For History and Biography Buffs: Daisy Dunn’s “The Shadow of Vesuvius:  A Life of Pliny”

Daisy Dunn’s brilliant literary biography, The Shadow of Vesuvius:  A Life of Pliny,  is a delightful read.  Although it may sound unlikely, this well-researched book is light and charming.

Actually, there were two Plinys, both influential Romans in the first century A.D.  They were Pliny the Elder, best known for his 37-volume encyclopedia, Historia Naturalis (Natural History), and his nephew Pliny, the author of nine books of literary letters.  In these letters,  Pliny (c. A.D. 61-c. 112)  chronicled historical and political events, ghost stories, court cases, a legend about a dolphin, senatorial scandals, and his interests in poetry and Stoic philosophy. He included his correspondence with the emperor Trajan.   

Pliny the Younger, known to us just as Pliny, is still popular today. (The letters translate well into English.)  Pliny’s hero was Cicero, but Pliny is a much less demanding writer.  His style is simple but elegant, and the letters are short, pointed essays.  His two letters to Tacitus about the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. are perhaps his most famous.  Pliny stayed home to study and read Livy when his uncle, Pliny the Elder, decided to sail from their home in Misenum to investigate the phenomenon of a strange cloud (like an umbrella pine) rising above a mountain.  (They did not know it was Vesuvius.)  Pliny the Elder died after going ashore to attempt to rescue terrified friends.  

In the second letter, Pliny describes his own observations and experiences during the volcanic eruption.   When the tremors increased and the sky grew pitch-black, he and his mother fled in terror, and finally went off the road to escape a panicky crowd. When the sun finally appeared, the earth was pillowed with ashes.  But twenty years later, many of the towns destroyed by Vesuvius  had  been rebuilt and flourished

The British edition.

Dunn is fascinating on the subject of Pliny’s love of writing and the quiet life. During the festival of Saturnalia, a week of wine and banquets, he retired to his country villa and lived in sound-proof rooms. He was a lawyer and politician who preferred the quiet life; while at the villa he wrote poetry as well as letters. Later, he was was elected consul, the highest office in Rome, and served as governor of Bithynia, where he attempted to create a just system by which Christians could be tried.  (Nero had persecuted the Christians; Pliny and Trajan were more lenient.)

There is also much about Pliny’s side business in wine!

This book is so short you could easily read it over the holidays (240 pages of text, the rest notes).  One effortlessly absorbs history through anecdotes mixed with information, accounts of sizzling political scandals, vivid characterizations of Pliny and his uncle, explications of Stoic philosophy, and a lively consideration of contradictory interpretations of historical details.

I recommend you read it along with Pliny’s letters.   The two together would make a great gift.

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