Ancient Rome is not my ordinary stomping grounds. For some reason, avid as I am about a wide range of history, my interest in Rome has mainly been confined to its relations vis a vis Britain. In my travels, I’ve been awed by the omnipresent ruins of the empire. Every continent seems to present with an amphitheater or a collection of decapitated columns or some such splendid ruin. However, a friend suggested I take a look at Pliny.

Pliny the Elder? I knew the name, but little else. Oh, there is a boutique beer by that name recently introduced in our area. Haven’t tried it yet, though. My Google oracle says there will be a Pliny the Younger introduced this very year. I have work to do, don’t I?

At any rate, my friend suggested that In The Shadow of Vesuvius would be a good place to start, so here we are.

For those who are as ignorant as I was before I opened Daisy Dunn’s work,


Pliny the Elder was the uncle of Pliny the Younger, who adopted the young man, whose father died young, at an early age. Pliny and his mother thus came under the care of the Elder. The family was wealthy and well-educated, and Pliny had a scholarly bent thus taking after his learned uncle, who wrote volumes about the area around Vesuvius–flora, fauna, history. Then came 79 A.D. (CE if you’re in museumspeak).

The volcano had been inactive for many long years, but not that year. Without much warning, the mountain started gushing fire, smoke, and death. Pliny the Elder was killed, probably trying to help victims escape the holocaust. Pliny the Younger survived and inherited an enormous collection of property, possessions, and slaves all located around Lake Como. A fascinating if perilous beginning for a young adult, but Pliny was up to it.

He proved as assiduous about writing and study as his uncle. He also fashioned himself a political career, drawing on his knowledge of law and his writing skills. He defended and prosecuted. He delivered hours-long speeches on the floor of the Senate, (The Senate still had a couple of centuries to go before Diocletian essentially abolished it.), and emperors took notice of him and his skills.

Pliny worked long hours with few breaks. He wrote history, and like his uncle, was interested in horticulture. He conducted numerous agricultural experiments, his vast landholding giving him access to a variety of soils, moisture, and sun exposure. And always he was writing, sometimes to explore matters appropriate to his great intellect, sometimes to acquit himself in court, sometimes to curry favor with an emperor (which could be a matter of life or death).

His was a remarkable and aristocratic life, and apparently his observations are the best record we have of first century Rome. Pretty fascinating stuff.

A note about the author. Ms. Dunn is quite the scholar herself, noting that she has done a lot of her own translating of the Greek and Latin documents she used for her research. In another life, I’ll be able to cruise through various languages in that manner. In the meantime, all I can do is worship from afar.