BMCR 2020.11.22

Man of high empire: the life of Pliny the Younger

, Man of high empire: the life of Pliny the Younger. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. xviii, 298. ISBN 9780199948192 $29.95.


This innovative biography of Pliny the Younger, written by a renowned authority on his letters, offers a complex, updated and clear-sighted portrait not only of the man, but also of his times. The point of departure in the first chapter (“Pliny the Younger: Life and Letters”) is not classical antiquity, but a late medieval controversy about whether the Plinii came from Como or Verona. The anecdote about their statues on the façade of the Cathedral of Como is as fascinating as it is ironic: “The civic leaders of Como soon had a reason to regret the erection of a statue to the Younger on the façade of their handsome cathedral” (3) due to Pliny’s letter to Trajan about the Christians. This overture sets the tone of the book, with its interest in locale and a wide temporal span, as well as its captivating style and enjoyable narration. After this prelude, Gibson surveys the biographies of Pliny the Younger from the Middle Ages to the present day. In addition, he introduces us to his own approach, based on locale rather than on chronology. A section is dedicated to the main source of his book, Pliny’s Letters, which includes insightful observations on how to read them, as they offer a “controlled and positive version of the self” (7): Gibson finds an equilibrium regarding the required “level of scepticism” (8). A surprise awaits us in the final section: Pliny’s figure will be compared not only with obvious foils (Cicero and Tacitus), but also with rather unexpected individuals, among whom are the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, whose “thoughts on the emptiness of a life of public ambition will provide a counterpoint to the senatorial world view” (8), and Augustine of Hippo, whose Confessions illuminate the changes that Pliny’s world eventually underwent in Late Antiquity. Both Epictetus and Augustine provide this biography with thought-provoking contrasting personae, sometimes to the detriment of other figures such as Martial.[1]

Readers interested only in the life of Pliny may jump to the third chapter (as invited by the author himself on page xvi), but they will then miss the stimulating reflections on the art of biography in Chapter 2, “Writing a Modern Biography of an Ancient Roman”. There, Gibson reflects on the objectives of traditional accounts of Pliny’s life and on the most likely contemporary expectations when reading a biography: are we readers interested in his cursus honorum and on the exact administrative status of the province he governed, or are we rather more keen on approaching the man, the person, his motives and circumstances? A major problem then arises: the insurmountable gap between our expectations as twenty-first century readers and what ancient texts tell us about individuals. To address this asymmetry, Gibson analyses what a modern biography is supposed to be and the resulting challenges for biographers of figures from antiquity. First, modern biographies construct their characters as “unique individuals”, whereas ancient texts present us with characters that are “too ‘integrated’ for modern tastes” (14). A further dissonance is the contemporary emphasis on child psychology and adult development, contrary to ancient biography, which was uninterested in childhood and social mobility. A further conceptual barrier is the reconstruction of an “inner life”: “any attempt to reconstruct some unique and richly detailed inner life is hampered not only by lack of evidence, but also by the fact that such reconstruction appears false to the set of values by which Pliny directed his life” (22). In view of these obstacles, Gibson proposes an original method to recreate Pliny’s unique portrait. He focuses on him through the lens of geography and landscape: by reading his life in relation to locale, the author liberates himself from the constraints and traps of modern biography while offering a glimpse of individuality. Whereas this approach may lead to some chronological overlapping, it averts the risk posed by “cradle to grave” accounts which might fill the narrative with speculation (24).

Thus, various phases and facets of Pliny’s life are examined through his relation to different places in the six chapters that follow, forming the core of the book: “Comum”, “Campania”, “Rome”, “Umbria and the Laurentine Shore”, “Return to Comum”, “Pontus-Bithynia”. There is also a chronological sequence: Chapters 3 and 4 (“Comum” and “Campania”) focus on Pliny’s childhood and youth; Chapters 5 (Rome) and 8 (Pontus-Bithynia) follow his political career. Chapters 6 and 7 (“Umbria and the Laurentine Shore” and “Return to Comum”) centre on more personal aspects within those periods, including his marriages.

Pliny’s childhood is explored in relation to his hometown, Comum, and its surroundings. Gibson offers an intricate depiction of the area and reflects on the impact of this locale and its symbolism on Pliny: for him, Comum and the Transpadana are imbued with a halo of moral uprightness, subtly exploited; in addition, his fascination with water, conspicuous throughout his oeuvre, can be related to his homeland’s landscape. Gibson examines the question of his natural father’s identity, Pliny’s education, and more significantly, the importance of guardianship in his career.

By focusing on Pliny’s account of the eruption of Vesuvius and the Elder’s death in Chapter 4 (“Campania”), Gibson not only offers an updated and thrilling story of that momentous event, but also tackles questions such has Pliny’s relationship with his mother, his uncle and his connections. These two letters (6.16 and 6.20), together with the literary portraits included within them, also offer room for reflection on both uncle and nephew’s characters and careers.

The next chapter (“Rome”) develops this portrait of Pliny as a young man, his higher education and early practice of law in Rome. Connections, courtroom brilliance, devotion to study and other personal qualities granted him access to the Senate. While reviewing the mature Pliny’s cursus honorum—from the minor posts to his consulship and priesthood—and courtroom career, Gibson advances convincing arguments on his Domitianic years and the “new era” inaugurated by Nerva and Trajan. In so doing, he points to Pliny’s pessimism, which coincided with Trajan’s stay in the Urbs—a disillusion which contrasts with the optimism of his Panegyric and other contemporary accession texts. In this chapter, our attention is also drawn to the context and motivations underlying his marriages, to Rome’s literary milieu, as well as to Pliny’s “little interest” in Roman cityscape in the Letters: Rome is presented “as backdrop to his roles as senator and leading courtroom orator” (110) or “is the Rome of the elite litterateur” (112).

Contrarily, landscape is paramount in Chapter 6, “Umbria and the Laurentine Shore”, and 7, “Return to Comum”, which focus on different facets of Pliny’s life—“local, domestic and personal” (132)—during the period discussed earlier. Chapter 6 looks at Pliny’s Umbrian and Laurentine villas: the former is explored in relation to friendship and connections (including his supposed first marriage), as well as his “his tendency to apprehend the wondrous and the divine there” (139), and his activities as a landowner are also scrutinised. The latter presents us with a different Pliny, intent on “reading, writing, and the improvement of the self” (ibid.). All these aspects are interrelated and inseparable from the “Roman Pliny”, inasmuch as wealth, connections and literature were crucial in his political career.

In Chapter 7 the book takes us back to Comum: now it is Pliny’s euergetism in his homeland, from the mid-nineties to his departure to Pontus-Bithynia, that comes to the fore. The complex motivations for his munificence and its scope are examined in relation to his political career and alignment with the current emperor: “There is a clear correlation between Pliny’s suddenly reawakened investment in Comum and a desire to gain im­perial favour in Rome during the run from praetor in the 90s C.E. to consul in 100 C.E. and onwards to further prestigious posts” (172); his marriage to Calpurnia from Comum is to be understood in this same context of political change and personal aspirations: “Calpurnia reinforced ties to the virtuous north and offered the fresh slate of a young Transpadane bride with no ancestors in the Flavian senate” (173). Two sections on Lake Como and Pliny’s celebrity and posterity in the area complete this chapter.

A decade after his consulship, Pliny is sent by the emperor as governor of Pontus and Bithynia (Chapter 8). There, a different Pliny emerges thanks to the letters exchanged with Trajan that make up the last book of his Epistulae. This was not his first stay in the East, since he had served in Syria in his early military career; neither was this his first contact with the province’s political affairs, for he had taken part in trials involving his predecessors. Gibson analyses his attitudes towards the East and ponders the impact of his appointment on the local elites. He also reflects on Trajan’s motives for sending Pliny to this region, both in terms of the governor’s abilities and the emperor’s military and political plans. Reasons for the belated appointment are also put forward. The chapter sets as the background of Pliny’s post, an imperial administration in which letter-writing was a means of government. It also analyses the issues reported to Trajan, appraising both Pliny’s perception of the province and its endemic political, social and economic difficulties, but not overlooking the governed elite’s perspective. The leitmotifs of the volume, cityscape and landscape, are also present in this chapter, the latter being obliterated in favour of the former, in accordance with Pliny’s responsibilities as governor. Finally, Pliny meets the future—the Second Sophistic and the Christians—in Bithynia and Pontus: Gibson devotes some interesting pages to his relationship with Dio of Prusa and crowns the book with Pliny’s and Trajan’s much studied letters about a community of Christians in Pontus, in a neat ring-composition that takes us back to the beginning of the book.

The Envoi deals with Pliny’s death and ultimately reappraises the man in the light of the figures of Cicero, Tacitus, Epictetus and Augustine, but also of scholars (who have systematically and unfairly labelled him as “priggish”), artists and the author of the book himself, whose “joy” in reading the Letters and writing this biography is, significantly, the last word.

The volume furnishes copious supplementary material (maps, inspiring illustrations, appendices,[2] bibliography[3] and indexes[4]) that helps the reader pinpoint, visualise and reimagine Pliny’s world. Insight, perspicacity, wittiness, an eye for landscape are, in my judgement, the main assets of this enjoyable and evocative book, which will certainly be a source of inspiration.[5]


[1] Quoted several times, only one passage of his Epigrams is recorded in the “Index of Passages”.

[2] The “Timeline” is a synoptic view of the key moments in political history, events in Pliny’s life and in his ‘circle’: information about the dates of the letters and the publication of the books is postponed to the introduction of this appendix. It could have been useful for the non-specialist reader, however, to bear some of these questions in mind while reading Pliny’s life. The “Guide to Pliny’s Italy and Bithynia” offers an annotated archaeological and historical bibliography on the locales discussed in the book.

[3] The book is extraordinarily well documented, as demonstrated by the endnotes and bibliography. In the chapters themselves, few scholars are mentioned by name even if their exact words are quoted (Gibson systematically refers to them as “one scholar”, “one critic”, “one commentator” and similar expressions, postponing the reference to the endnotes). This increases the readability of the book, but, in a sense, plays down the impact of previous scholars.

[4] The indexes (of passages and general) are far from exhaustive, but nonetheless commendable and very useful. This is, of course, not a problem for digital users.

[5] This review is part of the Research Project “Formas de integración en el Mediterráneo romano. Vías informales de la inclusión de la diversidad en el ámbito político, religioso y cultural” (UPO‐1260377), co-funded by the Junta de Andalucía and the ERDF.