One was killed by a volcano. The other lived to tell the tale.

Daisy Dunn's "The Shadow of Vesuvius" is a vivid history of Pliny the Elder, Pliny the Younger, and the volcanic eruption that defined them.

Courtesy of W. W. Norton & Company
“The Shadow of Vesuvius: A Life of Pliny” by Daisy Dunn, Liveright, 318 pp.

The lives of the two men named Pliny in Daisy Dunn’s immensely readable “The Shadow of Vesuvius: A Life of Pliny” are linked by a famous catastrophe: the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79, an eruption that buried the towns of Oplontis, Stabiae, Herculaneum, and most famously Pompeii in ash and fire.

Pliny the Elder, a Roman admiral stationed at the Bay of Naples and living in a palatial villa at Misenum, was a voraciously curious polymath, author of the immense multi-volume “Natural History” that aimed to summarize all extant human knowledge. In A.D. 79 his nephew Pliny the Younger, who would go on to become an official in the imperial government, was 17, staying with his mother and his uncle Pliny at Misenum. 

No one at that villa likely gave much thought to the small ground-tremors they’d experienced in the last few days. As Pliny the Younger later wrote, such tremors were an almost daily fact of life in the region. Nobody could have guessed that this time was different. Those tremors were warnings that Mount Vesuvius, 18 miles away across the Bay of Naples, was about to erupt. 

According to Pliny the Younger, his mother was the first to notice something odd happening: a huge dark cloud jetting 20 miles up into the sky. 

Over the course of the next two days, Vesuvius detonated in long rolling waves of violence, hurling thick clouds of choking ash into the air and sending a fast-moving pyroclastic flow along the ground. All told, the volcano unleashed many thousands of times the destructive energy of the Hiroshima bomb. Such things always happen faster than expected; the people living in the path of destruction had little chance of escape. 

Nevertheless, they could see the end of their world coming, and they very much wanted to escape. Pliny the Elder received a hurried note from a woman across the Bay, begging him for help. According to his nephew’s later account, the elder Pliny’s original intention to take one of the powerful Roman warships at his command quickly morphed into a mission to take all his available warships and try to rescue as many people as possible. When he was on the beach at Stabiae, under an afternoon sky darker than midnight, he died, felled by the ash and fumes in the air. 

The younger Pliny and his mother managed to escape the cataclysm that was by then reaching across the bay, and Pliny went on to climb the rungs of the Roman imperial service, eventually becoming a magistrate during the reign of the emperor Trajan. His fame today is based on the collections of letters he wrote to friends and acquaintances, including a series between him and Trajan that provide an almost unique glimpse into the workings of 1st-century imperial government. This is the irony of the Plinys: the Elder wrote dozens of volumes known all over the empire but is famous today for dying in the eruption of Vesuvius, whereas the younger spent his entire adult life fawning over the powerful and is even more famous today than his uncle, solely on the strength of his correspondence.

Daisy Dunn has deeply researched both these lives (her endnotes and bibliography extend to over 60 pages, and most of the book’s translations from Greek and Latin are her own), and her book serves both as a fascinating dual biography and as a detailed look at the broader Roman world. 

Both younger and elder Pliny stayed close to Roman power. The elder Pliny was a long-time friend of the future emperor Titus and served in many imperial posts while also pursuing a burgeoning career as an author on all topics. “A furious night-writer,” Dunn describes, “Pliny the Elder was fortunate to possess what his nephew called ‘a sharp intellect, incomparable concentration, and formidable ability to stay awake.’”

As his delightfully involving letters make clear, the nephew was made of far more mortal stuff, fond of good food and comfortable living, very intelligent but given to obsequiousness. In particular his letters to Trajan show a winningly human combination of fussy officiousness and genuine public service, and Dunn is right to note that although the emperor’s secretaries doubtless wrote many of his responses, some of those responses came from the emperor himself and  “resound with the voice of authority.”

“The Shadow of Vesuvius” starts with the eruption of a famous volcano and then looks forward and backward in time with equal skill, bringing alive both the old Flavian world the elder Pliny navigated with such skill and the new world of Trajan that Pliny the Younger did more than anybody to preserve. Both those worlds – and their respective Plinys – get a vigorous new history here.

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