Pliny: A Man Who Didn’t Waste Time

Pliny (called “the Elder”) used to get up at twelve and work the rest of the night. No time to lose sleeping.

Then just before sun-up he got dressed and went out.

The streets of Rome were already busy. Everyone paid a daily visit to his patron and Pliny’s patron was the very emperor of Rome,Vespasian, who also worked at night. Pliny gave him a morning greeting and then set to work at the palace. He worked for the emperor as a procurator (a high official). He put in a good eight hours a day.

At about three or four in the afternoon he went back home. He didn’t walk. He had his slaves carry him everywhere—he hated to lose good working time walking. While they transported him through the crowded streets he could go on working in his litter with the curtain drawn. He scolded his nephew for walking. “Think how much of your life you have wasted that way,” he told him. “That’s so much work you never did.”

When he reached home and if the weather was good, he went outdoors and lay in the sun. Time to relax? Don’t think he just lazed. While he lay there he had a slave read aloud to him (how else do you get to know all the great works?), and he made notes and extracts—and not sloppily either: the notes were written in a small, careful handwriting that by the time he died at 55 filled 160 notebooks, “which really counted as double,” said his nephew, “because he filled both sides of the page.”

Next was a bath, a cold bath, and then his lunch. Lunch was never a big thing; as soon as he had emptied the plate he hurried off to bed.

The short nap refreshed him. It was as if a new day began and he worked with renewed energy all through the rest of the afternoon until dinner-time.

A slave read to him in the dining-room. Romans reclined at the table and propped themselves up on their left elbow. Pliny kept a notebook beside him on the couch and often stopped chewing, put down his knife, and jotted something down. His nephew says he hated interruptions. Once a guest asked the slave to stop reading and go back to repeat a word he hadn’t heard and Pliny showed irritation. “Couldn’t you understand him without that word?” he asked the guest. “Your interruption has cost us ten lines!”

Dinner was longer than lunch but not much longer. In winter he was off to bed as soon as it got dark and in summer, before the sun set.

“So I have to smile whenever someone calls me studious,” his nephew wrote to a friend. “Compared to my uncle I’m a lazy bum.”

Pliny didn’t always live like this. This was the hurried last part of his life. During most of it he travelled, often and far, always learning, always taking his notes. He believed his mission was to transmit the knowledge of his time to those who would live after him, and he did it. Most of what he wrote is lost but perhaps the best of it, called the Natural History, survived. It is an encyclopedia—thirty-seven volumes compiling everything men knew about art and science. It was what Pliny made of those notes of his.

Was it useful to anyone?
Men used it as a reference for more than a thousand years.


Up, lad; thews [those] that lie and cumber
Sunlit pallets never thrive;
Morns abed and daylight slumber
Were not meant for man alive.

Clay lies still, but blood’s a rover;
Breath’s a ware that will not keep.
Up, lad; when the journey’s over
There’ll be time enough to sleep.

From Reveille by A. E. Housman

Read about Pliny’s heroic death during the eruption of Vesuvius here.


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6 Responses to Pliny: A Man Who Didn’t Waste Time

  1. 100swallows says:

    Book Reviews Online: Thanks a lot.

  2. 100swallows says:

    Eileen: He deserves his fame. Tomorrow I’ll post his nephew’s account of his heroic death during the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD.

  3. Eileen says:

    I wonder how he would feel if he knew that even today people know who he is. I imagine he would feel like all his notes were worth it!

    Dedicated Elementary Teacher Overseas

  4. 100swallows says:

    Erika: It’s typical of our time that we see Pliny as a “sick” man (workaholic). I’m glad he lived like that–he and men like Van Gogh, who didn’t give themselves a moment’s rest. But are you really going to get up at midnight? That’s nice you’re taking up painting next.

  5. Nice review! I like the tone and style of your writing – only if I had such talent :)

    Nice site by the way!

  6. erikatakacs says:

    Funny I’m reading this post now that I bought printing and painting (!) supplies, and I’m thinking I would need to work 24 hrs a day to get everything done. I can learn a lot from Pliny on how to organize my day. Sounds like he was the first workaholic. Nothing is new under the sun. And yes, I have to agree, why waste time, when there will be enough rest when the time comes.

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