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Pliny the Younger (3)

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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 third part of an article; the first part can be found here.

The letters

An epitaph found near Como states that the deceased is sad, because after her death, nobody will remember the caring people only she remembered. The sentiment would have appealed to Pliny, who knew that he was going to be forgotten. His wife had died and he had no children - who would remember him? (It is tempting to make a connection between the death of his second wife and his proceeding against Publicius "to make himself known".)
Becoming senator
Pliny and Domitian
Pliny, Nerva, and Trajan
The letters
Second career
Pliny in Bithynia: approach
Pliny in Bithynia: results
Pliny used the years after his consulate to do something that would make sure that he would be remembered. He published his pleadings, a long eulogy on the reign of Trajan (the Panegyricus), and a collection of poetry. He could take all the time he needed, because after the death of Domitian, there was no shortage of candidates for the more important functions in the Roman government. And perhaps Pliny, who had been in office continuously for nine years, simply wanted to live a bit more quietly.

In 103, he published three books, containing (a part of) his correspondence. To a certain extent, the letters are comparable to the building erected by rich Romans: useful, and intended to be remembered.

In Antiquity, letters were even more important than today. The success of a career was to a large extent dependent upon invitations and recommendations. And a man could show in his correspondence that he was well-educated, which was absolutely imperative for anyone dreaming of a career.

Pliny's letters can be regarded as a collection of models, and has indeed been used for educational purposes well into the eighteenth century. For example, he offers a few ways to begin a letter, but he also shows how this model can be varied upon. Sometimes, he explicitly offers advice - ironically. In Letter 2.20 he states that a letter has to have one single theme, which has to be illustrated with three examples: in this case, three malicious anecdotes about Marcus Aquilius Regulus, a personal enemy of Pliny.

Of course, a collection like this had to contain examples for all possible occasions. There had to be a model letter to inquire about someone's activities, there had to be a charming invitation for a nice dinner, and there had to be a letter that forced the addressee to send a charming invitation for a nice dinner. Pliny gave examples of all possible letters.

This does not mean that the letters are invented, although Pliny polished them before publication. Their authenticity is all the more intriguing because the addressees are sometimes extremely important persons: for example, Trajan's chief of staff Lucius Licinius Sura and his attorney general Lucius Neratius Priscus. We also meet the biographer Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, who is asked for help when Pliny learns that he recites his poetry badly. The historian Cornelius Tacitus, a personal friend of Pliny, receives letters about the eruption of the Vesuvius, which Pliny has witnessed.

Reading the letters, we get the impression that Pliny was an amicable man, good at heart. For example, he tells how he sent one of his freedmen, who suffered from tuberculosis, on a cruise to Egypt; and when the dry air of the desert did not cure the patient, he sent him to a chalet in the Alps (Letter 5.19). A real philanthropist, we might think, although the fact that he personally published his letters, makes one change one's mind. He wanted us to think about him as a philanthropist. 

Excavation of Pliny the Younger's villa at Tifernum in Umbria (1983). Photo Jona Lendering.
Excavation of Pliny's villa at Tifernum

There is something insincere about the man. He could be friendly and kind to anyone, but it seems that his amicability was some sort of façade, a mask. This comes as no surprise. Pliny had been able to survive Domitian's tyranny and must have developed a functional dishonesty. It was a survival strategy, and not a bad one. As we will see below, insincerity was his management tool when he was governor of Bithynia-Pontus.

Pliny's correspondence became popular, and after the first three books, he published six additonal volumes. He was pleased when Tacitus told him that he had been visiting the horse races and had been mistaken for "that famous author Pliny". Of course, the author of the Letters was flattered, but he was also proud to be mentioned in one and the same breath with his friend.

In these years the successful author married again. Calpurnia was the love of his life. Of course he was forty and she fourteen, but this difference was no obstacle to a happy marriage. Pliny published several love letters, which are very interesting - not because of their contents, but because they are there: his was one of the first letters like these.

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

Second career

Although Pliny had not occupied a public function for a couple of years, Trajan had not forgotten the man from Como. Not only was Pliny's name on everybody's lips -at least on the lips of those who were literary minded- but he had made himself even better known in two famous lawsuits.

Pliny had already secured the conviction of corrupt governors of Baetica and Africa (above and above), and in 101 the inhabitants of Baetica had approached him with the request to prosecute Caecilius Classicus. The man died shortly before the trial, and it was widely believed that he had committed suicide. However, the Baeticans continued their case and the Senate convicted the dead governor. 

Inscription of Pliny the Younger, from Como. It mentions that he was consul, augur, and curator of the banks of the Tiber and sewers of Rome. Photo Jona Lendering.
Inscription of Pliny the Younger, from Como. It mentions that he was consul, augur, and curator of the banks of the Tiber and sewers of Rome

The other case involved a man named Julius Bassus, former governor of Bithynia-Pontus (the north of modern Turkey). In 102 or 103, he was accused of extortion, although he himself said that he had merely accepted presents. He was clearly guilty, because it was not permitted to accept gifts. This time, Pliny pleaded for the accused, who was discharged. It was Pliny's first known involvement in Bithynian affairs.

The two cases were the talk of the town and Trajan often must have heard the name of the senator who had spoken so brilliantly and written so elegantly. In 103, he made him augur. Long time ago, augurs had been seers who studied the omens, but in the first century, being appointed as augur was similar to a decoration in our age. It was a normal reward for distinguished public service. Next year, the emperor made Pliny curator of the bed and banks of the Tiber and sewers of Rome. This was a serious job, and it must have appealed to Pliny's practical nature.

The treatment of waste is a severe problem in any metropolis. We do not know much about Pliny's adventures in water management. Except for a letter (#8.17) on the flooding of the Tiber, there was nothing that he found suited for publication. This is a pity, because in these years, Trajan dug several canals and founded two new harbors at Ostia and Centumcellae.

In 106-107, Pliny was again involved in the affairs of Bithynia. This time, he defended Varenus Rufus. It was a sensational lawsuit, because in 103, this man had conducted the case of the Bithynians against Julius Bassus. Now, he found himself in the dock. Pliny was successful: the case was dropped. Again, he gained inside knowledge of the eastern province.

Except for Julius Bassus and Varenus Rufus, three other governors of Bithynia had been accused in the preceding years. It was obvious that there was something seriously wrong -a financial crisis, as we shall see in an instant- and the emperor decided to intervene. We don't have to ask who was the new governor of Bithynia. Pliny was the obvious candidate. He was a good speaker, had a gift for dealing with people, had a practical nature, understood public finances. And so, Pliny set sail for Greece and Bithynia.

part four

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