'Gaius Pliny sends greetings to his friend Septicius Clarus...'In these letters to his friends and relations, Pliny provides a fascinating insight into Roman life in the period 97 to 112 AD. Part autobiography, part social history, they document the career and interests of a senator and leading imperial official whose friends include the historians Tacitus andSuetonius. Pliny's letters cover a wide range of topics, from the contemporary political scene to domestic affairs, the educational system, the rituals and conduct of Roman religion, the treatment of slaves, and the phenomena of nature. He describes in vivid detail the eruption of Vesuvius whichkilled his uncle, and the daily routines of a well-to-do Roman in the courts, and at leisure, enjoying rural pursuits at his country estates.In the introduction to his lively and sympathetic new translation, P.G. Walsh examines the background to these often intimate and enthralling letters.
Original publication date
Pliny's times are orderly under Trajan's rule, but he has not forgotten the difficulties and chaos under the former reigns of Nero and Domitian. Pliny played his cards right and was always able to duck sanction in those darker periods, but many of his more outspoken friends could not. In the letters we see his generous feelings and financial support, including for families he knows were hard done by as he makes a kind of restitution for his survivor's guilt. Besides the evidence of these acts and observations on others' writings and his own, he often brings up unexpected topics which include a description of ghosts, and a story he's heard about an especially friendly dolphin. As the Penguin edition's introduction states, the personae of ancient Greeks are a mystery to us but many Romans have left us letters, and Pliny's are the best of all.
discussion of policy towards Christians, but
also interesting for attitudes to suicide (acceptable) and slaves (sympathetic, at least for favored house slaves)
"I've been imagining myself as Pliny when I write
"You know he owned half of Italy, right? And you have a part time job at a liberal arts college?"
That really happened. Trust my wife to bring me down a peg. Anyway, I stand by what I said, even though Pliny was massively rich and hob-nobbed with emperors. These letters are really interesting, provided you can get into at least two of the categories:
i) Literary criticism
ii) Legal affairs
iii) Bureaucratic wheedling
iv) Personal lives of Roman aristocrats
v) Gossip with famous historians
vi) Minutiae of governing a province
I enjoyed them all to begin with. The legal affairs got pretty dull pretty quickly, though they're great history, I'm sure; long discussions of cases Pliny presented or witnessed. The wheedling was pleasant, since it's nice to see office politics on a truly grand scale, but palls soon enough. The minutiae is, again, good for historians, but fairly dull reading (dear emperor, should I let these people build a swimming pool? Yours, Pliny). The literary criticism was, of course, my favorite for some time; it's thrilling to read someone's letters about Martial. They're also interesting because of the weight put on style. We could learn something there; Pliny even makes the argument that writing works with vapid content is more challenging, because the style has to be so much more rigorous (rather than, e.g., not writing things with vapid content). The personal lives stuff was okay for a while, but there are only so many grand performance eulogies you can read before they blend into one another. Gossip between Pliny, Tacitus, and Suetonius, however, was always fascinating, just because of who they are.
The point of all this is: the book offers diminishing returns. Books VIII and IX in particular, are deadly boring. But well worth flicking through the rest.