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Pliny the Younger

Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, born Gaius Caecilius or Gaius Caecilius Cilo (61 AD ca. 112 AD), better known as Pliny the Younger, was a lawyer, author, and magistrate of Ancient Rome. Pliny's uncle, Pliny the Elder, helped raise and educate him. They were both witnesses to the eruption of Vesuvius on 24 August 79 AD.

Pliny is known for his hundreds of surviving letters, which are an invaluable historical source for the time period. Many are addressed to reigning emperors or to notables such as the historian, Tacitus. Pliny himself was a notable figure, serving as an imperial magistrate under Trajan (reigned AD 98–117).[1] Pliny was considered an honest and moderate man, consistent in his pursuit of suspected Christian members according to Roman law, and rose through a series of Imperial civil and military offices, the cursus honorum (see below). He was a friend of the historian Tacitus and employed the biographer Suetonius in his staff. Pliny also came into contact with many other well-known men of the period, including the philosophers Artemidorus and Euphrates during his time in Syria.




Lago of Como]] in 1834, painted by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot Como in 2003, view from the lake The Younger Pliny Reproved, colorized copperplate print by Thomas Burke (1749 1815) Pliny the Younger was born in Novum Comum (Como, Northern Italy), the son of Lucius Caecilius Cilo, born there, and wife Plinia Marcella, a sister of Pliny the Elder.[2] He was the grandson of Senator and landowner Gaius Caecilius, born in Como around 61 AD. He revered his uncle, Pliny the Elder, and provides sketches of how his uncle worked on the Naturalis Historia.[3]

Pliny's father died at an early age when his son was still young; as a result, Pliny probably lived with his mother. His guardian and preceptor in charge of his education was Lucius Verginius Rufus, famed for quelling a revolt against Nero in 68 AD.

After being first tutored at home, Pliny went to Rome for further education. There he was taught rhetoric by Quintilian, a great teacher and author, and Nicetes Sacerdos of Smyrna. It was at this time that Pliny became closer to his uncle Pliny the Elder. When Pliny the Younger was 18, his uncle Pliny died attempting to rescue victims of the Vesuvius eruption, and the terms of the Elder Pliny's will passed his estate to his nephew. In the same document the younger Pliny was adopted by his uncle. As a result, Pliny the Younger changed his name from Gaius Caecilius Cilo to Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus (his official title was an even greater mouthful: Gaius Plinius Luci filius Caecilius Secundus).[4]

There is some evidence that Pliny had a sibling. But although Pliny the Younger uses Secundus as part of his name, this doesn't mean he is the second son : adopted sons took over the name of their adoption father. A memorial erected in Como (now CILV5279) repeats the terms of a will by which the aedile Lucius Caecilius Cilo, son of Lucius, established a fund, the interest of which was to buy oil (used for soap) for the baths of the people of Como. The trustees are apparently named in the inscription: L. Caecilius Valens and P. Caecilius Secundus, sons of Lucius, and the contubernalis Lutulla.[5]

The word contubernalis describing Lutulla is the military term meaning "tent-mate", which can only mean that she was living with Lucius, not as his wife. The first man mentioned, L. Caecilius Valens, is probably the older son. Pliny the Younger confirms[6] that he was a trustee for the largess "of my ancestors". The it seems unknown to Pliny the Elder, so Valens' mother was probably not his sister Plinia; perhaps Valens was Lutulla's son from an earlier relationship.

Adult life

Pliny the Younger married three times, firstly when he was very young, about eighteen, to a stepdaughter of Veccius Proculus, of whom he became a widower at age 37, secondly to the daughter of Pompeia Celerina, at an unknown date and thirdly to Calpurnia, daughter of Calpurnius and granddaughter of Calpurnus Fabatus of Comum. Letters survive in which Pliny records this latter marriage taking place, as well as his attachment to Calpurnia and his sadness when she miscarries their child.[7]

Pliny is thought to have died suddenly during his appointment in Bithynia-Pontus, around 112 AD, since no events referred to in his letters date later than that.[8]


Pliny was by birth of equestrian rank i.e. member of the noble order of equites (knights), the lower (beneath the senatorial order) of the two Roman aristocratic orders that monopolised senior civil and military offices during the early Empire. His career began at the age of eighteen and initially followed a normal equestrian route. But, unlike most equestrians, he achieved entry into the upper order by being elected Quaestor in his late twenties.[9] (See Career summary below.)

Pliny was active in the Roman legal system, especially in the sphere of the Roman centumviral court, which dealt with inheritance cases. Later, he was a well-known prosecutor and defender at the trials of a series of provincial governors, including Baebius Massa, governor of Baetica, Marius Priscus, the governor of Africa, Gaius Caecilius Classicus, governor of Baetica and most ironically in light of his later appointment to this province, Gaius Julius Bassus and Varenus Rufus, both governors of Bithynia-Pontus.[10]

Pliny's career is commonly considered as a summary of the main Roman public charges and is the best-documented example from this period, offering proof for many aspects of imperial culture. Effectively, Pliny crossed all the principal fields of the organization of the early Roman Empire. It is no mean achievement for a man to have not only survived the reigns of several disparate emperors, especially the much-detested Domitian, but also to have risen in rank throughout.[11]

Career summary

c. 81 One of the presiding judges in the centumviral court (decemvir litibus iudicandis)
c. 81 Tribunus militum (staff officer) of Legio III Gallica in Syria, probably for six months
80s Officer of the noble order of knights (sevir equitum Romanorum)
Later 80s Entered the Senate
88 or 89 Quaestor attached to the Emperor's staff (quaestor imperatoris)
91 Tribune of the People (tribunus plebis)
93 Praetor
94 96 Prefect of the military treasury (praefectus aerari militaris)
98 100 Prefect of the treasury of Saturn (praefectus aerari Saturni)
100 Consul with Cornutus Tertullus
103 Propraetor of Bithynia
103 104 Publicly elected Augur
104 106 Superintendent for the banks of the Tiber (curator alvei Tiberis)
104 107 Three times a member of Trajan's judicial council.
110 The imperial governor (legatus Augusti) of Bithynia et Pontus province


As a litt rateur, Pliny started writing at the age of fourteen, penning a tragedy in Greek.[12] In the course of his life he wrote a quantity of poetry, most of which was lost despite the great affection he had for it. Also known as a notable orator, he professed himself a follower of Cicero, but his prose was certainly more magniloquent and less direct than Cicero's. The only oration that now survives is the Panegyricus Traiani. This was pronounced in the Senate in 100 and is a description of Trajan's figure and actions in an adulatory and emphatic form, especially contrasting him with the Emperor Domitian. It is, however, a relevant document that allows us to know many details about the Emperor's actions in several fields of his administrative power such as taxes, justice, military discipline, and commerce. Recalling the speech in one of his letters, Pliny shrewdly defines his own motives thus:


Eruption of Vesuvius. Painting in 1826 by I.C. Dahl. The largest body of Pliny's work which survives is his Epistulae (Letters), a series of personal missives directed to his friends and associates. These letters are a unique testimony of Roman administrative history and everyday life in the 1st century AD. Especially noteworthy among the letters are two in which he describes the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in August 79, during which his uncle Pliny the Elder died (Epistulae VI.16, VI.20), and one in which he asks the Emperor for instructions regarding official policy concerning Christians (Epistulae X.96).

Epistles concerning the eruption of Mount Vesuvius

The two Letters which describe the eruption of Mount Vesuvius were written by Pliny approximately 25 years after the event, and both were sent in response to the request of his friend the historian Tacitus, who wanted to know more about Pliny the Elder's death. The two letters have a great historical value due to the accurate description of Vesuvius' eruption: Pliny's attention to detail in the letters about Vesuvius is so keen that modern volcanologists describe that type as Plinian eruptions.[13]

Epistle concerning the Christian Religion

In his correspondence with the emperor Trajan (Epistulae X.96; see Epistulae (Pliny)) he reported on his actions against the followers of Christ. He asks the Emperor for instructions dealing with Christians and explained that he forced Christians to curse Christ under painful torturous inquisition:

Pliny then explains to the Emperor how he questioned suspected Christians by torture and eventually sentenced them to death.[14][15] In light of the fact that Christianity was recognized as a sect of Judaism and as a threat to public order, it is therefore likely that, while his knowledge of Christianity itself had to be second-hand, several Christian authors assert he must have been aware of Jesus's existence, although he could not have been contemporary in time or place.[16][17][18] More important here, however, is the testimony by Pliny that non-Roman suspects be executed for their confession of being Christians:

This indicates that Jesus was worshiped, and that believers of Christ may be put to death for their beliefs, in a short period of the early second century by Roman jurisdiction. Pliny executed members of what were considered at the time a fanatical cult. This could lend circumstantial significance to the writings of early Christians. Being required to curse Christ is evidence that Pliny reported this as a means to force reactions of the suspect Christians under torturous inquisition. Also "a hymn to Christ as to a god" alleges that during that time Jesus had been accepted as both God and man.[16][17][18]


In France Giovanni Giocondo discovered a manuscript of Pliny the Younger's letters containing his correspondence with Trajan. He published it in Paris dedicating the work to Louis XII. Two Italian editions of Pliny's Epistles were published by Giocondo, one printed in Bologna in 1498 and one from the press of Aldus Manutius in 1508.[19]


View of Bellagio in Lake Como. The institution on the hill is Villa Serbelloni, believed to have been constructed on the site of Pliny's villa "Tragedy" Pliny loved villas, and, being wealthy, owned many, such as the one in Lake Como named "Tragedy" because of its situation high on a hill. Another, on the shore of the lake, was named "Comedy" because it was sited low down.[20]

Pliny's main estate in Italy was in the north of Umbria, under the passes of Bocca Trabaria and Bocca Serriola, where wood was cut for Roman ships and sent to Rome via the Tiber. This place was of strategic importance because Roman armies controlled the passes on the Apennines in that area.

See also


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