Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus) was a first-century Roman author and government official. His duties included serving as procurator of Spain and as an admiral of the imperial fleet. He was the uncle of Pliny the Younger.
Although Pliny the Elder is credited with writing seven books, only Natural History has survived. It was dedicated to the Roman Emperor Titus, who, before becoming Emperor, had destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70. Natural History was unique for its time because Pliny described things in plain language rather than in academic prose, and he also cited the sources for his information. The work is divided into 37 “books” that cover cosmology, astronomy, geography, zoology, botany, minerals, and medicine. Although his work is essentially scientific, Pliny also included a good bit of magic and superstitious belief. Natural History was considered the authoritative work on scientific and medical matters until the Middle Ages when other writers began to challenge Pliny’s accuracy in light of more recent scientific discoveries.
The writings of Pliny the Elder reveal a great deal about life in the first-century Roman world. Today, Natural History still holds great fascination as a work of literature and as an honest picture of what life was like in first-century Rome. Students of the Bible can use Pliny’s work to glean insight into the predominate culture that formed the backdrop for the expansion of Christianity from Jerusalem into the Roman world.
Pliny and his fleet were stationed at Misenum in the Bay of Naples to fight piracy in AD 79 when Mt. Vesuvius erupted. Seeing the cloud of ash and smoke, Pliny sailed across the bay and went ashore to investigate and to visit a friend. There, he was overcome by ash and fumes and died, along with about 2,000 other people in Pompeii, Herculaneum, Stabiae, Torre Annunziata, and other communities in that region. Pliny the Elder never married or had any children.
Pliny the Elder is to be distinguished from his nephew, Pliny the Younger, whom he had helped to raise and educate. It is from Pliny the Younger that we learn how Pliny the Elder died.