Translating Pliny’s letters about Vesuvius, pt. 2. Dramatis Personae

Lake Como: hometown of the Pliny family

Dramatis Personae

This post belongs to a serialized translation and commentary of Pliny the Younger’s letters (6.16 and 6.20) to the historian Tacitus about the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.

Both Vesuvian letters (Ep. 6.16 and 6.20) are addressed to the historian Cornelius Tacitus. The first (6.16) responds to a request that Tacitus has made to the Younger Pliny for information about how the Younger Pliny’s uncle (the ‘Elder Pliny’) died in the AD 79 eruption. The second (6.20) gives more information, again at Tacitus’ request, about how Pliny and his mother (Plinia) survived the disaster. One other character also appears in the latter letter: a mysterious unnamed friend from Spain. Let’s meet them all.

  • The Younger Pliny. Our hero, ‘Caius Plinius Caecilius Secundus,’ was born in AD 61 or 62 in northern Italy (Novum Comum). His father died while he was young, and he was adopted by his mother’s brother, the Elder Pliny (whom Younger Pliny almost exclusively calls ‘uncle’ rather than ‘father’). Young Pliny put his fine education (his rhetoric teacher was Quintilian!) to good use: at age 18 he won his first court case defending an obscure man named Junius Pastor against powerful interests (Ep. 1.18). Progressing up the legal and political ladder (and he got rich when he inherited his uncle’s estate), he took on military, juridical, and administrative assignments from North Africa to Syria, and became consul in AD 100. On that occasion, he gave a formal speech of praise to the Emperor Trajan, known as the Panegyricus. Pliny went on to publish the three-hour ‘Director’s Cut’ of that speech which, although irritatingly obsequious, remains a model of Latin rhetoric. Pliny then was put in charge of the commissioners responsible for managing the Tiber river and its floods,

    Trajan’s head on a coin from Bithynia

    and ended his days as governor of Bithynia et Pontus (northwest Turkey).  The Younger Pliny was the epitome of the active learned gentleman of the Roman imperial age. His social savvy kept him alive during the reign of the emperor Domitian, and his finely crafted sentences won him political clout and literary admiration. He edited and published nine books of private letters during his lifetime; a tenth book of imperial correspondence was added to the corpus later. In our letters, the Younger Pliny dramatically survives the eruption (the author always lives, right?). For a good introduction to the Younger Pliny, have a listen to the BBC Radio 4 “In Our Time” podcast about him.

  • Pliny’s Monstrous Races, 12th c. ms.

    The Elder Pliny. ‘Caius Plinius Caecilius’ was also born at Novum Comum, in AD 23 or 24. He was of the equestrian order, and worked his way through military offices and legal cases until an army buddy named Titus (whose father Vespasian became emperor in AD 69) gave a boost to his public service aspirations–Pliny ended up admiral of the western imperial fleet at the time of his death. As an author, Pliny’s magnum opus was the Historia Naturalis, an encyclopedic account of the world that contained both real and imagined facts and tales (such as the Monstrous Races, popular both in medieval accounts of Strange Lands and in modern Dungeons&Dragons- like bestiaries). Pliny was interested in everything. In our story, the Elder Pliny dies because of that curiosity, nobly succumbing to the volcano.

  • Plinia. Pliny’s mother is prominent in our two letters, but must have died not too long after Vesuvius erupted, since she is barely mentioned elsewhere. She was sister to the Elder Pliny.
  • Aesina ms. of Tacitus’ Agricola and Germania

    Cornelius Tacitus. Tacitus was a contemporary and friend of the Younger Pliny, and equally admired and hated by Latin students for the difficulty of his prose. He was the paramount historian of the Roman era, expert in examining the lures and flaws of power. He wrote a biography of his father-in-law (Agricola), the major literary source of information about Roman Britain, and an ethnographic-ish treatise on the Germans (Germania), which became the ur-text of German nationalism (painting strong and noble savages resistant to an increasingly decadent empire). Tacticus also wrote two long imperial histories: the Annales, covering the Julio-Claudian period from the death of Augustus to the last days of Nero (AD 14-68), and the Historiae, which records the Flavian years from AD 69-96. Neither has survived to us complete. It was to work on his Historiae that Tacitus, at some point between AD 104-108, wrote a letter to the Younger Pliny asking what had happened to his uncle (in all, eleven letters from Pliny to Tacitus survive; see A. Augoustakis, The Classical Journal 100.3 [2005] 265-73, esp. n. 5). Sadly, the portion of Tacitus’ work covering the Vesuvian disaster does not survive. But Pliny’s letters do.

  • The Friend from Spain. The only other speaking role in these letters belongs to ‘amicus ex Hispania‘, who appears twice in letter 6.20 to exhort Younger Pliny and his mother to flee. He is described as a pal of the Elder Pliny who (with very poor timing) has just arrived for a visit. We don’t know who he is, but he’s the perfect fellow for some author to use as the subject of the next historical novel about the Last Days of Pompeii.

In our next post, the first for letter 6.16, ‘The Historian’s Request‘, the voices of our characters will begin to speak.

To learn more about these people, see:

  • von Albrecht, M., A History of Roman Literature, vol. 2, Leiden 1997, 1146-57
  • Birley, A., Onomasticon to the Younger Pliny. Letters and Panegyric, Munich, 2000.
  • Briggs, W.W., Ancient Roman Writers, Dictionary of Literary Biography vol. 211, Detroit, 1999, 235-250 (the Plinys), 306-313 (Tacitus)
  • Carlon, J.M., Pliny’s Women, Cambridge 2009.
  • Hoffer, S.E., The Anxieties of Pliny the Younger, Atlanta 1999.
  • Radice, B., transl. and intro., The Letters of the Younger Pliny, Baltimore 1963.
  • Reynolds, L.D., ed., Texts and Transmission, Oxford 1983, 307-22 (the Plinys), 406-11 (Tacitus).
  • Sherwin-White, A.N., The Letters of Pliny, Oxford, 1966.
  • Syme, R., Tacitus, Oxford 1958.
  • Wescott, J.H., Selected Letters of Pliny, Boston 1898.
  • Krasser Gießen, “Plinius Secundus,” Der Neue Pauly. Enzyklopädie der Antike, Band 9, Stuttgart, 2000, 1141-44.
  • Woodman, A.J., Cambridge Companion to Tacitus, Cambridge 2010.

Back to Part 1

Forward to Part 3

One thought on “Translating Pliny’s letters about Vesuvius, pt. 2. Dramatis Personae

  1. Thank you for the British Library link – all of those monstrous races are “old friends” from the _Monsters and Marvels_ course, but now set to this very melancholy music. My students are always very empathetic to the monsters (by the time we’re done with _Beowulf_, there’s a general uprising to call the poem _Grendel_), and I’ve always been curious about the TONE of Pliny and Herodotus and all of the other Monstrous Races describers. We tend to see it as analytical (and monstrous races are folded into histories of natural science for this), but I always wonder about the response to (as opposed to the reporting of) the monster: was Pliny the Elder repulsed by? empathetic to? monsters. Fascinated, certainly.

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