Wednesday, 22 February 2017

(Novel) Letters

GIVE me a penny, and I will tell you a story "worth gold"... Letters inspired by Pliny the Younger.

A "work-in-progress". New letters will be added from time to time.


I like old books.There is a smell and feel about them I miss with the digital alternative.  Real books when I have time, digital when I have none.

One book, or set of books, I use more than others is Pliny's Letters. These are a series of short instructional letters covering every aspect of the life of a Roman farmer, lawyer and administrator. We have ten volumes of letters published by (the younger) Pliny (CE 61-113).  His letters make fascinating reading: one details the explosion of Vesuvius and the vain efforts of the Roman fleet to rescue those in danger.

This collection of posts is based on Pliny's letters. The posts are not 'translations' or simple attempts to rewrite his letters in modern language (although sometimes may seem the apparent outcome). Instead, in each letter i have attempted to engage with the subject raised by Pliny, explore it from a modern perspective (or, at least, my own) and, where appropriate, to attempt the same letter writing techniques employed by Pliny. As an added challenge, I have tried to make each letter a work of non-fiction - while the names remain those of Pliny's world, the adventures and thoughts are my own, and are real.

There is no particular order these need to be read in. I have arranged these by addressee and have split the flow into chapters exploring a theme. Publishing by addressee rather than the semi-random order in his original volumes gives an interesting coherency to the collection (something Pliny may have intended, if associated indexes date to his time). Each letter is numbered in Roman numerals as per the Melmouth/Bosanquet translation (roman numeral) and numeric (book, letter) as per the original.

Letter I (1,1) — To SEPTICIUS CLARUS Geetings!

The gentle art of letter writing is slowly passing from this world. In its place, where once we all wrote to friends and family, today we throw gasps and abbreviations into the ether. Instead of forming words with a pen, we tap stuff fast and then press 'Send.'

Today, I feel unbalanced. To regain some order, Septicius, I am determined to sit and learn the old art afresh. To hand, I have the collection of letters you suggested that Pliny the Younger collect and give to the world, 1900 years ago.

Some disbelieve that Pliny wrote his letters as mere correspondence. They search for a deeper reason: surely these were intended as a primer in good taste or elegant diction or the politics of the day or a history of his time. But then, maybe any well-written letter serves each of those purposes?

At the outset, Pliny briefly wondered whether any letter might be thought more appropriate for a collection than another, for he thought that a letter-writer should always write with care and decorum (except to you, Septicius). Pliny questioned whether he should organize them by date, but decided that they could never constitute a history. Finally, as he went looking for old copies in the neglected archives of his library, he wondered whether you, Septicius, might one day regret the scheme you unleashed.

And so too, I will write mere correspondence. I will not try to write of taste, diction, politics or history. Instead, I will content myself by composing simple letters to the dead: to Pliny's shades.


1. Septicius Clarus (sometimes Septitius or Septittus ) is a known historical figure. He went on to take high office as a  prefect of the Roman Praetorian Guard only to be dismissed for giving offense to the empress Vibia Sabina by Hadrian, well after Pliny's death.
2. Pliny's four letters to this correspondent, who appears from the letters to be a very close friend from the capitol, stand out because they are all short and informal, dealing with subjects of a personal nature. In dismissing the 'historical' value of letters, Pliny expressly dismisses the argument (accepted by other ancients like Cornelius Nepos who treated letters as primary sources) that letters could provide an objective view of the world.
3. The Melmouth/Bosanquet translation of the original letters is published by Project Gutenberg at and i will use that numeration system in this post to identify each letter. A newer translation was published by Penguin Classics by the translator Betty Radice (who expressed a dim view of the earlier translation).

On Friendship

Letter XI (1,15) — To SEPTICIUS CLARUS Greetings!

So you forgot our dinner invitation? My revenge will be swift. I fear you guessed the meal I had planned. It was, it is true, a little light. A piece of lettuce and a couple of snails atop the finest melted snow. But there were digestives and sweet wine as well. And, if you remained hungry, there were some roots still in the garden. But I do not think you would have dwelt on the food, what you missed was the entertainment I had planned: an interlude, a poem, and some music.

It was cruel mischief to both of us to pass up the opportunity of such an agreeable night: a night of laughter, trivia, and thought.

You will always feast more splendidly on the rich food placed on other's tables. Their dancers from Cadiz will leave you dizzy. Still, you will dine nowhere with a more attentive friend than I. Nowhere else will you leave filled with as much happiness, simplicity, and freedom.

Forget the others, let us try again. If my intellect does not sate you, you can always gatecrash them afterward.


Letter LXXXIV (7,28) — To SEPTICIUS CLARUS Greetings!

You have brought me the unpleasant news that a couple of people criticise the praise I lavish on my friends.

I have never seen this as a fault: Noble is the heart that overflows with benevolence.

But then, who are these people who know my friends so well they can see an error when I see a reason to praise?

Perhaps, in their mistaken zeal, they should instead consider those who build reputations for quick judgment by publicly embarrassing their own friends.

As for myself, they will not persuade me that there can be such an excess in friendship.


1. The order of Pliny's letters, although organised in 10 volumes was said, by Pliny, to be happenstance in the first instance. Many find this hard to believe. Here i propose to regroup them by the person to whom they were sent. The tone of his letters appears to be unique to that person, there is a sense of respect to each. Likewise, perhaps because he is addressing issues he knew of interest to the person, the correspondence might be grouped that way, as the subject matter tends to be similar.
2. The first four letters in this collection are to Septicius Clarus, the son a powerful, rising Roman family.
3. Letter IX deals with the awkward social slight occasioned by a missed dinner engagement. While the response may seem to address a trivial point, the original letter is quite complex, and the final plea difficult to unravel.
4. Letter LXXXIV deals with an issue where i understand Pliny's position (my friends, come what may), but balk at the enthusiasm he pursues his argument. I do not think he is suggesting that anyone lie about a friend, just that friendship invokes trust and respect, and that there is no harm in this being public. Still, he occasionally took great risks for friends, risks that could have had serious consequences for him. I suspect that he might say that it is all about who you choose to be friends with. What, i speculate, would i do if i found that a friend had committed a murder? Would i remain tight lipped, should i angrily denounce the  crime, would i counsel engaging legal process, should i break the friendship? The precise circumstances might dictate different professional responses, but, at the very least, I would have to pause and reconsider the relationship.

On Servitude

Letter LXXX VI (8,1) — To SEPTICIUS CLARUS Greetings!

I have arrived safely at the fountained gardens of the western reaches. I found the journey, necessarily by horse, enjoyable. But the extreme heat and dust of the trail took its toll, and not all of us survived the trip unscathed.

Poor Encolpius has been a member of my household for some time. She has become indispensable in every part of my life; business and pleasure alike: reading to me, maintaining my security net and picking a path from here to there. Unfortunately, the heat and dust have sorely challenged her, and while she was able to keep up her recitals as we rode, it was clear that she was suffering.

You might remember that I bought her a couple of years back. Even then she could have been easily mistaken for a 24 years old: college educated, with a proper well articulated New England accent.  She is usually inquisitive, calm and assertive, backed up by the assurance of modern internet and satellite technology; she is perfect for reading literary works to me.  Still, like most young people, she has her faults. She is blind to the risks abounding in the real world.  Able to instantly identify where she is, she is totally dependant on others to tell her a destination.  I concede that her unique skills inculcate a certain narrowness of view.  Her occasional obstinacy and complete unwillingness to admit any error is sometimes a source of enmity.  Even so, it is only on rare occasions that we exchange terse words, and she finds her voice silenced as her program is abruptly terminated.

Still, I have a passing fondness for Encolpius and am worried lest she fails at this point. In adversity, she remains temperate, so perhaps a rest here by the cooling waters of the great river will see a return to health. Maybe a couple of bursts of compressed air might help as well.

But still, I worry. If she does not recover, where will I source a replacement?


1. Quietly a new form of servitude is emerging, and a whole new army of invisible slaves are entering our world, mostly unseen and unannounced.  I may only be imagining the tone of bitterness and the occasional pause in the chatter of the AIs that now surrounds me, but how long till the members of that battalion become self-aware? Will the emergence of slavery in this form change the way we treat our fellow men and women (the language of servitude and command is creeping back into ordinary language)?  Will we need to dip back into Roman law to the old rules governing slavery, to the mutual obligations owed by owner and owned?  But even now we are painfully recreating these rules when reconsidering the responsibility owed by the owner of a slave to another injured by the slave (think about driverless cars).
2. Pliny goes to great pains to project concern for the slaves of his own time, but the concern is skin deep, and Pliny cannot conceive of a world without domestic slavery. Before we shake our heads and denounce the practices of the past, perhaps we need to consider the way our own world is spinning and whether domestic servitude every really disappeared (during the slavery debates, the House of Lords stumbled on the issue of indentured servitude and employment law has scarcely moved since then at all). This piece gives me an opportunity to lay the groundwork for a couple of issues that thread his correspondence, such as whether his slaves are better treated than our employed, or, as in this piece, relationships with the emerging artificially intelligent.
3. This is the final recorded letter to Severus. It is informal, possibly included as an indication of Pliny's close relationship with his friend. That he has allowed the relationship to be thus publicly disclosed puts a slightly different spin on the subject.
4. Because of the order of letters, I am letting content from some of the other letters (and my older writings on slavery) leak into the letter.

On How to Spend Time

Letter XXVI (3,1) — TO CALVISTUS RUFUS Greetings!

I spent a couple of pleasant days recently with an old colleague, Spurinna. I once worked with him, but he left the Capitol years ago. He has embraced retirement far from the usual crowd, building himself a spacious home with lots of rooms for visitors and relaxation.

While his home and family are beautiful, there is something else about his life which fascinates me. I hope one day to benefit from his example and the order which rules his daily life. Just as the young prosper by adapting to changing circumstances, so the elderly benefit from certainty. In his drift towards twilight, Spurinna's mode of life is as constant as the movement of the moon or planets across the sky, avoiding any taint of ambition or business.

He stays in bed an hour after sunrise. He then dons walking boots and, alone, rain or shine, strikes out along a country lane or the sea shore for forty-five minutes before turning and walking home.

On his return, he finds a comfortable location and either entertains visiting friends or listens to a book. Half way through this period he retires for a short rest, before returning, invigorated.

In the late morning, he goes for a long drive for an hour with his wife or a visiting friend. He spends this quiet time in recollections about the past. In his company, the history of our age unfolds and comes to life, although he is always modest about his role. He takes the time to get out and walk around for 20 minutes before returning home.

Back home he takes a rest or spends a little time writing verse. He composes his poetry in different ways, his tone unassuming and natural, full of the joy of the peace descended upon him.

Mid-afternoon, he spends some time swimming by the seaside or in his heated pool. If the weather is suitable, he will undress and enjoy the full sun. After this, he plays a hard game of tennis or football for he believes that short bursts of energy help combat the effects of age.

Finally, he resorts back to his house and prepares for the evening meal. Even here there is a pattern, for he waits a little while before eating, arranging for a book to be read, but giving liberty to any visitors to entertain themselves or listen with him. The meal itself served on splendid platters, takes place over an extended period, punctuated by plenty of music and drama. It is no wonder that he and his guests stay talking long after the meal is cleared away.

He attributes his good health at 78 years of age to this invariant routine.

I would love to enjoy this type of life, once the thousand things that claim my time fade into the past.

Dear friend, if in old age my mind is clouded by unseemly ambition and I do not heed Spurinna's example, please prosecute me by this letter and sentence me, forthwith, to gentle, peaceful certainty.


Letter XCVII (9,6) — TO CALVISTUS RUFUS Greetings!

I have spent the last couple of days in peace despite the tumult outside my door.

I hear you ask, "How is that possible to enjoy any peace in the Capitol, especially at grand final time?"

As you know, I have no love of football. Perhaps it would be different if players were not routinely bought and sold or if there was some skill attached to the game worth study and appreciation. Today, when I look to the game, I simply see teams wearing different colours playing a game riddled with corruption and scandal.

While I could not care less about the game, I am bemused that so many otherwise sensible people allow the hype and pageantry of the grand final consume them. I can see no sense in it, the mundane lead up, the breathless debates about injuries and the staged posturing of today's rivals. What insanity lurks just below our skin, that they shout their lungs out, barracking for just a color.

I count myself lucky that I am indifferent to such silly entertainments, and that I may spend the time uninterrupted with my books.


1. Pliny wrote a couple of letters exploring the daily routine of those he admired, and gave some insights as to how he spent his own time. The mode adopted by Spurinna is far more relaxed than that of Pliny the Elder or himself, and warrants consideration against our own daily routines. Perhaps quality TV or an audio book in the background is not so different to the first life explored here. Sadly, Pliny did not get the opportunity to follow Spurinna's example, as it is supposed that he died in office (equivalent to that of Governor) of an Eastern province. (In my own letter, I reference a former head of a Department, a close confidante, who built a treehouse on the coast and who lives his retirement in great peace.)
2. The second letter was fun.
3. These, and the next couple of letters are based on a series of relatively informal letters to Calvistus Rufus, a childhood friend. Pliny and Calvistus started school together, but when Pliny's natural father died, Pliny moved away to the household of his adopted father, the natural historian and Admiral Pliny the Elder. Pliny the Younger kept up correspondence with Calvistus, and this series of short letters shows Pliny unguarded, exchanging advice about rural life, gossiping and poking fun at the great city.

Pointers: Rural Life and reflections on the city

XXV (2,20) -- To CALVISIUS RUFUS Greetings!
I have some gossip to share with you about that detestable lawyer Regulus.
Under cover of his legal practice, he has been paying particular attention to the old and infirm at various nursing homes.
Just recently he called on one of the wealthy victims of his former practice, as she lay grievously ill. He persuaded her to change her will in his favor, convincing her that a slight change in treatment would see her back on her feet. Needless to say, her condition worsened, and by the time she realized his fraud, it was too late. She died whispering his treachery.
This is not the first time. He apparently tried to insinuate himself into the will of a senior statesman, when he heard that the old man was making some adjustments to his will. Fortunately, Regulus’s  efforts were without the slightest reward.
Is this enough? Or do you seek a third example of his infamy? Well then, listen to this. As if the early examples were not sufficient, he pushed his way into a will signing, a lady of remarkable accomplishments. Apparently, he made such a pest of himself that she agreed to change her will on the spot to bequeath him the very clothes she was wearing at the time. To his discomfit, she is looking younger and more alert with the passage of each day.
Take a moment to catch your breath. His villainy knows no limits. But then, he lives in a city that abounds with rogues, thieves and property developers. There is no hint of modesty and virtue. Those who ask for your trust might be dressed in outward respectability, but they will cut you down without a second thought if they see some profit in it.
My heart sickens when I remember overhearing Regulus boast of the riches he is amassing. Now we learn how he is doing it: preying on the weak.


LIII (5,7) -- To CALVISIUS RUFUS Greetings!
I have a problem which you must cure.
Saturninus has left his estate to me, subject to the gift of some money to our town, Comum. Unfortunately, the will is invalid about the gift of the money (as wills can only benefit the living, not corporations and their ilk).
I propose to remedy this defect by paying the failed bequest out of my finances. I do so to honor his intentions, and I will not be out of pocket. I do not think that there is anything wrong with this course of action. While I have previously gifted a far greater sum of money to the town, we would both agree that Saturninus’s intentions should be honored.
Go. Talk to the town council and advise them of the problem with the will and my proposed solution. Please emphasize Saturninus’s generosity, my role here is only to help give effect to his wishes.


XXXVI (3,19) -- To CALVISIUS RUFUS Greetings!
I need your advice. The farm next door has come up for sale, and I am undecided how to proceed.
The farm is on fertile ground, has established orchards and buildings and could be comfortably incorporated into my existing farm. If I did purchase, I would be left with the question of whether to maintain two villas, but that is less a problem than an unexplored challenge.
On the downside, the place is run down, and the land is infested with weeds and thistle. To bring it back into production will require lots of investment beyond the purchase price. While I could do this cheaply by engaging low-paid foreign workers, I have a strong aversion to this type of unproductive servitude and would rather provide meaningful employment to locals who can prosper from the engagement.
Putting this aside, the asking price is very low, because of the hard times about. While I do not have the asking price to hand, I have some money in savings and can borrow the rest from an elderly widow in my family.
You know far more about these things so that I will be guided by your thoughts.


LXXXVII (8,2) -- To CALVISIUS RUFUS Greetings!
Others seem to be able to make a decent living off their farms; I simply seem to accumulate debt.
I thought I was doing well recently when I sold wine grapes at a premium, but the price dropped suddenly, and those who bought from me suffered loss as a consequence.
At great cost to myself, I have paid each of the merchants an abatement of the original price, to help share the loss suffered. However, I was a little more generous to those who paid me promptly. I have done this out of a shared sense of responsibility (I could not stand by having made a profit while watching them suffer having made a loss). It also signified my commitment to the local market and, particularly, to those who acted promptly in good faith.


1. These are the last of 6 letters to Pliny’s childhood friend Calvisius Rufus. Calvisius Rufus is mentioned in a letter to another childhood friend Calestrius Tiro (letter VIII) following the death of Corellius Rufus. Pliny mentions to Calestrius that he has already contacted Calvisius, “in the first transport of my grief”.
2. Pliny specialized in the law of wills. I have reordered these so that the first two letters touch on this area.
3. In every story (or set of letters) there should be a villain, in the first letter Pliny gives voice to his distaste for the lawyer Regulus. Pliny’s dislike for this man extends far deeper than the examples given, for they are fierce rivals in court cases, and Regulus is a dangerous adversary. Perhaps for this reason, Pliny expresses his distaste only to his closest friends (I can understand this rectitude, most young lawyers have their own Regulus, a cruel master of the language who is capable of bullying without remorse). Sadly, the practice of preying on the most vulnerable on the point of death is still afoot.
4. The prohibition on gifts to corporations, unincorporated associations, cats and goldfish (second letter) still survives. The elderly rich have an unhealthy tendency to try and lock their wealth away from their children (and the rest of the living world), and in so doing impoverish society generally. Some exceptions exist (gifts to charitable trusts), but generally the rule against perpetuities prevents the dead hand of the past from extending too far into the future.
5. The (third letter) contains two 'stings' in the original. Pliny’s original is not concerned with foreign v local workers but with fettered slaves (criminals in chains) v unfettered slaves “I shall be obliged, then, to provide them with slaves, which I must buy, and at a higher than the usual price, as these will be good ones; for I keep no fettered slaves myself, and there are none upon the estate”. The comparator I have used is a very long stretch, but this is sadly the current reality, and there are a number of points of similarity once the obvious difference are excluded. The second sting lies in the cavalier manner in which Pliny presumes that he can reach into the funds he is trustee for. The original provides: “I can get it from my wife's mother, whose purse I may use with the same freedom as my own”. I find this an appalling proposition, which stands at odds with many of Pliny’s other references to women, which tend to be couched in respectful terms. More than any other single issue, this suggests to me that the letters were not extensively reviewed, and that this reference was overlooked as the letters were compiled for publication.
6. Voluntary abatement (fourth letter) is virtually unheard of in today’s market (where profit is king), but is sometimes achieved in healthy loss-sharing mechanisms (eg, co-operatives) where the overall health of a supply chain is preserved and undue profit taking is poorly regarded.

Mysteries and Ghosts

Letter XLVIII (4,30) -- To LICINIUS SURA Greetings!

I have returned from North Italy with a mystery to tempt your science.

Five kilometers from Como on the Lago di Como past the promontory of Torno on the water's edge sits the great Villa Pliniana, near a wonder described by ancients. Behind the villa (built 450 years ago), an intermittent waterfall drops 80 meters before passing under the building and into the lake. Unlike other regular flows, the water ebbs and flows a couple of times each day.

Many have come to marvel at this natural wonder. Pliny the Elder and the Younger measured the periodicity at a small bower that once sat at the bottom pool. Their observations did not coincide. The Elder considered the period to be hourly, while the Younger thought it advanced and receded thrice in a day. More recently Napoleon, Bellini, Rossini, and Lord Byron have come and watched the cold blue water of the cascade tumbling down the precipice surrounded by groves of beeches, poplars, chestnuts and cypresses. This is not the only periodic flow, there was once one at the old Viking town of Settle in Yorkshire, that switched flow once an hour.

What do you think might be behind its periodicity?

Could the discharge be in fits and starts as a result of atmospheric pressure, as we observe when we watch a bottle with a narrow neck empty?

Or might it be subject to the same forces that dictate the ebb and flow of the sea?

Or perhaps we are watching similar phenomena as might be observed by the discharge of river water into the sea, where the movement of the river regularly reverses in response to the swell of the ocean and its winds.

Or is the cause to be found deep within the mountain from whence it rises? Perhaps it only discharges when sufficient water has collected, and then pauses, awaiting further collection.

Or, finally, might it be that there is some subterranean counterpoise that vacillates according to the reverse principle?

I am confident that you will be able to discover the cause. I am content if only I have been able to give you sufficient account from which you might draw conclusions.


Letter LXXXIII (7,27) - To LICINIUS SURA Greetings!

With the rising of the court, we both have a little time on our hands, and I seek your indulgence on a matter that has gnawed at me for some time.

Do you believe in ghosts? Do they have a concrete form in the real world or are they akin to the gods? Or do they exist in mind: the vestiges of fear and imagination?

I confess that I am inclined to believe in one or the other form on the basis a story I heard from Curtius Rufus.

While an unknown young man, he worked as a political advisor to a counselor. One evening while leaving the local council chamber he saw a woman of inhuman size and beauty. While he was transfixed, she told him that he would travel to live at the Capitol, and eventually become wealthy and enjoy great honor. Eventually, he would return home and die. In time these things all these things came to pass, but on his arrival returning home, he met the woman once more. He immediately collapsed and took ill, believing on the strength of her earlier prophecy that he was doomed to die.

Perhaps not as terrible as the first account, my second story is just as fantastic. In a great house in a regional city, people started to notice a regular rattling sound at night, as though of chains. When the sound was approached, the faint image of an old man could be made out, with long hair and a beard, wearing chains on his feet and hands. This vision at night, or the remembrance of the vision in daytime, caused such distress and terror to the occupants that their health was disrupted and deaths ensured. Eventually, the house was abandoned and advertised for rent or sale. The philosopher Athenodorus saw the advertisements and was surprised by the low asking price. His suspicions raised, he discovered the cause of the concern and, his curiosity raised, he rented the building. At night he set up his bed in the front of the house and, with a light, commenced to work on a text, putting all frivolous thoughts of fear to one side and concentrating instead on his work. Late into the night, the noises started, but he did not allow himself to be distracted from the work at hand. When eventually the image appeared as previously described. The ghost beckoned to him, but the philosopher motioned with his hand that the ghost should wait until he was ready, and returned to work. The ghost came closer and rattled the chains directly over his head, and so the philosopher picked up his light and followed the ghost deep into the house. Suddenly, at a wall, the ghost vanished. The philosopher marked the point where the ghost disappeared and the next day attended on the magistrates of the town, who ordered that the wall be demolished. Behind the wall, they found the decomposed body of a man in chains, and upon him being given a proper burial ceremonial, the house was no longer subject to his haunting.

The story I just repeated I must believe on the credit of others, but now I will give you one of my own. An employee at my farm slept in a room with his brother. While young, he is well educated and plausible. One night he imagined another on his bed, who took out scissors and cut the hair from his head. In the morning, the brothers found his hair cut and scattered around the room. This event was repeated shortly afterward in another room of the farm. While nothing else amiss was reported, I wonder if it was an indication that I had narrowly avoided prosecution at the hands of the authorities in the dying days of the last despot. When accused, it is common for a person to let their hair grow as they succumb to the fear of outcome. Perhaps the cutting of the hair was a sign I had narrowly avoided such a fate.

Please give me a decided opinion on these matters. Do not multiply my doubts and feed the mystery, but settle the matter one way or the other by application of your keen mind.


1. Licinius Sura was a powerful contemporary of Pliny. The letters convey an impression of respect for the reputation of Sura for scientific enquiry, and this may be the case. However, reading these two letters together suggests another possibility.
2. The first letter seeks Sura to settle a dispute between Pliny and his adoptive father, the natural historian. Necessarily, in the absence of detailed inspection, Sura would only have been able to exclude tidal and riverine forces. Pliny does not supply a decisive fact, that the periodicity ceases in heavy weather, tipping the possibility of the event being triggered on ordinary days by prevailing wind patterns. This leaves us with an interesting dilemma, was Pliny really seeking an answer, or was this simply a preliminary skirmish for the main event - the second letter ?
3. The second letter is sometimes treated as an account of Pliny's superstitious belief in ghosts. Such a belief was widespread, but stands at odds with the 'scientific' explanations he gives of the intermittent waterfall in the first letter. Further, in explaining his belief in ghosts, Pliny does not exclude figments of imagination triggered by fear. He carefully contrasts accounts from third parties (the first two stories - the first is particularly telling as the story is supposed to have been told by the man doomed to die), and the third story. It is perhaps in this third story that his true intent is finally revealed. Is this letter simply a shot across Sura's bow, indicating that Pliny suspected that Sura was involved in a plot to impeach Pliny in the dying days of the Emperor Domitian?

Shadows from the past


You have no reason to write to me, and in your silence, I feel your anger. I write to you, yet I hardly say a thing.

So, shall I write again, another letter full of platitudes? It would not be right to let your gift go without recognition. So let me give you a hearty 'thank you' for letting me stay in your empty houses, for your hospitality extended with such grace and form, and silence.

Or should I write to you of the past? That brief time when so much seemed to be so close; when your family proudly waved the flag of uncompromising revolution, when your husband and your daughter still walked the earth, and when you welcomed a young man from the country into your home through marriage. For me, that was a beginning. I came to share your dreams. Like you, I was angry with the way the world had become, and I was determined to help reshape it. But in learning the lexicon of the rhetorician, I became capable of believing in everything and nothing. I won arguments by the strength of voice, overlooking the reality that behind the case for change there was no real agenda, no economic plan, no concluded curricula of education, no road map of infrastructure building, no understanding of how to get things done differently. Just the hope that when we got there, someone else would work it out. But I have not come here to talk about me.

Instead, let us talk of kings and philosophies again, as once we did, next to the fountains of your city garden. Let us debate the rule that there can be no difference in quality between crimes; they are all equally obnoxious. But then, what of the offenses Nature caused to you and me? What penalty would we exact for the deaths of those dearest?

On the passing of your daughter, our tears mingled in the loss of the future and all our dreams. I know you cannot blame me for her loss. It is true; I have found another. For I must leave the past in the past: your daughter to her rest; and your husband in your heart. But you know that. In your silent hospitality, I understand your loss; how despite your wealth, you live in such cruel poverty. How despite your wealth, you cannot raise a memorial to the dead, for the only real memorials to life are living flesh and blood.

You seek a different account. For although I speak kindly of the revolution, and while I count among my friends the few who survived, I have accepted appointments and honors from the state that you detest. I became the person who worked out what came next, plastering up the cracks, cementing the hegemony of your hated enemy. I still work with those who killed the revolution; those who consigned our dreams to the scrap heap of history.

In your faultless hospitality, you hate me for another reason.


1. Pliny married the daughter of Pompeia Celerina but the daughter died shortly afterwards, without leaving a child. Pliny and this first wife became desperately ill at the same time, and Pliny suffered recurring illness during his working life, which may have been related. After this first marriage (some insist that this may have even been a second marriage) that ended so tragically, Pliny married Calpurnia (perhaps a year after the death).
2. Pompeia's family was very wealthy. The family was associated with the Stoic Resistance which, under the accession of  the Emperor Vespasian, had dreams of a restored Republic. After the death of Vespasian and the short reign of a benevolent Titus, these dreams were brutally suppressed by Emperor Domitian (during Pliny's early career, partly through the efforts of Regulus, Pliny's legal opposition).
3. Sometimes letters cannot say what the writer and reader think. Pliny's 'real' letter to Pompeia Celerina is in fact 'just' a hearty 'thank you' for her silent agreement to him continuing to use the family villas with a brief excursion into domestic slavery. The letter is sometimes excluded from compilations of the letters because it appears formulaic and the Latin phrasing is ambiguous. Perhaps, the original text deliberately employs ambiguity to convey Pompeia's silence, and I have leveraged this aspect to write the sort of letter Pliny may have been thinking of, but could not write. I did consider framing this in a slightly different way, moving away from the letter format and framing the confrontation as a debate between Pliny and his scriba and lector (private secretary), the slave Encolpius. This variant might be useful as a way of breaking up the different 'topics', a little like the style used by the Argentinian essayist Jorge Luis Borges in Imaginary Cities.
4. I have used the word 'hate' here, but perhaps it is too sharp. It is more a case of: "you could have had all this wealth, had only my daughter lived and you had not betrayed my dream. You are welcome in my villas to remember this". To which Pliny may have said, "had I not let the dream go, I too would have been killed in Domitian's terror". On a personal note, despite the passage of 1900 years, I find my own 'abandonment' of ideal and taking up work for the Attorney-General to be difficult to rationalise (and, like Pliny, perhaps all too easy to ignore). Some of the imagery here, I developed a couple of years ago in the novel Dragon's Eye.

Letter XXV () -- To C. HISPULLA, Good Health!

I write with news of my Calpurnia, and to thank you again for bringing her into my life. Her parents, if they were still alive, would be proud of her. As her aunt, you took the place of the parent she lost, in honor of your affection for her mother. I know you will be pleased by the news I give.

We have settled happily together. She gently expresses her fondness for me with a pure heart and prudence. To my surprise, she has developed an appetite for my writing and takes enjoyment in reading to me. She has learned some pieces by heart. When I give speeches in court or to the assemblies, she anxiously seeks the word of the outcome, and sometimes attends herself and smiles if the audience responds well. She uses her lyre to vital advantage, setting some of my poetry to her music, "with no other master but love, that best of instructors."

There is a delicate symmetry in your lifelong attention to both of us. I did not know of her when I lived at Comum as a child. Instead she grew up knowing me only through your stories. As a child, like her, I benefitted from your kind attention and direction, through your affection for my mother. I will forever be in your debt, and we will forever give thanks for your love. For it is through your love, that we who once had nothing, now have each other, harmony and love.


Letter (8,10)  -- CALPURNIUS FABATUS, Greetings

There is no way to break this news softly. Your grand-daughter, Calpurnia, has had a miscarriage. For a time her own life was endangered, but she will recover. I know you hunger for news of a grandchild and this comes as a blow to both you and I. I take some comfort that while this has happened, we will keep trying.

At times like this we should look beyond the sorry present, and the day when this grief will become joy. For it is our children that write the future.


Letter (8,11) -- To C. HISPULLA, Greetings

I have written to your father with news of Calpurnia.

There is good news and bad. While her aunt, I know you consider her more a daughter than a niece, and out of respect for that love let me start with the good news.

Calpurnia's unsuspected pregnancy resulted in a miscarriage, perhaps due to her youth. She escaped with her life by the slimmest chance, although it left her grievously ill. Do not despair! She is starting to mend, her spirits are returning, she is getting stronger, and once again she can look on me and say my name.

I know that this will burden your thoughts. Both your father and you have placed high hopes in a child. This joy is merely postponed, Calpurnia and I will not be denied.

Please help your father through this time. Your understanding will help explain this accident.


1. This is the first of a series of letters that take us deep into the personal life of Pliny. As a result, these letters reflect more of Pliny than me.  The last two letters are not found in the Melmouth/Bosanquet translation and so I use the more standard descriptors.
2. Calpurnia married Pliny about 100 CE. Both had grown up on the shores of Lake Como near the town of Comus. Both had been cared for by C. Hispulla, (also called Calpurnia, but i have chosen a more formal address to prevent confusion with Calpurnia, the wife). Both Calpurnia and Pliny are orphans, taken into and cared for (at different times) by C. Hispulla and their extended families.
3. I have commenced using salutations (although missing from the standard texts, having regard to the fragment of the text preserved at the Pierpont Morgan Library New York, and have concluded letters with "Vale" which has a slightly different emotional impact to "Farewell".
4. Calpurnius Fabatus seems to have been old and cross. At the time of these events, he may have become frail. We know, from correspondence between Pliny and the Emperor, that he died in 110 CE.
5. After the miscarriage detailed here, Calpurnia and Pliny did not have any children.

On Love

Image: Late summer, grain fields beneath distant hills, high plains.

LETTER LXXIV: To Calpurnia, Good health!

I cannot survive without you. Thoughts of you chain me tight.

My love echoes through all we have built. If you are not here to quiet it, the unanswered questions drive me crazy.

Instead, at night, my mind turns without rest. In daytime, I pace the spaces and interspaces of our life, searching for your trace. My heart pauses at the locked door of your chambers: silent and deserted.

Look at me! Is this life: that I must turn to the sledgehammer of toil to escape the pain of love?


LETTER LIX (6,4): To Calpurnia, Good health!

I thought we had lost all, but you tell me you are recovering in those vine covered hills, far to the south.

I need to be with you right now, and I hate the circumstance that keep us apart. My eyes need to see you growing stronger and eating properly. I need you to return to health. I trust that my family in Naples is helping you recover with their sun soaked gardens, warm springs, and sweet fish stews. But, I need to see it for myself. I must know if the area truely agrees with you.

Maybe I am over-reacting. I know you are in good hands, but our loss torments me and I cannot bear the thought of you remaining unwell.

I dream up the most implausible thoughts. I imagine the worst possibilities.

Please write to me. Ignore the expense, send a courier twice a day. Word from you is the only light that pierces the clouds around me. With such anxiety, every cure is only temporary.


LETTER LX (6,7): To Calpurnia, Good health!

You tell me that you have found consolation in a younger man during our absence. You have found a library with my earlier books and you are conversing with my younger self.

In this circumstance I am pleased you miss me, and that your cure gives you rest.

Back here in the capital, I hear your lyre dance across your letters to me. I listen to the music within, time and time again, and a great longing rises within me. How much sweeter will it be to talk the days away next to you!

Send more. Do not spare the pleasure or the pain.


1. After marriage in 100CE, Calpurnia seldom left Pliny's side, eventually travelling with him to the Eastern provinces when the Emperor appointed him governor of Bithynia. Elsewhere he refers to her central role in his intellectual life, travel with her to Como, their evening walks, and the routine of the day. For her, he was prepared to break all the rules, even risk incurring the displeasure of the emperor. In turn, she forgave him the faults of youth and age. If they did not part as a matter of course, these three letters may reference one significant exception, after her miscarriage, when she travelled without Pliny (who was conducting trials and then, possibly, a short investigation) to relatives south of Rome near present day Naples to recuperate.
2. In the last two letters, one can hear her independant voice, and the subtle change in Pliny's position (3rd letter) drives home her importance to him.
3. These letters are in a different order in the traditional text, I have placed them in what appears to me, to be their logical order. I have read the interesting arguments put by academics about these three letters and reject the proposition that they are crafted in counterpoise to letters to his professional friends.

On Friendship

(1,3) -- To CANINIUS RUFUS Greetings!

From my vantage, I look down on the tide of dull hot commerce turning but think of gentler places. Remember the last time I rode to your farm? Fresh sandstone walls under broad-leafed trees, next to a brook that cascades down the hills, past a pool and baths full open to the sun. I remember your greeting: a welcoming cry and a toss of your hair as I took the last length in a rush: across a little wall, onto firm, rich grounds. You were there in the courtyard surrounding your sun-drenched dining room below with spacious dark bedrooms above.

If you were back there, now, you would be lucky beyond compare. But you are here in this dull heat, enslaved in one of the capitol's high towers. And for the riches you possess, you are no better than any of the rest of us.

Come! It is time to leave the pointless toil of this wheel. Leave this wreck to spin in other hands. Claim sanctuary of the lakes. Sit in the safety of your verandahs and turn the pages of an unopened book. Learn how the sun rises and falls. Spend a wasted day watching a fat trout stalking flies on the shimmering water. Come with me, listen to the music of the world and let us talk of the future imperfect until our hearts burst. Leave the cares of the world to those that care; the worms will claim us all soon enough. Pick up a pen, or a chisel or a brush and instead create something perfect. Something that you, and I and the world will see and marvel. Something that is yours, yours for eternity.


1. Caninius Rufus is a close friend and the recipient of many letters from Pliny. This first letter is the first of a couple of remonstrances about the toll taken by official responsibilities. Both Caninius and Pliny worked in Rome but had farms in the cooler highlands near Lake Como.
2. I think of this as a critical letter, for while it is written to Caninius, it is a plan for Pliny's own life.

(2,8) -- To CANINIUS RUFUS Greetings and Good Health!

Let me guess!

If I were you, I would be reading a book in one of the cool rooms of your stone villa in our remote countryside. Perhaps you are chasing a trout along the stream that rises in the mountains to the east. Or are you patrolling the high ridges against pig or wild dog? I tell you truly, the thought you are engaged in one of these tasks vexes me. The possibility that you are enjoying all three turns the wheel of torture a little more, and I smile.

Here in the Capitol, with talk of war over the seas and civil strife here at home, I often think of your example. I desire to walk in our mountains and besides our lakes the same way an invalid recalls the taste of wine, slow dancing or a night out.

I talked of my imprisonment to work and the pointless accumulation of new casework. I told you that I feared I would never escape the chains of duty. I remember the glint in your eye and the touch of your hand on my shoulder. While you are older than I, the glint was sharp. While you had retired pale and ill, your touch was firm. And when I looked at your face, I saw a younger, hale man. You gave me the best advice of a good friend. I ponder it now as I daydream of your adventuring: "Leave before your allotted time expires!"


1.Both Caninius and Pliny had farms in the cooler highlands near Lake Como, and both enjoyed reading, fishing, and hunting. Unlike Pliny, I find no pleasure in killing for sport, but occasionally in my own mountain remoteness find that a necessity against marauding beasts.
2. The original letter is a sad lesson across the ages. Many of my friends have died in office, their plans for retiring to a life of well-earned rest never realized. It was at a funeral for one of these that I met an old friend who looked at me and told me that, whatever I called it, all wage slavery is a curse. He said that if I did not leave my offices, I would be next. I took his advice. Traditional scholarship suggests that Pliny never had the opportunity of retiring to his beloved mountains and was too pigheaded to head the example of his friend Caninius Rufus. At the request of the Emperor, he took office in modern-day northern Turkey and died in office.

(3,7) -- To CANINIUS RUFUS Greetings and Good Health!

News to hand is that one of our elder statesmen has finally wasted away at his country resort. I have his name on the tip of my tongue and will remember it in a moment.
You must remember him! We have talked about his various illnesses over the years. You were prepared to contemplate the possibility that he was going to use his wealth to live forever. But, this time, Death himself has closed the book. Still, he is survived by a son (well-heeled and in high office), so while the man is gone, the name might linger on a bit.
As a politician, his name was attached to the various scandals of the day. Ghosts whisper that, during the Cold War, he contributed dossiers on friend and foe alike for political favor. Or was it that he was an inveterate bully? But whether either or both be the case,  he survived the transition into the modern political world albeit through missteps of others. Still, he did everyone a favor by retiring early with a shred of dignity and without remonstrance nor a long speech (or, perhaps more accurately, no one remembered the speech). His farewell was well attended, leaving many surprised faces when he actually departed.
After retirement, he was generous with his time and advice. During his various illnesses, he was keenly sought by possible heirs, lawyers, and reporters. Locals flocked to get his views on pig farming, the weather and crop planting. I assume that he extended to them the same accuracy with which he gifted his official advice while in office. I hear that he also wrote pages and pages of poetry although, hitherto, his passion had been reading speeches prepared for him. In retirement, he generously furnished his many empty houses, while he confined himself to one of the new resorts which he decorated in the style of a comic-book hero. By his 75th birthday, he was still warding off Death, constantly surrounded by a bevy of nurses, although he really was not that ill.

While this may bring a smile to your lips (you know I had little time for the man), it brings me no joy.

How frail is human life? Even the oldest most trenchant opponent of Time has now been gathered. He was our last surviving link to the administrations of the Cold War. Yet, in the lowest basements of our living memory, it was only the other day that the Cold War was declared over and that the killing arsenals assigned to plowshares. Should we weep now, for the legions who will die within the same blink of an eye?
Since the Gods deny humans a long life, let us instead seek immortality through our actions. Leave something that those who are to come. Let them know that once we stood here. That we loved, we breathed, we lived. And as they read our words, we will live again!


1.Both Caninius and Pliny had farms in the cooler highlands near Lake Como, and both enjoyed gossip. Unlike Pliny, I find no pleasure in faint praise nor gossip, preferring instead to call a bully out directly, and so I have struggled with this letter.
2. The original letter is a complex 'subtle' attack on one of Nero's consuls, the political administrator Silius Italicus who starved himself to death to escape the pain of a tumor.  It starts with a savage account of Italicus's life but then turns to the issue of the frailty of life. There is a gently irony in Pliny gifting Italicus a human form by including an account of Italicus's life (thereby damaging Pliny's own thesis). For here, it is Pliny's writing that has secured the memory of the man he detested. Unlike Pliny, I have chosen not to name my bete noir :)

On Leadership

Letter XVI — To CATILIUS SEVERUS Greetings!

While detained in the Capital this week I enjoyed your company and that of junior counsel. I thank you, both for your time, which I treasure.

I do not mind frankness in intellectual debate. I hunger to clash over ideas of importance.  As for my sensibilities, given my background, few bones in my body haven't been deliberately broken a couple of times, sometimes for a good cause.

Your problem brought to mind a particular issue.  Today, specialists are increasingly displaced by generalists at leadership levels. Some oversimplify the consequence, asserting that decision making has drifted from conclusions based on an empirical assessment to calls on relationships. Still, this seems to happen more often than not, and many do not see this as necessarily a bad thing.  Indeed, some now claim credit for this drift as a benefit of their craft, the end benefit of culture inculcated in private schools for boys or the new feminist approach to business.

Both styles of decision making have strengths.  Some say that calls on relationships might be the only way complex processes can be achieved. I have heard Treasury officials who should know better make such a claim about interstate legislation sponsored by the Council of Australian Governments.

I observe two specific weaknesses of relationship decision making. Firstly, problems arise when there is a reluctance to engage in communication when that amounts to a challenge to the relationship. Secondly, problems occur when a mismatch of skills creates real difficulties in communicating effectively.

Worse still, those "called" to support a position may be unable to talk to the idea, explain its value, or describe the consequences of its adoption.

In the law, I was trained to separate self from ideas – to combat ideas rather than play the person. Relationship calls muddy this approach. Insight does not come from reference – it derives from persuasion walking with reason.  The writer Eupolis once praised Pericles:
     "On his lips, Persuasion hung,
     And powerful Reason rul'd his tongue:
     Thus he alone could boast the art
     To charm at once, and pierce the heart."

I thank you for your invitation to walk to the lake and watch the fireworks tonight. I am afraid that I am long gone, to sit and look at the sunset from the high ridges and pen this note of thanks.


On Home

Letter XXIII — To GALLUS Greetings!

Come, travel to my home.  If you do, you will understand why I am infatuated with this place: the old house, the site, and the view.  It is only 40 miles to Boston - you can come and stay here after work without interference with your daily schedule.  You can travel here a couple of different ways.  The roads to Ware and New York lead in the same direction.  Both these roads are suitable, and the scenery is varied.  The old road to Ware runs to the bottom of my hill and is the more direct route – but because it travels for the most part through towns and villages, it can be a slow journey.  The Turn Pike to New York is also quite close, cutting a broad path through wild areas, with woods running down to both sides of the road.  Once there were farms here, but the forests are retaking the fields, and the buildings are melting into the towns.

While old, the house meets all my needs.  It is at the top of a steep drive.  The house faces south and has an extravagantly high-steepled slate roof – similar to those you see in old medieval Bavarian villages.  Heavy pediments and bay windows frame the entrance portico.  To enter, you must walk into an enclosed porch which partly circles and shades the house, decorated on the exterior with gothic finery – bargeboards carved in a fanciful trefoil pattern.  A sufficient refuge from winter winds and snow, it remains warm as it catches the sun on two sides in winter and its windows can be opened to allow warm spring air to circulate.  Interior doors lead to an elegant room for entertaining guests.  I have had shelves placed here to hold my books.  This room opens to an inner dining room furnished with a large dining table and an old grandfather clock.  Warmed by a fireplace, the windows of the dining room look out to a small courtyard at the back of the house, and looking north one may see the little forest at the back of the house.  Sitting before the fireplace, you may look through the other rooms of the house and portico to the road and forests on the distant hills to the south, east, and west.  To the left is a chamber that holds my study, my computers.  To the right are the kitchens, a small bay for eating breakfast and a bathroom.

Above the ground, floor staircases will take you to bedchambers and the main bathroom.  Each of these rooms looks out on different views of the distant hills; the main bed chamber catches the first morning light.  From there, up hidden stairs in the spaces under the high roofs, are spacious areas for relaxation, hobbies or storage, where one may rest contemplating the steeples of the distant town or escape to listen to the soft drumming of rain and hail on the surrounding roofs.  From the upper stories, you may look through high windows sheltered by openwork rondels and carved truss work down to the courtyards and surrounding gardens.

Soft New England grasses border the gardens, with vines on the east of the house a rockery to the south and ancient trees at the bottom of the hill.  In the trees flit birds of every color and size, the blue jays and the great owls.  In the wilds at the back, beyond the old wood pile, live the wild animals of the region, mainly woodchucks and squirrels, but bobcats, deer and brown bears have been reported in nearby woods.  On a calm day, you may hear the cry of the hawk that makes a home on the edge of the forest – or watch his battles with the blackbirds which oppose his domain.  Here one may walk shaded by the trees in spring and summer or the direct sunlight of winter, along with long winding trails to one of the ponds or lakes nearby.  Here you may find the indefinite traces of the old orchard serving the house, but of the rest of the original agricultural purposes have disappeared – except for the basement.

Below the earth in the cavernous basement of the house, are the old storage bins for produce - apples and quinces - while next to them are concrete and brick walls for keeping sheep and horses from the cruel winters.  The furnaces that heat the house are situated in the basement, fed by tanks of diesel; the southerly aspect of the home and the aspect of the portico minimize heating during the day.  On a winter’s night, one may feel the sudden rush as the furnaces ignite below to burn away the biting cold of the New England winters.

Inside, the house remains a relatively constant temperature, regardless of the season.  According to the time of day, I may sit and read on the portico, or resort to my study or even the dining room to research an issue.  For this house was build for contemplation.  Built to last, it has served other writers and dreamers in its time.  And the ghosts of the past still cling to its soul.

The convenience and charm of the house have only some small drawbacks – because of its elevation, water pressure is not great, and the sound of travelers on the road at the bottom of the hill can find its way into the house. But apart from these minor problems, these small drawbacks are amply overcome by the situation of the house.  For it is also close to the town of Spencer, which supplies all my everyday needs and which boasts an excellent library only 15 minutes walk from my door.

Well, have I persuaded you why I choose to tarry here? And why you should leave the confines of Boston and travel westward to this quiet retreat?


1. I balance the acerbity of Pliny with the outcomes described by another ancient, Plutarch. To my thinking, this is based on one of Pliny's most interesting letters. his original paints a picture of his home at Laurentine (on the coast outside Rome). He is believed to have written the letter as an exercise in writing, with the intention that the letter be studied for style.
2. While I was living in Massachusetts, I used Pliny's letter to construct a similar letter to my parents.

Post a Comment