Last reviewed: June 2018
Roman orator and letter writer
Comum (now Como, Italy)
Bithynia, Asia Minor (now in Turkey)
Pliny (PLIN-ee) the Younger, or Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, was born in Comum, Italy, in 61 Statue of Pliny the Younger.
Statue of Pliny the Younger.
Pliny’s early education was overseen by his mother, his uncle, and his tutor, Virginius Rufus. From his early years Pliny devoted himself to writing; in one letter he states that he wrote a tragedy in Greek when he was fourteen. A lesson assignment given him by his uncle on the day in 79 when Vesuvius erupted and buried Pompeii kept Pliny from accompanying his scientifically curious uncle to the site of that cataclysm and thus spared him from the disaster that killed his uncle. Pliny’s later education was at least in part guided by the greatest of Roman teachers, Quintilian.
At the age of eighteen Pliny began to practice law in Rome. Most of his legal career was spent pleading before the court of the Centumviri, and thus he dealt primarily with cases having to do with wills and inheritances. He did deal with other kinds of cases, however, and achieved a wide reputation as a lawyer. He is known to have pleaded before the Senate.
Thanks to the influence of his family and to his own talents, Pliny from his earliest years served in a succession of important public offices. While a young man he was a military tribune in Syria, where he heard the Stoic philosophers. Afterward, he held the governmental position of quaestor and that of praetor (around 93), and in 100 he achieved the consulship. In honor of his appointment to that position he wrote his Panegyric, a rather stilted oration in praise of Emperor Trajan, who had given him the post. The Panegyric is the only surviving oration of the many that Pliny published. Other offices Pliny held from time to time were the prefecture of the military treasury, the prefecture of the state treasury, the custodianship of the banks and channel of the Tiber, the propraetorship of Pontica, and, about 111, the governorship of Bithynia—a position to which he was appointed, it is thought, because of his skill in fiscal matters. (The finances of Bithynia were in some disorder.) It is to his tenure as governor of Bithynia that we owe Pliny’s most important single letter (10.96), his inquiry to Emperor Trajan as to how he should treat members of the young but growing and troublesome Christian sect.
Throughout his life Pliny was a model of the active Roman gentleman. This fact is reflected in great detail in the 338 surviving texts in the ten books of his letters. Books 1 through 9 comprise letters to various friends, including the historians Tacitus and Suetonius. Book 10, which was probably published by someone other than Pliny, contains letters from Pliny to Trajan concerning his governorship of Bithynia. Book 10 also includes many of Trajan’s replies to Pliny.
Pliny was a patron of the arts—Martial was one of the poets he helped at one time or another—a sponsor of public works, a good landlord, a helpful and generous friend, a public-spirited civil servant, an astute lawyer, an amateur scholar (the great historian Tacitus was a close associate), a careful overseer of his wealth and estates, a connoisseur of the good life, and an observer of the bounties and beauties of nature. He married two or three times but had no children. His second wife was Calpurnia, granddaughter of Calpurnius Fabatus. She was much younger than her husband and reputed to have been an accomplished woman. Pliny praises her for her kind attentions to him.