Pliny the Younger (9)

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.

Portrait of a Roman man (80-100 CE)
Portrait of a Roman man (80-100 CE)

The financial problems in Bithynia were very complex, and Pliny's most important responsibility was to ensure that the tax system would not collapse. This was every governor's first job, and his other tasks were derived from this first duty: commanding the provincial troops, inspecting financial documents, the administration of justice.

Like his colleagues in other provinces, Pliny had to cooperate with the local elite: the class of landowners that governed the cities. They were wealthy people with contacts in Rome, and they could make it any governor extremely difficult. As we have already seen, five governors of Bithynia had been accused by provincials. Since the use of violence was only allowed in times of crisis, a governor usually had to convince the members of the local elite that his policy was not only in the interest of Rome, but also in their own interest.

Pliny had to cope with another handicap. The Greeks were convinced that they had invented art and culture, and many Romans shared this belief. (After all, how many Greeks and Romans could evaluate the claim? They were unable to read Egyptian hieroglyphs or the cuneiform texts from Babylonia.) Besides, it was practical to agree: having granted the Greeks their cultural superiority, the resistance against tax payment suddenly disappeared. On the other hand, there was a prize to be paid, because a governor was forced to present his policy as a framework only, a framework in which Greek culture could flourish. He had to present himself, in fact, as a servant, a useful barbarian. Giving explicit directives was difficult.

Pliny would have to deal with the local elite and would be forced to pay lip service to the Greek ideas about superiority, but he also had some advantages. In the first place, he was a man of letters, and had been a student of Nicetes of Smyrna. Nobody could tell him that as a Roman, he lacked culture. That would be a personal insult, and even the Greeks were too intelligent to offend a governor. In the second place, as legatus Augusti pro praetore consulari potestate ex senatusconsulto missus, Pliny was sent by the emperor himself. He could hint that what he was suggesting was actually an order.

In other words, he could present himself as a powerful man. This can also be deduced from the letters he wrote to the emperor Trajan, which make up the tenth and last book of Pliny's correspondence. In these letters, we can see how he stressed his ties with the emperor and the army. For example, two recruits who could not prove that they were born as free men, were expelled from their unit, because they were a disgraced to the imperial forces.note The ruler cult was another way to point at the man who was behind Pliny.

Probably, we can also read Pliny's treatment of Dio Cocceianus of Prusa in this way. Dio was the most famous Greek orator of his age, and was nicknamed "golden mouth" (Chrysostomos). The emperor Domitian had sent him into exile, but under Nerva and Trajan the former exile had access to the imperial court, and he had been able to obtain several privileges for his hometown Prusa. On his return to this Bithynian city, Dio had launched a building program, but several of his fellow citizens were under the impression that Dio wanted too much and was aiming at some sort of personal rule.

Map of Bitynia-Pontus
Map of Bitynia-Pontus

Therefore, another rich man from Prusa accused him. This Claudius Eumolpus, who represented others, could not say that he feared the power of the orator, who was, after all, a friend of Trajan. So he said that he was guilty of lèse-majesté. The orator had placed a statue of the emperor in a building where Dio had also buried his relatives. Moreover, he was said to be unable to give an account of certain expenditures. The accusation marked the beginning of a complex trial, in which the innocent Dio was treated mercilessly by a governor who had to show who was in charge.

Pliny and Dio knew each other. Both men had been students of Nicetes of Smyrna, and if they had not already met at their teacher's house, they had met at the time when the Roman was prefect of the treasury of Saturn and the Greek visited Rome as ambassador. The governor knew that Dio was innocent. Letter 10.81 makes it clear that he did not take the accusations seriously. A brief walk to the statue and the tomb had shown that the accusation was unfounded, and Pliny remarks sarcastically that the lawyers had brought forward much argument, "some of it even referring to the actual case".

However, the case was important, because it offered Pliny an opportunity to stress his ties with the emperor. The accusation had been brought forward rather unexpectedly, when the governor had been on the point of leaving Prusa. Rather ostentatiously, Pliny said that after so serious an accusation, it was impossible to leave. He immediately organized a hearing, which he theatrically broke off to inspect the statue and the tomb.

Of course the normal policy would have been to punish the accuser with a fine, because he had filed a frivolous charge. That would have been the end of the matter. However, after the first hearing, Pliny ordered the accuser and the accused to accompany him to Nicaea (where he was expected), to state their case again. This scrupulous behavior might have been sufficient to indicate that the legatus Augusti pro praetore consulari potestate ex senatusconsulto missus took accusations very seriously if they were related to the emperor. It was a way of saying that the Bithynians had to respect their master's special representative.

Poor Dio. He had done nothing wrong, but he was humiliated by the governor, who wanted to show to the Bithynians that he was more powerful than the wealthiest provincial. The orator had to suffer even more when the accuser appeared in Nicaea, and was "unprepared' (i.e., there was no serious charge). Pliny now ordered both sides to wait until he had consulted the emperor. Again, the governor stressed his special tie with Trajan, and the incident must have been the talk of the town.

The reply from Rome was predictable: the case ought to be dismissed. Trajan used this opportunity to state "that it was his fixed rule not to gain respect either from people's fears or from charges of treason".note The emperor and his governor had done a give-and-go: Trajan had shown his goodness, Pliny his power. The governor had shown himself to be firm but fair, to the point of accepting a case against an acquaintance.

To summarize: Pliny showed who was in charge. However, this display of power could be taken ill. Therefore, he did everything to appear as a reasonable, kind man, and tried never to brush off the elite.

This nearly always meant that the less fortunate had to pay the prize, although we can detect a very humanitarian attitude in the way Pliny acted. For example, in Nicaea and Nicomedia, people who had been sentenced to service in the mines, had been able to find jobs as public slaves and even received salary for their work. When Pliny discovered this, he asked the emperor what to do:note the governor felt it was too hard to send them back to the mines after a lapse of several years, especially since most of them were old men, leading quiet and honest lives. In the end, the oldest of them were pardoned, and a few of them were forced to clean public baths and sewers, or to repair streets. This was highly symbolic: while stressing his power, Pliny showed to the respectable bourgeoisie of Bithynia that they had nothing to fear from the legatus Augusti pro praetore consulari potestate ex senatusconsulto missus. No criminal would ever become a fully accepted member of society.

The Christians offered a similar opportunity to show to the rich Bithynians that Pliny would keep their position unchanged: again, common people were punished, and again Pliny tried to prevent excesses. Everybody knew that the Christians hated mankind and were dangerous criminals, and everybody agreed that they had to be punished severely. After all, they had not sacrificed to the gods, married to their "brothers and sisters", ate human flesh and drank human blood. These cannibals and committers of incest had to be responsible for the present crisis, and Pliny decided upon a thorough investigation. To his surprise, he discovered that the accusation of cannibalism was incorrect.

They declared that the sum total of their guilt or error amounted to no more than this: they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately among themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery and adultery, to commit no breach of trust, and not to deny a deposit when called upon to restore it.

After this ceremony it had been their custom to disperse and reassemble later to take food of an ordinary, harmless kind. But they had in fact given up this practice since my edict, issued on your [Trajan's] instructions, which banned all political societies.

This made me decide it was all the more necessary to extract the truth by torture from two slave-women, whom they call diaconesses. I found nothing but a degenerate sort of cult carried to extravagant length.note

Pliny settled the case quietly. A person accused of this terrible crime could easily prove his innocence by burning incense in front of the statue of one of the gods. In this way, he could show that he cared for the community and did not hate mankind. This was Pliny's way to show to the members of the Bithynian elite that he shared their disgust of Christianity, and was "one of them". The governor was not their enemy, he was only there to help them. At the same time, Pliny was able to prevent unnecessary violence. The poor people who had fallen so deeply, were given a chance to reintegrate themselves into Bithynian society.

Pliny did not want to provoke the local elite, and therefore, he kept his intentions secret. Of course, he had been sent to save a province from bankruptcy and to redress evils, and it would have been normal to present a blueprint, but this would only serve to provoke the rich Bithynians. Besides, if he were a bit brash, it was possible that they would appeal to the emperor. They had accused five of his predecessors.

Therefore, Pliny worked quietly. Many letters deal with relatively easy cases, which Pliny ostentatiously postponed to discuss the subject with the emperor. These letters were in fact not only meant for Trajan, but also for the Bithynians: they saw how Pliny could devote much time to minor problems, and they must have found this reassuring. The crisis could never be very deep if the governor cared about trivial affairs.

However, Pliny did have some sort of blueprint in front of him. This can be deduced from the frequency of his letters. Although only a few can be dated precisely, this is sufficient to see a pattern.note

Pliny's letters to Trajan

Every month, Pliny wrote two or three letters to Trajan, except for the first winter of his stay, when the number rose to 13. This suggests a quiet start in which Pliny gained some first impressions, then a brief period in which he tried to make up his mind and asked as much information as possible, followed by a year in which he ordered the Bithynian affairs as he thought was necessary.

Hiding his intentions was only one of the small theater acts Pliny had to perform in order to maintain good relations with the local elite. Often, there were minor skirmishes in which the governor had to act patiently, without showing his anger. An example is the following, highly ironical letter, one of the jewels of Roman epistolography.

When I wished to inspect the finances of Apamea, persons owing, revenue, and expenditure, I was told that the citizens were all quite willing for me to see the accounts, but as Apamea was a Roman colony none of the senatorial governors had ever done so; and it was their long-established custom and privilege to manage their internal affairs in their own way.

I told them to set down their statements and authorities quoted in the form of a petition, and this I am sending to you just as I received it, though I realize that much of it is irrelevant to the point at issue.

I pray you to think fit to instruct me how you judge I ought to act. I am anxious for it not to seem that I have exceeded or fallen short of my duty.note

It is obvious that Pliny met an unwilling administrator who refused to give the new governor inspection of the town's financial documents. Of course he did not say this directly, but said the opposite: the citizens all wanted Pliny to see the accounts. The governor accepted the statement as it was, and pretended to take it seriously. Trajan understood what he had to do: he also took the words of the Apameans seriously, and replied to Pliny that if it were everybody's wish that the documents were inspected, he felt free not to check whether Apamea really possessed the right of a free administration.

Pliny's mission in Bithynia was difficult. Much depended on his greatest talent: his tact. During the reign of Domitian he had been able to cope with a tyrannical emperor and to maintain contacts with the opposition. He was able to give everybody a feeling to be liked. This was absolutely necessary to be successful in Bithynia. At the same time, Pliny could show that he was firmly in charge and that he was not diminishing the privileges of the local elite.

Remarkable qualities. But was the younger Pliny able to restore order in the chaotic finances of Bithynia?