David Crane

The Elder, the better

In the Shadow of Vesuvius is a life of Pliny the Younger. But Dunn’s lively imagination and scatter-gun digressions are more in tune with his uncle’s

I couldn’t help thinking, as I read this book, of an old story, vaguely recalled from English A-level classes, about the poet and verse dramatist Gordon Bottomley. I can’t remember now which of his plays it concerns, but it must have been just after the notorious MP and swindler Horatio Bottomley had been imprisoned for fraud in 1922, because as the curtain fell on the final excruciating scene there was a shout from the audience: ‘My God, they’ve gaoled the wrong Bottomley!’

A reader is not going to get very far with Daisy Dunn’s new biography — the opening four lines, in fact — without a sinking sensation that the author has landed herself with the wrong Pliny. It feels very much as though this book was originally conceived as a dual biography; and even in its finished form, the figure of Pliny the Elder — soldier, administrator, admiral, naturalist, inexhaustible encyclopaedist and most famous victim of Vesuvius — looms large enough in the background to make his decent, rather timid and mildly self-congratulatory lawyer of a nephew seem pretty dull fare.

If it perhaps says it all that while the ‘Elder’ sailed into the eruption for a closer look the 17-year-old nephew stayed at home to read, it does mean that it was the Younger Pliny who got to tell the tale. Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus — to give him his full name — was born in Comum around AD 62 and, after studying under the influential rhetorician Quintilian, divided his adult life between the Roman courts and his country estates, working his way steadily but unspectacularly up the senatorial ladder during the dangerous reign of Domitian, before ending his days under the great Trajan with the governorship of Bithynia-Pontus on the Black Sea.

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