Book Review: The Shadow of Vesuvius: A Life of Pliny


by Daisy Dunn

New York: Liveright, Norton, 2019. Pp. xiv, 318. Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $29.95. ISBN: 1631496395

Romans of the Ruling Class

This is primarily about Pliny the Younger (A.D. 61-c. 113), a prolific letter writer, imperial official, and prominent intellectual, classicist, whose circle included Tacitus, Suetonius, and many others.  But in telling his story,  Dunn also gives us a look at the remarkable life and work of his uncle, Pliny the Elder (c. A.D. 24-79). Polymath, encyclopedist, administrator, and admiral, the elder Pliny perished directing rescue operations during the great eruption of Mount Vesuvius, to which the younger man was an eyewitness, hence the title.

Unlike many “lives” of ancient notables, Dunn gives us a real biography, and a good one, enabling us get some idea of the inner life of the younger man, because of his numerous writings and the survival of many of his letters, which comprise nearly two volumes in the Loeb edition, and include missives to and from the Emperor Trajan, supplemented by evidence from other ancient authors as well as epigraphic and archaeological evidence.

There’s a lot in here on the life and career of a Roman nobleman, life under "good" and "bad" emperors, how the imperial government and provincial administration functioned in the decades around the end of the First Century, military and naval institutions and organization, estate management, contemporary science and engineering, and even imperial attitudes about Christianity.

Well written, displaying mastery of the sources and considerable wit, The Shadow of Vesuvius is an easy and useful read for those interested in Roman history.




Note: The Shadow of Vesuvius is also available in audio- and e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium (

Reviewer: A.A. Nofi   

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