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In the Shadow of Vesuvius

A Life of Pliny
Narrated by: Mike Grady
Length: 8 hrs and 33 mins
5 out of 5 stars (1 rating)

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Summary

Ash spewed into the sky. All eyes were on Vesuvius. Pliny the Elder sailed towards the phenomenon. A teenage Pliny the Younger waited. His uncle did not come back. In a dazzling new literary biography, Daisy Dunn introduces Pliny the Younger, the survivor who became a Roman lawyer, senator, poet, collector of villas, curator of drains, and representative of the Emperor. 

He was confidant and friend to the great and good, an unparalleled chronicler of the Vesuvius catastrophe, and eyewitness to the terror of Emperor Domitian. The younger Pliny was adopted by his uncle, admiral of the fleet and author of the Natural History, an extraordinary compendium of knowledge and the world’s first full-length encyclopaedia. The younger Pliny inherited his uncle’s notebooks and carried their pearls of wisdom with him down the years. 

Daisy Dunn breathes vivid life back into the Plinys. Reading from the Natural History and the Younger Pliny’s Letters, she resurrects the relationship between the two men to expose their beliefs on life, death and the natural world in the first century. 

Interweaving their work, and positioning the Plinys in relation to the devastating eruption, Dunn’s biography is a celebration of two outstanding minds of the Roman Empire and their lasting influence on the world thereafter.

©2019 Daisy Dunn (P)2019 HarperCollins Publishers

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Entertaining and Informative

Daisy Dunn's account of the life of Pliny the Younger is arranged thematically rather than chronologically, allowing her scope to explore the concentric circles that made up his world. We see Pliny the lawyer, Pliny the landlord, Pliny the emperor's fixer, Pliny the husband, Pliny the nephew, and Pliny the philanthropist.

The picture that emerges is of a man who sometimes lacked confidence but was always determined to achieve. Bullied by the sadistic emperor Domitian, infuriated by his ruthless legal colleague, Regulus, overshadowed by his friend Tacitus, devoted to his wife Calpurnia, Pliny does not always appear in as admirable a light as he would wish but he is always sympathetic.

I particularly enjoyed the sense that we get of Pliny the Elder always there in the background. The author of the first real encyclopaedia and a man who believed in never wasting a moment that could be spent working, Pliny the Elder was a hard act to follow; and perhaps his nephew never quite lived up to the status of the great man. What Daisy Dunn has managed to achieve, however, is to convey his humanity and, in doing so, she effortlessly bridges the gap between our modern age and antiquity.