Pliny the Younger
E-text of J.W. Mackail's Latin Literature Part III. Chapter IV. Pliny
By J. W. Mackail
Juvenal, the Younger Pliny, Suetonius: Decay of Classical Latin.Previous Section | Next Section
To pass from Juvenal to the other distinguished contemporary of Tacitus, the younger Pliny, is like exchanging the steaming atmosphere and gorgeous colours of a hot-house for the commonplace trimness of a suburban garden. The nephew and adopted son of his celebrated uncle, Pliny had received from his earliest years the most elaborate training which ever fell to the lot of mediocrity. His uncle's death left him at the age of seventeen already a finished pedant. The story which he tells, with obvious self-satisfaction, of how he spent the awful night of the eruption of Vesuvius in making extracts from Livy for his commonplace book, sets the whole man before us. He became a successful pleader in the courts, and passed through the usual public offices up to the consulate. At the age of fifty he was imperial legate of Bithynia: the extant official correspondence between him and the Emperor during this governorship shows him still unchanged; upright and conscientious, but irresolute, pedantic, and totally unable to think and act for himself in any unusual circumstances. The contrast between Pliny's fidgety indecision and the quiet strength and inexhaustible patience of Trajan, though scarcely what Pliny meant to bring out, is the first and last impression conveyed to us by this curious correspondence. The nine books of his private letters, though prepared, and in many cases evidently written for publication, give a varied and interesting picture of the time. Here, too, the character of the writer in its virtues and its weakness is throughout unmistakable. Pliny, the patriotic citizen, -- Pliny, the munificent patron, -- Pliny, the eminent man of letters, -- Pliny, the affectionate husband and humane master, -- Pliny, the man of principle, is in his various phases the real subject of the whole collection. His opinions are always just and elegant; few writers can express truisms with greater fervour. The letters to Tacitus with whom he was throughout life in close intimacy, are among the most interesting and the fullest of unintentional humour. Tacitus was the elder of the two; and Pliny, "when very young" -- the words are his own, -- had chosen him as his model and sought to follow his fame. "There were then many writers of brilliant genius; but you," he writes to Tacitus, "so strong was the affinity of our natures, seemed to me at once the easiest to imitate and the most worthy of imitation. Now we are named together; both of us have, I may say, some name in literature, for, as I include myself, I must be moderate in my praise of you." This to the author who had already published the "Histories!" Before so exquisite a self-revelation criticism itself is silenced.
The cult of Ciceronianism established by Quintilian is the real origin of the collection of Pliny's "Letters". Cicero and Pliny had many weaknesses and some virtues in common, and the desire of emulating Cicero, which Pliny openly and repeatedly expresses, had a considerable effect in exaggerating his weaknesses. Cicero was vain, quick-tempered, excitable; his sensibilities were easily moved, and found natural and copious expression in the language of which he was a consummate master. Pliny, the most steady-going of mankind, sets himself to imitate this excitable temperament with the utmost seriousness; he cultivates sensibility, he even cultivates vanity. His elaborate and graceful descriptions of scenery -- the fountain of Clitumnus or the villa overlooking the Tiber valley -- are no more consciously insincere than his tears over the death of friends, or the urgency with which he begs his wife to write to him from the country twice a day. But these fine feelings are meant primarily to impress the public; and a public which could be impressed by the spectacle of a man giving a dinner-party, and actually letting his untitled guests drink the same wine that was being drunk at the head of the table, put little check upon lapses of taste.
Yet with all his affectations and fatuities, Pliny compels respect, and even a measure of admiration, by the real goodness of his character. Where a good life is lived, it hardly becomes us to be too critical of motives and springs of action; and in Pliny's case the practice of domestic and civic virtue was accompanied by a considerable literary gift. Had we a picture drawn with equal copiousness and grace of the Rome of Marcus Aurelius half a century later, it would be a priceless addition to history. Pliny's world -- partly because it is presented with such rich detail -- reminds us, more than that of any other period of Roman history, of the society of our own day. To pass from Cicero's letters to his is curiously like passing from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century. In other respects, indeed, they have what might be called an eighteenth century flavour. Some of the more elaborate of them would fall quite naturally into place among the essays of the "Spectator" or the "Rambler;" in many others the combination of thin and lucid common-sense with a vein of calculated sensibility can hardly be paralleled till we reach the age of Rousseau.
Part of this real or assumed sensibility was the interest in scenery and the beauties of nature, which in Pliny, as in the eighteenth century authors, is cultivated for its own sake as an element in self-culture. In the words with which he winds up one of the most elaborate of his descriptive pieces, that on the lake of Vadimo in Tuscany -- "Me nihil aeque ac naturae opera delectant" -- there is an accent which hardly recurs till the age of the "Seasons" and of Gray's "Letters". Like Gray, Pliny took a keen pleasure in exploring the more romantic districts of his country; his description of the lake in the letter just mentioned is curiously like passages from the journal in which Gray records his discovery -- for it was little less -- of Thirlmere and Derwentwater. He views the Clitumnus with the eye of an accomplished landscape-gardener; he notes the cypresses on the hill, the ash and poplar groves by the water's edge; he counts the shining pebbles under the clear ice-cold water, and watches the green reflections of the overhanging trees; and finally, as Thomson or Cowper might have done, mentions the abundance of comfortable villas as the last charm of the landscape.
The munificent benefactions of Pliny to his native town of Comum, and his anxiety that, instead of sending its most promising boys to study at Milan -- only thirty miles off -- it should provide for them at home what would now be called a university education, are among the many indications which show us how Rome was diffusing itself over Italy, as Italy was over the Latin-speaking provinces. Under Hadrian and the Antonines this process went on with even growing force. Country life, or that mixture of town and country life afforded by the small provincial towns, came to be more and more of a fashion, and the depopulation of the capital had made sensible progress long before the period of renewed anarchy that followed the assassination of Commodus. Whether the rapid decay of Latin literature which took place after the death of Pliny and Tacitus was connected with this weakening of the central life of Rome, is a question to which we hardly can hazard a definite answer. Under the three reigns which succeeded that of Trajan, a period of sixty-four years of internal peace, of beneficent rule, of enlightened and humane legislation, the cultured society shown to us in Pliny's "Letters" as diffused all over Italy remained strangely silent. Of all the streams of tradition which descended on this age, the schools of law and grammar alone kept their course; the rest dwindle away and disappear. Sixty years pass without a single poet or historian, even of the second rate; one or two eminent jurists share the field with one or two inconsiderable extract-makers and epitomators, who barely rise out of the common herd of undistinguished grammarians. Among the obscure poets mentioned by Pliny, the name of Vergilius Romanus may excite a momentary curiosity; he was the author of Terentian comedies, which probably did not long survive the private recitations for which they were composed. The epitome of the "History" of Pompeius Trogus, made by the otherwise unknown Marcus Junianus Justinus, has been already mentioned; like the brief and poorly executed abridgment of Livy by Julius or Lucius Annaeus Florus (one of the common text-books of the Middle Ages), it is probably to be placed under Hadrian. Javolenus Priscus, a copious and highly esteemed juridical writer, and head of one of the two great schools of Roman jurisprudence, is best remembered by the story of his witty interruption at a public recitation, which Pliny (part of whose character it was to joke with difficulty) tells with a scandalised gravity even more amusing than the story itself. His successor as head of the school, Salvius Julianus, was of equal juristic distinction; his codification of praetorian law received imperial sanction from Hadrian, and became the authorised civil code. He was one of the instructors of Marcus Aurelius. The wealth he acquired by his profession was destined, in the strange revolutions of human affairs, to be the purchase-money of the Empire for his great- grandson, Didius Julianus, when it was set up at auction by the praetorian guards. More eminent as a man of letters than either of these is their contemporary Gaius, whose "Institutes of Civil Law", published at the beginning of the reign of Marcus Aurelius, have ever since remained one of the foremost manuals of Roman jurisprudence.
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