In his generosity and his vanity, his tolerance and his petty-mindedness, Pliny comes across in his letters as a fully recognisable human being, someone you could meet any day of the 21st-century week. But then he’ll say something that reminds you just how alien to us ancient Roman culture in many respects was – the rights and wrongs of slavery, empire or suicide. He’s full of admiration, for instance, for a woman who tied herself to her husband and leaped into Lake Como, drowning them both, because the man had incurable genital ulcers. This simultaneous proximity and distance – this parallax view – has material manifestations too. One of the many bodies of water that fascinated Pliny was a lake near Ameria (now Amelia) in Umbria, ‘perfectly round and regular in shape’, pale blue in colour, and with floating islands that cows would wander onto, drift across to the other side and wander off again. It sounds unlikely – though the Uru people live on floating islands made from reeds on Lake Titicaca in Peru and Bolivia – but there’s no way to check Pliny’s story, because the lake in question has shrivelled over the past 1900 years, and is now a murky pond barely fifty metres across.
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.
Dunn is a trained classicist, knows her subject inside out and is equally at home with the letters or the Renaissance cult of the Plinys — but that is in a sense the problem. It is possible that Pliny specialists could successfully navigate these waters, but for general readers who, at any point in the book, are likely to find themselves swept up on a tide of associative ideas that might range in just a handful of pages from a Pliny dinner party and the prophylactic powers of lettuce to Cowper, Montaigne, Hadrian’s Wall, Hadrian’s wife, Suetonius, giant oysters and Sigmund Freud, there is a real danger of feeling not just at sea but heading towards Pompeii on a particularly bad day in AD 79.
Dunn has given us a delightful new biography of this priggish, rather humourless and yet somehow very likeable Roman, as well as a vivid description of the dramatic times he lived in. Thoroughly recommended.
It is a story that we only know in such detail through a description written 30 years later by Pliny the Younger and it is retold with vivid flair by the classicist Daisy Dunn at the start of this, her second book, after a well-received biography of the poet Catullus. The book really should be called In the Shadow of My Uncle, however, since the younger Pliny, a lawyer, frustrated poet and writer of hundreds of letters, emerges as a bit of a bore. Dunn knits their lives together well and analyses the influence that they would have later on scholars from the Italian Renaissance to the English Romantic poets, but the finger flicks more speedily through the pages when her focus is on the younger one.
A sophisticated structure is not the sole reason for this book’s success. Dunn also knows how to work a sentence. Without ever veering into historical fiction, she consistently succeeds in bringing what might otherwise seem dusty and remote to vivid life. Writing about the road that linked Pliny’s Tuscan estate to Rome, for instance, she describes how ‘the Via Flaminia had recently been relaid with black basalt from the volcanic provinces just north of the region, each luscious slab swollen and organic, like a loaf that had burned and spilled over its tin’. It is not just immediacy that Dunn gives us, however. If there is much about Pliny’s world that she makes seem familiar, then there is just as much that she makes seem very strange. Putting the book constantly in its shadow is the Natural History, that incomparable compendium of Roman knowledge. Be it menstruation or painting or oysters, we see the world of the nephew through the eyes of the uncle. In the Shadow of Vesuvius may be a biography of Pliny the Younger, but it would have been considerably less stimulating without the presence of Pliny the Elder.