Rome is Where the Heart Is: Daisy Dunn Interview

Katie Palmer

We sat down with Daisy Dunn to discuss her latest book, In the Shadow of Vesuvius: A Life of Pliny
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Daisy Dunn, you have already written a biography of Catullus, described as ‘Rome’s most erotic poet’. What made you choose the polar opposite characters of Pliny the Elder and Younger for your next project?

I didn’t consciously set out to write about two such different characters. I was attracted in the first place to the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79. But since the eruption is, at heart, a human story, I thought it only right to tell it through the lives of the people who experienced it. The only ones we know much about today are Pliny the Elder, who lost his life in the disaster, and his nephew Pliny the Younger, who survived to tell the tale. My dual biography developed from there. Although he found success as a senator and lawyer, the younger Pliny actually idolised Catullus, so there was a link for me between the two books.

You have said previously that from reading about Catullus’ life and poetry, we can all learn to be a little less tentative in love. What do you think we ought to take away from reading about the Plinys?

What really comes across from reading the Letters of the younger Pliny and Natural History of the elder is how important it is to care for the environment. Both men saw the benefits of respecting the natural world. While the elder’s points were often altruistic – he dreaded the destruction of landscapes – the younger described how time spent outdoors could improve mental and physical wellbeing.

Why did you decide to write this book thematically in seasons, rather than chronologically? Do you think the material is better suited to a less rigid format?

The Eruption of Vesuvius by IC Dahl

Since the stages of Pliny the Younger’s life can be dated with more precision than those of his uncle, I knew I could use them to drive the story forward. At the same time, I realised that the timeline of a Roman career – ‘joined the lawcourt’, ‘became consul’ – wouldn’t make for the most exciting narrative. I, therefore, took a leaf out of Pliny the Elder’s book and adopted a more digressive structure. Dividing my book into seasons enabled me to paint ‘a year in the life’ of my characters, who responded to the changes of light and weather by moving between rooms – and even villas – every few months. You’ll notice there are five seasons presented in my book: Aut-, Winter, Spring, Summer, –umn. This is a nod to Stoic ideas about cycles of time, as found in Pliny the Elder’s writings. The notion of linear progress was so alien to the Plinys that I felt it would be wrong to build my book upon a traditional chronology.

Pliny the Elder famously never wasted a moment that could be spent studying. How did you maintain your focus on such an encyclopaedic project?

Nice segue. This book was many years in the making because there was a vast amount of source work to do, not least repeated readings of the 37-volume encyclopaedia, ten books of letters, inscriptions, and trips to make in the Plinys’ footsteps. The fact that I was writing about the seasons made me focus on even the subtlest changes outside – the emergence of a new bud, the fall of the first leaves – which heightened my awareness of the passing of time. This put the pressure on. Other than that, I relied on dark chocolate, a good lamp, and the fear of penury.

You were recently awarded the Classical Association Prize for raising the profile of Classics in the public eye. Why do you think the study of Classics and ancient literature still has relevance in modern society?

Without wanting to go full Monty Python, we have inherited so much from our ancient forebears that it seems only natural to me that we should study them as a means of understanding who we are today and why we live the way we do. Just because a period is remote from us in time, it does not follow that it is remote from us in other ways. I think I’ve learned more about diplomacy, betrayal, and love from Herodotus, Cicero, and Catullus than I have from the daily broadsheets, Prime Minister’s Questions, and TV.

Although neither of the Plinys defined themselves as Stoics, their philosophies and fascination with the natural world align well with the Stoic school of thought. Which of the ancient philosophical schools do you personally find the most interesting and why?

I was encouraged to read that sale of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations have increased by 356% this year, and Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic by an astonishing 747%. In a time of fear and loneliness, it makes sense that we should resurrect a philosophy that can help us to be masters of our emotions rather than slaves to them. I do see the benefits of Stoicism. But I also find Epicureanism hugely interesting. It teaches us to use small pleasures to combat daily fears and pain. It was popular in Herculaneum at the time of the eruption. I like to think it did the residents some good.

There has been a resurgence of texts that were previously thought of as too lewd or controversial to be taught in schools/ universities. Do you think this will increase people’s interest in the study of Classics?

It has to! Who doesn’t want to read a naughty book when they’re at school? There’s nothing I enjoyed more than hearing my teachers try to explain what a ‘sparrow’ might be a euphemism for in Latin poetry, or how we might translate words such as irrumabo in our exam papers. I still love it when I look up a word in a Latin lexicon, and the meaning is given in Greek because it’s considered so rude. Can we really still be in that place in the 21st century?

Why do you think scholars of the Renaissance were so keen to emulate ancient authors?

I think it was a combination of their feeling in awe of the elegance of classical prose and verse, wanting to prove their erudition by revealing their familiarity with these works, and above all wishing to challenge themselves to create something even more beautiful than the originals. Renaissance writers – and also artists – were tremendously competitive.

If you could meet three figures from the classical world for dinner, who would you choose?

Other than Catullus and the two Plinys, who would naturally be top of my guest list, I would love to sit down – or maybe even recline in Roman fashion – with Sappho, Euripides and Agrippa. The last would surely have all the best gossip from the imperial household and fringes of the empire.

You’ve written on Homer and the Greek myths, is this the area of ancient Greece you are most interested in, and what other areas interest you?

The Greek myths were my first love. That’s partly why I wanted to write a Ladybird book on Homer and edit an anthology of ancient stories. My Of Gods and Men is intended as a more grown-up version of the compilations of myths I enjoyed as a child. But I also love Greek history, especially the Graeco-Persian Wars, and increasingly the seventh century BC.

Do you think Classics is elitist?

No. It’s very hackneyed – a cliché – to describe Classics as such. Whilst it’s true that the subject has a strong tradition in the old public schools, there is nothing that makes it inherently better suited to the few rather than the many. The sooner we demolish this myth, the better.

Greece or Rome, which would you pick?

Impossible to choose, but I’ll say Rome. That way I can look at Greece, too, but through a Latin lens. Is that cheating?

Which books on the Classical world would you recommend to our readers?

There are so many. Thinking of the most recent books I’ve enjoyed, on the Greek side, there’s Paul Cartledge’s Thebesa powerful reminder that Greece was bigger than Athens and Sparta – and David Stuttard’s Phoenix, on Miltiades and Cimon, which will be published later this year. In terms of classic reads, for the budding Roman historian, I always think H. H. Scullard’s From the Gracchi to Nero is a jolly good place to start. Ditto anything by Ronald Syme and T.P. Wiseman, both being adventurous scholars.

Do you have any upcoming projects that you can share with our readers?

I’m very excited to announce that I have a couple of new books lined up. One is entitled Not Far From Brideshead: Oxford Between the Wars. The other is Pandora’s Revenge: A New History of the Ancient World through the Women who Inhabited it. Watch this space.

Daisy Dunn is a classicist and critic. She is the author of In the Shadow of Vesuvius: A Life of Pliny, Of Gods and Men: 100 Stories from Ancient Greece and Rome, Homer: A Ladybird Expert Book, Catullus’ Bedspread: The Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet, and The Poems of Catullus: A New Translation.

Aspects of History Issue 5 is out now.

Daisy Dunn. Daisy Dunn. Daisy Dunn. Daisy Dunn.