The Shadow of Vesuvius: A Life of Pliny

Liveright: Norton. Dec. 2019. 336p. illus. maps. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781631496394. $29.95. BIOG
When Vesuvius erupted in 79AD, author and natural historian Pliny the Elder ventured out to provide assistance to a friend and died in the attempt. His teenage nephew Pliny the Younger headed in the opposite direction and survived to become a magistrate, lawyer, and prolific letter-writer. Classicist Dunn’s new work ostensibly focuses on the Younger with a nod toward the Elder’s influence on his life. But by offering nearly as many references to the Elder’s encyclopedic Natural History as to the Younger’s vast correspondence, the author seems to want to give equal space to her subject’s bolder uncle. Dunn’s decision to avoid a linear recounting of events in favor of a thematic narrative of Pliny the Younger’s life results in a book that feels less like a biography than an appreciation of both men, with frequent digressions on the Elder’s opinions on oysters and metal sculpture, the Younger’s poetical ambitions and villas along Lake Como, and the effect of their dual legacy on future eras.
VERDICT Not ideal for those looking for a straightforward biography of Pliny, the book will appeal to readers who are willing to follow Dunn’s enthusiastic and vividly drawn, if meandering, story about the lives and influences of both men.

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