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Pliny the Younger (2)

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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. This is the second part of an article; the first part can be found here.

Pliny and Domitian

After his quaestorship, Pliny proceeded to the next stage of the cursus honorum: he became tribune. Between quaestorship and tribunate, there was a statuary year's interval, and it is likely that Pliny accepted several cases in which he served as lawyer. He must have been successful. After all, he had the support of the emperor Domitian.
Becoming senator
Pliny and Domitian
Pliny, Nerva, and Trajan
The letters
Second career
Pliny in Bithynia: approach
Pliny in Bithynia: results
Bust of Domitian. Museo Arqueológico, Sevilla (Spain). Photo Marco Prins.
Domitian (Museo Arqueológico,  Sevilla)

When he was tribune in 92, he suspended his practice in the courts. Because the tribunate was a largely honorific function, this was a remarkable sign of devotion to duty.

Domitian was impressed, and allowed Pliny to become praetor (a juridical function) without the the prescribed year's interval. This was a new sign of imperial favor.

Later, Pliny would call the year of his praetorship and the following years the most difficult of his life. The emperor was a difficult man. He had always been the younger brother of the crown prince Titus, and he was unprepared when he had to succeed his brother in 81. He lacked the delicacy to deal with the Senate and wanted to be called dominus et deus, "lord and god". His autocratic behavior reminded the senators of the bad old days of Julius Caesar, Caligula, and Nero, and while the emperor was at the Danube fighting against the Dacians, the senators turned away from him.

Reconstruction of Pliny's villa at Laurentinum near the sea. Model at the British Museum, London (Britain).
Reconstruction of Pliny's villa at Laurentinum near the sea (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; ©!!!)

Many returned to their country mansions, leaving the empire without experienced administrators. Others were more active. In 89, the governor of Germania Superior, Lucius Antonius Saturninus, attempted a rebellion, and in Rome, several senators with stoical sympathies seemed to think about a coup d'état. Others simply withheld information to the emperor, and, having secret agendas of their own, started to suspect the emperor of having a secret agenda as well. The emperor felt that something was seriously wrong, became suspicious and ultimately paranoid. His isolation is illustrated by his word that the fate of emperors was unhappy, since when they discovered a conspiracy, no one believed them unless they had been killed.

Pliny felt that he was in a very difficult position. Some of his friends belonged to the stoic opposition, but he himself had to serve the emperor. Things became even more difficult when the inhabitants of Baetica asked him to be their lawyer in a lawsuit against their former governor Baebius Massa, a friend of the emperor. The man was convicted, but he retaliated: he accused Pliny's colleague, Herennius Senecio, with lese majesty. The charge was not implausible, because the accused sympathized with the stoics. 

Map of Pliny's villa at Laurentinum. Map design Jona Lendering.
Map of the same villa

At the end of 93, Domitian acted against the opposition. Herennius Senecio and several others were rounded up and killed, others were sent into exile. Besides Herennius, two of Pliny's friends were put to death, and four banished. We do not exactly know who took the initiative. It is possible that the emperor's paranoia overcame his sound judgment, but it is equally possible that factional strive in the Senate led to accusations to which the emperor ought to answer. Pliny's role in all this is almost obscure, but he did lend money to a member of the opposition, which was not entirely without danger for someone occupying an office. A decade later, he wrote:
I stood amidst the flames of thunderbolts dropping all round me, and there were certain clear indications to make me suppose a like end was awaiting me.
[Letters 3.11.3;
tr. B. Radice]

Remains of a Roman villa, said to be Pliny's. Photo Marco Prins.
Remains of a Roman villa, said to be Pliny's
But nothing happened to Pliny. He had now been praetor, which meant that he was considered to be qualified for the more important offices in the empire. With mixed feelings, he must have seen that his star was rapidly rising because of the shortage of senators (many of which had preferred voluntary exile on their country estates). In the years 94-96 he served as prefect of the military treasury. This meant that he was responsible for the pensions of the soldiers. Meanwhile, he remained on friendly terms with the members of the stoic opposition, which proves that he was either a very nice man, or was able to give this impression.

Meanwhile, Domitian's behavior became more and more erratic and dangerous. In 95, he ordered the execution of his cousin Flavius Clemens, who had, it was said, sympathized with Judaism (or Christianity?). It is likely that Domitian had in fact discovered a conspiracy, but no one believed him. A year later, there certainly was a conspiracy, and Domitian was killed. He was succeeded by Nerva.

Bust of Nerva. Palazzo Massimo, Roma (Italy). Photo Jona Lendering.
Nerva (Palazzo Massimo, Roma)

Pliny, Nerva and Trajan

The assassination of the emperor to whom he owed his career did not have consequences for Pliny, who remained prefect of the military treasury. If Pliny had the reputation of being a collaborator of the paranoid Domitian, he had been able to convince everybody that his reappointment was a guarantee for the continuity of government. This was typical: many other people involved in the management of the Roman empire, retained their office.

In 97, Pliny attacked Publicius Certus, who had prosecuted Helvidius Priscus, one of the stoics executed by Domitian and a personal friend of Pliny. In one of his letters he tells us why he attacked Publicius, and gives a remarkable impression of the priorities of a Roman senator: "This was a truly splendid opportunity for attacking the guilty, avenging the injured, and making one-self known" (Letter 9.13.2). He certainly made himself known: his speeches In vindication of Helvidius were published after Pliny had won his case. It must have given Pliny a first taste of literary success.

The lawsuit itself had not been without difficulties, however. Pliny was advised by someone to desist because he would make himself "a marked man in the eyes of future emperors". Another one told him that Publicius was befriended with the governor of Syria. This is an interesting comment, because it proves that everybody expected that Nerva would appoint this man, Publius Cornelius Nigrinus Curiatus Maternus, as his successor. However, at the end of the debate, Pliny found himself victorious. Publicius' career was broken, and his accuser noted that he had "freed the Senate from the odium in which it was held for showing severity to others while sparing its own members".

A few days after Pliny's speech, Publicius was found dead. He had been prefect of the treasury of Saturn, which meant that he was responsible for a large part of the finances of the empire. Nerva now appointed Pliny in Publicius' place. This shows that the man from Como really must have been a clever accountant, but also that the emperor was impressed by Pliny's action against Publicius. It had been his ambition "to make himself known", and now he harvested the fruits.

In the same year, Pliny was seriously ill, and his second wife died, perhaps of the same disease. We know almost nothing about her, except that she was the daughter of a woman named Pompeia Celerina. Her name is unknown. If she had married a man who was ten years older (as was customary in Antiquity), she was about twenty-five and may have died in childbirth. About Pliny's first wife we only know that she existed.

Bronze portrait of the emperor Trajan. Glyptothek, München (Germany). Photo Marco Prins. Trajan (Glyptothek, München)

In the meantime, the generals of the armies of the Rhine and Danube and several senators were consulting on their attitude to the choice of Nerva's successor. They agreed that the new emperor ought to be Trajan, the governor of Germania Superior, and in October 97, Nerva adopted the man chosen by the armies. Three years later, Pliny compared this event to an abdication (Panegyricus 7.4) and this is hardly exaggerated. Four months later, the old man died.

Probably, Pliny was involved in this silent coup, although there are indirect indications. However, he occupied a very important function, and had made his name as a courageous man not deterred by the influence of Trajan's rival Cornelius Nigrinus. It is possible that Pliny's attack on Publicius Certus was meant as an attack on Cornelius Nigrinus.

In any case, Trajan retained Pliny as prefect of the treasury of Saturn and promised to make him consul when his term as prefect was over. The new emperor also gave Pliny the privileges granted to parents of three children. This was a really kind gesture towards the man who had recently become widower.

In 99 or 100, Pliny and his friend, the historian Tacitus, were involved in a lawsuit against one Marius Priscus, former governor of Africa, who was forced to plead guilty. Pliny spoke with so much enthusiasm, that he did not understand that the emperor requested him to keep his speech brief.

My speech lasted for nearly five hours, for I was allowed four water-clocks in addition to my original twelve of the largest size [...]. The emperor did indeed show such an attentive and kindly interest in me (I should not like to call it anxiety on my behalf) that more than once, when he fancied I was putting too much strain on my rather delicate physique, he suggested to my freedman standing behind me that I should spare my voice and lungs.
[Letters 2.11.5;
tr. B. Radice]
In September and October 100, Pliny and his friend Gaius Julius Cornutus Tertullus were consul. During the empire, the office had, of course, lost much of its former importance, but it was still prestigious. Pliny was chairman of the Senate, organized gladiatorial contests (a.o. on 18 September, Trajan's birthday), and was judge in several cases.

At the age of 38, he had reached the highest office in the Roman empire. It had been a dazzling career, especially for someone who was not born as a senator's son. His father and uncle had every reason to be very content with the younger Pliny.


part three

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