Pliny the Younger

Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, born Gaius Caecilius or Gaius Caecilius Cilo (61 – c. 113), better known as Pliny the Younger (/ˈplɪni/),[1] was a lawyer, author, and magistrate of Ancient Rome. Pliny's uncle, Pliny the Elder, helped raise and educate him.

Pliny the Younger
Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus
Statue of Pliny the Younger on the facade of Cathedral of S. Maria Maggiore in Como
Gaius Caecilius Cilo

61 AD
Diedc. 113 AD (aged approximately 52)
OccupationPolitician, judge, author
  • Lucius Caecilius Cilo (father)
  • Plinia Marcella (mother)

Pliny the Younger wrote hundreds of letters, of which 247 survive, and which are of great historical value. Some are addressed to reigning emperors or to notables such as the historian Tacitus. Pliny served as an imperial magistrate under Trajan (reigned 98–117),[2] and his letters to Trajan provide one of the few surviving records of the relationship between the imperial office and provincial governors.[3]

Pliny rose through a series of civil and military offices, the cursus honorum. He was a friend of the historian Tacitus and might have employed the biographer Suetonius on his staff. Pliny also came into contact with other well-known men of the period, including the philosophers Artemidorus and Euphrates the Stoic, during his time in Syria.[4]



Como and Lake Como in 1834, painted by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot

Pliny the Younger was born in Novum Comum (Como, Northern Italy) around 61 AD, the son of Lucius Caecilius Cilo, born there, and his wife Plinia Marcella, a sister of Pliny the Elder.[5] He was the grandson of Senator and landowner Gaius Caecilius, revered his uncle, Pliny the Elder (who at this time was extremely famous around the Roman Empire), and provided sketches of how his uncle worked on the Naturalis Historia.[6]

Cilo died at an early age, when Pliny was still young. As a result, the boy probably lived with his mother. His guardian and preceptor in charge of his education was Lucius Verginius Rufus,[7] famed for quelling a revolt against Nero in 68 AD. After being first tutored at home, Pliny went to Rome for further education. There he was taught rhetoric by Quintilian, a great teacher and author, and Nicetes Sacerdos of Smyrna. It was at this time that Pliny became closer to his uncle Pliny the Elder. When Pliny the Younger was 17 or 18, his uncle Pliny the Elder died attempting to rescue victims of the Vesuvius eruption, and the terms of the Elder Pliny's will passed his estate to his nephew. In the same document, the younger Pliny was adopted by his uncle. As a result, Pliny the Younger changed his name from Gaius Caecilius Cilo to Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus (his official title was Gaius Plinius Luci filius Caecilius Secundus).[8]

The Younger Pliny Reproved, colourized copperplate print by Thomas Burke (1749–1815)

There is some evidence that Pliny had a sibling. A memorial erected in Como (now CIL V, 5279) repeats the terms of a will by which the aedile Lucius Caecilius Cilo, son of Lucius, established a fund, the interest of which was to buy oil (used for soap) for the baths of the people of Como. The trustees are apparently named in the inscription: "L. Caecilius Valens and P. Caecilius Secundus, sons of Lucius, and the contubernalis Lutulla." The word contubernalis describing Lutulla is the military term meaning "tent-mate", which can only mean that she was living with Lucius, not as his wife. The first man mentioned, L. Caecilius Valens, is probably the older son. Pliny the Younger confirms[9] that he was a trustee for the largesse "of my ancestors". It seems unknown to Pliny the Elder, so Valens' mother was probably not his sister Plinia; perhaps Valens was Lutulla's son from an earlier relationship.[citation needed]


Pliny the Younger married three times, firstly, when he was very young (about 18), to a stepdaughter of Veccius Proculus, who died at age 37; secondly, at an unknown date, to the daughter of Pompeia Celerina; and thirdly to Calpurnia, daughter of Calpurnius and granddaughter of Calpurnius Fabatus of Comum. Letters survive in which Pliny recorded this last marriage taking place, his attachment to Calpurnia, and his sadness when she miscarried their child.[10]


Pliny is thought to have died suddenly during his convention in Bithynia-Pontus, around 113 AD, since no events referred to in his letters date later than that.[11]


Pliny was by birth of equestrian rank, that is, a member of the aristocratic order of equites (knights), the lower (beneath the senatorial order) of the two Roman aristocratic orders that monopolised senior civil and military offices during the early Empire. His career began at the age of 18 and initially followed a normal equestrian route. But, unlike most equestrians, he achieved entry into the upper order by being elected Quaestor in his late twenties.[12] (See Career summary below.)

Pliny was active in the Roman legal system, especially in the sphere of the Roman centumviral court, which dealt with inheritance cases. Later, he was a well-known prosecutor and defender at the trials of a series of provincial governors, including Baebius Massa, governor of Baetica; Marius Priscus, governor of Africa; Gaius Caecilius Classicus, governor of Baetica; and most ironically in light of his later appointment to this province, Gaius Julius Bassus and Varenus Rufus, both governors of Bithynia and Pontus.[13]

Pliny's career is commonly considered as a summary of the main Roman public charges and is the best-documented example from this period, offering proof for many aspects of imperial culture. Effectively, Pliny crossed all the principal fields of the organization of the early Roman Empire. It is an achievement for a man to have not only survived the reigns of several disparate emperors, especially the much-detested Domitian, but also to have risen in rank throughout.[14]

Career summary

c. 81One of the presiding judges in the centumviral court (decemvir litibus iudicandis)
c. 81Tribunus militum (staff officer) of Legio III Gallica in Syria, probably for six months
80sOfficer of the noble order of knights (sevir equitum Romanorum)
Later 80sEntered the Senate
88 or 89Quaestor attached to the Emperor's staff (quaestor imperatoris)
91Tribune of the People (tribunus plebis)
94–96Prefect of the military treasury (praefectus aerarii militaris)
98–100Prefect of the treasury of Saturn (praefectus aerari Saturni)
100Suffect consul with Cornutus Tertullus
103–104Publicly elected Augur
104–106Superintendent for the banks of the Tiber (curator alvei Tiberis)
104–107Three times a member of Trajan's judicial council.
110The imperial governor (legatus Augusti) of Bithynia et Pontus province


Pliny wrote his first work, a tragedy in Greek, at age 14.[15] Additionally, in the course of his life, he wrote numerous poems, most of which are lost. He was also known as a notable orator; though he professed himself a follower of Cicero, Pliny's prose was more magniloquent and less direct than Cicero's.

Pliny's only oration that now survives is the Panegyricus Traiani. This was delivered in the Senate in 100 and is a description of Trajan's figure and actions in an adulatory and emphatic form, especially contrasting him with the Emperor Domitian. It is, however, a relevant document that reveals many details about the Emperor's actions in several fields of his administrative power such as taxes, justice, military discipline, and commerce. Recalling the speech in one of his letters, Pliny shrewdly defines his own motives thus:

I hoped in the first place to encourage our Emperor in his virtues by a sincere tribute and, secondly, to show his successors what path to follow to win the same renown, not by offering instruction but by setting his example before them. To proffer advice on an Emperor's duties might be a noble enterprise, but it would be a heavy responsibility verging on insolence, whereas to praise an excellent ruler (optimum principem) and thereby shine a beacon on the path posterity should follow would be equally effective without appearing presumptuous.[16]


Eruption of Vesuvius, 1826 painting by I.C. Dahl

The largest surviving body of Pliny's work is his Epistulae (Letters), a series of personal missives directed to his friends and associates. These letters are a unique testimony of Roman administrative history and everyday life in the 1st century AD. Especially noteworthy among the letters are two in which he describes the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in October 79, during which his uncle Pliny the Elder died (Epistulae VI.16, VI.20), and one in which he asks the Emperor for instructions regarding official policy concerning Christians (Epistulae X.96).

Epistles concerning the eruption of Mount Vesuvius

Pliny wrote the two letters describing the eruption of Mount Vesuvius approximately 25 years after the event, and both were sent in response to the request of his friend, the historian Tacitus, who wanted to know more about Pliny the Elder's death. The two letters have great historical value due to their accurate description of the Vesuvius eruption; Pliny's attention to detail in the letters about Vesuvius is so keen that modern volcanologists describe those types of eruptions as "Plinian eruptions".[17]

Epistle concerning the Christian religion

As the Roman governor of Bithynia-Pontus (now in modern Turkey) Pliny wrote a letter to Emperor Trajan around 112 AD and asked for counsel on dealing with Christians. In the letter (Epistulae X.96), Pliny detailed an account of how he conducted trials of suspected Christians who appeared before him as a result of anonymous accusations and asked for the Emperor's guidance on how they should be treated.[18] Pliny had never performed a legal investigation of Christians and thus consulted Trajan in order to be on solid ground regarding his actions. Pliny saved his letters and Trajan's replies[19] and these are the earliest surviving Roman documents to refer to early Christians.[20]

Epistle concerning strategic voting

Voting theorists and historians of the social choice note Pliny’s first-of-its-kind analysis of strategic voting, when voters declare false preferences in order to thwart the election of competitors to favorites.[21][22][23] On June 24, 105, Pliny wrote a letter to Titius Aristo,[24] where he describes a Senate debate on the choice of sentence for a crime: execution, exile or leniency. Since the Senate procedure was designed for two alternatives only, the three options enabled to manipulate the outcome by choosing the order of pairwise votes. For detailed analysis of Pliny’s argument see.[25]


The first – incomplete – edition of Pliny's Epistles was published in Italy in 1471. Sometime between 1495 and 1500 Giovanni Giocondo discovered a manuscript in Paris of Pliny's tenth book of letters, containing his correspondence with Trajan, and published it in Paris, dedicating the work to Louis XII. The first complete edition was produced by the press of Aldus Manutius in 1508.[26] (See Editio princeps for details.)

Villas, farms and estates

View of Bellagio in Lake Como. The institution on the hill is Villa Serbelloni, believed to have been constructed on the site of Pliny's villa "Tragedy."

Being wealthy, Pliny owned many villas and wrote in detail about his villa near Ostia, at Laurentium.[27] Others were the one in Lake Como named "Tragedy" because of its location high on a hill,[clarification needed] and, on the shore of the lake, "Comedy," so called because it was sited low down.[28] Pliny's main estate in Italy was in the north of Umbria, by Tifernum Tiberinum, under the passes of Bocca Trabaria and Bocca Serriola, where wood was harvested for Roman ships and sent to Rome via the Tiber.[29]

According to G. E. M. de Ste. Croix, as a response to "declining returns from his north Italian farms", Pliny begins to contemplate switching the administration of his estate to a sharecropping system called colonia partiaria. Under the sharecropping system Pliny's slaves would act as overseers. Ste. Croix speculated this may have been an intermediary period before serfdom fully replaces slavery in later centuries.[30]

See also


  1. Melvyn Bragg (December 12, 2013). "Pliny the Younger". In Our Time (Podcast). BBC Radio 4. Retrieved January 26, 2020.
  2. Bennett, Julian (1997). Trajan: Optimus Princeps: A Life and Times. New York & London: Routledge. pp. 113–125.
  3. John W. Roberts, ed. (2007). "Pliny the Younger". The Oxford Dictionary of the Classical World. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780192801463. Retrieved March 24, 2014. The tenth bk. of letters contains all of Pliny's correspondence with Trajan. [...] The provincial letters are the only such dossier surviving entire, and are a major source for understanding Roman provincial government. (subscription required)
  4. Shelton, Jo-Ann (2013). The Women of Pliny's Letters. Women of the Ancient World Series. New York, NY: Rutledge. pp. 159–161. ISBN 978-0-203-09812-7.
  5. Salway, B. (1994). Journal of Roman Studies. 84. pp. 124–145.
  6. Pliny Letters 3.5.8–12. See English translation (Plinius the Elder (2)) and Latin text (C. PLINII CAECILII SECVNDI EPISTVLARVM LIBER TERTIVS).
  7. Pliny Letters 2.1.1. See English translation ().
  8. Radice, Betty (1975). The Letters of the Younger Pliny. Penguin Classics. p. 13.
  9. "I.8, To Saturninus". Letters. I am compelled to the discourse of my own largesse, as well as those of my ancestors.
  10. Pliny. Letters. p. 8.10.
  11. Hurley, Donna.W (2011). Suetonius The Caesars. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company. pp. x. ISBN 978-1-60384-313-3.
  12. Cf. Pliny: A Self-Portrait in Letters, The Folio Society, London (1978), Intro. pp.9–11
  13. Cf. Pliny: A Self-Portrait in Letters, Intro. pp.10–16
  14. Cf. op. cit., Intro. p.15-18
  15. "quin etiam quattuordecim natus annos Graecam tragoediam scripsi.": Epistulae VII. iv
  16. Epistulae III. xviii, here translated by Betty Radice, The Letters of the Younger Pliny, Penguin Classics (1975), p. 104
  17. "VHP Photo Glossary: Plinian eruption". United States Geological Survey. Retrieved June 8, 2010.
  18. The Early Christian Church Volume 1 by Philip Carrington (2011) ISBN 0521166411 Cambridge Univ Press p. 429
  19. Pagan Rome and the Early Christians by Stephen Benko (1986) ISBN 0253203856 pp. 5–7
  20. St. Croix, G.E.M (November 1963). "Why Were the Early Christians Persecuted?". Past & Present. 26 (26): 6–38. doi:10.1093/past/26.1.6. JSTOR 649902.
  21. McLean, Iain; Urken, Arnold Bernard; Hewitt, Fiona, eds. (1995). Classics of social choice. Ann Arbor MI: University of Michigan Press. doi:10.3998/MPUB.12736. ISBN 9780472104505. S2CID 142220732.
  22. Nurmi, Hannu (1999). Voting paradoxes and how to deal with them. Berlin: Springer. doi:10.1007/978-3-662-03782-9. ISBN 978-3-642-08551-2. S2CID 2488394.
  23. Gehrlein, William V.; Lepelley, Dominique (2011). Voting paradoxes and group coherence. Berlin: Springer. doi:10.1007/978-3-642-03107-6. ISBN 9783642031076. S2CID 124511799.
  24. Letters by Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus. Book 8. Retrieved January 10, 2021.
  25. Tangian, Andranik (2020). "Pliny's logical analysis of a Senate hearing". Analytical theory of democracy. Vol. 1. Studies in Choice and Welfare. Cham, Switzerland: Springer. pp. 59–62. doi:10.1007/978-3-030-39691-6. ISBN 978-3-030-39690-9.
  26. "Iohannem Iucundum architectum illum Veronensem, quem annos 1494–1506 in Gallia egisse novimus, codicem decem librorum Parisiis invenisse testis est Gulielmus Budaeus...Eodem ferme tempore Venetias ad Aldum Manutium editionem suam parantem, quae anno 1508 proditura erat, epistulas ex eodem vetustissimo codice descriptas misit ipse Iucundus." (R.A.B. Mynors, C. Plini Caecili Secundi Epistularum Libri Decem, Oxford University Press (1976), Praefatio xviii–xix
  27. Letter 2.17
  28. de la Ruffinière Du Prey, Pierre (1994). The villas of Pliny from antiquity to posterity (illustrated ed.). University of Chicago Press. p. 5. ISBN 978-0-226-17300-9.
  29. Letter 4.1
  30. Byres, T. J. (1983). Sharecropping and Sharecroppers. /pl: Frank Cass. p. 7. ISBN 1135780021. Retrieved August 4, 2019.

Further reading