Pliny the Elder was a Roman military man, government official and scholar who lived in the 1st century. His academic calling drove Pliny to be an insatiable consumer of written works. Although he was a busy man (as he was sometimes still seeing to his military and government duties while he studied), Pliny managed to find ways to work a great deal of reading into his daily schedules. Much of this reading was done through Pliny’s special skill of multitasking. As if he was playing an ancient version of an audiobook, Pliny the Elder had his assistants read aloud books for him while he carried out his other daily tasks. This, along with an early-to-rise morning routine, allowed Pliny the Elder to become an incredibly well-read man.
According to Pliny the Elder’s family and friends, the man regularly operated little sleep. Pliny the Elder’s nephew—who was also named Pliny (Pliny the Younger)—described his uncle’s early routine. The younger Pliny wrote, “he combined a penetrating intellect with amazing powers of concentration and the capacity to manage with the minimum of sleep…he began to work by lamplight, not with any idea of making a propitious start but to give himself more time for study, and would rise half-way through the night; in winter it would often be at midnight or an hour later, and two at the latest” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 3.5). Mind you, this early schedule turned Pliny the Elder into something close to a narcoleptic by the end of the day, nodding off here and there while he was working or studying. Nevertheless, Pliny the Elder enjoyed having that block of time to read and study as he pleased by the lamplight in the early morning.
If Pliny the Elder was posted to a military or government position, he preferred to take care of those duties around sunrise. This early schedule was apparently approved of and accommodated by Emperor Vespasian (r. 69-79). Pliny the Younger recalled, “Before daybreak, he would visit the Emperor Vespasian (who also made use of his nights) and then go to attend his official duties” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 3.5). Pliny the Elder’s official duties were often over by lunch time, by which point he would quickly shift back to reading and notetaking. Even before he made it back to his home, the scholar was likely already reading and notetaking, for, as Pliny the Younger commented in a letter, “When travelling he felt free from other responsibilities to give every minute to work; he kept a secretary at his side with book and notebook…” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 3.5). No time was wasted.
Once Pliny the Elder returned to his house, his multitasking continued. When the mid-day meal was served, the food and drink was paired with a side of literature. The younger Pliny commented on this, writing, “A book was read aloud during the meal and he took rapid notes” (Letters, 3.5). If Pliny the Elder chose to take a bath, he continued to multitask. Pliny’s letter-writing nephew mentioned this, stating, “while he was being rubbed down and dried he had a book read to him or dictated notes” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 3.5). After leaving the bath, the older Pliny threw himself back into his writing, reading, or notetaking. He would, however, take some breaks to step out into the sunshine. Yet, during those breaks, too, Pliny the Elder’s book-wielding assistants would be in attendance, reading aloud the texts for the relaxing scholar. After resuming his work and then enjoying another book-accompanied meal break for dinner, perhaps Pliny the Elder would take a quick power nap, before waking up once again in the middle of the night to renew his packed daily schedule.
Sadly, Pliny the Elder tragically died in the Vesuvius volcanic eruption of 79 that destroyed Pompeii. Afterward, his nephew—the aforementioned and often quoted Pliny the Younger—came into possession of his uncle’s considerable library and notes. The younger Pliny claimed to have found “160 notebooks of selected passages, written in a minute hand on both sides of the page, so that their number is really doubled” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 3.5). Along with these summaries, extracts and annotations, Pliny the Younger also came into possession of his uncle’s seven published works—Throwing the Javelin from Horseback, The Life of Pomponius Secundus, The German Wars, The Scholar, Problems in Grammar, A Continuation of the History of Aufidius Bassus, and his Natural History. Unfortunately, only the Natural History has survived from Pliny the Elder’s catalog of published texts.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Wall painting fragment from the north wall of Room H of the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale ca. 50–40 B.C., [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).
- The Letters of Pliny the Younger, translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Classics, 1963, 1969.