... immensely readable ... Dunn has deeply researched (her endnotes and bibliography extend to over 60 pages, and most of the book’s translations from Greek and Latin are her own), and her book serves both as a fascinating dual biography and as a detailed look at the broader Roman world ... starts with the eruption of a famous volcano and then looks forward and backward in time with equal skill, bringing alive both the old Flavian world the elder Pliny navigated with such skill and the new world of Trajan that Pliny the Younger did more than anybody to preserve. Both those worlds – and their respective Plinys – get a vigorous new history here.
If only Daisy Dunn’s book had been around back when I was an aspiring classicist. There were actually two Roman writers named Pliny — the Elder and the Younger, as they were known; an uncle and his nephew — and I could never keep them straight, let alone understand why they were worth studying. Dunn makes a persuasive case for both. Her ostensible subject is the Younger, about whom more is known, but she toggles back and forth between the two, and, perhaps without her intending it, the uncle even steals the show for a while. How do you compete with someone so intrepid that he dies while trying to inspect an active volcano? ... This occasionally results in awkward transitions of the 'Oh, and that reminds me' sort, and for some out-of-nowhere digressions of a kind that would have pleased the elder Pliny ... But Dunn is a good writer, with some of the easy erudition of Mary Beard, that great popularizer of Roman history, and her translations from both Plinys are graceful and precise. Ultimately her enthusiasm, together with her eye for the odd, surprising detail, wins you over, and the younger Pliny gradually emerges as a mostly sympathetic character, interesting for his ordinariness and for the ways he resembles us today. He almost seems familiar, in a way the elder Pliny could never be.
Dunn has no scoops, and she knows it. Furthermore, she is trying to be faithful to Pliny’s account, but, as she notes, he made a point, when he published his correspondence, of excising all the dates and arranging the letters, as he put it, 'however they came to hand' ... The letters have a weirdly drifting quality, as if these people woke up, went to the law courts, sentenced some people to death, burned a few Christians, and then went home to dinner. With such a source, it is no surprise that Dunn’s book contains a number of challenges to our understanding ... No matter how distant you feel from the morals of imperial Rome, you can’t quite figure this out, and Dunn doesn’t help us much ... she does succeed in making Pliny, whom she clearly considers a sort of dry stick, a poignant character, the kind of person who has to do the dirty jobs of an empire and, having done them, gets no compliments.