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Pliny the Younger (1)

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Bust of a Roman official, age of Trajan. Koninklijke musea voor kunst en geschiedenis, Brussel (Belgium). Photo Jona Lendering.
Bust of a Roman official, age of Trajan (Koninklijke musea voor kunst en geschiedenis, Brussel)
Pliny the Younger or Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus (62-c.115): Roman senator, nephew of Pliny the Elder, governor of Bithynia-Pontus (109-111), author of a famous collection of letters.

The Roman senator Pliny the Younger is one of the few people from Antiquity who is more to us than just a name. We possess a long inscription which mentions his entire career, one or two of his houses have been discovered, and -more importantly- we can still read many of his letters. They are often very entertaining: he tells a ghost story, gives accounts of lawsuits, guides us through his houses, describes the friendship of a boy and a dolphin, informs us about the persecution of Christians, tells about the eruption of the Vesuvius. But we can also read his correspondence with the emperor Trajan. With the senator Cicero and the father of the church Augustine, Pliny is the best-known of all Romans.

In this article, we will first describe his career, and then focus on his governorship of Bithynia-Pontus (109-111), where he was some sort of interim-manager who had to settle a troubled province. His opinions and world view will be discussed passingly - you can better read his letters.

Becoming senator
Pliny and Domitian
Pliny, Nerva, and Trajan
The letters
Second career
Pliny in Bithynia: approach
Pliny in Bithynia: results
Renaissance statue of Pliny the Younger. Duomo of Como (Italy). Renaissance statue of Pliny the Younger (Como; ©!!!)


In 62, a rich Roman knight named Lucius Caecilius and his wife Plinia of Como (Novum Comum) in northern Italy became parents of a son, Gaius Caecilius Secundus. Unfortunately, the father soon died, and the young man was (later) adopted by Plinia's brother, Gaius Plinius Secundus. The boy took over his uncle's name and became known as Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus. In English, nephew and uncle are usually called Pliny the Younger and Pliny the Elder.

The younger Pliny was brought up in the houses of his uncle, in Como and Rome. Pliny the Elder had been a cavalry officer in the Rhine army and had some literary pretensions. He had published two books on military matters and had written one of the first Latin biographies. When he had returned to Italy, three years before his nephew's birth, he had found his further career obstructed. We do not know why, but it is easy to believe that there was no room for a military man at the court of the emperor Nero, who preferred the company of musicians, singers, dancers, and other performers. Pliny the Elder had started a career as a scholar, and was preparing a book on Problems in grammar. It was a safe occupation.

During the younger Pliny's youth, the political situation was deteriorating. Nero was becoming more and more of a tyrant, until in the spring of 68, the governor of Gallia Lugdunensis, Gaius Julius Vindex, revolted. Many senators were sympathetic to this revolt, but the general of the army of the middle Rhine, Lucius Verginius Rufus (a friend of Pliny the Elder), suppressed the rebellion. However, the Senate declared that Nero was an enemy of the state and proclaimed Servius Sulpicius Galba, an ally of Vindex, emperor. Nero committed suicide.

Bust of Vespasian from Narona. Archaeological museum of Vid (Croatia). Photo Marco Prins.Bust of Vespasian from Narona (Archaeological museum of Vid)
This was the beginning of a terrible civil war. Galba despised the soldiers of the Rhine army, who first offered the throne to Verginius Rufus (who refused) and then to the general of the army of the lower Rhine, Aulus Vitellius (January 69). Galba panicked, made mistakes, and was lynched by soldiers of the imperial guard, which placed a rich senator named Marcus Salvius Otho on the throne, but he was defeated by the army of Vitellius. He had only just reached Rome, when the news arrived that in the east, where the Romans were fighting a war against the Jews, another general had revolted: Vespasian. The armies of the Danube immediately sided with the new pretender and defeated Vitellius' army (December 69). The reign of Vespasian could begin.

To the Plinii, this was an important change - for the better. The old officer was a close friend of one of the sons of the emperor, Titus: both men had been together in Germania. In 70, Pliny the Elder was made procurator and sent to Gallia Narbonensis, Africa, Hispania Terraconensis, and Gallia Belgica. He did not return until 76, when he became one of the emperor's personal advisers and (perhaps) prefect of the Roman fire brigade.

During his absence, the elder Pliny was no longer able to take care of his nephew, who was eightyears old when his uncle resumed his career. A guardian was appointed: Verginius Rufus, the man who had refused the imperial purple. He had been rewarded, but in fact, his career was at a dead end, and he founded a literary salon. Many important authors visited him, and among them was the famous orator Nicetes of Smyrna, who became the younger Pliny's teacher in Greek and rhetoric. His Latin teacher was Quintilian, professor in Latin rhetoric and one of the most influential authors of his age.

Pliny had to study rhetoric, because was essential to be able to speak in public. Since a speech is only convincing when the speaker looks reliable, there was a lot more to rhetoric than only speaking: it was a complete program of good manners and general knowledge.

It was impossible to find better teachers. Pliny's style of writing is, therefore, more polished than that of his uncle. His first literary work was a tragedy, which he wrote 75 or 76. We do not know what it was about, except that it was in Greek. It was the beginning of a long love for the theater. Two of his villa's at Lake Como were called Comedy and Tragedy.

When Pliny was seventeen years old, his uncle died (25 August 79). His last office was that of admiral of one of Rome's navies, which was stationed at Misenum near Naples. When the Vesuvius erupted, the elder Pliny wanted to rescue people and do some scientific research, but he did not survive. His nephew, who was now adopted, inherited his uncle's possessions. He had already inherited the country houses and money of his father, and must have been a rich man. And rich men were, in Antiquity, supposed to take their responsibility. He had to embark upon a public career.

Becoming senator

At the end of his life, Pliny founded a bath-house in his home town Como. As was usual in his age, the building inscription was made as long as possible, because in that way the founder could show that he was able to read and write, prestigious talents. Therefore, Pliny mentioned all offices he had occupied. Only a part of the text has survived, but because there's a Renaissance drawing, it can be reconstructed as follows:

Remains of the large inscription of Pliny the Younger. Sant' Ambrogio, Milano (Italy). Photo Jona Lendering.
Fragment of the inscription of Pliny the Younger. (Sant'Ambrogio, Milano)
Reconstruction of Pliny's inscription, Museo nazionale della civiltà romana, Roma (Italy). Photo Jona Lendering.
(Reconstruction of the inscription in the Museo nazionale della civiltà romana)
Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, son of Lucius, of the Oufentine tribe; consul; augur; legatus Augusti pro praetore consulari potestate for the province of Pontus and Bithynia, sent to that province in accordance with the Senate's decree by the emperor Nerva Trajan Augustus Germanicus Dacicus, the father of his country; curator of the bed and banks of the Tiber and sewers of Rome; prefect of the treasury of Saturn; prefect of the military treasury; praetor; tribune of the people; quaestor of the emperor; commissioner of the Roman knights; tribune of the Third Gallic legion; magistrate on the Board of Ten; left by will public baths at a cost of [lacuna] and an additional 300,000 sesterces for furnishing them, with interest on 200,000 for the upkeep. He also left to his city capital of 1,866,666 sesterces to support a hundred of his freedmen, and subsequently to provide an annual dinner for the people of the city. Likewise in his lifetime he gave 500,000 sesterces for the maintenance of boys and girls of the city, and also 100,000 for the upkeep of the library.
[Corpus Inscription Latinarum V.5262;
tr. B. Radice, with minor changes]

  The first half of this text mentions all offices Pliny occupied, in antichronological order. However, the very first step of his public career is not mentioned. When he was eighteen years old (in 80), he spoke as the lawyer of one Junius Pastor at the Centumviral Court, which dealt with wills and inheritances. Many years later, he recalled:
I was very young at the time and I was about to plead in the Centumviral Court against men of great political influence, some of them also friends of the emperor; any one of these considerations could have shaken my resolve [...], but I carried on, believing that "the best and only omen is to fight for your country" [Homer, Iliad, 12.243]. I won my case, and it was that speech which drew attention to me and set me on the threshold of a successful career.
[Letters 1.18.3-4;
tr. B. Radice]

Bust of Titus. Louvre, Paris (France). Photo Marco Prins.
Titus (Louvre, Paris)
One year later (in 81), Pliny was member of the Board of Ten, which presided over the Centumviral Court. Probably, he was not only elected because he had made a remarkable speech, but also because he had influential friends: Verginius Rufus was one of them, and another one was the emperor, Titus, who had been a close friend to Pliny's uncle and may have felt that he owed something to his friend's adoptive son.

In the Roman world, all careers were always more or less the same. (This pattern is called cursus honorum.) An ambituous young man was supposed to see all branches of Roman government; the Romans did not appreciate specialism, but preferred, to use the modern expression, maximum employability. The shared presidency of the Centumviral Court was a traditional beginner's function, and so was the next step in Pliny's career: he had to make his tour of duty (82). Because he belonged to the wealthy equestrian class, he served as a military tribune, which means that he had an administrative function. His legion was III Gallica, which was stationed in Syria, probably at Raphanaea, halfway Antioch and Damascus - cities Pliny must have been. His only feat of arms was the exposure of malversations among the auxiliary units.

On his return, contrary winds forced him to stay at Icaria, one of the islands in the Aegean Sea. Here, he decided to write some poetry with the sea and the island as theme (now lost). Perhaps he also visited his former teacher Nicetes of Smyrna, who lived just around the corner. Pliny must have taken some time to visit the Greek towns around the Aegean, which was a normal holiday. The Romans still admired the Greeks.

Bust of Domitian. Museo Arqueológico, Sevilla (Spain). Photo Marco Prins.
Domitian (Museo Arqueológico,  Sevilla)

According to the inscription, he became Commissioner of the Roman knights, an office that we do not really understand. It can not have been very important to Pliny's career. In Syria, he had shown that he was a good accountant, and this was a very rare talent in the Roman world. (You understand why if you multiply the sum of MDCIV and CCLIV with the quotient of MDCLXVII and MLXI.) When Pliny was candidate for the office of quaestor, a financial office, he was supported by the emperor Domitian, who had in the meantime succeeded his brother Titus.

When he was twenty-eight, in 90, Pliny served as quaestor. If he had died at this moment, it would have been a brilliant career. His father and his uncle had been knights, but Pliny was now a senator. Of course there were several ranks in the Senate (former quaestors, former praetors, former consuls...) and Pliny belonged to the least important senators, but nevertheless: he was a senator, and he was allowed to wear a toga with a broad purple edge. In the recently-built Colosseum, Pliny was seated on the first rank. However, this was only the beginning of a brilliant career.

to part two

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