Pliny the Elder (AD 23–79)

Roman author, naturalist and natural philosopher Gaius Plinius Secundus, a.k.a. 'Pliny the Elder’ (AD 23–79) came of a wealthy north Italian family based around Novum Comum (Como). Educated in Rome, he served in the army in Germany alongside the future emperor Titus, rising to command a cavalry regiment. 

During his time in the military, Pliny spent most of his spare time studying and investigating natural and geographic phenomena in the field. 

After he returned to Rome to study law he continued his other studies, and may have filled official administrative postings as procurator (governor of an imperial province) in Gallia Narbonensis (southeastern France), Africa (modern-day Tunisia and Libya), Hispania Tarraconensis, which covered much of the northern part of the Iberian Peninsula, and Gallia Belgica (Belgium and Luxembourg with areas along the French and German borders).

Over his lifetime, he produced 160 volumes of manuscript, which were spun off into a variety of works covering a variety of subjects, including grammar, rhetoric and history, though only the 37-volume Historia Naturalis, his universal encyclopedia that collected much of the general knowledge of his time, has survived.

In one of the most extensive single works to have survived from ancient times Pliny set out to cover the entire field of ancient knowledge, drawing on the best available authorities as well as his own prior works, personal experiences and observations. 

Encompassing the fields of botany, zoology, astronomy, geology, mineralogy, human inventions and social institutions, it remains a standard work on the advances in technology and understanding of natural phenomena in Roman times.

While Pliny did not marry and had no natural heir, he adopted his nephew, who came to be known as Pliny the Younger, after his brother-in-law’s death in 71

His death in 79 came in the wake of the eruption of Vesuvius which destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum, though the exact circumstances are unclear. He may have been the commander of the Roman fleet at Misenum when the eruption occurred and seems to have landed at Stabiae (Castellamare) so that he could witness the phenomenon more closely. 

One contemporary account has him stifled by vapours rolling down the hill; another has his ship trapped in port by the pyroclastic surge while a third has him overcome while attempting to rescue friends trapped ashore. 

The current medical consensus seems to be that the overweight writer, who was also an asthmatic, had a fatal heart attack. 


Chambers Biographical Dictionary


© Ian Hughes 2017