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Pliny the Younger (4)

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


When the last king of Bithynia died in 74 BCE, he bequeathed his country -which belonged to the Greek world- to the Romans. However, it took seven years for the new masters to pacify the country, because the king of nearby Pontus, Mithridates VI, had set eyes on the neighboring state. Ultimately, the Roman general Pompey the Great defeated the enemy, and a new province was created: Bithynia-Pontus.
Becoming senator
Pliny and Domitian
Pliny, Nerva, and Trajan
The letters
Second career
Pliny in Bithynia: approach
Pliny in Bithynia: results
Map of Bithynia-Pontus. Design Jona Lendering.

Pompey launched a program of forced urbanization and settled many veterans in new towns in the hinterland. Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius and Claudius continued this policy, and it comes as no surprise that the province boasted of towns with names like Pompeiopolis, Juliopolis, Germanicopolis (after Tiberius' nephew) and Claudiopolis. After Augustus, the Anatolian plateau was settled as well.

This caused problems in the old cities along the coast. They no longer controlled the trade routes, and many enterprising people moved to the new towns. Of course, this was a crisis in slow motion: the ancient economy was based on agriculture, and this sector remained unaffected. But during a famine, it was more difficult to buy food, and certain articles were no longer easily obtainable.

One aspect of the crisis deserves special attention. There are indications that the population of the old cities decreased (and we can imagine that people settled in the boom towns on the Anatolian plateau). When the population of a region decreases, this usually results in a fall of the rent, because demand diminishes. This meant that the rich land-owners of Bithynia-Pontus lost income.

However, a rich man had expensive responsibilities. He was more or less obliged to pay for new buildings, and if it was possible, these new buildings had to be more impressive than those built by other people. The rich Bithynians still felt this responsibility and were still involved in this competition. Accordingly, they spent a lot of money, money they no longer had. At the end of the first century, the financial crisis could no longer be ignored, and Trajan sent Pliny to create order.


In the inscription quoted above, we saw that Pliny's full title as governor of Bithynia-Pontus was legatus Augusti pro praetore consulari potestate ex senatusconsulto missus. This is not an ordinary title. The first four words are the normal name of the governor of one of the imperial provinces. However, Bithynia was not an imperial province. It was senatorial, and the governor was called proconsul. (Imperial provinces were governed by the emperor, senatorial provinces by the Senate.) Therefore, Pliny was ex senatusconsulto missus, which means that he was sent in accordance with a Senate's decree. Finally, the words consulari potestate mean that the new governor had full consular powers. This was most unusual.

But there are other irregularities. Usually, a governor was in his thirties. Pliny was forty-seven, and had proportionally more experience. He was also well-informed about the province. After all, he had defended two accused governors of Bithynia.

It is also interesting to note the length of his stay. We possess the entire correspondence between Trajan and Pliny. The governor's first letter was written on 17 September 109, and the last datable letter on 28 January 111. After this message, Pliny wrote several other letters, but if he continued to write at the normal frequency, his last letter was written in March or April. This means that he was in office for eighteen months, which is strange, because the proconsul of a senatorial province typically served twelve months and the governor of an imperial province thirty-six.

Did Pliny die in office? Several scholars believe this, but it is not likely. He was not even fifty, and it appears that he was in excellent shape, because he traveled extensively across his province. Moreover, his last letter deals with Calpurnia's departure for Italy, and it would be rather heartless if she had left her dying man alone.

A possible but very speculative explanation for the eighteen months' stay is that Trajan was thinking about a censorship when he sent his special governor to the east. A censor was a former consul who had to control the books of financial institutions and large-scale building projects. The office no longer existed (Domitian had added the tasks to those of the emperor), but it is remarkable that Pliny's assignment also involved financial controlling of public works. Did Trajan think of this old magistracy when he sent Pliny to Bithynia? We will never know, but it is possible.

However this may be, it is a fact that Pliny governed his province for eighteen months and had extraordinary powers. Moreover, never before had the emperor sent a governor to a senatorial province. In our words, Pliny served as an interim-manager.

part five

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