Pliny the Younger

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Pliny the Younger (Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus)
Como - Dom - Fassade - Plinius der Jüngere.jpg
Statue of Pliny the Younger on the façade of Cathedral of S. Maria Maggiore in Como.
Born61 AD
Diedc. 113 AD
OccupationPolitician, judge, author
ParentsLucius Caecilius Cilo and Plinia Marcella
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Pliny the Younger (Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus)
Como - Dom - Fassade - Plinius der Jüngere.jpg
Statue of Pliny the Younger on the façade of Cathedral of S. Maria Maggiore in Como.
Born61 AD
Diedc. 113 AD
OccupationPolitician, judge, author
ParentsLucius Caecilius Cilo and Plinia Marcella

Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, born Gaius Caecilius or Gaius Caecilius Cilo (61 – c. 113), better known as Pliny the Younger (/ˈplɪni/), was a lawyer, author, and magistrate of Ancient Rome. Pliny's uncle, Pliny the Elder, helped raise and educate him. Both Pliny the Elder and Younger were witnesses to the eruption of Vesuvius on August 24, 79 AD, during which the former died.

Pliny wrote hundreds of letters, many of which still survive, that are regarded as a historical source for the time period. Some are addressed to reigning emperors or to notables such as the historian Tacitus. Pliny served as an imperial magistrate under Trajan (reigned 98–117),[1] and his letters to Trajan provide one of the few surviving records of the relationship between the imperial office and provincial governors.[2]

Pliny was considered an honest and moderate man, consistent in his pursuit (torturing and executing) of suspected Christian members according to Roman law. He rose through a series of Imperial civil and military offices, the cursus honorum. He was a friend of the historian Tacitus and employed the biographer Suetonius in his staff. Pliny also came into contact with other well-known men of the period, including the philosophers Artemidorus and Euphrates during his time in Syria.[3]



City and 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.[4] He was the grandson of Senator and landowner Gaius Caecilius, born in Como around 61 AD. He revered his uncle, Pliny the Elder (who at this time was extremely famous around the Roman Empire), and provides sketches of how his uncle worked on the Naturalis Historia.[5]

Pliny's father died at an early age when Pliny 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 the Elder 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).[6]

There is some evidence that Pliny had a sibling. 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.[7][8]

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[9] that he was a trustee for the largess "of my ancestors". 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.[citation needed]

Adult life[edit]

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 Calpurnius 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.[10]

Pliny is thought to have died suddenly during his appointment in Bithynia-Pontus, around 113 AD, since no events referred to in his letters date later than that.[11]


Pliny was by birth of equestrian rank, that is, a member of the aristocratic 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.[12] (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.[13]

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 an 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.[14]

Career summary[edit]

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


As an author, Pliny started writing at the age of 14, penning a tragedy in Greek.[15] 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:

I hoped in the first place to encourage our Emperor in his virtues by a sincere tribute and, secondly, to show his successors what path to follow to win the same renown, not by offering instruction but by setting his example before them. 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 (optimum principem) and thereby shine a beacon on the path posterity should follow would be equally effective without appearing presumptuous.[16]


Main article: Epistulae (Pliny)
Eruption of Vesuvius, painting in 1826 by I.C. Dahl

The largest surviving body of Pliny's work 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[edit]

The two Letters describing 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.[17]

Epistle concerning the Christian Religion[edit]

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:

They were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and bound themselves to a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft, adultery, never to falsify their word, not to deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of a meal—but ordinary and innocent food.[18]

Pliny then explains to the Emperor how he questioned suspected Christians by torture and eventually sentenced them to death.[19] 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 a claimed Messiah or a "Christ", although he could not have been contemporary in time or place, and does not mention "Jesus".[20][21][22] Pliny wrote that non-Roman suspects should be executed for their confession of being Christians:

Even this practice, however, they had abandoned after the publication of my edict, by which, according to your orders, I had forbidden political associations. I therefore judged it so much more the necessary to extract the real truth, with the assistance of torture, from two female slaves, who were styled deaconesses: but I could discover nothing more than depraved and excessive superstition.[19][20]

In the meanwhile, the method I have observed towards those who have denounced to me as Christians is this: I interrogated them whether they were Christians; if they confessed it I repeated the question twice again, adding the threat of capital punishment; if they still persevered, I ordered them to be executed. For whatever the nature of their creed might be, I could at least feel not doubt that contumacy and inflexible obstinacy deserved chastisement. There were others possessed of the same folly; but because they were Roman citizens, I signed an order for them to be transferred to Rome.[18][19][20]

This indicates that a Messiah was worshipped, 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. Furthermore, "a hymn to Christ as to a god" alleges that during that time, a Messiah had been accepted by some as both God and man.[20][21][22]


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.[23]


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.[24]

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.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Julian Bennett, Trajan: optimus princeps: a life and times (New York & London: Routledge, 1997), pp. 113–125.
  2. ^ John W. Roberts, ed. (2007). "Pliny the Younger". The Oxford Dictionary of the Classical World. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780192801463. Retrieved 24 March 2014. "The tenth bk. of letters contains all of Pliny's correspondence with Trajan. ... The provincial letters are the only such dossier surviving entire, and are a major source for understanding Roman provincial government."  (subscription required)
  3. ^ Shelton, Jo-Ann (2013). The Women of Pliny's Letters. Women of the Ancient World Series. New York, NY: Rutledge. pp. 159–161. ISBN 978-0-203-09812-7. 
  4. ^ Salway, B. (1994) Journal of Roman Studies 84: 124–145.
  5. ^ Pliny Letters 3.5.8–12. See English translation (Plinius the Elder (2)) and Latin text (C. PLINII CAECILII SECVNDI EPISTVLARVM LIBER TERTIVS).
  6. ^ Betty Radice, The Letters of the Younger Pliny, Penguin Classics (1975), page 13
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ Fagan, Garrett G. (2002). Bathing in public in the Roman world (reprint, illustrated ed.). University of Michigan Press. p. 306. ISBN 978-0-472-08865-2. 
  9. ^ "I.8, To Saturninus". Letters. "I am compelled to discourse of my own largesse, as well as those of my ancestors." 
  10. ^ Pliny. Letters. p. 8.10. 
  11. ^ Hurley, Donna.W (2011). Suetonius The Caesars. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company. pp. x. ISBN 978-1-60384-313-3. 
  12. ^ Cf. Pliny: A Self-Portrait in Letters, The Folio Society, London (1978), Intro. pp.9–11
  13. ^ Cf. Pliny: A Self-Portrait in Letters, Intro. pp.10–16
  14. ^ Cf. op. cit., Intro. p.15-18
  15. ^ "quin etiam quattuordecim natus annos Graecam tragoediam scripsi.": ''Epistulae VII. iv
  16. ^ Epistulae III. xviii, here translated by Betty Radice, The Letters of the Younger Pliny, Penguin Classics (1975), p. 104
  17. ^ "VHP Photo Glossary: Plinian eruption". United States Geological Survey. Retrieved June 8, 2010. 
  18. ^ a b Pliny. Letters. p. 10.96. 
  19. ^ a b c Text of letter to the Emperor Trajan
  20. ^ a b c d Robert E. Van Voorst, Jesus outside the New Testament, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2000. pp 23–29
  21. ^ a b Paul Barnett, Title Finding the Historical Christ, Volume 3, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2009. pp 59–62
  22. ^ a b Gary R. Habermas, The historical Jesus: ancient evidence for the life of Christ, College Press, 1996. 197–200
  23. ^ "Iohannem Iucundum architectum illum Veronensem, quem annos 1494–1506 in Gallia egisse novimus, codicem decem librorum Parisiis invenisse testis est Gulielmus Budaeus...Eodem ferme tempore Venetias ad Aldum Manutium editionem suam parantem, quae anno 1508 proditura erat, epistulas ex eodem vetustissimo codice descriptas misit ipse Iucundus." (R.A.B. Mynors, C. Plini Caecili Secundi Epistularum Libri Decem, Oxford University Press (1976), Praefatio xviii–xix
  24. ^ de la Ruffinière Du Prey, Pierre (1994). The villas of Pliny from antiquity to posterity (illustrated ed.). University of Chicago Press. p. 5. ISBN 978-0-226-17300-9. 

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