The Challenge for Pliny the Elder Mythicists

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by Neil Godfrey

Pliny the Elder: an imaginative 19th Century p...
Pliny the Elder: an imaginative 19th Century portrait. No contemporary depiction of Pliny has survived. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A Professor of Religion, the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA, has given his online students a hearty guffaw with the following:

It would be an interesting thought experiment to see whether there is any epistolary reference by Pliny the younger to his uncle that a determined “Pliny the elder mythicist” could not interpret as referring to events that transpired in the celestial rather than terrestrial realm. (August 29 2014)

Apparently to assist his online class with this exercise Professor McGrath linked to the following reference in Pliny’s letter collection:

5. VIII. — To Titinius Capito

Again, there is a precedent in my own family which impels me towards writing history. My uncle, who was also my father by adoption, was a historian  

I guess such a brief reference, and one that spoke of adoption rather than a “natural” paternity, might really be compared with some references by Paul to Jesus.

For the benefit of those who would like to undertake the same exercise at a more advanced level, however, here are the remaining references Pliny the Younger made to his uncle in his surviving letters.

(I’m sure the Professor was pedagogically sound in not complicating the exercise for his typical online audience with such mass of detail.)

1. XIX. — To Romanus Firmus

You and I were born in the same township, we went to school together, and shared quarters from an early age; your father was on terms of friendship with my mother and my uncle, and with me — as far as the disparity in our years allowed.

3. V — To Baebius Macer

I was delighted to find that you are so zealous a student of my uncle’s books that you would like to possess copies of them all, and that you ask me to give you a complete list of them. I will play the part of an index for you, and tell you, moreover, the order in which they were written, for this is a point that students are interested to know.

  • “Throwing the Javelin from Horseback,” one volume; this was composed, with considerable ingenuity and research, when he was on active service as a cavalry lieutenant.
  • “The Life of Pomponius Secundus,” two volumes; — Pomponius was remarkably attached to my uncle, who, so to speak, composed this book to his friend’s memory in payment of his debt of gratitude.
  • “The German Wars,” twenty volumes; — this comprises an account of all the wars we have waged with the German races. He commenced it, while on service in Germany, in obedience to the warning of a dream, for, while he was asleep, the shade of Drusus Nero, who had won sweeping victories in that country and died there, appeared to him and kept on entrusting his fame to my uncle, beseeching him to rescue his name from ill-deserved oblivion.
  • “The Student,” three volumes, afterwards split up into six on account of their length; — in this he showed the proper training and equipment of an orator from his cradle up.
  • “Ambiguity in Language,” in eight volumes, was written in the last years of Nero’s reign when tyranny had made it dangerous to write any book, no matter the subject, in anything like a free and candid style.
  • “A Continuation of the History of Aufidius Bassus,” in thirty-one books,
  • and a “Natural History,” in thirty-seven books; — the latter is a comprehensive and learned work, covering as wide a field as Nature herself.

Does it surprise you that a busy man found time to finish so many volumes, many of which deal with such minute details? You will wonder the more when I tell you that he for many years pleaded in the law courts, that he died in his fifty-seventh year, and that in the interval his time was taken up and his studies were hindered by the important offices he held and the duties arising out of his friendship with the Emperors.

But he possessed a keen intellect; he had a marvellous capacity for work, and his powers of application were enormous. He used to begin to study at night on the Festival of Vulcan, not for luck but from his love of study, long before dawn; in winter he would commence at the seventh hour or at the eighth at the very latest, and often at the sixth. He could sleep at call, and it would come upon him and leave him in the middle of his work. Before daybreak he would go to Vespasian — for he too was a night-worker — and then set about his official duties. On his return home he would again give to study any time that he had free.

Often in summer after taking a meal, which with him, as in the old days, was always a simple and light one, he would lie in the sun if he had any time to spare, and a book would be read aloud, from which he would take notes and extracts. For he never read without taking extracts, and used to say that there never was a book so bad that it was not good in some passage or another.

After his sun bath he usually bathed in cold water, then he took a snack and a brief nap, and subsequently, as though another day had begun, he would study till dinner-time. After dinner a book would be read aloud, and he would take notes in a cursory way.

I remember that one of his friends, when the reader pronounced a word wrongly, checked him and made him read it again, and my uncle said to him, “Did you not catch the meaning?” When his friend said “yes,” he remarked, “Why then did you make him turn back? We have lost more than ten lines through your interruption.” So jealous was he of every moment lost.

In summer he used to rise from the dinner-table while it was still light; in winter always before the first hour had passed, as though there was a law obliging him to do so. Such was his method of living when up to the eyes in work and amid the bustle of Rome.

When he was in the country the only time snatched from his work was when he took his bath, and when I say bath I refer to the actual bathing, for while he was being scraped with the strigil or rubbed down, he used to listen to a reader or dictate. When he was travelling he cut himself aloof from every other thought and gave himself up to study alone. At his side he kept a shorthand writer with a book and tablets, who wore mittens on his hands in winter, so that not even the sharpness of the weather should rob him of a moment, and for the same reason, when in Rome, he used to be carried in a litter. I remember that once he rebuked me for walking, saying, “If you were a student, you could not waste your hours like that,” for he considered that all time was wasted which was not devoted to study.

Such was the application which enabled him to compile all those volumes I have enumerated, and he left me one hundred and sixty commonplace books, written on both sides of the scrolls, and in a very small handwriting, which really makes the number of the volumes considerably more. He used to say that when he was procurator in Spain he could have sold these commonplace books to Largius Licinus for four hundred thousand sestertia, and at that time they were much fewer in number.

Do you not feel when you think of his voluminous writing and reading that he cannot have had any public duties to attend to, and that he cannot have been an intimate friend of the Emperors? Again, when you hear what an amount of work he put into his studies, does it not seem that he neither wrote nor read as much as he might? For his other duties might surely have prevented him from studying altogether, and a man with his application might have accomplished even more than he did. So I often smile when some of my friends call me a book-worm, for if I compare myself with him I am but a shocking idler. Yet am I quite as bad as that, considering the way I am distracted by my public and private duties? Who is there of all those who devote their whole life to literature, who, if compared with him, would not blush for himself as a sleepy-head and a lazy fellow? I have let my pen run on, though I had intended simply to answer your question and give you a list of my uncle’s works; but I trust that even my letter may give you as much pleasure as his books, and that it will spur you on not only to read them, but also to compose something worthy to be compared with them. Farewell.

6. XVI — To Tacitus

My dear Tacitus,

You ask me to write you something about the death of my uncle so that the account you transmit to posterity is as reliable as possible.   I am grateful to you, for I see that his death will be remembered forever if you treat it [sc. in your Histories]. He perished in a   devastation of the loveliest of lands, in a memorable disaster shared by peoples and cities, but this will be a kind of eternal life for him.  Although he wrote a great number of enduring works himself, the imperishable nature of your writings will add a great deal to his survival. Happy are they, in my opinion, to whom it is given either to do something worth writing about, or to write something worth reading; most happy, of course, those who do both. With his own books and yours, my uncle will be counted among the latter. It is therefore with great pleasure that I take up, or rather take upon myself the task you have set me.

He was at Misenum in his capacity as commander of the fleet on the 24th of August [sc. in 79 AD], when between 2 and 3 in the afternoon my mother drew his attention to a cloud of unusual size and appearance. He had had a sunbath, then a cold bath, and was reclining after dinner with his books. He called for his shoes and climbed up to where he could get the best view of the phenomenon.  The cloud was rising from a mountain — at such a distance we couldn’t tell which, but afterwards learned that it was Vesuvius. I can best describe its shape by likening it to a pine tree. It rose into the sky on a very long “trunk” from which spread some “branches.” I imagine it had been raised by a sudden blast, which then weakened, leaving the cloud unsupported so that its own weight caused it to spread sideways. Some of the cloud was white, in other parts there were dark patches of dirt and ash. The sight of it made the scientist in my uncle determined to see it from closer at hand.

He ordered a boat made ready. He offered me the opportunity of going along, but I preferred to study — he himself happened to have set me a writing exercise. As he was leaving the house he was brought a letter from Tascius’ wife Rectina, who was terrified by the looming danger. Her villa lay at the foot of Vesuvius, and there was no way out except by boat. She begged him to get her away. He changed his plans. The expedition that started out as a quest for knowledge now called for courage. He launched the quadriremes and embarked himself, a source of aid for more people than just Rectina, for that delightful shore was a populous one. He hurried to a place from which others were fleeing, and held his course directly into danger. Was he afraid? It seems not, as he kept up a continuous observation of the various movements and shapes of that evil cloud, dictating what he saw.

Ash was falling onto the ships now, darker and denser the closer they went. Now it was bits of pumice, and rocks that were blackened and burned and shattered by the fire. Now the sea is shoal; debris from the mountain blocks the shore. He paused for a moment wondering whether to turn back as the helmsman urged him. “Fortune helps the brave,” he said, “Head for Pomponianus.”

At Stabiae, on the other side of the bay formed by the gradually curving shore, Pomponianus had loaded up his ships even before the danger arrived, though it was visible and indeed extremely close, once it intensified. He planned to put out as soon as the contrary wind let up. That very wind carried my uncle right in, and he embraced the frightened man and gave him comfort and courage. In order to   lessen the other’s fear by showing his own unconcern he asked to be taken to the baths. He bathed and dined, carefree or at least appearing so (which is equally impressive). Meanwhile, broad sheets of flame were lighting up many parts of Vesuvius; their light and brightness were the more vivid for the darkness of the night. To alleviate people’s fears my uncle claimed that the flames came from the deserted homes of farmers who had left in a panic with the hearth fires still alight. Then he rested, and gave every indication of actually sleeping; people who passed by his door heard his snores, which were rather resonant since he was a heavy man. The ground outside his room rose so high with the mixture of ash and stones that if he had spent any more time there escape would have been impossible. He got up and came out, restoring himself to Pomponianus and the others who had been unable to sleep. They discussed what to do, whether to remain under cover or to try the open air. The buildings were being rocked by a series of strong tremors, and appeared to have come loose from their foundations and to be sliding this way and that. Outside, however, there was danger from the rocks that were coming down, light and fire-consumed as these bits of pumice were. Weighing the relative dangers they chose the outdoors; in my uncle’s case it was a rational decision, others just chose the alternative that frightened them the least.

They tied pillows on top of their heads as protection against the shower of rock. It was daylight now elsewhere in the world, but there the darkness was darker and thicker than any night. But they had torches and other lights. They decided to go down to the shore, to see from close up if anything was possible by sea. But it remained as rough and uncooperative as before. Resting in the shade of a sail he drank once or twice from the cold water he had asked for. Then came an smell of sulfur, announcing the flames, and the flames themselves, sending others into flight but reviving him. Supported by two small slaves he stood up, and immediately collapsed. As I understand it, his breathing was obstructed by the dust-laden air, and his innards, which were never strong and often blocked or upset, simply shut down. When daylight came again 2 days after he died, his body was found untouched, unharmed, in the clothing that he  had had on. He looked more asleep than dead.

Meanwhile at Misenum, my mother and I — but this has nothing to do with history, and you only asked for information about his death. I’ll stop here then. But I will say one more thing, namely, that I have written out everything that I did at the time and heard while memories were still fresh. You will use the important bits, for it is one thing to write a letter, another to write history, one thing to write to a friend, another to write for the public.


6. XX — To Tacitus

My dear Tacitus,

You say that the letter I wrote for you about my uncle’s death made you want to know about my fearful ordeal at Misenum (this was where I broke off). “The mind shudders to remember … but here is the tale.”

After my uncle’s departure I finished up my studies, as I had planned. . . .  Up comes a friend of my uncle’s, recently arrived from Spain. When he sees my mother and me sitting there, and me even reading a book, he scolds her for her calm and me for my lack of concern. But I kept on with my book.

. . . . . At that point the Spanish friend urged us strongly: “If your brother and uncle is alive, he wants you to be safe. If he has perished, he wanted you to survive him. So why are you reluctant to escape?” We responded that we would not look to our own safety as long as we were uncertain about his. . . .

. . . We still refused to go until we heard news of my uncle, although we had felt danger and expected more. . . .



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Neil Godfrey

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8 thoughts on “The Challenge for Pliny the Elder Mythicists”

  1. Mysteriously, I can not get onto the comments on McGrath’s site, to read the comments or make my own. This is frustrating as I wanted to correct a couple of points. One: he distorts Carriers appreciation of Erhman’s scholarship in general (with the exception of particular mistakes in one book). Two: He sees Hellenism and Judaism as opposites and misunderstands how Carrier sees Christianity developing from influences of both and of their syncretism, so, smear, associates Carrier with anti-Semitic attitudes of earlier scholars.

    1. McGrath’s piece is as unprofessional as anything he’s ever written. I could not bring myself to stomach a detailed response to his shameful bile, bigotry and ignorance. Tim, I understand, is preparing to do the honours this time.

      1. Like you, I don’t have the stomach for a full response, but I did at least want to debunk that silly idea that Paul’s letters are occasional communications that are just like any other letter from an ancient Christian.

        Hey, did you notice McGrath’s use of the “seems to” tell in his recent post? You can bet that whenever he writes “seems to,” a distortion will follow.

        1. Certainly have. “Seems” serves him so wonderfully well. I discovered long ago that if one challenges him on anything he said “seems” to be the case he can also quite bambi-eyed look at you and declare, “But I only said what it ‘seems’ like; i never really wrote the nonsense of which you are so unfairly and wrongly accusing me!” It always enables him to deny he ever wrote his lies when found out.

          I cannot help but address him henceforth as “Professor” now he has attained this honoured status by means of length of tenure. I find the title so Gilbert and Sullivanish, so comical, so . . .

  2. I guess these people just never realised they lived in a high-context society and so would not need to keep telling each other all these details about their lives.

  3. Here’s an analogy that I think has similar persuasive power: Lack of solid primary evidence of Jesus is no reason to doubt his existence because we don’t expect to have such evidence. Naturally I shouldn’t doubt the existence of leprechauns because they are little creatures who are shy of humans and I shouldn’t expect to see them.

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