Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Plinius, Reddo Humanitae

Plinius, Reddo Humanitae

Pliny the Younger (Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus) was an author and philosopher of first century C.E. Rome.  He is the nephew of Pliny the Elder, who is best known to us as having penned the Historiae Naturalis, the first true attempt at an all-inclusive encyclopedia of the natural world.  The majority of the Younger’s work comes to us from his compilation of letters.  The letters are arranged throughout ten books in chronological order.  However, the individual letters are not kept in any particular order as seen by his letter to Speticius Clarus: “I have now made a collection, not keeping to the original order as I was not writing history, but taking them as they came to my hand” (Pliny 1).  It is believed by many that Pliny’s letters are the first attempt at the intentional publishing of letters for public reading.  Many of his letters are merely asides between acquaintances, however there are portions of his letters which show the true history and culture of the Roman civilization throughout Pliny’s lifetime.  Much of what is known of Roman architecture of this time period is what has been learned through the letters.  Further
, there are descriptions of the function of the public administration, proper etiquette, philosophy and philosophers, and morality.
            Pliny shows great reverence throughout his letters for the wise men who came before him.  He especially favors the works and ways of Cicero, among the philosophers.  He states in his letter to Maturus Arrianus that only ‘the favored few’ may capture the fire of these great men and that he tries to include the ‘lavish coloring’ in his words when finding himself on a tangent (Pliny 2).  The people of Rome have lost their way according to Pliny; in all his attempts he tries mimicking the works of Cicero because, “it seems to [him] foolish not to aim at the highest” (Pliny 5).  Though a few letters further down he seems to contradict his resentment with an admiration for the liberal arts in Rome even going so far as to say that they are flourishing (Pliny 10).  Perhaps it is not so that his resentment is with the artists themselves, but instead with the patrons.  In a letter to Sosius Senecio he describes that the recent year’s poets seem quite sufficient in quality, only that their audiences seem to prefer wasting their time with gossip.  “Today the man with any amount of leisure…, either never comes at all, or, if he does, complains that he has wasted a day – just because he has not wasted it” (Pliny 13).  He actually goes on and seems to have a great deal of admiration for the artist who churns on in spite of the idlers. 
            Pliny speaks a great deal about the proper etiquette, behavior, and the function of social status for a Roman throughout his letters.  When a man reaches a particular age or has served enough time in the public administration he should hand his duties over to a younger more able man and retire with his books so that he may relax in the peace of his home (Pliny 3,9).  When asked by Regulus to give his opinion of a man on trial, Pliny refuses stating that “it is quite improper to put questions about a man on whom sentence has been passed” (Pliny 5).  In other words, the man’s fate having already been set, there is no reason that another man should presume to place judgment on the accused.  Networking, to use a modern verba, or patronage, was an acceptable form of career building, at least in the early stages prior to having had an opportunity to make oneself known by his works (Potter 227).  A man should neither praise himself nor his own family for this in itself is prideful and will be criticized, but should receive praise for his acts which become noticed by the people without his advertisement.  Praise should be the result of noble deeds, but not the purpose for performing them: the deeds themselves are sufficient reason for their being performed.  “A nobler spirit will seek the reward of virtue in the consciousness of it, rather than in popular opinion.”  He who has the means should make his money work for the public interest instead of hoarding it through greed (Pliny 8).  “To erect a statue in the forum of Rome is as great an honour as having one’s own statue there” (Pliny 17).  Though, for most, praise will not come until death has been upon the door (Pliny 16).  It is quite rude of a person to accept an invitation and then fail to make their appearance known as was the case in Pliny’s letter to Specticius Clarus: “You will suffer for this – I won’t say how.  It was a cruel trick done to spite one of us – yourself [sic] or most likely me, and possibly both of us…  All I can say is, try me; and then, if you don’t prefer to decline invitations elsewhere, you can always make excuses to me” (Pliny 15).  Slavery was a practice de jure in the Roman Empire.  Pliny’s first book speaks little of it but he does say that one cannot judge a slave’s honesty by his looks, only by the things which one hears about him (Pliny 21) and that one’s own slaves will grow complacent with the kind master until a visitor arrives when they will feel the need to once again impress (Pliny 4).  Suicide, according to Pliny, is an acceptable alternative to life; at least in the case of Corellius Rufus who seems to have suffered from horrible arthritis.  Yet in place of a poison or cliff he chose to starve himself: surely a painful and horrifying death (Pliny 12).  On the matter of families, Pliny appears to believe in unadulterated, monogamous marriage, though the inclusion of concubines was likely permissible (Potter 218).
            Descriptions of estates and of men are found throughout the first book of Pliny’s letters.  Of note is that the men of status and position seem to have lived a life of luxury.  Many had baths in their homes, which was quite a rarity from the fall of the Empire to the Industrial Revolution.  Their houses had multiple bedrooms, with some designated for day’s naps and others for night’s rest.  There were dining rooms for sitting down to one’s own meals and dining rooms for great feasts among friends, relatives, and acquaintances.  Much of the food seems to have been grown on the estates or in nearby owned farms and fields, though many of the delicacies could likely have been brought in from the far reaches of the Empire (Pliny 3,20).  It seems however that the learned are expected to not have such luxuries as Pliny has great admiration for one man in particular and his plainness of dress and simplicity of home.  “His greatness of mind, which cares nothing for show but refers everything to conscience” (Pliny 22).  In speaking of another whom he admires Pliny describes his look and dress:  “tall and distinguished to look at, with long hair and a flowing white beard… His dress is always neat… He leads a wholly blameless life while remaining entirely human; he attacks vices, not individuals, and aims at reforming wrongdoers instead of punishing them” (Pliny 10).
            Pliny’s descriptions of imperial Rome read like a commentary on the do’s and do-not’s of imperial society.  He admires the ascetic lifestyle, but does not seem to frown upon those who do not chose that path.  His philosophy is for living within the present, not dwelling, either positively or negatively, on the past.  The well being of the populus and the res publica are paramount in all acts.   He has shared his experiences and thoughts with others in his letters and decided to further share them with the rest of civilization by making them available to the public.  These letters can lead us to the truth of Roman society insofar as they are accurate representations themselves of the original letters.  Perhaps these letters were never actually posted to their supposed recipients, yet it makes no difference really whether they were or not as in their published form they serve a much more grandiose purpose.[i]

[i] Potter, David. Ancient Rome: A New History. Thames & Hudson, 2009.

This article originally written April 29, 2010 as the final paper for OU C LC 2613 - Survey of Roman Civilization.

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