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Pliny's World: Background and Sources

Historical Characters in Roman Games and The Bull Slayer

Pliny the Younger (Gaius Plinius Secundus)

Born in Comum in northern Italy circa AD 61, he was raised by his uncle and adoptive father, the great naturalist Pliny the Elder. Pliny was a successful lawyer and was the first in his family to reach senatorial rank. He held a succession of magisterial posts, culminating in the governorship of Bithynia-Pontus, circa 110. He died, probably still in Bithynia, ca 112.

Pliny lived in "interesting times." His early public career coincided with Domitian's reign of terror against his senatorial enemies and their philosopher friends, many of whom were executed, driven to suicide, or banished. Pliny, however, thrived. In happier times, under the "good" emperors Nerva and Trajan, he was anxious to proclaim his admiration for these victims—far too late, we are tempted to say. But that is what, to me, makes Pliny worth writing about.

Pliny's unique contribution to Latin literature was the publication of his letters in ten books—nine books of letters to and from friends and a final book of letters to and from the emperor Trajan. Among his correspondents are the historian Tacitus and the biographer Suetonius. These polished letters, often resembling short essays, reveal the public and private life of the Roman aristocracy as well as Pliny's own wide-ranging interests and his personality—conscientious, tolerant, curious, vain, affectionate, occasionally self-serving. No earlier Latin author had attempted anything like this (Cicero's letters are of quite a different character). In later centuries, Pliny had several imitators but no equals.

Martial (Marcus Valerius Martialis)

Born at Bilbilis in Spain, circa AD 40, Martial emigrated to Rome in 64 and spent almost the rest of his life there, pursuing a career as a poet. He wrote in several styles but his most characteristic is the epigram. Written with a pen dipped in acid, these satirical, witty and often obscene little poems attack the pretense, pomposity, and vulgarity of his contemporaries.

We know little about Martial's life beyond what he reveals in his poems. He lived the hand-to-mouth existence of a struggling artist, haunting the doorsteps of the rich; indulging in abject flattery whenever necessary—yet never quite achieving the recognition he deserved. Finally, despairing of Rome, he returned to Spain (as we know from a letter of Pliny, who paid his passage) and died soon afterward, circa 104.

The urge to translate Martial into English seems to be irresistible. Dozens—perhaps hundreds—have had a go at it. I had great fun doing my own translations for the novel.


Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (circa AD 69 to circa AD 140) is well-known only as the author of The Twelve Caesars, the biographies of the emperors from Julius Caesar to Domitian (the principal source for Robert Graves' I Claudius novels). But among the many other works attributed to him are Lives of Famous Whores, Roman Festivals, Roman Dress, The Physical Defects of Mankind, and Greek Terms of Abuse. None of these has survived in more than fragments. What a loss! Suetonius did serve under Pliny in Bithynia, though precisely in what capacity is not clear. In a letter to Trajan (X 94) Pliny writes: "For a long time now, my lord, I have admitted Suetonius Tranquillus, that most worthy, honorable, and learned man into my circle of friends, for I have long admired his character and his learning, and I have begun to love him all the more, the more I have now come to know him from close at hand" [Trans. P. G. Walsh]. Suetonius went on to serve as private secretary to the emperor Hadrian—a post from which he was eventually dismissed for some impertinence to the empress.


Domitian (Titus Flavius Domitianus)

Domitian was the last emperor of the Flavian dynasty. His father Vespasian (reigned AD 69 to 79) had been very popular. So too was his older brother Titus (reigned 79 to 81) who was handsome, genial, and a military hero to boot. Domitian unfortunately had none of these gifts. He grew up feeling slighted and despised and by the time he succeeded to the throne he was an embittered man. Ever since the establishment of the Principate by Augustus in AD 27, the Senate had had no real power. "Good" emperors were those who pretended nevertheless to respect the body while "bad" emperors like Caligula, Nero, and Domitian, treated it with open contempt and terrorized it with informers and treason trials. This created a vicious cycle of plots, real or imaginary, more executions, and more plots. As Suetonius says in his Life of Domitian, "lack of resources made him greedy and fear made him cruel."

In spite of this, Domitian showed himself to be an efficient administrator and a commander of some ability. Though he led a debauched private life, he played the public role of a strict moralist. In 83 he executed three Vestal Virgins for immorality and in 90 condemned the Chief Vestal, Cornelia, to be buried alive.

Being childless, he felt himself increasingly isolated and suspicious of rivals, which led to intensified persecution of the Senate. Finally his wife Domitia joined in a conspiracy with palace officials and the praetorian prefects to murder him in September, 96. A vengeful Senate damned his memory and abolished his acts. He was succeeded by the elderly senator Nerva, who had probably been a party to the conspiracy.


Trajan (Marcus Ulpius Traianus)

If Pliny's career began under the worst of emperors, it ended under the best of them. Trajan, who reigned from 98 to 117 AD was—as Pliny said in an adulatory oration—everything a Roman emperor should be. Born is Spain (the first non-Italian emperor), he had a bluff, affable personality and was a tireless soldier and a careful administrator. His personal habits were frugal, he was not a megalomaniac, and—most importantly to a senator like Pliny—he treated the Senate with respect. "You order us to be free," Pliny enthused, "and so we are!" The tenth book of Pliny's Letters consists of exchanges between Pliny, seeking advice on a whole range of administrative quandaries in his province, and Trajan's terse and careful replies. Trajan is best known to us today from his column in the Roman forum depicting scenes from his campaigns in Dacia.

Soranus of Ephesus

Soranus was, in the words of his modern translator, "one of the most learned, critical, and lucid authors of antiquity." As a physician, his fame was eclipsed only by Galen. Little is known of his life. He was born at Ephesus (in modern Turkey) around the middle of the first century AD. He trained as a doctor in Alexandria, which was still the great center of scientific medicine. Like many other Greek physicians of his day he pursued his career in Rome during the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian. Though he wrote on many medical subjects, his most influential work was the Gynecology. The following small sample of chapter headings shows the range of this fascinating work:

  • What Persons Are Fit to Become Midwives
  • Up to What Time Females Should Be Kept Virgins
  • What Care Should Be Given Pregnant Women
  • What Grows Inside the Uterus of a Pregnant Woman
  • Whether One Ought to Make Use of Abortives and Contraceptives, and how
  • How to Recognize the Newborn That Is Worth Rearing
  • On Hysterical Suffocation
  • On Difficult Labor

In Roman Games, his role as Calpurnia's gynecologist is entirely imaginary although not impossible.

Corellius Rufus

In a long letter [I 12] Pliny describes the death of his friend and mentor, Corellius. This man had had a distinguished career as a senator and governor of Upper Germany until crippling gout confined him to his bed. Whether due to his illness or his hatred of Domitian, he withdrew from public life until finally, having "lived long enough to see that brigand dead," he chose to starve himself to death. In this, he was being true to the creed of Stoicism, which approved of suicide when the pain of illness became intolerable. As he lay dying, his wife Hispulla summoned Pliny to his bedside to plead with him, but to no avail. Pliny praises Corellius' rectitude and laments, "I have lost the witness, guardian, and teacher of my life."

Pliny's Rome

Pliney's Rome

By Pliny's day, Rome was a city of over a million people spread over four-and-a-half thousand acres. It was a city in which gleaming marble temples and public buildings rose side by side with ramshackle tenements; in which broad thoroughfares intersected dark and odorous alleys; in which the wealthy were carried through the streets in palanquins like small boats tossed on a sea of swirling humanity; in which native Italians rubbed shoulders with red-haired Gauls and swarthy Levantines; in which nearly half the population was of slave origin. It was a city of sidewalk food stalls, of public urinals, of laundry draped between buildings. It was a city whose sights and smells resembled far more some sprawling Third World metropolis—a Calcutta or Cairo—than New York or London.

Follow the links below to see what these sites and monuments looked like in Pliny's day (click outside the window or on the X to return):
Arch of Titus
Baths of Titus
Campus Martius
Capitolium and Forum
Domitian's palace and Circus Maximus
Esquiline Hill
Quirinal Hill
Temple of Isis
Temple of Vesta and House of the Vestals (Atrium Vestae)

Religion in Roman Games

Two goddesses play a major role in the novel, one of them native to Rome, the other an exotic import.

Vesta was the goddess of the hearth of Rome's ancient kings. Her priestesses, the six Vestal Virgins, represented the king's daughters. Vesta had no cult statue and no mythology. Her temple in the Forum was a representation in stone of the primitive Italic round thatched hut. Within it, her virgin priestesses tended the eternal fire upon which the fate of Rome depended and also guarded certain sacred objects which no one might see. These priestesses were chosen as young girls and served for thirty years, after which time they were permitted to leave the order and marry—though few chose to do so. Their superior was the Pontifex Maximus, who in the imperial age was also the Emperor. He chose them and he could punish them with death for losing their virginity—which was alleged to have happened on a number of occasions despite the fact that the Vestals lived in a secluded dormitory, the Atrium Vestae.

Isis, in contrast to Vesta, had a rich mythology and wide popularity. Her statues and the remains of her temples are found in every corner of the Greco-roman world. In ancient Egypt she was the sister-wife of Osiris and mother of Horus but in the 4th century BC the Ptolemies redesigned her cult and gave it a new Hellenic look. The new Isis resembled the goddess Demeter and the language of her ritual was Greek. She was even given a new consort, Serapis, who had no ancient pedigree at all. Nevertheless, traces of Egyptian exoticism were carefully maintained. Her emblem was the Egyptian cobra, among her attendant gods, was the jackal-headed Anubis, and every temple had its cistern of holy Nile water.


Queen Isis was the loving, nurturing mother. She was "Miss Universe" (as an old professor of mine liked to say.) Every other Greek and Roman goddess was subsumed in her. As Ruler of the Sea, she was honored at the beginning of each sailing season. Undoubtedly, the developing cult of the Virgin Mary owed much to Isis. Her reception in Rome, however was problematic. The Senate passed numerous decrees banning the cult from Italy and the emperor Tiberius crucified its priests. But Caligula favored the goddess and allowed the construction of her great temple in the Campus Martius. The Flavian emperors, especially Domitian were also her devotees.

Initiation into her mysteries was an intensely moving experience, as well as a rather expensive one, as Apuleius tells us in the Metamorphoses (the Golden Ass). But the reward was eternal blessedness in the afterworld, and, in this life, the privilege of sleeping in the courtyard of her temple and receiving healing dreams.

Religion in The Bull Slayer



There is, at present, no evidence for the practice of Mithraism in Bithynia. Nevertheless, one leading scholar of the religion places its origins in the Persian influenced region of Commagene in south-eastern Anatolia, and it would be odd if the cult entirely leapfrogged Bithynia on its way west. In any case, the early second century AD saw the remarkable burgeoning of the cult of this handsome young god who eternally slays the bull in areas as distant as Africa, Germania, Britain, and Italy. What we don't know about Mithraism is a great deal more than what we do. In origin Mithras, or Mithra, was a Persian sun god, but the form which he adopts within the Roman empire is entirely Hellenized. This cult, with its trappings of astrology, its subterranean temples, and its seven priestly ranks, was designed specifically to appeal to Greeks and Romans. And, for a period of about two centuries, it succeeded to an extraordinary degree. Christians, however, regarded Mithras as a blasphemous imitation of their own savior god and finally suppressed the cult so thoroughly that none of its liturgy survives today. The little that we know about it, aside from archaeological remains, comes from the denunciations of its enemies.

Further Reading

For readers interested in learning more about Pliny's Rome and the background to this story, I suggest the following as a good starting point:

Primary sources:
Dio Cassius. Roman History. Translated by Earnest Cary. Harvard University Press (The Loeb Classical Library), 1925.
Martial. Epigrams. An excellent recent translation of a selection of the poems by Garry Wills is both skillful and properly racy.
Pliny the Younger. The Complete Letters. Translated by P. G. Walsh. Oxford University Press, 2006.
Pliny the Elder. Natural History: a Selection. Penguin Classics, 2004
Soranus. Soranus' Gynecology. Translated by Oswei Temkin. Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1956
Suetonius. The Twelve Caesars. Translated by Robert Graves. Penguin Books, 1957.

Secondary works:
Angela, Alberto. A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome. Translated from the Italian by Gregory Conti. Europe Editions, 2009
Balsdon, J. P. V. D. Life and Leisure in Ancient Rome. McGraw-Hill, 1969.
Beard, Mary; John North, and Simon Price. Religions of Rome. Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Carcopino, Jerome. Daily Life in Ancient Rome. Yale University Press, 1940
Crook, J. A. Law and Life of Rome. Cornell University Press, 1967.
Futrell, Alison. Roman Games: A Sourcebook. Blackwell Publishing, 2006.
Hopkins, Keith. A World Full of Gods: The Strange Triumph of Christianity. Plume, 1999.
Jones, Brian W. The Emperor Domitian. Routledge, 1992
Lewis, Naphtali and Meyer Reinhold. Roman Civilization: Selected Readings, 2 vols. 3rd ed. Columbia Univ. Press, 1990
Luck, Georg. Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds. A Collection of Ancient Texts. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985
McKay, Alexander G. Houses, Villas, and Palaces in the Roman World. Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1975
Shelton, Jo-Ann, ed. As the Romans Did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social History, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 1997.
Sherwin-White, A. N. The Letters of Pliny: A Historical and Social Commentary. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1966
Witt, R. E. Isis in the Ancient World. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971.

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