In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Pliny the Elder

  • Introduction
  • Life
  • Starting Points
  • Editions and Translations of the Natural History
  • Monographs
  • Collections of Essays
  • Reception

Classics Pliny the Elder
Aude Doody
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 October 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 October 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0194


Gaius Plinius Secundus or Pliny the Elder (b. 23/4–d. 79 CE) is famous for two things: his monumental Natural History (Historia naturalis), which describes the world in thirty-seven volumes, and his death in the eruption of Vesuvius, which was carefully described by his nephew, Pliny the Younger, in one of two letters about his uncle that have survived to us (Plin. Ep. 6.16). In the second of these letters, Pliny the Elder is described as a man who read insatiably and the author of a large number of lost works, including histories of the German Wars and of the later Julio-Claudian period, as well as a treatise on how to throw a javelin from a horse (Plin. Ep. 3.5). Born in Novum Comum in the Transpadane regions, Pliny the Elder served in Germany alongside the future emperor Titus, practiced law at Rome under Nero, and went on to a prominent career as an equestrian administrator under the Flavians, holding a series of important procuratorships, including that of Hispania Tarraconensis, and serving as commander of the fleet at Misenum. The Natural History is dedicated to Titus, and Pliny’s closeness to both Vespasian and Titus seems reflected in his political views in the work, most obviously in his animosity toward Nero and his court. The Natural History is a key document in the history of science and scholarship in Europe. In this encyclopedic text, Pliny gathers together and arranges data from his reading and from his experience to present an account of nature that has Roman concerns at its heart. Pliny is not particularly concerned with philosophical schools, though he is usually seen as influenced by Stoicism. Nature is knowable through a succession of itemized facts that he puts at the disposal of his readers, to encourage them to marvel at the wonderful and unexpected inventiveness of the natural world. The burden of his text can be seen as a moral or a political one: Pliny promotes a return to old Roman values and a renewed spirit of intellectual inquiry in the rhetorical passages of the text, and the work as a whole is dependent on, and produced in the service of, Roman imperial interests. The work is organized in thirty-seven volumes. The first contains the preface and—unusually—a list of the contents and sources for each of the ensuing volumes. The following thirty-six deal with the heavens (Book 2); geography (Books 3–6); humans and other living creatures (Books 7–11); plants (Books 12–19); medicines from plants (Books 20–27); medicines from living creatures (Books 28–32); and an account of metals, minerals, and gemstones and the art that has been produced from them (Books 33–37).


Pliny’s life and his death in the eruption of Vesuvius have been the subject of interest in their own right. Syme 1969 and Syme 1987 present the outlines of his career as an imperial administrator, while Reynolds 1986 provides a useful short summary of his life and work. Pliny is the subject of two important letters, one written by his nephew, Pliny the Younger, and the other, an account of his death attributed to Suetonius (but see Reeve 2011). Pliny the Younger’s aims in writing these letters affect how we should understand what he has to say about his uncle: Henderson 2002 and Gibson 2011 focus on Epistles 3.5, which describes Pliny’s life and writing, while Eco 1990 focuses on Epistles 6.16, addressed to Tacitus, which deals with Pliny the Elder’s death during the eruption of Vesuvius. These letters are also discussed in Citroni Marchetti 2011, which examines how Pliny presents himself in the Natural History.

  • Citroni Marchetti, Sandra. 2011. L’autore come personaggio. In La scienza della natura per un intellettuale romano: Studi su Plinio il Vecchio. By Sandra Citroni Marchetti, 302. Pisa, Italy: F. Serra.

    Discusses the image of Pliny, as man of the world and man of letters, that emerges from his preface and autobiographical passages from across the Natural History, setting them in the context of Pliny the Younger’s letters. An earlier version was published in French as “L’auteur en tant que personnage: Pline l’Ancien dans la Naturalis historia,” in Jeux de voix: Énonciation, intertextualité et intentionnalité dans la littérature antique, eds. Danielle Karin van Mal-Maeder, Alexandre Burnier, Loreto Núñez, and Florence Bertholet (Bern, Switzerland, and Frankfurt: Lang, 2009), 175–199.

  • Eco, Umberto. 1990. A portrait of the Elder as a young Pliny. In The limits of interpretation. By Umberto Eco, 123–136. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press.

    Offers an analysis of the narrative of the Younger Pliny’s letter to Tacitus about the death of his uncle, informed by semiotic theory, and published in his wide-ranging and important collection of essays. Interested in the Ego (Pliny the Younger as author and as semi-fictive subject in the text), the idea of narrative time, and the model readers that the letter addresses.

  • Gibson, Roy. 2011. Elder and better: The Naturalis historia and the Letters of the Younger Pliny. In Pliny the Elder: Themes and contexts. Edited by Roy K. Gibson and Ruth Morello, 187–205. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill.

    Examines Pliny the Younger’s references to the Natural History in Ep. 3.5 and across the Letters. Suggests Pliny the Younger had a high degree of familiarity and respect for the Natural History, and expected the same from his readers.

  • Henderson, John. 2002. Knowing someone through their books: Pliny on Uncle Pliny. Classical Philology 97.3: 256–284.

    DOI: 10.1086/449587

    Sets Ep. 3.5, on Pliny the Elder’s industrious mode of living and writing, against Ep. 3.1, on the more leisurely lifestyle of Vestricius Spurinna. Detailed close reading suggests that they are being used, and mildly caricatured, as contrasting examples for how to live well under the emperors.

  • Reeve, Michael. 2011. The Vita Plinii. In Pliny the Elder: Themes and contexts. Edited by Roy K. Gibson and Ruth Morello, 207–222. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill.

    Provides a new translation and edition of the short Life of Pliny, often attributed to Suetonius, which was routinely published in the early printed editions of the Natural History. Discusses the manuscript tradition and the evidence for the attribution to Suetonius.

  • Reynolds, Joyce. 1986. The Elder Pliny and his times. In Science in the early Roman Empire: Pliny the Elder, his sources and influence. Edited by Roger French and Frank Greenaway, 1–10. London: Croom Helm.

    Short, clear introduction to Pliny’s life and work. Suggests that his provincial background in the municipal aristocracy affected his attitudes to luxury and excess.

  • Syme, Ronald. 1969. Pliny the procurator. Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 73:201–236.

    DOI: 10.2307/311156

    Gives overview of earlier scholarship on the question of Pliny’s career. Suggests three periods of military service in Germany and a semiretirement from public life under Nero, followed by a series of procuratorships in Hispania Tarraconensis, Africa, and (more tentatively) Narbonensis and Belgica. Detailed discussion of evidence and its weaknesses.

  • Syme, Ronald. 1987. Carrière et amis consulaires de Pline. Helmantica 38:223–231.

    Succinct discussion of the administrative and military positions held by Pliny. Suggests figures mentioned in the letters of Pliny the Younger who may have been friends and allies of the Elder Pliny from Transpadane Gaul.

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