Monday, January 25, 2016


A review of The Letters of the Younger Pliny (110-113) translated by Betty Radice (1963)

(Rating 5 of 5)

His name was Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, he is comely referred to as Pliny the Younger to distinguish him from his uncle and adopted father, Pliny the Elder, who was a famous historian.  A few of the letters the younger Pliny discuss his uncle’s work, reputation, and famous death at the destruction of Pompeii.  Pliny the Younger was an official of the Roman Imperial government called the Principate.  The Principate was the system of rule by an emperor or 'first citizen' that was established by Emperor Augustus to de facto replace the Republic. Pliny had the privilege of serving in the best part of what was the golden age amongst golden age of the Roman civilization: the Pax Romana in the time of the Good Emperors in the reign of Trajan.  It was not always that way for Pliny, for was born in the time of Nero, whom his uncle despised.  During his own career he also had to endure the tyranny of the Emperor Domitian.  Pliny’s survival strategy was to keep quiet and not cause problems for anyone.  He would be able to resume his career and advancement with the coming of Nerva.
Statue of Pliny

            Historically Pliny is not important.  He was a semi-important person in his own time for he was in the Emperor’s inner circle and was appointed to govern a province.  However this is true for a number of officials in the Empire.  Although he had a nice life his accomplishments are not of any historical significance, except that Pliny’s correspondence survives.  He remembered to keep copies of his letters and publish them years later in a series of nine books; some of these letters are to people such as Tacitus, a famous Roman historian. After he died a tenth book was a published that contained his communications with Emperor Trajan.  Pliny is the only man of his rank and position in Roman society during this time period whose work survives.  It is Pliny whose eyes we use to examine the Roman Empire of the Pax Romana.
The Destruction of Pompeii

            Pliny enjoyed giving advice and playing the mentor to young up and coming Roman aristocrats.  He gives them advice on being a lawyer and being a career politician.  Pliny takes their success rather personally often telling friends he is more nervous when a young apprentice is up for election than for his own campaigns.  In one letter he answers one young attorney’s question on having been elected tribune of the people.  Pliny’s answer would have horrified Cato the Younger.  Pliny explains that it depends on how one chooses to view the office, either as a serious office or just a ceremonial figurehead job.  Pliny’s letter shows that many, if not most, saw through the Emperor’s disguise as ‘First Citizen.’ The Republic did not exist to govern the country anymore it was there only for show.  Nevertheless Pliny tells the newly elected tribune that when he held the job he took it very seriously.  Not to mention advising others who have held the offices that he once had. 

            Pliny also discusses being a lawyer in Rome, sending copies of his speeches, advising others on theirs, and going over funny court stories.  He mentions a number of times his views on inheritance, which was the majority of his cases.  His view was what the deceased wanted was more important than procedural law.

            Pliny is also quite taken with ghost stories telling a number of them including a time when the ghost of Emperor Tiberius’s younger brother, Drusus Nero, haunted Pliny the Elder.  One letter that I found an insightful to an average day in 2nd century Rome was this one:    
To Minicius Funganus
"It is extraordinary how, if one takes a single day spent in Rome, once can give a more or less accurate account of it, but scarcely any account at all of several days put together.  If you ask anyone what he did that day, the answer would be: ‘I was present at a coming-of-age ceremony, a betrothal, or a wedding.  I was called to witness a will, to support someone in court or to act as assessor.’ All this seems important on the actual day, but quite pointless if you consider that you have done the same sort of thing every day, and still be more pointless if you think about it when you are out of town.  It is then that you realize how many days you have wasted in trivialities.
"I always realize this when I am at Laurentine, reading and writing and finding time to take the exercise which keeps my mind fit for work. There is nothing there for me to say or hear said which I would afterwards regret, no one disturbs me with malicious gossip, and I have no one to blame—but myself—when writing doesn’t come easily.  Hopes and fears do not worry me, and my time is not wasted in ideal talk; I share my thoughts with no one but my books. It is a good life and a genuine one, a seclusion which is happy and honorable, more rewarding than any ‘business’ can be.  The sea and shore are truly my private Helicon, and endless source of inspirations. You should take the first opportunity yourself to leave the din, the futile bustle and useless occupations of the city and devote yourself to literature or leisure.  For it was wise as well as witty of our friend Atulius to say that it is better to have no work to do than to work at nothing.” (Book 1, Letter 9 pg. 42-43)
            Of the collection of letters two are of the most famous are the ones that detail the destruction of Pompeii.  Both were to the historian Tacitus.  Pliny living at the outer edge of Vesuvius’ reach was able, with his mother, to be one of the lucky survivors.  At the edge of the letter he tells Tacitus that he doesn’t think the letter is history.  It is hard to tell but I think Pliny is being sarcastic.  If he is not than the statement is overly ironic.   

To Tacitus
"You say that the letter I wrote for you about my uncle's death made you want to know about my fearful ordeal at Misenum, for I broke off at the beginning of this part of my story. ‘The mind shrinks from remembering ... I will begin.’ 
           "After my uncle's departure I finished up my studies, I spent the rest of the day with my books, as this was my reason for staying behind. Then I took a bath, dined, and then dozed fitfully for a while. For several past days there had been earth tremors which were not particularly alarming because they are frequent in Campania: but that night the shocks were so violent that everything felt as if it were not only shaken but overturned. My mother hurried into my room and found me already getting up to wake her if she were still asleep.  We sat out on in the forecourt of the house, between the buildings and the sea close by.  I don’t know whether I should call this courage or folly on my part (I was only seventeen at the time) but I called for a volume of Livy and went on reading as if I had nothing else to do.  Up came a friend of my uncle's who had just come from Spain to join him. When he saw us sitting there and me actually reading, he scolded us both—me for my foolhardiness and my mother for allowing it. Nevertheless, I remained absorbed in my book.   
           "By now it was dawn, but the light was still dim and faint. The buildings around us are already tottering, and the open space we were in was too small for us not to be in real and imminent danger if the house collapsed.  This finally decided us to leave the town.  We were followed by a panic-stricken mob of people wanting to act on someone else’s decision in preference to their own (a point in which fear looks like prudence), who hurried us on our way by pressing hard behind in a dense crowd. Once beyond the buildings we stopped, and there we had some extraordinary experiences which thoroughly alarmed us. The carriages we had ordered brought out began to run in different directions though the ground was quite level, and would not remain stationary when wedged with stones. We also saw the sea sucked away and apparently forced back by the earthquake: at any rate it receded from the shore so the quantities of sea creatures were left stranded on dry sand.  On the landward side a fearful black cloud was rent by forked and quivering bursts of flame and parted to reveal great tongues of fire, like flashes of lightning magnified in size. 
            "At that point my uncle’s friend from Spain spoke up still more urgently: ‘If your brother, if your uncle is still alive, he will want you both to be saved: if he dead, he would want you to survive him—why put off your escape?’ We replied that we would not think of considering our own safety as long as we were uncertain about his. Without waiting any longer, our friend rushed off and hurried out of danger as fast as he could.    
"Soon afterwards the cloud sank down to earth and covered the sea; it had already blotted out Capri and hidden the promontory of Misenum from sight. Then my mother implored, entreated and commanded me to escape as best I could—a young man might escape, whereas she was old and slow and could die in peace as long as she had not been the cause of my death too. I refused to save myself without her, and grasping her hand forced her to quicken her pace. She gave in reluctantly, blaming herself for delaying me.  Ashes were already falling, not as yet very thickly.  I looked round: a dense black cloud was coming up behind us, spreading over the earth like a flood. ‘Let us leave the road while we still can see,’ I said, ‘or we shall be knocked down and trampled underfoot in the dark by the crowd behind.’ We had scarcely sat down to rest when darkness fell, not the dark of a moonless or cloudy night, but as if a lamp had been put out in a closed room. You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling for their parents, others for children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying.  Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness forever more. There were people, too, who added to the real perils by inventing fictitious dangers: some reported that part of Misenum had collapsed or another part was on fire, and although their tales were false they found others to believe them. A gleam of light returned but we took this to be a warning of the approaching flames rather than daylight.  However, the flames remained some distance off; then darkness came on once more and ashes began to fall again, this time in heavy showers. We rose from time to time and shook them off, otherwise we should have been buried and crushed beneath their weight. I could boast that not a groan or cry of fear escaped me in these perils, had I not derived some poor consolation in my mortal lot from the belief that the whole world was dying with me and I with it.
"At last the darkness thinned and dispersed into smoke or cloud; then there was genuine daylight, and the sun actually shown out, but yellowish as it is during and eclipse. We were terrified to see everything changed, buried deep in ashes like snowdrifts. We returned to Misenum where we attended to our physical needs as best we could, and then spent an anxious night alternating between hope and fear. Fear predominated, for the earthquakes went on, and several hysterical individuals made their own and other people’s calamities seem ludicrous in comparison with their frightful predictions. But even then, in spite of the dangers we had been through and were still expecting, my mother and I had still no intention of leaving until we had news of my uncle. 
"Of course the details are not important enough for history, and you will read them without any idea of recording them; if they seem scarcely worth putting in a letter, you have only yourself to blame for asking for them.” (Book 6, Letter 20 pg.171-173)
Pompeii victims: young family
Pompeii victims: fetal position

Pompeii victims: lost pet

Of all the books of letters that were published the most important is the one when he is the Governor of Bithynia-Pontus.  There we get a look of an emperor in communication with one of his lieutenants throughout his empire.  Pliny feels the need to check in all the time with the Emperor, sometimes the Emperor approves and sometimes he just tells Pliny to make a decision. Here is one letter I found very interesting.  

Pliny to the Emperor Trajan
"While I was visiting another part of the province, a widespread fire broke out at Nicomedia which destroyed many private houses and also two public buildings (the Elder Citizen’s Club and the Temple of Isis) although a road runs between them. It was fanned by the strong breeze  in the early stages, but it would not have spread so far but for the apathy of the populace; for it is generally agreed that people stood watching the disaster without bestirring themselves to do anything to stop it. Apart from this, there is not a single fire engine anywhere in the town, not a bucket nor any apparatus for fighting a fire. These will now be provided on my instructions.
"Will you, Sir, consider whether you think a company of firemen might be formed, limited to 150 members? I will see that no one shall be admitted who is not genuinely a fireman, and that the privileges granted shall not be abused: it will not be difficult to keep such a small number under observation.” (Book 10, Letter 33 pg.271)
            For the record I have no idea what a Roman fire engine would look like.  Seems like a reasonable request but the Emperor’s response is something downright weird.

Trajan to Pliny
"You may well have had the idea that it should be possible to form a company of firemen at Nicomedia on the model of those existing elsewhere, but we must remember that it is societies like these which have been responsible for the political disturbances in your province, particularly in its towns. If people assemble for a common purpose whatever name we give them and for whatever reason, they soon turn into a political club. It is a better policy then to provide the equipment necessary for dealing with fires, and to instruct property owners to make use of it, calling on the help of the crowds which collect if they find it necessary.” (Book 10, Letter 34 pg. 271-272)
Talk about a paranoid emperor.  ‘Don’t start a fire department because they might from a society that will try to overthrow the Empire.’  Trajan was one greatest of Rome’s Emperors but just because you are smart in one area of life does not make you smart in all areas. 

Of all the letters in Book 10 the one about the Christians, this probably one of—if not thee—most analyzed letters in history.

 Pliny to the Emperor Trajan
"It is my customer to refer all my difficulties to you, Sir, for no one is better able to resolve my doubts and to inform my ignorance.
"I have never been present at an examination of Christians. Consequently, I do not know nature of the extent of the punishments usually meted out to them, nor the grounds for starting an investigation and how far it should be pressed. Nor am I at all sure whether any distinction should be made between them on the ground of age or I young people and adults should be treated alike; whether a pardon ought to be granted to anyone retracting his beliefs, or if he has once professed Christianity, he shall gain nothing by renouncing it; and if whether it is the mere name of Christian which is punishable, even if innocent of crime, or rather the crimes associated with the name.
" For the moment this is the line I have taken with all persons brought before me on the charge of being Christians. I have asked them in person if they are Christians, and if they admit it, I repeat the question a second and third time, with a warning of the punishment awaiting them. If they persist, I order them to be led away for execution; for, whatever the nature of their admission, I am convinced that their stubbornness and unshakeable obstinacy ought not to go unpunished.
" There have been others similarly fanatical who are Roman citizens, I have entered them on a list of persons to be sent to Rome for trial.
"Now that I have begun to deal with this problem, as so often happens, the charges are becoming more widespread and increasing in variety. An anonymous pamphlet has been circulated which contains of a number of accused persons.  Amongst these I considered that I should dismiss any who denied that they were or ever had been Christians when they had repeated after me a formula of invocation to the gods and had made offerings of wine and incense to your statue (which I had ordered to be brought into court for this purpose along with the images of the gods), and furthermore had reviled the name of Christ: none of which things, I understand, any genuine Christian can be induced to do.
"Others, whose names were given to be by an informer, first admitted the charge and then denied it; they said that they had ceased to be Christians two or more years previously, and some of them even twenty years ago.  They all did reverence to your statue and the images of the gods in the same way as the others, and reviled in the name of Christ.  They also declared that the sum total of their guild or error amounted to no more than this: they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately amongst themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery, and adultery, to commit no breach of trust and not to deny a deposit when called upon to restore it.  After this ceremony it had been their custom to disperse and reassemble later to take food of an ordinary, harmless kind; but they had in fact given up this practice since my edict, issued on your instructions, which banned all political societies.  This made me decide it was all the more necessary to extract the truth by torture from two slave-women, whom they call deaconesses.  I found nothing but a degenerate sort of cult carried to extravagant lengths.
"I have therefore postponed any further examination and hastened to consult you.  The question seems to me to be worthy of your consideration, especially in view of the number of persons endangered; for a great many individuals of every age and class, both men and women, are being brought to trial, and this is likely to continue.  It is not only the towns, but villages and rural districts too which are infected through contact with this wretched cult.  I think though that it is still possible for it to be checked and directed to better ends, for there is no doubt that people have begun to throng the temples which had been almost entirely deserted for a long time; the sacred rites which had been allowed to lapse are being performed again, and flesh of sacrificial victims is on sale everywhere, though up till recently scarcely anyone could be found to buy it. It is easy to infer from this that a great many people could be reformed if they were given an opportunity to repent.” (Book 10, Letter 96 pg. 293-295)
            One of the biggest debates in history was how long did it take Christianity to grow to significant numbers.  Scholars have sharp disagreements over it and often go over this letter to make their point. Pliny sees it as a growing problem in his province, yet he has no idea who they are despite being a well-connected and educated statesman.  Trajan’s response is more telling.   
“Trajan to Pliny
You have followed the right course, my dear Pliny, in your examination of the cases against with being Christians, for it is impossible to lay down a general rule to a fixed formula. These people must not be hunted out; if they are brought before you and the charged against them is proved, they must be punished, but in the case of anyone who denies that he is a Christian, and shall makes it clear that he is not by offering prayers to our gods, he is to be pardoned as a result of his repentance however suspect his past conduct may be. But pamphlets circulated anonymously must play no part in any accusation.  They create the worst sort of precedent and are quite out of keeping with the spirit of our age.” (Book 10, Letter 97 pg. 295)
The Emperor who is so paranoid he does not want to see and organized fire department for fear of what it could turn into did not think the Christians amounted to any sort of threat.  Trajan’s letter is seen as evidence that most of the early emperors prior to the Crisis of the Third Century were not actively persecuting the Christians themselves; rather it was done at a more local level. 
Emperor Trajan, Pliny's boss who is afraid of organized firemen but not Christians.

            If you are looking for some great primary source material from antiquity it does not get much better than the Letters of the Younger Pliny.

 {Video was posted by List 25 on YouTube}

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