The Roman Empire - In The First Century
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Pliny the Elder
Julius Caeser
Solder, lawyer and writer, Pliny the Elder’s (23 – 79 AD) research into the natural world formed the basis of scientific authority for centuries to come. He died during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

Born into a wealthy family, Pliny’s first career was in the army. After rising to the rank of cavalry commander, he returned to Rome and semi-retirement.

Historia Naturalis

During this time, he wrote extensively on subjects as varied as grammar, the history of Rome, and military history and skills. His most famous work, however, was “Historia Naturalis” (Natural History), an encyclopedia of natural science that spanned thirty-seven books.

In this work, Pliny describes in detail the physical nature of the world. It includes books on geography, anthropology, zoology, botany, and the medicinal uses of plants. Much of its importance lies in the way Pliny organized previously random facts and spotted important details which had been ignored by others.

Fount of human knowledge

The work was a success and was kept in libraries for centuries to come. For many people, it formed the basis of their education. It shaped scientific and medical theories until the Middle Ages, over 1,000 years later. Only in 1492 did his conclusions begin to be challenged and, although most of his observations are now rejected, the work still gives a fascinating window into the world view of Romans in the first century.

Towards the end of Nero’s reign, Pliny came out of retirement to become procurator in Spain, ensuring that taxes were paid and collected properly. Following Nero’s death in 68 AD, Rome once more slid into civil war.

Commander of the fleet

After over a year of internal strife, the army general, Vespasian, became emperor. Pliny was a friend of his – the two had served together in the German legions. Pliny returned to Rome to take up a number of official jobs.

The last of these was commander of the fleet in the Bay of Naples, where his task was to stamp out piracy. While there, he heard of a strange cloud formation and was keen to discover for himself what was going on.


The clouds had been caused by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Pliny the Elder wanted to reassure the people of Pompeii and help his friends there out of any danger. Leaving his nephew, Pliny the Younger, at home to record what was happening, he sailed across to the base of the volcano to a friend’s house.

Once there, he was overcome by the volcanic ash and died of asphyxiation, along with thousands of other people from Pompeii and its surrounding towns. The sky remained dark for three more days.

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Emperors - Vespasian
Writers - Pliny the Younger

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The Roman Empire - In The First Century