Letters of the Younger Pliny with an introductory essay by John B. Firth
First Series. The Walter Scott Publishing Co., Ltd., London and Felling-on-Tyne, New York: 3 East 14th Street.
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 documents would have been enormous. But he would only have risked his life by so doing, and that he had no desire to do. It was not until the tyrant had fallen under the sword of Stephanus that he felt it safe to trust his thoughts to paper. The new era which was inaugurated loosened his tongue and made him breathe more freely. He exulted that at last an honest man could venture to hold his head high without drawing down upon himself the vengeance of the vile informers who throve upon the misfortunes of the State.
Two of Pliny's correspondents and friends were Cornelius Tacitus and Suetonius Tranquillus. Yet no one can read either the Histories and Annals of Tacitus or the Lives of the Caesars and then pass to a reading of Pliny's Letters without being struck by the enormous difference in their tone and spirit. It is almost impossible to believe that their respective authors were contemporaries. When turning over the pages of Tacitus one feels that the vices and despotism of the Emperors and the Empire had crushed all spirit out of the world, had made quiet family life impossible, and had stamped out every trace of justice and clean living. It is a remarkable fact that the great writers of the first century, as soon as the Augustan era had closed, should have been masters of a merciless satire, which has rarely been equaled in the history of the world, and never excelled. When we think of Roman society, as it was in the early Empire, our thoughts recur to the lurid canvases which have been painted for us by Juvenal, by Tacitus, by Lucan, by Seneca, and by Petronius -- pictures which have made the world shudder, and have led even careful historians astray. Pliny supplies the needful corrective and gives us the reverse side of the medal. Like the authors we have mentioned, he too writes of the evil days which he himself has passed through, as of a horrid nightmare from which he has just awakened; but from his letters, artificial and stilted as they are in some respects, we learn that there were still to be found those who had not bowed the knee to Baal.
And so, with this volume in our hands, we obtain a personal introduction to a number of distinguished Romans and Roman matrons, whose names have been preserved for all time by the Younger Pliny. His circle of friends was a large one. Let us mention a few of them. We have already spoken of Virginius Rufus, the grand old soldier and patriot, who, dying at the age of eighty-four, was awarded a public funeral, while Cornelius Tacitus, then Consul, delivered the panegyric in his honour. Vestricius Spurinna was another distinguished general of the old school, and Pliny relates with enthusiasm how he paid a visit to him in his country-house when Spurinna was seventy-seven years of age and had retired from public office. He tells us how his friend spent his day, how he drove and walked and played tennis to keep himself in health, wrote Greek and Latin lyrics, and maintained a keen interest in all that went on in the capital. Corellius Rufus is another of the older men of whom Pliny writes with sincere affection, and he helped to pay the debt of gratitude he owed him by numerous acts of kindness to his daughter Crellia. Voconius Romanus is another of his closest friends, and Pliny tells us that he wrote such admirable letters that you would think the Muses themselves must speak in Latin. His literary associates numbered among them Caius Cornelius Tacitus, Silius Italicus the poet -- whose veneration for Virgil was so great that he kept his master's birthday with more solemnity than his own, and visited his tomb on the Bay of Naples with as much respect as worshippers pay to a temple, -- Martial the epigrammatist, Suetonius Tranquillus the historian, and others such as Passennus Paullus, Caninius Rufus, Virgilius Romanus, and Caius Fannius, whose works have not survived the wreck of time, though Pliny showers upon all of them enthusiastic and indiscriminate praise. Again, he enjoyed the friendship of a number of distinguished foreigners, professional rhetoricians and philosophers, who came back to Rome after their sentence of banishment, passed by Domitian, had been revoked by Nerva and Trajan. Euphrates, Artemidorus, and Isaeus were the three most famous, and their respective styles are carefully described by Pliny. Even more interesting perhaps is the gallery of Roman ladies, whose portraits are limned with so fine and discriminating a touch. Juvenal again is responsible for much misconception as to the part the women of Rome played in Roman society. The appalling Sixth Satire, in which he unhesitatingly declares that most women -- if not all -- are bad, and that virtue and chastity are so rare as to be almost unknown, in which he roundly accuses them of all the vices known to human depravity, reads like a monstrous and disgraceful libel on the sex when one turns to Pliny and makes the acquaintance of Arria, Fannia, Corellia, and Calpurnia. The characters of Arria and Fannia are well known; they are among the heroines of history. But in Pliny there are numerous references to women whose names are not even known to us, but the terms in which they are referred to prove what sweet, womanly lives they led. For example, he writes to Geminus: "Our friend Macrinus has suffered a grievous wound. He has lost his wife, who would have been regarded as a model of all the virtues even if she had lived in the good old days. He lived with her for thirty-nine years, without so much as a single quarrel or disagreement." "Vixit cum hac triginta novem annis sine jurgio, sine offensa. One is reminded of the fine line of Propertius, in which Cornelia boasts of the blameless union of herself and her husband, Paullus --
"Viximus insignes inter utramque facem."
This is no isolated example. One of the most pathetic letters is that in which Pliny writes of the death of the younger daughter of his friend Fundanus, a girl in her fifteenth year, who had already "the prudence of age, the gravity of a matron, and all the maidenly modesty and sweetness of a girl." Pliny tells us how it cut him to the quick to hear her father give directions that the money he had meant to lay out on dresses and pearls and jewels for her betrothal should be spent on incense, unguents, and spices for her bier. What a different picture from anything we find in Juvenal, who would fain have us believe that Messalina was the type of the average Roman matron of his day!C. PLINII CAECILII SECVNDI EPISTVLARVM LIBRI DECEM