Letters of the Younger Pliny, First Series— Volume 1

Author: Pliny the Younger


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!

Such were some of Pliny’s friends. His distinguished position at the Bar drew him a host of clients; his official status and his friendship with Trajan gave him the entree into any society he liked. He was, moreover, a man of considerable wealth, generous, even lavish, with his money, and his disposition was one of the kindest. He was always ready to believe the best of any one, always prepared to do a friend a service, devoted to his wife and her relations, and anxious to deal justly and honourably with all men. We have called him vain, and vain he undoubtedly was to an extraordinary degree. But Pliny’s vanity is never offensive. The very naivete with which he acknowledges his failing disarms all criticism and merely renders it amusing. Indeed, it is doubtful whether he would have admitted that it was a failing at all, inasmuch as it was his love of praise which spurred him on to literary endeavour. The Romans, in their grand manner, affected a certain magniloquence which is alien to the Anglo-Saxon cast of thought, and if Horace could declare of his own odes that he had erected a monument more durable than brass, Pliny, who always had the great masters before him, naturally fell into the same rather vainglorious train of thought. His frankest confession is to be found in a letter to Titinius Capito, who had urged him to write history, when he says: "Me autem nihil aeque ac diuturnitatis amor et cupido sollicitat, res homine dignissima, eo presertime qui nullius sibi conscius culpae posteritatis memoriam non reformidet." Or again, he admits that he is not Stoic enough to be merely content with the consciousness of having done his duty. He craves for a public testimony thereto, a little applause from the bystanders, a vote of thanks from those whom he has benefited. Most of us desire the same—the difference is that Pliny does not mind owning up to it. But this vanity of his peeps out in curious places. When we find him speaking of a young Roman of fashion standing for hours in a crowd to listen to his pleading in the courts, or of his audience pressing him not to omit a single line of his poems, or of the deferential way in which certain young barristers of promise hang on his lips, copy his gestures and bow to his judgment, one cannot resist a smile. When he tells us that he went on calmly reading and taking notes during the eruption of Vesuvius, though the hot ashes were threatening to overwhelm the villa in which he was staying, or when he quotes the really execrable verses which some scribbler of the day composed in his honour, with the most exquisite self-complacency, one is tempted to show a little impatience at such extravagant self-satisfaction. Tacitus again—that supreme master of irony—must have occasionally curled his thin lip on reading some of the epistles which were addressed to him by his friend Pliny. It is a tribute to Pliny’s powers of literary discernment that he appreciated the marvellous ability of Tacitus, though had he failed to do so, we should have rated him for his blindness. No cultured Roman could fail to see that Tacitus had brought a new literary style to a pitch of the highest perfection, and his fame throughout his lifetime was enormous. So apparently was Pliny’s, and the latter boasts that their names are mentioned together in everyday conversation, and in the last wills and testaments of people with literary taste. Tacitus one day was sitting at the games, and got into conversation with a stranger sitting in the next seat. It took a literary turn, and the stranger was delighted with the learning that Tacitus displayed. "Are you a Roman, or from the country" said he. "You know me quite well," answered Tacitus, "from the books you have studied." "Then," rejoined the stranger, "you must be either Tacitus or Pliny." It was Tacitus himself who told Pliny the story, and one can imagine how it would delight him. He promptly sits down and tells it to his friend Maximus, and adds another story of a similar character. But the most extraordinary passage of all occurs in a letter (vii. 20) to Tacitus himself. In it Pliny says that when he was a young man and Tacitus was already famous, he determined to make him his model. There were, he said, many brilliant geniuses, but you—such was the affinity of our natures—seemed to me to be the most easy to imitate, and the most worthy of imitation. Maxime imitabilis, maxime imitandus videbaris. Unconscious conceit could go no farther!

And yet one can pardon this egregious vanity when one thinks of Pliny’s other qualities. Who else is there in Roman literature who so thoroughly corresponds with our modern ideal of a rich, generous, cultured public servant? In one place we find him providing for the educational needs of his birthplace, Comum. In another he renounces his share of an inheritance, and bestows it upon his old township. Or he buys a statue for a temple, finds the money for a new shrine, pays the debts of an acquaintance, gives a friend’s daughter a handsome dowry, opens his purse and enables another deserving friend to acquire the status of a senator, or finds Martial his travelling expenses. All the rising young authors and barristers in Rome looked to him for encouragement and support; he was ready to attend their public readings, to rise when the reading was over and say a few words of encouragement, to canvass for them if they were standing for office, and enlist on their behalf all the influence at his command. And he only asked in return a little deference and acknowledgment of his kindness! Most interesting of all, we find him giving a farm to his old nurse, and asking a friend to look after it for her. He sends a slave of his, who was troubled with consumption, to Egypt for a change of air, and afterwards to the colony of Forum Julii, the modern Frejus on the Riviera. Pliny writes of the slaves of his household just as any kindhearted Jamaican planter would have written before the Emancipation Act, and it is to be noted that the head slaves of a Roman gentleman’s establishment were often Greeks of high literary attainments, and treated by their masters as intimate and affectionate friends. Pliny narrates with a shock of uneasiness and horror the story of a Roman knight who was beaten to death by the servants of his household, and, though he admits that the knight had been cruel and overbearing, such an untimely fate brought home to him the insecurity of all masters—that insecurity which led the Romans to punish with such merciless severity any attack by a slave upon his owner. Not that Pliny had any cause for self-reproach! He tells us in a charming letter his rule of conduct with his dependants, and the theory on which he conducted his household. According to his view, "Servis respublica quaedam et quasi civitas domus est." Consequently, he allowed them to make wills and leave their property as they desired, provided only that the recipients were also members of the household, and, what was better still, he speaks of his "facilitas manumittendi"—his readiness to give them their freedom for faithful service. One can well imagine that Pliny’s was a model family, that it was his pride to be in every sense of the word a just paterfamilias, and that he showed his slaves great consideration for their welfare. He complains, indeed, jocularly in one place that too much kindness is not good for servants, as it leads them to presume upon the easy-going temperament of their master, but that is only a goodnatured grumble on the perennial servant problem.

Pliny was thrice married, twice under Domitian, but his second wife died in 97, and the lady who figures in the letters is his third wife Calpurnia, grand-daughter of Calpurnius Fabatus, and niece of a lady named Hispulla. We get a charming picture of their mutual happiness in a letter written by Pliny to Hispulla, who had had charge of his wife’s education when she was a girl. He praises her intelligence, her economy, her love for him, and the interest she takes in his career. When he is pleading in the courts she has messengers to bring her word of the success of the speech and the result of the trial; when he is giving a reading to his friends, Calpurnia sits behind a curtain and greedily drinks in the praises they bestow. She sets his verses to music, and Hispulla, who made the match, is neatly rewarded at the conclusion of the letter by Pliny saying that both he and his wife vie with one another in seeing who can thank her the more. When Calpurnia was obliged to leave her husband and go to Campania for her health, we find Pliny writing her tender love-letters, describing his anxiety on her behalf, telling her how he conjures up the very things he most dreads, how he reads and re-reads her letters, which are his only comfort, and begging her to write him certainly once, and if possible, twice a day. Then in the prettiest passage of all, he tells her how, at the hours when he used to visit her, he finds his feet carrying him to the door of her chamber and turns away from the threshold of the empty room, sad as a lover who finds the door closed against him. The glimpses which Roman literature affords us of the conjugal happiness of man and wife are comparatively few. Cicero, indeed, wrote in a similar strain to his wife Terentia, and used even tenderer diminutives than Pliny, but the sequel was that he soon afterwards divorced her and married a rich ward. We do not know the sequel in the case of Pliny. All we know is that he nearly lost his wife in a dangerous illness brought on by a miscarriage, and that she accompanied him to Bithynia during his governorship. Whether she bore him the child which he so ardently desired is not stated, but the probabilities are against it, as there is no mention of such an event in the letters. His correspondence clearly proves that for all his ambition he was essentially a family man. Nothing could be finer than his description of the heroic devotion of Arria to her husband, and the pathos with which he describes the conduct of Fannia, who concealed the death of her dearly loved son from her sick husband Paetus, telling him the boy was well and resting quietly, and controlling her motherly tears until she could keep them back no longer, and rushed from the room to give them free course. Then, "Satiata siccis oculis composito vultu redibat, tanquam orbitatem foris reliquisset." No one could have written that beautiful sentence but a man of tender heart and sympathies.

Pliny’s tastes were catholic. He writes with delight, but without pretending to be a connoisseur, of an antique statuette which he had purchased out of a legacy. Some rich men in Rome had the mania for antiques—Corinthian bronzes were the rage in Pliny’s day—as badly as those who haunt our modern sale-rooms. Pliny’s hobby, if he had been living in our time, would probably have been books. He is one of the most bookish men of antiquity. Wherever he went his books went with him; in his carriage, in his gardens they never left his side. He betrays, moreover, a taste for the beauties of nature which is distinctly un-Roman. Even the Roman poets were almost utterly oblivious to the charms of scenery. When Horace points out of the window to the snow lying deep on Soracte, it is not to emphasise the beauty of the scene, but a preliminary to telling the boy to pile the logs of Algidus upon the fire. Even Virgil, who occasionally paints a bit of landscape or seascape in the Aeneid, does so in a half-hearted fashion, as a mere preface to the incident which is to follow, not from a poet’s love of beauty. In Pliny, on the other hand, we find the modern love for a beautiful view. Me nihil aeque ac natura opera delectant. When he describes his Tuscan villa he uses language with which we feel in complete harmony. He specifies the places from which the best views may be obtained; and if the garden seems to our taste to have been laid out in rather a formal way, with its box-trees cut into different shapes of animals and birds, he was in that respect only following the fashion of his day, and his delight in the unadorned beauties of the surrounding country has a genuine ring in it. In another curious respect Pliny was ahead of his times. He had no taste for the Circensian games and the brutalities of the gladiatorial shows. Writing to Sempronius Rufus (iv. 22), he bluntly declares that he wishes they could be abolished in Rome, inasmuch as they degrade the character and morals of the whole world. In another passage (ix. 6) he says that the Circensian games have not the smallest attraction for him—ne levissime quidem teneor. He cannot understand why so many thousands of grown-up people take such a childish pleasure in watching horses running races. It is not the speed of the horses or the skill of the drivers which is the attraction,—if it were, there might be some reason for their enthusiasm,—what they go to see is the victory of their pet racing colours, the triumph of the reds, blues, or greens. Favent panno, pannum amant.

We find him writing on all manner of subjects. He asks his scientific friends to explain to him the mystery of a spring whose waters ebb and flow, of a lake which contained floating islands, and in one letter he tells a fascinating ghost story of quite the conventional type, about a haunted house, which drove any unwary tenant crazy, and the ghost of a murdered man which walked with clanking chains. Pliny was no cut and dried philosopher. Like his master Cicero he was an eclectic, and pinned his faith to no single creed. Whatever was human interested him, and on whatever interested him he put pen to paper. It need scarcely be said how valuable these letters are in filling up the gaps of Roman history. We have to thank Pliny for our knowledge of the great eruption of Vesuvius which overwhelmed Pompeii and Herculaneum, and it was probably only due to the accident that the elder Pliny was one of the victims that we possess the two striking letters in which the disaster is described. In another letter our author describes how the Emperor Trajan sent for him and others to his country seat at Centum Cellae, to help him to try certain important cases, and then he tells us of the modest, simple living of Trajan—Suavitas simplicitasque convictus—and the presents he gave them on their departure. The debates in the Senate, the trials in the Court of the Hundred, the public readings in the city, which—first introduced by Asinius Pollio in the time of Augustus—were then the fashion,—of all these Pliny gives us a clear presentment. His charity is hardly ever at fault. Only when he writes of Regulus and Pallas does he dip his pen in gall. But Regulus had been his bitter enemy and an informer, and the memory of Pallas was justly execrated.

A few words may be added respecting the letters which form the Tenth Book of his correspondence, and which show us Pliny acting as Governor of the province of Pontus and Bithynia. He had been sent there because the finances of many of the cities had been allowed to fall into a shocking state, and because the Emperor wanted a man whom he could thoroughly trust to put them straight. No doubt Pliny, while flattered at this proof of Trajan’s regard, felt the severance from his friends and ordinary pursuits which this term of absence necessitated. But compare his attitude with that of Cicero as Governor of Cilicia! Cicero crawled on the outward journey, and when he reached his destination he counted the days to his return like a bullied school-boy counts the days to the end of the term. He writes to his friends in the capital, begging and praying of them that they will prevent his being obliged to stay for a second year. All his thoughts are of Rome and how to return there. The wretched provincials bore him to distraction; he yearns for the wider arena of the capital in which to play the swelling part to which he aspires. There is, in short, not a trace in Cicero’s letters from his province to show that he took the slightest interest in his new surroundings. Pliny displays a far different spirit. He reminds us more of the Colonial Governor of our own day. He is interested in the past history and traditions of the country, he is anxious that the cities shall have good water supplies, good baths, good theatres, good gymnasia. He is for ever suggesting to the Emperor that he should send architects to consult with him on some important public work. And these letters disclose to us what a wonderful system of organised government the Roman Empire possessed. Pliny even writes to Trajan to ask permission that an evil-smelling sewer may be covered over in a town called Amastria. If all the governors of the provinces wrote home for orders on such points, the Emperor must indeed have been busy, and some of his replies to Pliny show that Trajan hinted very plainly that a governor ought to have some initiative of his own. None the less, the tenour of this correspondence proves that Trajan held the threads of government very jealously in his own hands. When Pliny suggested the establishment of a small fire-brigade in Nicomedia, where the citizens had stood enjoying the aesthetic beauty of a disastrous fire which destroyed whole streets, instead of putting it out, Trajan sharply vetoed the suggestion, on the ground that the Greeks were factious people and would turn even a fire-brigade to illicit and seditious purposes.

There is, of course, one letter to Trajan which has achieved world-wide fame, that in which he asks the Emperor how he wishes him to deal with the Christians who were brought before him and refused to worship the statues of the Emperor and the gods. So much has been written upon this subject that it is almost superfluous to add more. Yet it may be pointed out that the letter only confirms our estimate of the kindliness and scrupulous justice of Pliny. He acquits the Christians of all criminal practices; he bears testimony to the purity of their lives and their principles. What baffles and vexes him is their "pertinacity and inflexible obstinacy"—Neque enim dubitabam, qualecunque esset quod fateretur, pertinaciam certe et inflexibilem obstinationem debere puniri. He could not understand, in other words, why, when the theory of the Roman religion was so tolerant, the Christians should be so intolerantly narrow-minded and bigoted. As we have said, Pliny was an eclectic, and an eclectic is the last person to understand the frame of mind which glories in martyrdom. Such was Pliny’s attitude towards the purely religious side of the question, but that, after all, was not the main issue. With him, as the representative of the Roman Emperor, the crime of the Christians lay not so much in their refusal to worship the statues of Jupiter and the heavenly host of the Pagan mythology, as in their refusal to worship the statue of the Emperor. Church and State have never been so closely identified in any form of government as in that of the early Roman Empire. The genius of the Emperor was the genius of the Empire; to refuse to sprinkle a few grains of incense on the ara of Trajan was an act of gross political treason to the best of rulers. No wonder, therefore, that Pliny felt constrained to punish these harmless members of a sect which he could not understand. Trajan’s reply is equally clear and distinct. He discountenanced all inquisition and persecution. The Christians are not to be hunted down, no notice is to be taken of anonymous accusations, and if any suspected person renounces his error and offers prayers publicly to the gods of Rome, no further action is to be taken against him. On the other hand, if the case is proved and the accused still remains obstinate, punishment must follow and the law be maintained. Pliny evidently thought that if the Christians were given a chance of renouncing their past folly the growth of the new religion would be checked. He speaks of a certain revival of the old religion, of the temples once more being thronged by worshippers, and the sacrificial victims again finding buyers, though almost in the same sentence he describes "the contagion of the Christian superstition" as having spread not only in the towns but into the villages and rural districts. He did not foresee that in process of time a Roman Emperor would himself embrace the new faith and persecute the upholders of the old with the same vigour as was in his day applied to the repression of the new.




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Chicago: Pliny the Younger, "Introduction.," Letters of the Younger Pliny, First Series— Volume 1, ed. Firth, John B. and trans. Mackail, J. W. (John William), 1859-1945 in Letters of the Younger Pliny, First Series—Volume 1 (New York: George E. Wood, ""Death-bed"" edition, 1892), Original Sources, accessed July 23, 2021, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=WCSEQ1RH76AMSCC.

MLA: Pliny the Younger. "Introduction." Letters of the Younger Pliny, First Series— Volume 1, edited by Firth, John B., and translated by Mackail, J. W. (John William), 1859-1945, in Letters of the Younger Pliny, First Series—Volume 1, New York, George E. Wood, ""Death-bed"" edition, 1892, Original Sources. 23 Jul. 2021. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=WCSEQ1RH76AMSCC.

Harvard: Pliny the Younger, 'Introduction.' in Letters of the Younger Pliny, First Series— Volume 1, ed. and trans. . cited in ""Death-bed"" edition, 1892, Letters of the Younger Pliny, First Series—Volume 1, George E. Wood, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 23 July 2021, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=WCSEQ1RH76AMSCC.