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- Letters of Pliny - 1/30 -




NOTE.--In the following translation the Teubner text, edited by Keil, has been followed.


Some slight memoir and critical estimate of the author of this collection of Letters may perhaps be acceptable to those who are unfamiliar with the circumstances of the times in which he lived. Moreover, few have studied the Letters themselves without feeling a warm affection for the writer of them. He discloses his character therein so completely, and, in spite of his glaring fault of vanity and his endless love of adulation, that character is in the main so charming, that one can easily understand the high esteem in which Pliny was held by the wide circle of his friends, by the Emperor Trajan, and by the public at large. The correspondence of Pliny the Younger depicts for us the everyday life of a Roman gentleman in the best sense of the term. We see him practising at the Bar; we see him engaged in the civil magistracies at Rome, and in the governorship of the important province of Bithynia; we see him consulted by the Emperor on affairs of state, and occupying a definite place among the "Amici Caesaris." Best of all, perhaps, we see him in his daily life, a devoted scholar, never so happy as when he is in his study, laboriously seeking to perfect his style, whether in verse or prose, by the models of the great writers of the past and the criticisms of the friends whom he has summoned, in a friendly way, to hear his compositions read or recited. Or again we find him at one of his country villas, enjoying a well-earned leisure after the courts have risen at Rome and all the best society has betaken itself into the country to escape the heats and fevers of the capital. We see him managing his estates, listening to the complaints of his tenants, making abatements of rent, and grumbling at the agricultural depression and the havoc that the bad seasons have made with his crops. Or he spends a day in the open air hunting, yet never omits to take with him a book to read or tablets on which to write, in case the scent is cold and game is not plentiful. In short, the Letters of Pliny the Younger give us a picture of social life as it was in the closing years of the first, and the opening years of the second century of the Christian era, which is as fascinating as it is absolutely unique.

Pliny was born either in 61 or 62 A.D. at Comum on Lake Larius. His father, Lucius Caecilius Cilo, had been aedile of the colony, and, dying young, left a widow, who with her two sons, sought protection with her brother, Caius Plinius Secundus, the famous author of the Natural History. The elder Pliny in his will adopted the younger of the two boys, and so Publius Caecilius Secundus--as he was originally called-- took thenceforth the name of Caius Plinius, L.F. Caecilius Secundus. Though later usage has assigned him the name of Pliny the Younger, he was known to his contemporaries and usually addressed as Secundus. But in his early years Pliny was placed under the guardianship of Virginius Rufus, one of the most distinguished Romans of his day, a successful and brilliant general who had twice refused the purple, when offered to him by his legionaries, and who lived to a ripe old age--the Wellington of his generation. So it was at Comum that he spent his early boyhood, and his affection for his birthplace led him in later years to provide for the educational needs of the youth of the district, who had previously been obliged to go to Mediolanum (Milan) to obtain their schooling. What can be better, he asks, than for children to be educated where they are born, so that they may grow to love their native place by residing in it? Pliny was fortunate in having so distinguished an uncle. On the accession of Vespasian, the elder Pliny was called to Rome by the Emperor, and when his nephew--vixdum adolescentus--joined him in the capital, he took charge of his studies. At the age of fourteen the young student had composed a Greek tragedy, to which he playfully refers in one of his letters, and in Rome he had the benefit of attending the lectures of the great Quintilian and Nicetes Sacerdos, and of making literary friendships which were to prove of the utmost value to him in after years. Pliny tells us that his uncle looked to him for assistance in his literary work, and he was thus engaged when his uncle lost his life in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79, so graphically described in the two famous letters to Tacitus. That Pliny deeply felt the loss of his relative and patron is shown by the eloquent tribute he paid to his memory, and doubtless, as his death occurred just at his own entry into public life, he was deprived of an influence which might have helped him greatly in his career. Domitian was on the throne, when, in 82, Pliny joined the 3rd Gallic legion, stationed in Syria, as military tribune. Service in the field, however, was not to his liking, and, as soon as his period of soldiering was over, he hurried back to Rome to win his spurs at the Bar and climb the ladder of civic distinction. He became Quaestor in 89 on the recommendation of the Emperor, Tribune in 91, and Praetor in 93.

So far his advancement had been rapid, but evil times succeeded. Domitian went from bad to worse. Always moody, suspicious, and revengeful, he began to imitate the worst vices of his predecessors of the line of Augustus. His hand fell heavily upon the Senatorial order, and another era of proscription began, in which the dreaded delatores again became the "terror" of Rome. It was a time of spoliation and murder, and Pliny writes of it with a shudder. Contrasting with the happy regime of Trajan that which prevailed in his youth and early manhood, he declares that virtue was regarded with suspicion and a premium set upon idleness, that in the camps the generals lacked authority and the soldiers had no sense of obedience, while, when he entered the Senate, he found it a craven and tongueless assembly (Curiam trepidam et elinguem), only convened to perpetrate some piece of villainy for the Emperor, or to humiliate the Senators by the sense of their own impotence. Pliny was not the man to make a bold stand against tyranny, and, during those perilous years, one can well believe that he did his best to avoid compromising himself, though his sympathies were wholly on the side of his proscribed friends. He was a typical official, suave and polished in manner, yet without that perilous enthusiasm which would simply have marked him for destruction. For two years he was Prefect of the Military Treasury, an office directly in the gift of the Emperor, and it would seem, therefore, that his character for uprightness stood him in good stead with the tyrant even in his worst years. He did not, like so many of the Roman nobles, retire from public life and enter into the sullen opposition which enraged the Emperors even more than active and declared antagonism.

In one passage, indeed, Pliny declares that he, too, was on the black list of the Emperor, but the words must not be taken too literally. He was given to boasting, and he may easily have represented, when the danger was past, that the peril in which he had stood was greater than it really was. No doubt he felt keenly the judicial murder of his friends Senecio, Rusticus, and Helvidius, and the banishment of Mauricus, Gratilla, Arria, and Fannia--for women were not spared in the general proscription; but, after all, the fact that he held office during the closing years of Domitian's life is ample proof that he knew how to walk circumspectly, and did not allow his detestation of the informers to compromise his safety. When at length, in 96, the Emperor was assassinated in the palace, and the Senate raised Nerva to the purple, Pliny stepped forward as the champion of the oppressed, and impeached Publicius Certus for compassing the death of Helvidius Priscus, though he was only so far successful that he prevented Certus from enjoying the consulship which had been promised him. Pliny revised the speech and published it in book form, and Certus died a few days after it appeared, haunted, so Pliny tells us, by the vision of his prosecutor pursuing him, sword in hand. Nerva's reign was short, but he was succeeded by one of the best of the Roman Emperors, Trajan, a prince under whose just, impartial and strong rule, a man of Pliny's character was bound to thrive and pass from office to office. In 98 he had been appointed by Nerva Prefect of the Treasury of Saturn, and in 100 he held the Consulship for two months, while still retaining his post at the Treasury, and delivered his well-known Panegyric on the 1st of September in that year. Either in 103 or 104 he was advanced to the Augurate, and two years later was appointed Curator of the Tiber. Then in 111 or 112--according to Mommsen's Chronology--Trajan bestowed upon him a signal mark of his esteem by selecting him for the Governorship of the province of Pontus and Bithynia, which he had transferred from the list of senatorial to that of imperial provinces. Pliny was given the special title of Legate Propraetor with full Consular powers, and he remained in his province for at least fifteen months. After that the curtain falls. Whether he died in Bithynia, or shortly after his return to Rome, or whether he lived on to enjoy the ripe old age of which he writes so pleasantly in his letters, we do not know. Certainly the probabilities are that, if he had lived, he would have continued to correspond with his friends, and the absence of further letters makes for the probability that he died in about his fiftieth year.

In judging these letters for their literary value, the first thing which strikes the reader is that Pliny did not write for his friends alone. Whatever the subject of the epistle, whether it was an invitation to dinner, a description of the charms of the country, an account of a visit to a friend, or an expression of condolence with some one in his or her bereavement, he never allowed his pen to run on carelessly. He scarcely ever prattles in his letters or lets himself go. One always sees in the writer the literary man, who knows that his correspondence is being passed round from hand to hand, and who hopes that it will find readers among posterity. Consequently there is an air of studied artificiality about many of the letters, which was more to the taste of the eighteenth than the nineteenth century. They remind one in many ways of Richardson and Mackenzie, and Pliny would have been recognised by those two writers, and by the latter in particular, as a thorough "man of sentiment." Herein they differ greatly from the other important collection which has come down to us from classical times, the Letters of Cicero. Pliny, indeed,--and in this he was a true disciple of his old teacher Quintilian,--took the great Roman orator as his model. Nothing pleased him more than for his friends to tell him that he was the Cicero of his time. Like Marcus Tullius, he was the foremost pleader of his day; like him again he dabbled in poetry, and his verses, so far as we know them, were sorry stuff. Yet again like his master, he fondly believed that he enjoyed the special inspiration of the Muses. Pliny, unfortunately for his reputation, gives us a few samples, which are quite as lame and jingling as the famous "O fortunatam natam, me Consule, Romam!" which had made generations of Romans smile. And so, as Cicero was in all things his master, Pliny too wrote letters, excellent in their way, but lacking the vivacity and directness of his model, and, of course, wholly deficient in the political interest which makes Cicero's correspondence one of the most important authorities for the history of his troublous time. Pliny's Letters cover the period from the accession of Nerva down to 113 A.D. None precede the death of Domitian in September 96. That is to say, they were written in an era of profound political peace, and most of them in the reign of Trajan, whose rule Pliny accepted with enthusiastic admiration. One certainly could have wished that he had written freely to his friends during the last years of Domitian's tyranny, for the value of such contemporary

Letters of Pliny - 1/30

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