Mario Williams

Pliny II the Hero

1¶ In Epistula 6.20, Pliny the Younger recounts his escape from the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius at the age of 17. He also writes about his uncle, Piny the Elder’s mission to rescue the people of Pompeii, and how he met his tragic end in Epistula 6.16. Nicholas Jones (2001) makes the reasonable assertion, “No sympathetic reader could reasonably expect, especially under the unprecedented and trying circumstances of the eruption, for this adolescent to match the performance of a mature and seasoned public servant” (46).

2¶ Yet it is clear, from Pliny’s account, that he himself does try to match his uncle’s performance, and that he feels he did not live up to his uncle’s example. He makes this clear in the beginning of 6.20 when he is hesitant to tell Tacitus about his escape. Jones later points out, “there is a quiet heroism of the author of the Letters” (48). I would make the point more strongly, that his actions are in line with the heroic pattern. He seems to be developing his heroic identity in the same pattern as the way the heroes in the legends, myths, and folklore developed theirs. He performs daring deeds and overcomes insuperable odds in his youth; he defeats a monster, which was personified as a volcano; and his heroic skill comes from a divine parent, the famous Pliny the Elder.

Overcoming Insuperable Odds:

3¶ In the myths of ancient Greece, heroes faced many insuperable odds that they had to overcome. These odds are what made them heroes. Having to face challenges that others cannot is what separates the heroes from everyone else. For example, the infant Hercules strangled the two snakes, which Hera had sent to kill him in his cradle. Even as a baby, the hero overcame insuperable odds. However, this is just one of his challenges. Hercules would later be faced with twelve insuperable odds, which, would go down in history as his twelve Labors.

4¶ Another hero who faced many insuperable odds was the hero Odysseus. He defeats the cyclops Polyphemus, escapes from Circe’s island, and makes it past the two sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis, among many other tasks. The hero Achilles went to battle as a young man and helped conquer the city of Troy. Theseus is another young hero to face insuperable odds. He had to go on a quest to Athens from Troezen in order to find his father. On his journey he was faced with labors such as killing the demigod Periphetes, as well as the Crommyonian Sow. These heroes were all able to overcame challenging odds.

5¶ The greatest odd that heroes of ancient Greece could overcome was death. Many died and were ferried through the underworld, but a few were fortunate enough to make the “katabasis” to Hades’ kingdom and come back to the land of the living. They had overcome death. The hero Aeneas takes a trip in order to speak with his father. Theseus, Hercules, Odysseus, and Orpheus make their own katabaseis. Like them, Pliny the younger escaped the underworld, which had manifested itself on Earth as an erupting Mt. Vesuvius, spewing fire and ash.

6¶ In the, Epistula 6.20, Pliny the younger is forced to overcome an insuperable odd, by escaping the destruction of Misenum. As he and his mother wait to hear word of Pliny the Elder, darkness approaches their home from across the bay. His mother tells him to leave her, so that he has a better chance at escaping. Pliny the younger states; “Ego contra salvum me nisi una non futurum; dein manum eius amplexus addere gradum cogo ([I told her I refused to save myself without her, and grasping her hand forced her to move quicker]” (Pliny. Epistulae 6.20.12). Pliny is faced with a challenge; he can leave his mother behind and have a better chance at saving himself, or he can save the both of them. He decided to take the heroic path and not leave his mother behind to perish. He would not lose her and his uncle to the destruction of Mt. Vesuvius. By overcoming the shroud of darkness that blanketed over the island and the pumice stones that rained down from the sky, and saving his mother, Pliny truly demonstrates his heroism.

Defeating a Monster:

7¶ A monster is the greatest obstacle that a hero in Greek mythology must come against. Greek mythology is full of monsters that plague villages and cities, and these monsters are usually the climax point for many of our heroes. Oedipus saves Thebes from the Sphinx. Perseus defeated Medusa and saved Andromeda from the sea monster. Theseus defeated the Minotaur in the Labyrinth. And even Bellerophon slayed the monstrous chimera. All these heroes have championed over horrid beasts that roamed the ancient world. The hero Hercules battles many different monsters during his twelve labors, from the Nemean lion to Cerberus.

8¶ In ancient Greece, the monsters that these heroes battled would have represented forces of nature. The ancient Greeks believed that monsters or the fury of the gods caused the natural disasters that they were facing. Many of them were descendants from Gaia, the Earth, through her children Phorkys and Keto. According to Hesiods’ Theogony, “To Phorkys Keto bore the fair cheeked old women grey haired from birth”(270-271). For sixty-six lines, Hesiod gives the descendants of these two deities. The Greeks knew that all the natural disasters came from the Earth.

9¶ Pliny the younger is not like the heroes of myth. His battle was not with a three headed dog from Hades or lion with impenetrable skin. Pliny’s monster was nature its self. In Epistula 6.20, Pliny describes how three days after Mt. Vesuvius erupted; the promontory of Misenum was still plagued by earthquakes, and the smoke and ash that made its way across the bay. As it made its way to Misenum, and engulfed his home, Pliny writes about how he was able to escape with his mother to the edge of the town. Pliny then states, “But even though, in spite of the dangers we had been through and were still expecting, my mother and I had still no intention of leaving”[ Nobis tamen ne tunc quidem, quamquam et expertis periculum et exspectantibus, abeundi consilium] (Pliny. 6.20). Because Pliny the younger’s monster was the volcano Mt. Vesuvius, surviving its eruption symbolizes him defeating the monster. Because he was not caught in its destructive path, his survival counts as his triumph over the monster.

Divine Father:         

10¶ In many of the Greek myths, the heroes of these tales came from divine bloodlines making them different from other mortals. These demigods were bestowed with special knowledge and abilities that aided them on their journeys. The hero Perseus was the son of Zeus. Because of his divine parentage, Perseus was given gifts like the winged sandals, an unbreakable sickle, and an invisibility cap that allowed him to defeat the gorgon Medusa, and save Andromeda from the sea monster. Another son of Zeus, Hercules, inherited his immense strength from his father. The demigod Achilles, was known for being quick footed. And, like Achilles, the greatest warriors of the Trojans Sarpedon and Aeneas, were gifted with skills from their divine parents. The hero Hercules is another offspring of Zeus. Because of his father’s indiscretions he is forced to endure the wrath of Hera, who drives him insane, which leads him to kill his family. He then completes his labors for atone for his crimes.

11¶ They all have some sort of divine parent, from whom they have gotten abilities that make them able to accomplish deeds that no mortal could. But in Pliny the younger’s case this is different. His father is not a god, and his mother is not a nymph. What he does have is a very well known and distinguished uncle, who takes the place of a divine parent. He was a well-known general, a famous author, and a highly respected member of the emperor’s court. In the Epistula 6.16, Pliny the Younger writes to Tacitus and states, “The fortunate man, in my opinion, is he to whom the gods have granted the power either to do something which is worth recording or write which is worth reading, and most fortunate of all is the man who can do both. Such a man was my uncle, as his own books and yours will prove. [Equidem beatos puto, quibus deorum munere datum est aut facere scribenda aut scribere legenda, beatissimos vero quibus utrumque. Horum in numero avunculus meus et suis libris et tuis erit] (Pliny 6.16). This shows that Pliny greatly looked up to his uncle as a teacher and as a father figure. Pliny the Elder was an influence in his life, giving him the education that he used to become a great writer and a hero. Pliny the Elder also demonstrated what being a hero was to Pliny the Younger, when he courageously went to Pompeii in order rescue the residents from Mt. Vesuvius. Pliny II got his courage and his scientific mind from Pliny I. These are the gifts that allowed him to become a hero.


12¶ Pliny the younger demonstrates throughout Epistula 6.20, that he is more than just a student but a hero in every way. His life as the nephew of Pliny the Elder, and the journey that he went on in his letter is similar to many of the heroes in Greek myths. Like Odysseus in The Odyssey, he has overcome insuperable odds. Similar to Theseus, he has faced monsters, and defeated them. And like Perseus, he has a divine father figure that he looks up to. Because he has all these heroic qualifications, it seems that he has surpassed what his uncle Pliny the Elder was, even if he does not believe it. He may avoid using heroic or mythological verbiage rather purposefully; he is still the product of a Roman education and still follows the literary patterns of a hero. He has surpassed the status of student and has joined the ranks of the many heroes before him.


Buxton, R. G. A.The Complete World of Greek Mythology. London: Thames & Hud, 2004. Print.

Grant, Michael, and John. Hazel. Gods and Mortals in Classical Mythology.Springfield, MA: G. & C. Merriam Co., 1973. Print.

Harnsberger, Caroline Thomas. Gods and Heroes : A Quick Guide to the Occupations, Associations and Experiences of the Greek and Roman Gods and Heroes.Troy, N.Y.: Whitstob. Co., 1977. Print.

Kerényi, Karl.The Heroes of the Greeks. London: Thames & Hud, 1974. Print.

Nicholas F. Jones, “Pliny the Younger’s Vesuvius Letters (6.16 and 6.20), “Classical World1:31-48.

Pliny, and Betty Radice. Letters, and Panegyricus. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969. Print. Loeb classical library, 55, 59; Loeb classical library, 55, 59.

4 thoughts on “Mario Williams”

  1. I very much enjoyed your paper for its creativity in seeking to draw connections between Pliny’s Epistula 6.20 and the heroic tradition. Your writing is very clear and concise. After reading the letter myself, I do in fact see how Pliny might have sought to bolster his image by embedding archetypal heroic features in his narrative. This seems likely since Pliny knew that his account might appear in Tacitus’ history. Moreover, I do, however, suggest that you broaden your thesis, so that you can include the many other virtuous features in the letter that do not necessarily fall within the typical framework of the archetypical hero. Since your argument lacked enough evidence for your thesis to stand firm, it would serve your paper to flesh out your argument with these other examples. Nicholas Jone’s “quiet heroism” extends beyond the archetypical hero as evident, for example, through Pliny’s constantia (6.20.5). Pliny keeps calm and on with his book when his uncle’s friend from Spain scolds him and as the tremors grow stronger. Pliny says twice that he refused to seek safety as long as his uncle’s fate remained unknown, and refused to let his mother die to save his life at the risk of his own. Further, Pliny also shows humility. This is evident through his use of praeteritio when he refuses to boast [gloriari] that he, unlike others, did not let out a lament during the danger (6.20.17). In his firmness, he even chooses to put a positive spin on the fact that he and the world are meeting their demise together, a great comfort of dying [magno tamen mortalitatis solacio] (6.20.17). Lastly, perhaps you can note how Pliny uses his uncle’s friend and the fearful mob as a foil for his own character to create heroism in relation to their cowardice. I’m interested how might the perilous and dark imagery of the volcano’s eruption resemble the underworld, which would be significant since the archetypal hero (Odysseus, Aeneas, Theseus, Herakles, etc.) often makes his journey there. When reading how Pliny refused to leave his mother behind and grabbed her hand amidst the uproar and danger, I couldn’t help but recall the scene in Ovid’s Orpheus and Eurydice, when Orpheus attempts to escort Eurydice out from the underworld, but fails. At any rate, interesting and thought provoking read! Thanks!

  2. Thank you for your paper, Mario. Your focus on heroic escape from the volcano certainly made me see Pliny in a new light. I agree with Dominick’s comments above that there is added support available for broadening his heroism. he has pointed to several additional examples of virtue. One added feature that you might develop further is Pliny’s own emphasis on the importance of writing. That makes him quite different from a traditional hero, but interestingly raises the value of the act of writing — so maybe he is the slightly different hero in the age of writing?! And maybe this hero doesn’t “defeat” the monster, but rather by recording it outlives it? Many scholars have written about the role of the writer. Michael Putnam in his book on Horace’s fourth book of odes has an excellent chapter on Odes 4.15 in which he examines the relative power of Horace’s writing over and against that of his subject matter (Augustus, in part) and on some level Horace wins.

  3. Mario,

    Your ideas were communicated very clearly and I found myself really enjoying the content of your paper. I find it fascinating how the “Hero” myth/identity becomes a way in which Pliny the Younger becomes somewhat god-like.

    In my paper, I talk about Berenice II being transformed into the figure of a goddess through absence and removal – Pliny II seems to become “hero” through a striking amount of presence – “daring deeds” and “heroic skill.”
    Quite opposing means! I found this contrast interesting to think about, especially when one considers gender and time and culture.

    I would affirm the comments above, particularly Dominick’s suggestion to “include the many other virtuous features in the letter that do not necessarily fall within the typical framework of the archetypical hero.” How exactly does the letter function in regards to Pliny II’s reception and image?

    I wondered about your choice to focus on Greek myths.
    Would Pliny’s Roman nature play into these examples? Could Pliny’s parallel to the “Hero” of Greek myth be an example of Roman culture absorbing Greek ideals and narratives?

    Just some thoughts I had while reading your work.
    I’m really looking forward to having a discussion surrounding your ideas and observations — see you in a few days!

  4. Hi Mario!

    It was great meeting you today! I enjoyed reading your paper as it was very clear and easy to read despite my unfamiliarity with your topic.

    In your chapter, “Overcoming Insuperable Odds” you wrote about the Greek heroes and their ability to overcome odds. Yet, I have never been in a classics course where the question of “how do you define hero?” does not come up. In these classes, often the non-classists will question how you can consider a character, such as Achilles or Hercules, a hero as some of their actions are often judged by modern day audiences (possibly even the ancients) as cruel. The classicists in the room often question if the word hero is misused as well, as American-English connotations of the word “hero” vastly differ from the connotations of Greek ἥρως. For this reason, I think it would strengthen your paper if you directly define what you mean by hero and reference that definition when you later speak about the heroes.

    Additionally, in that chapter you cite almost exclusively Greek heroes. I think it would be more effective to cite Roman heroes (maybe go into more depth about Aeneas) as one would assume that Roman heroes hold more influence over Pliny and, consequently, the subtle reminders of previous heroic action that he presents in Epistula.

    More generally, it would be interesting to see what other secondary sources say on your topic and how your thesis either agrees or disagrees with them.

    I look forward to hearing you speak more about this tomorrow!

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