brought before him and they refused to give up their faith, then he could punish them. But Trajan’s kind of advice was rather to kind of turn the other cheek, in a way, to not seek these Christians out.
Christianity at this time is still young as a faith, and it’s bewildering to a Roman like Pliny. He wouldn’t have actually met Christians face to face until this time. So his behavior is really shocking and obviously, we can’t be apologetic for it in any way. But to him, it was obviously a huge threat. And he felt out of his depth, really, in how to deal with it.
CUNO: Now, you end your book with an account of the Bishop of Vercelli’s visit in 1578, to the cathedral in Como, hometown of the Plinys, honoring the assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Patron saints were included on the sculptural scheme of the cathedral, and there were sculptures, among others, of Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger. It’s unusual to have pagan figures on prominent display in a cathedral. Tell us that story. And it’s a wonderful way to end your book.
DUNN: Well, this is a huge surprise, I think. If you visit Como, you’ll come to the most beautiful cathedral. And you’ll stand in front of it and you’ll see, either side of the main portal, larger-than-life sculptures of the two Plinys. So you have Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger. And this is incredibly strange. And you think about what I’ve just been talking about, the fact that Pliny the Younger has been persecuting Christians. To then find him mounted on the outside of a cathedral is quite shocking, really.
And the bishop who came, who visited in the sixteenth century, he as well was very, very surprised. He said it was very improper to have these two pagan figures given such pride of place on a Christian place of worship, and he wanted them to be taken down. But the people of Como actually refused to do so. They were incredibly proud of the legacy that the two Plinys left behind and the fact that they came from Como. And the younger Pliny in particular, he did a lot to improve the town. He set up set up a fund to pay for the education of young children there. He set up a library. He did various things to improve Como in his own time.
And it seems like the people of Renaissance Como showed him a kind of Christian forgiveness, in a way, for his final acts. They were proud of him as a man and of what he left behind and what he did earlier in his life. So, it is incredibly surprising to see these two sculptures. But I have to say, I mean, as sculptures, they are very, very interesting to look at. They’re very sort of long-necked and bony-kneed and very, very eye-catching. And it’s really, really worth a visit to have a look at them and really get a sense of the two Plinys there in the place where they were both born.
CUNO: Well, it’s a great way, as I said, of ending your book. And thank you for joining me on this podcast, Daisy. Your book is fascinating and it’s very beautifully written, and we’re grateful to have had the time to talk with you today. And thank you, Ken, for joining Daisy and me on this podcast.
DUNN: Well, it’s my pleasure. Thank you very much. Thank you.
LAPATIN: Thank you, Jim.
CUNO: This episode was produced by Zoe Goldman, with audio production by Gideon Brower and mixing by Mike Dodge Weiskopf. Our theme music comes from the “The Dharma at Big Sur” composed by John Adams, for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003, and is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and other podcast platforms. For photos, transcripts and more resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts/ or if you have a question, or an idea for an upcoming episode, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening.
JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
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