Editors note. In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and guests discussed Pliny the Younger. As always the programme is available to listen to online or download to keep.


    Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the Roman letter-writer Pliny the Younger.


    I’m afraid this will be rather short.  I’m sitting in front of a fire, bunged up with a chesty cold, put on antibiotics, taking a cough mixture, dreaming of a hot toddy, having fed on medicines for the last day or two.  I usually manage to miss these little personal calamities of winter, but it got me this time.

    One of the interesting things about Pliny’s letters is their lack of modesty.  Roy Gibson pointed out that modesty and self-effacement were not considered as virtuous at that time.  He suggested that Christianity brought that in. Christianity was one of a number of sects, and the notion of it eventually eating up the Roman Empire and taking the Roman Empire into the Holy Roman Empire and beyond would not have crossed their minds, even persons as perspicacious as Pliny the Younger.

    Pliny the Elder was of course his uncle, but I did find it a little odd when Catharine Edwards referred to him as Uncle Pliny.  I suppose that was a term two thousand years ago, but it seems so contemporaneous.  But then a lot of the past is contemporaneous.

    Cicero later wrote letters having published his great law cases – one of which, Pro Milone, was my set book for A-levels and a monster it was – and he too was brought into play in Pliny’s constant and almost compulsive comparisons with the great persons of letters that he saw around him; Tacitus, for instance, was also often referred to.

    Pliny died suddenly at the age of fifty-two and no-one seems to know why.  Again, this was pointed out by the contributors that it was not a bad age.  Life expectancy at the time was thirty-five.  Given that so many people died before ten, that meant that there were quite a few who pushed into their fifties, but very few who got any further.

    I thought that they were rather hard on Pliny the Elder (as I keep calling him) when they said that he didn’t have a plan when he went over to Vesuvius, and instead spent the night in bed and woke up to find the wind in the wrong direction, etc.  After all, he’d gone out to look at a volcanic eruption, the like of which he had never seen before and had never been witnessed before, and to think that he’d worked it all out in advance is asking a bit much of the old boy.

    That incident is curious for one other thing.  Pliny’s description is so vivid and detailed, and yet it took about 1800 years for people to believe that it had happened like that.  That particular sort of volcano was not observed as closely until the early twentieth century, and it was only then that the brilliance of Pliny’s observation was given the credit it deserved.

    So there we are.  Reading Plato for the first programme in the New Year.

    Best wishes
    Melvyn Bragg


    Download this episode to keep from the In Our Time podcast page

    Visit the In Our Time website

    Follow Radio 4 on Twitter and Facebook

    The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites

    Tagged with:


    This entry is now closed for comments.

    • Comment number 2. Posted by Christmas Evans

      on 17 Dec 2013 19:00

      I was sorry more was not made of Pliny's letter to Trajan about the Christians as it's an important document showing what Christian practice was in the early part of the second century in this part of the Empire where Christianity was becoming widespread, as well as illustrating the problems they faced the Empire with. Christians were seen in some quarters as bad for business. Pliny's letter indicates that some Christians were deserting for he remarks that fodder for animals to be sacrificed in pagan rites was once again finding a market in some villages. Christians met morning and evening, Pliny says, reciting prayers (or singing a hymn?), sharing food and "that they bound themselves with an oath ('sacramentum') not for any crime, but not to commit theft or robbery or adultery, not to break their word, and not to deny a deposit when demanded". Apparently they gave up the sharing food together after Pliny's prohibition. Informers gave lists of Christians to Pliny who, unless they denied their faith and cursed Christ, or were Roman citizens, were executed. However, he clearly thought their activities were pretty harmless. Trajan endorses this but doesn't like anonymous informing. It's a fascinating letter and a pity we don't have more like them. No one at this stage would have guessed that the Emperor himself would one day be a Christian.

      • This entry is now closed for comments. Number of positive ratings for comment 2: 0
      • This entry is now closed for comments. Number of negative ratings for comment 2: 0
    • Comment number 1. Posted by John Thompson

      on 16 Dec 2013 16:28

      His accounts of Pompeii and the treatment of early Christians are really enlightening.His letter to Trajan,says,” For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it.”He as a governor was just covering his back and seeking the emperor’s advice on the best way to deal with the Christians, informing Trajan what he had already done.Worshipping the Roman gods in temples was about upholding the order of the state. Christians with their collegia and eucharists were classed as outlaws.

      With the eruption of Vesuvius,his belated account to Trajan decades later is interesting for describing the eruption accurately and depicting his uncle’s end.Pliny the Elder was drawn like a cat out of scientific curiosity to see the eruption in close-up.Pliny the Younger inherited his great uncle’s name and estate.What comes out of the letters mostly is the details of Imperial Roman life,and his relationships with emperor Trajan and Tacitus.He was lucky in his patrons,Pliny the Elder,Domitian and Trajan, and in his tutors.He’d mastered rhetoric,he’d done readings of his works.He sought Trajan’s help in building projects,whether unfinished or needing to start again.
      He often asked for leave to attend to his estates due to bad harvests.

      He rose to become a Senator which is impressive from someone of his background, the equestrian order, the 2nd tier of the aristocracy.Letters were objective confirmation of the will of the emperor to those he replied to or those he corresponded with.”It is my custom to refer all my difficulties to you,sir, for no one is more able to resolve my doubts and inform my ignorance “, said Pliny to Trajan when asking how best to deal with Christians.Systems of trust and patronage built up,levelsof influence if you could get the emperor’s ear or eye. Friendship was everything to the Romans,you invited your friends to dinner,played host.Trajan despatched Pliny to Bithynia to check extravagance and waste in the deployment of municipal funds due to the status requirements of social elites.Pliny the Younger made generous benefactions to the community.Political administration and estate management were separated between Senators like Pliny and freedmen and slaves,who did the latter.

      His annual income was 2 million sesterces,he was never short of cash,and bought up a neighbouring estate,taking a loan from his mother-in-law.Though most of his money was
      taken up in land,he also could rely on money out on loan.Derelict land went at a bargain price due to windfalls brought about by war devastation,neglect,poor management,confiscation by
      court action,seizure.Pliny describes candidates for office scurrying about making quick purchases.Political crises drove up the price of land.A law against bribery was instated by
      Trajan to limit candidates gross expenditure.Pliny was in an aristocratic circle that drew back
      from open opposition in favour of survival or continuance in public life,however bad the emperor. Pliny obtained for his friends like Suetonius,commissions for work,without reference to the emperor.Pliny was able to fill in a blank warrant for a commission with names.The Roman provinces were operated by a close-knit ruling circle,men of experience in government.All important appointments were only made by the emperor.Pliny was an important patron writing to friends asking them to take protégés onto their staffs.Pride in his home town,Como, left money in his will to build a library,to maintain baths,feed the poor.

      • This entry is now closed for comments. Number of positive ratings for comment 1: 0
      • This entry is now closed for comments. Number of negative ratings for comment 1: 0

    More Posts