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The Silence of Pliny the Elder (1st-Century Fridays #7)

The Silence of Pliny the Elder (1st-Century Fridays #7) August 6, 2021

Hi and welcome back! As it’s now Friday, let’s turn our gaze to another author alive during the supposed lifetime of Jesus Christ — one who should have known about the creator of Christianity and those earliest Christians he inspired. Today, our focus rests upon Gaius Plinius Secundus, more popularly known as Pliny the Elder. As he lived between 23/24 CE – 79 CE and was good friends with Emperor Vespasian (who ruled from 69-79 CE), he was very well-placed to know all about this stuff. Let’s see if he did.

City and Lake of Como, painted 1834 by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. It looked way different in the days of Pliny the Elder, and it looks even more different now.

(Series tag.)

(In 1st-Century Fridays, we meet the ancient contemporaries of Jesus. We’re using the real definition of the word “contemporaneous” here, not the one Biblical scholars have weaseled to give themselves some leeway with their utter lack of evidence that their Savior actually existed. No, the people we’ll meet here must have been alive during that critical time of 30-35 CE. AND they must have had a good chance of hearing about what Christians claim was happening in Jerusalem at the time. Here’s the largely-canonical list of contemporaries you might have seen around. I prefer this diagram made by one of our other link writers. And here are some other lists.)

Everyone, Meet Pliny the Elder.

Pliny the Elder was a Roman writer, philosopher, and military commander. He lived from 23/24 to 79 CE. At least, we think that’s his birth year. In truth, we don’t know much about his early life. Neither he nor his nephew (Pliny the Younger, natch) said much about his parents. We also think he was born in Como, in way northern Italy. His sister bore his nephew, Pliny the Younger.

As is normal for wealthy highborn Romans, Pliny the Elder enjoyed a good education. In this case, he learned lawmaking. At some point, he seems to have adopted Stoic beliefs. Once that was done, he began that course of military positions and whatnot that would prepare him for a grand future in Roman politics.

He sounds like quite the traditionalist. Though he became quite wealthy, he adopted an archaic lifestyle. For example, he ate austere, reasonable meals instead of huge feasts. He never married or had kids, either. Instead, he adopted his nephew as his heir after his sister’s husband died.

He left the military right around when Nero became emperor. It really looks like Pliny did everything he could to avoid drawing Nero’s attention during those dangerous years of his rule from 54-68 CE. Instead, he worked as a lawyer. He also wrote books about safe topics: grammar, education, etc.

Anything else was too dangerous to contemplate.

Pliny the Elder and His Later Life.

After the tumultuous Year of Four Emperors, Vespasian became emperor in 69 CE. He was, like Pliny, a man of the equestrian class. He’d lived a very similar life. And his #1 priority in those early years of his reign was to get the empire stabilized. He wanted to secure things after all the upsets Rome had experienced recently.

Vespasian called to Pliny to serve him. Pliny responded to that call. He gave up his law practice to become a high-ranking official in various important provinces. The men seem to have become friends. Indeed, Pliny often visited Vespasian in the early morning before going about his own duties.

Toward the end of his life, Pliny published the first books of his Natural History. It was a 37-volume encyclopedia. He used his own experience and other previously-written works to create it. In it, he covered every single topic he could think of. Regarding the title, he meant by it not just what we’d think of as “natural history,” but stuff about life itself, all aspects of it.

And I do mean “all” up there. Various volumes of his Natural History covered Africa, China, and other such places that Roman expansionism had touched and absorbed.

The Last Day of Pliny the Elder.

By now, Vespasian had appointed him the praefectus classis in Miseno. That’s toward the north end of the Bay of Naples. Here it is on a map:

miseno, pompeii, stabiae
The Bay of Naples. Miseno is in the north, Pompeii and Stabiae in the middle. The black smudge represents the eruption itself

In 79 CE, Pliny stood and watched a weird cloud arising from Mount Vesuvius. It was shaped like a “pine-tree,” or so his nephew says (Book 6, Letter 16, “To Tacitus.”)

Either way, Pliny the Elder wanted to find out what that cloud was all about. Just watching from afar didn’t satisfy him.

He was in the north end of the bay with a fleet of ships. Why not use ’em? After watching the cloud from afar, he ordered a galley to be prepared to sail closer for a better look.

I wonder if he wanted to put this info into his Natural History!

The Death of Pliny the Elder.

But there was another reason why Pliny the Elder wanted to sail into danger.

In the midst of his preparations to explore, he received a letter from his frantic friend Rectina. She had a villa close by the mountain in Stabiae. And she was getting more and more frightened by the moment. She begged Pliny to rescue her. He’d already been getting a galley ready to sail out that way. Now, though, his efforts became focused on rescue. In all, a number of galleys sailed out on the rescue trip. He intended to help as many people as he could.

Pliny invited his nephew to come along, but the younger man declined; he had some work to finish up. So his uncle set off without him. (Lucky nephew! He dodged that one!)

He did rescue at least one other person in Stabiae: his friend Senator Pomponianus.

Then, his ship got stuck in Stabiae.

Alas, Pliny had hung around Stabiae too long. Perhaps he inhaled too much volcanic ash or toxic gas. Or perhaps he had a heart attack. We don’t know if his rescued friend survived, either. Nor do we know if he ever reached Rectina — or even what happened to her.

What we do know is that Pliny the Elder died in 79 CE in Stabiae.

What Did Pliny the Elder Write About Jesus and Christianity?

So we’ve got this account of a well-traveled, well-read Roman leader who very deliberately and purposefully gathered and wrote down absolutely everything about everything he could find. His encyclopedia has influenced similar efforts for thousands of years.

Thankfully, we can access Natural History in translation here.

And I can tell you now that it does not mention anything about Jesus or the earliest Christians.

Not a word. You can search it yourself if you like! There’s an excellent search function right there.

All you’ll find for these terms are footnotes added by Christians. They clearly felt tetchy about, say, Pliny’s mention of Tyana. I can see why.

After all, that’s where Apollonius of Tyana was from. I’m sure they would indeed have bristled at this reminder of his existence.

Sidebar: The Essenes Have Entered the Chat.

Pliny the Elder does talk a little about Judea in Book V, Chapter 15. Interestingly, he mentions the Essenes. They were a mystic Jewish sect that existed from the 2nd century BCE to the 1st century CE. Of them, Pliny writes:

Lying on the west of Asphaltites, and sufficiently distant to escape its noxious exhalations, are the Esseni, a people that live apart from the world, and marvellous beyond all others throughout the whole earth, for they have no women among them; to sexual desire they are strangers; money they have none; the palm-trees are their only companions. Day after day, however, their numbers are fully recruited by multitudes of strangers that resort to them, driven thither to adopt their usages by the tempests of fortune, and wearied with the miseries of life. Thus it is, that through thousands of ages, incredible to relate, this people eternally prolongs its existence, without a single birth taking place there; so fruitful a source of population to it is that weariness of life which is felt by others.

Yep, that sounds about like the Essenes we’ve met. Off and on through his work, Pliny might also be referring to various Essene people, but it doesn’t sound like historians are completely sure about that. In addition, this same chapter mentions Galilee, the Jordan River, and Herodium.

Otherwise, we see nothing whatsoever of Jesus or Christianity in this vast encyclopedia. All the same, it’s interesting stuff. I especially liked this chapter (VI.37) about “The Fortunate Isles.”

What Pliny the Elder Never Knew.

Like we saw with Seneca the Younger last week, Pliny the Elder really, truly destroys Christian claims of Jesus’ importance. He also wrecks their own historical claims about their religion’s earliest years and their claims about its rapid early growth.

Pliny the Elder was writing and gathering information for his Natural History till his death. His work covered every single aspect of the world Romans knew.

As a well-traveled and well-read Roman leader, he really was in the perfect place to have at least heard about the new religion and its firebrand of a leader — especially if, as Christians like to claim, the new religion swept through the Roman Empire because it was just so, I dunno, DIFFERENT, I guess.

But no. That silence surprised even me a bit, because I expected at least a mention of Christians somewhere in his work.

And yet, Pliny the Elder seems to have known nothing at all of any of it.

Grading Pliny the Elder.

I’m giving Pliny the Elder an A+.

I don’t think we’ve yet found another 1st-century writer better-situated than he was to know about the earliest Christians and Jesus Christ than him. And yet he is utterly silent on both topics. He most definitely belongs on our list of vetted 1st-century writers who really should have known about this stuff but didn’t.

I’m very glad to have learned about him. And I hope you’ll find his adventurous life as interesting as I did!

NEXT UP: A gentle reminder about the way that self-interest drives evangelicals to say and do literally anything that might benefit themselves.


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.
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