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In The Shadow 
of Vesuvius by Daisy Dunn review: an irresistible life of Pliny

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Pierre-Jacques Volaire's 1771 painting of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius 
Pierre-Jacques Volaire's 1771 painting of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius  Credit: Alamy

Doing your homework can save your life. A proposition met with derision by the sons of this reviewer, but it worked for Pliny the Younger. When Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, his uncle, Pliny the Elder, commander of the Roman fleet at Misenum, suggested his nephew accompany him on a warship embarking on a rescue mission across the Bay of Naples. But Pliny chose to stay at home and continue to annotate the History of Livy. As the volcanic ash rained down, Pliny the Elder suffocated on the beach at Stabiae; Pliny the Younger survived.

On first estimation, neither Pliny is particularly promising material for a biography. Pliny the Elder (AD 23/4-79) had the more interesting life. An equestrian, from the second rank in society, he fought as an officer in Germany, where he was a “tent-companion” of the future emperor Titus. Presumably, campaigning beyond the Rhine precluded Titus taking along his coterie of actresses and eunuchs, of whom Pliny the Elder would emphatically not have approved.

Later, when Titus had assumed the purple and turned his back on decadent parties, Pliny served on Titus’s council and that of his father, the emperor Vespasian. He travelled the empire, holding several high financial offices, before being appointed to the fleet. What’s more, he was an indefatigable author. As well as the extant 37 books of Natural History, among other works now lost he wrote 20 volumes on the German wars, 31 on the history of the later Julio-Claudian dynasty, a biography of his imperial patron, collections on oratory and Latin dialect and a treatise on throwing javelins from horseback. In his writings, however, he tells us very little about himself.

We know somewhat more about Pliny the Younger (cAD 61-c112), having 10 volumes of his Letters and his Panegyric, a speech of praise to the emperor Trajan. But caution is required. Pliny says that he has personally selected and arranged the letters for publication, which implies the suppression of the unsuitable. They present a carefully crafted image of a man as he wished to be seen: dutiful, uxorious, philanthropic and cultured. As such, they are far less insightful than the posthumously published letters of Cicero. Any confessions in Pliny are undamaging, intentional, or inadvertent.

The Panegyric is something of an embarrassment to modern fans of Pliny. Originally it was a short speech, delivered in Rome to the Senate, thanking Trajan for appointing Pliny as Consul in AD 100. But Pliny preferred his oratory lengthy, “expansive like the winter snow”. He reworked the oration, and read the result to his friends over two days. They were so entranced, Pliny assures us, that they demanded more. A third day ensued. Pliny set out his thinking behind the Panegyric in a letter: “To proffer advice on an emperor’s duties might be a noble enterprise, but it would be a heavy responsibility verging on insolence, whereas to praise an excellent ruler and thereby shine a beacon on the path posterity should follow would be equally effective without appearing presumptuous.”

Detail of a statue of the Roman Emperor Trajan at the Royal Academy Credit: Brian Smith

Recently, several scholars have argued that the endless eulogy of the Panegyric indirectly does act as advice, not just to future rulers, but to Trajan himself. The contention is that Pliny’s praise contains a subtext: “This is what the Roman elite expects of an emperor. Make sure you do not slip from these standards, or else.” It’s up for debate whether Trajan, a man generally more interested in small boys and booze than high culture, got the message.

There was little heroic about Pliny the Younger. In our terms, he was a barrister specialising in inheritance cases. On his military service, he did the accounts of auxiliary units. Later, he was overseer of the banks of the Tiber and the sewers of the city. During the tyranny of the emperor Domitian, when numerous men of independent mind and principle were executed, Pliny’s career conversely prospered. Later, he was at great pains to stress his closeness to those struck down, even claiming that, had Domitian not been assassinated, he himself was set to join the ranks of the martyrs. This interpretation has not won universal credence. An example of his own moral courage, of which Pliny boasted, was refusing to take a bath when ill against the advice of his doctor.

As a writer, Pliny was a minor talent, and the majority of his friends were of similar capacity. Yet he claimed to have lived at a time when the liberal arts flourished in Rome as never before, complacently referring to himself and his circle. “Under the specious garb of mutual criticism,” wrote classicist Sir Ronald Syme of Pliny’s gang, “mutual flattery paraded unashamed.”

From this recalcitrant material, Daisy Dunn has written an enthralling and ambitious book. At its heart is a sympathetic, but not uncritical, biography of Pliny the Younger. Yet it offers so much more: the life of Pliny the Elder, and a lucid discussion of their works and cultural afterlives.

Avoiding a plodding chronological approach, the book is structured by the seasons of the year. One chapter ranges from Pliny the Younger appearing in court to scenes of poison and suicide, via perfume, imperialism, Stoic philosophy and immortality. Dunn has a great eye for a story, and writes wonderfully. “It was believed that women were at their lustiest in the summer, just as men were at their feeblest, and women so indifferent to sex in the colder months that, like an octopus gnawing its own foot (as one poet puts it), a man must resort to masturbating alone in his passionless house.” It is hard to resist such passages in this wonderful book.

In the Shadow of Vesuvius is published by William Collins at £20. To order your copy for £16.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop

Harry Sidebottom is the author of The Lost Ten (Zaffre, £12.99)