GIVE me a penny, and I will tell you a story "worth gold".
Letters inspired by Pliny the Younger.
Letters inspired by Pliny the Younger.
version 5 November
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.
This is my retelling of one of the great love stories of the ancient world - one you may not have heard. I write books for fun. If you are interested in watching a book being written, read on.
What you are reading below is not the completed novel. Instead, you are looking over my work-desk, with fragments laid out in rough order as i write them.
Calpurnia - On Love
The letters move around me, a candle flickers and I stretch into the warm dark.
I speak slowly into the night, "A young lawyer has asked my advice on how to spend his summer break."
You laugh, "One of your serious young friends, the ones that spend their days and nights in study. Fuscus again? What advice are you giving? "
"I have commended the practice of translating work from Latin to Greek and then, when he finishes, to translate them back to Latin."
You put your hand on my shoulder, "What a cruel torment!" Then I hear you giggle, and feel the vibrations ripple in my back, "That should send him searching a tavern and nearby baths. Does he have no paths of his own to wander, a nymph to dance with, or a life to enjoy?"
I cannot help smiling, "Young lawyers do not have lives. They are busy living the lives of others. Still, with the courts all closed for the summer recess he has been sent home for a holiday. After a day he has written saying he is at a complete loss as to how to spend the rest of his break. He wrote asking for me to prescribe a course of study for him..."
You stop laughing and instead put your head on my shoulder. I smell the scent of crushed flowers in your hair. "So you have suggested he push rocks uphill and then watch them fall back down the mountain to the ground. What other tortures have you suggested?"
I think about the letter in front of me, the ink drying in the warm night air. "I have challenged him to do a better job than those who pushed the rocks last time."
You whisper, "I know you. You have told him to write and rewrite and correct the text until it is dry and crisp like autumn leaves, and beyond reproach."
I murmur, "It does not hurt to aspire to be the best: to challenge yourself. If you succeed, you have the pleasure that comes with success. If you fail, the misery will goad you on to a better effort next time."
You step back and shake your hair. I feel the breeze catch the evening heat. The candle gutters and the room dims.
You murmur, "Listen."
Through my study window, I see the stars in the sky, and I hear the waves dropping shells upon the sandy shore. Nearer, I hear the splash of water from a fountain, and the smell of dinner cooking.
You say, "You are giving the young lawyer more of what ties him in knots in the Capitol. The language of lawyers is the language of war and strife; the language of dispute and challenge."
I sit listening to the world coming to a peaceful rest around me.
You say, "I know. Tell him to write a poem."
I laugh, "What? He will not know what to make of that."
You put your arms around my neck, and whisper to me:
"Smoke drifts through our hills
As warm winter sheets hiding
Moist vales and tall gums."
I protest, "I cannot send that to him, he is a lawyer. He will not understand it."
You try another:
"In my eye your fire;
moon rider gifting life hue:
Tear-fall, free you fly."
I smile, "Perhaps something a little more basic..."
You hold me tight, "Show him by example. Tell him you use the language of poetry in your pleadings, that your law is not just about the sword, but about the heart. Not just threats, but persuasion. Eupolis said "To charm at once, and pierce the heart.' Tell him to practice persuasion. If it does not help his law, it might help with the nymphs."
I say, "He is a serious young man."
"Tell him of the magic of creating
Of taking clay or wax, and in molding it infuse
The form of war and hatred cruel
Or the gentlest sort of a lover's embrace
Which would he choose?
Tell him of you becoming mine
Of how we are enough to quench all desire
How our love stream washes through our lives
How everything it touches becomes fertile
And lifts us higher."
Calpurnia places her head on his shoulder and watches Pliny finish the latter in the light of the moon rising over the ocean.
"As yielding wax the artist's skill commands,
Submissive shap'd beneath his forming hands;
Now dreadful stands in arms a Mars confest;
Or now with Venus's softer air imprest;
A wanton Cupid now the mould belies;
Now shines, severely chaste, a Pallas wife:
As not alone to quench the raging flame,
The sacred fountain pours her friendly stream;
But sweetly gliding through the flow'ry green,
Spreads glad refreshment o'er the smiling scene:
So, form'd by science, should the ductile mind Receive,
distinct, each various art refin'd."
1,918 years have passed.
I have departed from my normal practice of writing a letter, and concentrated instead on how a particular a letter (7,7) came to be.
Calpurnia, Pliny's wife from 100CE seldom left his side, and paid close attention to all his writing, including his formal pleadings and political speeches (she would attend court and the Senate to hear his speeches). She took the central role in his life. An early miscarriage denied the family of children.
While his correspondence was prepared early mornings and afternoons with a secretary, Pliny revised it late of an evening. In many of his letters, I detect another voice, and perhaps the construction of (7,7) is one of the most explicit examples.
It is a response to his protegee Fuscus Salinator (who bombarded Pliny with all manner of simple requests).
From surrounding context, I have imagined it early summer, during the break from legal work in the Capitol, early in Fuscus' career. I imagine Pliny has resorted to his coastal farm to oversee preparations for the summer before the family travels to the colder reaches of Lake Como.
The translation of the poem eventually included at the end of this piece is from the reading by John Earl of Orrery (1790).
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.
My toes dance in the warmth of the salt water while I wrack my mind to match name and acquaintances, "Never... or are you telling me about Hecuba, the tragic Queen of Troy?"
You turn in front of me, walking backward, shaking your hair. You laugh.
Upon a time, once, when the world was young,
Hecuba was restless. She and her horse left home to find her fortune and adventure.
On the first day, she knifed a drink vendor for shortchanging her.
On the second day, she trampled a swineherd when he muttered under his breath.
Hecuba came to a fork in the road, and she asked the horse which way they should go. The horse was annoyed about leaving home, and did not answer. Overcome by doubt, Hecuba jumped down and sat in the middle of the road. The trouble with forks in the road is that you cannot poke them with a knife for information. And chasing them doesn't work either.
As she sat, she became convinced that she would never come this way again, and that the direction she took would change her life forever.
On the left fork, she saw a young good looking man approach. He was carrying a bottle of wine and was not wearing a shirt. She called to him, intending to drink his wine, "Come here. Tell me where you have been."
He stopped and said, "You are the most exquisite creature I have seen for hours. My name is Vice. Come with me, for this road leads my father's city called Pleasure. On the path are many taverns, and we can drink and dance at all of them."
Hecuba looked at him and briefly wondered where he had lost his shirt and why he was walking away from the city called Pleasure.
Just then, she saw a second person approaching from the right fork. This youth was wearing a shirt, but looked a little thin, had some piercings on his lips and gave the impression he might stutter.
Hecuba pursed her lips, and called out to him, "Come here Goth Boy. Tell me who you are and where you have come from."
The young Goth stopped and said, "My name is Virtue. The path I come from is cruel beyond description. At every turn, dangers abound. And, if you take this road, I will teach you how to write in Greek."
Hecuba sighed loudly and said to both young men, "Tell me something useful. Tell me if my horse and I will survive your roads?"
Vice says, "Your horse most certainly will survive. We will paint it pink. You and I will live in alcohol-fuelled heaven."
She looked at Virtue, who shrugged and said, a little uncertainly, "We might have to eat your horse... But I can promise you that, at the end of the path, you will have 19 children, and become the most famous woman in the world."
We walk together in the evening light, the gentle fall of waves around us. I cough to break the silence, and smile. I murmur, "Tough choice."
You laugh and dance around me in the evening light until we reach the northern beach cairn marking the end of our farm. You brush the cairn inscription, faded beyond recognition, with your hand, watching me.
I ponder, "What would Hecuba choose if she liked both the prospect of dancing and learning to write in Greek."
You laugh and the waves crash. The wind rises and I see your eye shine in the evening light, "Your eyes are still keen. Divide the wind, and then tell me you see a third path!"
I wonder, "How can Hecuba to find a path between the opposites of Virtue and Vice?"
You take my hand, warm. We turn back to the distant lights of the farmhouse and its small jetty.
You say, "Remind me of our two new residences at Lake Como."
We have two buildings at the lake, to take the best advantage of different aspects of the Lake.
The first is on the lake's edge, at Lenno. It is a little too close, for the waves break on the sides of the villa, and for that reason, we call the villa 'Comedy.' From her precarious edge, we watch the gentle curve of a small bay and can fish from our rooms."
(You steer me into the water and then splashes me. I turn and plot my revenge, "Why did you do that?" You dance, outside my reach, "You invoked the nymphs of the lake. I was reminding you that they make you wet." I shake the water off.)
A little further, at Bellagio, is the second villa. To avoid the problems at 'Comedy,' we perched this higher. It is up steep stone stairs that require some effort to climb, and hence we call the villa 'Tragedy.' Nevertheless, once you have gone to the effort of the long climb, the views from the villa are splendid. Here a promontory separates two bays from one another."
You splash me again. I grin, "That was unnecessary. At 'Tragedy' we are safe from water spray but can watch fishers far below."
You get a little close and I pounce, lifting you into my arms and threatening to throw you into the waves. You laugh, and I relent.
You say, "You have reconciled two opposites, that sing to each other their differences. The differences enrich our lives. The promontory that divides the wind from the Lenno to the Bellagio does not force us to choose one and deny the other. That is the third path."
Unlike other Roman male authors, Pliny's letters contain a wealth of information and stories about women. Some derive from interviews, perhaps at the urging of his wife, Calpurnia. Some of his stories are not recorded in any other place - they chronicle heroic women who stood against tyranny, both private and public.
In addition to these stories of his reality, stories based on myth echo through his letters.
Calpurnia and Pliny shared the same early childhood hand - although at different times - and a shared memory of the old myths. In this fictive story, Calpurnia mashes the traditional story of the "Choice of Heracles." The old forms of the myth contain one of the most commonly encountered Western story themes. In it, the bad-boy of Greece, Heracles (Hercules in Rome) comes to a fork in the road and meets two women - the curvy Vice (Aphrodite) promising drink and dissolution and the chaste Virtue (Athena) promising hardship, effort, and eternal fame. Against the odds, and a bit implausibly, Heracles chooses Athena. The story has morphed into all sorts of stories - sometimes there is a horse, sometimes there are three paths, sometimes there are three Kings and a guiding star. In his retelling, Pliny changes Virtue and Vice into a story about two villas.
Letter (9,7) to Voconius Romanus may have been one of the last letters Pliny wrote before his appointment to Bythinia. In the letter, we find him describing two villas he has built at Lake Como, to take advantage of two very different aspects. The letter is not just a description of these places, but also offers a proposed solution to the tired dichotomy in the 'Choice of Heracles.' Here, the third path is to smash the apparent dichotomy and make a third path out of the pieces.
Neither of the two villas, Tragedy nor Comedy, exist today and their association with Bellagio and Lenno is guesswork, although an inscription found near Bellagio may establish independent authority for the existence of real buildings.
I have chosen this form of dialogue over that of a letter to explore how the letter itself came to be structured.
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.
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.
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?
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.
To Calpurnia, Good health!Notes:
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.
Septicius Clarus - On Friendship
To SEPTICIUS CLARUS Geetings!Notes:
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.
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.
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 have taken Pliny at his word and regrouped them by the person to whom they were sent or concerned. The tone of Pliny's letters appears to be unique to that subject, there is a sense of respect to each. Likewise, perhaps because he is addressing issues he knew of interest to/about the person, the correspondence might be grouped that way, as the subject matter tends to be similar.
2. The letters to Septicius Clarus are to the son of a powerful, rising Roman family.
3. (1,15) 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. (7,28) 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.
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.
Julius Servianus - On Shadows
To Julius Servianus, Greetings and Good Health!
You have not been in touch, and I have searched in vain for your footprints in all the usual places.
I know the dangerous paths you tread. Find some way of relieving my unease, regardless of the cost to me.
I am well, but I fear the worse, and imagine dread news of the unexpected.
To Julius Servianus, Greetings and Good Health!
News that you have betrothed your daughter to Fuscus Salinator comes as a welcome surprise to me.
I can meet you candid inquiries with unqualified support. I think of the young man as one of my family, a position I have not granted lightly or without searching critical question.
I yearn for a day when these two might present our families with grandchildren. Oh, what good fortune would it be to receive the child from your arms!
Pliny was closely aligned with Emperor Trajan. One of Trajan's most trusted advisors is the warrior Julius Servianus, one of Pliny's oldest and closest friends. Towards the end of his private legal career, Servianus suggests Pliny to the Emperor as deserving of exceptional recognition.
These two letters carefully shield the depth of the relationship. On the surface they are short and formal, the type of message that, in the light of later events 'should' be included in Pliny's published collection. In context, they take on a different meaning.
The first letter indicates the risks that existed in the empire: it is the trusted servants of the state that bear the most significant risks. Pliny's association with and concern for Julius Servianus (who might have been expected to travel as the Emperor's ears to the furthermost realms of the Empire) is evident from this short note.
In its literal form, the second letter is unduly defensive, almost as though Julius Servianus and Pliny are the last to hear of the tryst. Coming after Calpurnia has weighed into the question of Fuscus' need for a life, perhaps we can speculate about her role in the betrothal.
As with so many mentioned in the Collection, having appeared on the stage briefly, the young actors disappear. But here, the betrothal leaves a quiet happy echo when Emperor Trajan confers on Pliny the rights belonging to the father of three children (although Pliny and Calpurnia were unable to have children) on the recommendation of Julius Servianus - an affirmation of their friendship, of the success of the union and the happy certainty that the couple's child/chidren passed from hand to hand.
Rosianus Geminus - On Life
TO Rosianus Geminus Greetings and Good Health!
My curiosity has once again got me in trouble, and I need an ear for a moment. Am I so old-fashioned that the future passes me without noticing change?
You know that I have little time for dance. As the Gods demand, I will join my peers and dance together to welcome the Spring or farewell the dark days of Winter. But you will be shocked to learn that some of the wealthy now employ people to dance for them. Imagine that: seniors, who should know better, sitting and watching others dance! I have tried to understand this twist, I can comprehend some value in the physical exertion in dance, but to sit and observe dancers...?
I hear you ask, "what will they think of next"? And I can tell you, although in hushed terms. It is said that, among the heathens, men and women play drafts, ostensibly to relax the mind. This I cannot understand, for I have always been taught that in times of leisure one should turn to the higher arts: reading, exercise, inquiry, debate. What mischief is the future bringing us?
Tell me I am just getting old, and that innovation should be welcomed. I will accept it from you, perhaps. But, to forestall your inquiry, I have learned of both intrusions from the one source. You know of my assistance to the young lawyers Fuscus Salinator and Ummidius Quadratus, who are the source of enormous pride to me. Just recently, I stumbled in on a court proceeding, in which they were arguing different sides, and I stood, mesmerized by the language, the deft intellect they displayed, the traditions they honored. For a moment in time, I was assured of the future of our profession in the hands of such practitioners.
Afterwards, at a religious celebration, Ummidius Quadratus and I were in a crowd which started to dance, when ashen-faced he asked to leave. Outside he confessed that he recognized one of the dance troupe leading the celebration - as an employee of his grandmother, the matron Ummidia Quadratilla.
This same woman, his grandmother Ummidia Quadratilla, recently died. She reached a respectable age over 80. She was a sturdy and robust woman up to the point of death, caring well for her grandson, and ensuring Ummidius Quadratus was brought up in the traditional ways. She entrusted his legal direction to me, and her will made generous provision for him and his sister, of whom I know little. I cannot fault her for her attention to him for he has become a fine lawyer.
However, behind this respectability, it seems that Ummidia Quadratilla was dicing with the future. For, not only did she employ a troupe of ballet dancers, but she watched them alone. And, not only that, but she played drafts! In her defense, I must point out that she sent the boy to his room to study before engaging in such behavior, and that until the religious celebration I mentioned above, he had never seen ballet.
Alas, if a matron of her stature and good taste should embrace such customs, although privately, where is the world heading? Perhaps one day authors will write to sell books in the market like chickens. Assure me quickly, that my misgivings are misplaced, and such a nightmare will never eventuate.
I place one last hope in the fact that in her will, she gave to Ummidius Quadratilla a famous school, the one C Cassius once called his own. I am sure that the traditions of the past will be kept safe there, as Ummidius Quadratilla makes it his own.
This is a letter to a friend and senior legal administrator, once Pliny's most trusted assistant.
The tone of this letter is light hearted. He pays great respect to the grandmother Ummidia (i suspect on my version i have lost a little of that) but remains uneasy about her conduct. Beneath the humor is a more serious concern about how to live life properly.
This is an elaborate letter about challenges to the accepted order, and in particular, the inroads being made into the concept of leisure. Pliny, like Seneca, expected leisure to be productive, active and intellectual. The notion of being a passive audience was appalling - i think that the gentle objection to the troupe of ballet players by Matron Ummidius was not that she engaged them, but that she watched rather than danced with them. The opposition to drafts was that it serves no practical intellectual purpose (you do not learn to build a city playing drafts, you only learn how to play the game a little better).
Today, almost all leisure is passive. Pliny's worst fear has been realized :)
Maximus - On Life
To MAXIMUS Good Health!
We are at our best when mortally ill. Lust is first to flee the scene. By the time Death looks you in the eye, wealth and avarice are meaningless.
Instead, at that moment we remember the Gods, and that we are mortal. Envy, class, and hatred evaporate, and in their place, we dream of baths and running water.
Faithfully, we vow to live a pure and productive life if only we are spared.
I shall recklessly ignore volumes of philosophy and instead declare this small universal truth: Deliver in health, what you promised the Gods when ill.
Pliny wrote to perhaps five separate people named Maximus, a name which was once common as cheese but which has fallen out of favor in modern times, perhaps because it conjures up eating disorders.
Academics agonize over which Maximus is which, but we know little more than one lived on the other side of the Tiber, and that one came from the Maesius and another from the Novius.
As universal truths go, this one is hard to fault but devilishly hard to stick too.
Fabius - On Evil
To FABIUS IUSTUS Good Health!
The sound of your silence echoes through my study, I have not had a letter from you for ages. Instead, when our paths cross, you mumble apologies that you have nothing to say even as your eyes dip and you hurry away.
I hear that my old adversary has been seen begging counsel on how to emerge from the obscurity of disgrace. Perhaps he has even spoken to you my friend, demanding help to reconcile he and me. I am a forgiving person. I look for the innocent in all. But, an old evil finds it hard to shake off the shadows. Mouthing mealy words in its own current self interest is not evidence of a change of heart. I try to see the innocent in all, but i will not ignore evil and I will not be reconciled with it.
I miss your letters. Your silence makes me anxious. It is time to shake the rat from your wheat sack. Write to me and tell me something, anything. Tell me, "there is nothing to write about" or use the ancient form "If you are well, the world is good, for your health cheers me".
I know this is harder to do than it looks. Your letter will be an admission to him that you cannot do his bidding. That will assuage my spirit.
I will then know you have chosen friendship over infamy.
Iulius - On Impermanence
To IULIUS AVITUS Greetings and Good Health!
It is a story for another day to tell how I ended up at a particular dinner party, but tonight I write to tell you how sometimes a meal can sour even if the tables strain under the weight of food and you are surrounded by the most lavish of hosts.
The setting could not have been more dramatic. The dinner tables numbered ten, and they were laid on the decks of two low ships moored in a northern harbor. As a host of others and we arrived to take our dinner seats, the sun departed most spectacularly. In its place, some burning lights were placed on the placid waters of the bay, reflecting the waters most beautifully and, in particular, accentuating the raised table at which our hosts sat.
I thought to myself, such a start boded well for dinner, as I had no great wish to be at this place but allowed my mind to draft to the promise of a hearty meal, excellent wines, and chocolate.
Indeed, I need not have worried on that account, for we were seated at a place of honor on the main table, and the food brought to us was far beyond my expectations.
To my dismay, the food served at the other tables was of different, lesser quality. I turned to my tablemate, and we discussed this strange differentiation of service. He pointed out that it was not only the food but also the wine placed on other tables that were of lesser quality. He said that our hosts were drawn to the spectacle of providing public dinners, but were equally well known for cutting costs.
I lost my appetite at this revelation and immediately thought of the pitfalls facing young folk such as you and so was determined to write and warn you of such an off-hand treatment of guests.
When you invite a person to dine in your company, each must be treated as your equal. Do not lavish unaffordable meals upon a gathering, treat them instead to your regular frugal table. Make a virtue of fresh, wholesome foods and avoid loading the table with a banquet that wets the eye but leaves the stomach heaving.
I left this spectacle despairing that I had ever agreed to this adventure, and though I did carry off the chocolate for later consumption, I have assuaged my guilt by writing to you as I eat it.
To MARCELLINUS Good Health
Iulius Avitus is dead. No words, no deeds, can express my grief.
Iulius came to me as a child. I gave my all, every once of insight I could muster, and I watched the child become an adult, potential-laden. One of my proudest moments was to move Iulius' admission to the Bar.
These days the young race ahead, assured of their immortality and infallibility. Not Iulius. A mirror image was not embraced. Instead, wisdom, knowledge, and reverence were to be learned with a happy boundless inquiry. Iulius listened to me; how rare.
With each inquiry, Iulius became wiser and more knowledgeable in the ways of public and private life.
In office, Iulius discharged onerous duties with credit, attracting the attention and regard of all who relied on Iulius.
Tireless in meeting the demands of life, Iulius was destined for the highest accolades. To be denied such is beyond my understanding. I cannot contain my grief.
Memories crash through my mind: the last time we spoke, the letters we exchanged, the advice we discussed, the life we shared. I am shocked by the loss, and I am appalled by the tragedy visited on the family.
Iulius had an elderly mother, a boyfriend who was traveling with her at the time of her illness, and a young daughter newly born. So many hopes shattered. So many lives broken in a single day.
Dignities never assumed, a childless mother, a bereaved lover and a child who will never know her mother. I cannot pretend to feel the pain of those losses, and I am here still, frozen at the moment I learned of both her illness and death.
Yesterday's advice about hospitality, suddenly turns to tragedy with news to Pliny that his valued young colleague Iulius Avitus has died aboard a ship while returning from a campaign from Germany to Pannonia.
The relationship between Iulius and Pliny is still encountered these days - most commonly student/teacher and in the law, perhaps, the relationship between a master and junior barrister. In this order to recast this letter, I imagined Iulius as a junior in my practice. (I confess that I experienced great pain in composing the note.)
The letter is full of unanticipated grief. However, it is also a brutal formulaic exercise in breaking free from loss. In this letter, Pliny numbers each of the issues that must be dealt with (I have chosen to paragraph them) in dealing with overwhelming grief.
His first command to himself is to strip away any art from the letter. "Omnis mihi studia, omnes curas, omnia avocamenta..." The death is treated in a (later) letter to Saturninus where Pliny reveals he is still deeply dismayed by the death.
There is a heavy rhythm to this letter, it is a hymn to the memory of Iulius, but it is also an anchor to the hearts of those stricken by loss.
FUSCUS - On Life
To FUSCUS Greetings and Good Health!
You write wondering how I spend my summer days far from the Capitol, on my farm.
5:00 am: I wake before the time sailors count dawn when the stars are still in the sky and silence hangs on the world. My windows are open, to allow the morning air to refresh my body. I rest my eyes in the darkness, allowing my mind to comprehend, untangle and give an order to the mares-nest that has gathered overnight.
530 am: As the stars fade into dawn, I let my eyes worship the morning sky as it casts aside its royal hues in the time workers count dawn, and which we call civil dawn.
6:00 am: As the sun rises to the laughter of the wild Kookaburras, I sit on my southern deck and feel the early heat. With coffee and cream, I take an old pencil and prepare an account of the issues of the day and plan how I will deal with them. I attend to any correspondence and then wake my body with a short, vigorous run to the high ridge above the stream that passes nearby. If I have guests, I then ensure that hospitality will meet them in the form of pleasing aromas to break their fast. Morning is spent in their company or, if alone, reading of current events.
10:30 am: Before the heat becomes oppressive, I take a sharp walk around my grounds ensuring that the orchards, vines, and stock are in good order. I then spend a little time in meditation before an excursion according to the weather: a short horse ride (less likely these days) or car drive to the colder reaches of the high forests. It is here that I am most likely to encounter my distant neighbors and briefly exchange news of the high plains.
12:00 am: Avoiding the heat of the day, after a light lunch, I retire to a cool dark bedroom for a short nap.
1:00 pm: I rise and swim for long enough to cool myself and then read aloud or write as the mood takes me or as guests permit, resorting to the pool again as is necessary to avoid the stifling heat. Reading aloud aids digestion, of both food and ideas. If in company, I pass the afternoon most agreeably arguing about the significant issues of the day or the knots in which philosophers tie themselves.
6:00 pm: I retire to start preparing dinner, a hearty meal which, in company may last in preparation, execution, and entertainment until time for sleep. Alone, a simple meal is dispatched before I turn to friends distant, and I write and read of their adventures and travails before the birds call the sunset.
8:30 pm: As the sun sinks to the western mountains, I walk along dusty tracks watching the display and unpicking the stellar augury of the coming days.
9:00 pm: I return to my broad verandahs as the stars start to fill the sky and attend to any outstanding business.
9:20 pm: When the stars light the night sky, I walk a little way to my observatory, and regard the infinite, before consigning the day to the past.
Perhaps we cling to a routine to retain the illusion that we can delay the gradual, inevitable evening that will take us all. Maybe the Gods do not regard our efforts, or seeing them, care nothing of the toil. I do it because, just as the stars pursue a fixed course, the lives of humans best please me when they are methodical and are not unbecoming: when life is lived to its fullest.
This is the first of two letters to Fuscus about how to live.
We will shortly meet Fuscus Salinator and Ummidius Quadratus, some of Pliny's younger proteges, together with their surprising families.
Pliny returns to the theme of how to spend leisure time, and how those he admires (men and women) spend it, time and time again. His ideal vision probably resonates today - it is of time spent in active contemplation, argument and discussion.
The words here, are of course, my own, as is the routine I describe, but perhaps despite the years separating us, it has some similarities with Pliny's stated routine. It is similarly flawed, constantly interrupted by the demands of each day, but perhaps still something to aspire to: variety and change coupled with repetitiveness and certainty.
I have adapted the concluding phrase to this letter from the letter from Pliny to Calvisius 3.1 discussing how the elder Spurinna organised his life.
To FUSCUS Greetings and Good Health!
Having written to me about summer, you now extend your inquiry to winter.
My basic routine remains the same in winter, although I forego the mid-day nap, and sometimes curtail entertainment after meals. The pressure of work tends to increase in this period and, of course, if I have a case before court or legislation before the Parliament, I will work far into the night or from early in the morning to ensure that I am prepared for the day's work.
Instead, after dinner, I tend to review the next day's work by copious amendments. Proficiency comes from the mind and hand working together.
In the original correspondence, Fuscus asks Pliny how his routine changes in Winter (as Pliny commutes to Rome from his coastal property in the colder months when court business increases).
The focus in this letter abruptly switches from leisure to work. Perhaps coincidentally, this is also the final letter in the volumes of letters before the formal correspondence between Emperor Trajan and Pliny, after he is drafted to the role of Governor of a remote Province. It is thought that he died in that office, never to retire to enjoy the leisure he prepared for.
The last lines of this letter include a useful observation about the association between memory and hand-writing. Pliny's speeches were originally dictated, but the fine work of revision is done by him, as an aid to memory. As a young lawyer, my senior once spent a morning demonstrating the deceptively simple process of review with a pencil that could turn a clean type-written page into a frightening mess of tiny notes. It was perhaps the most essential legal lesson I ever received.
CALVISTUS - On How to Spend Time
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
LICINIUS - Mysteries and Ghosts
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.
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?
Pompeia - Shadows from the past
POMPEIA CELERINA Greetings!
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.
Caninius - On Friendship
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.
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, it was thought, died in office. Part II of this novel suggests otherwise.
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 :)
Catilius - On Leadership
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.
Gallus - On Home
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.
Valerius - On Life
To Valerius Paulinus, Good Health
Here is the real difference between mortals and immortals.
There are some who say that our fleeting existence is best lived dozing in the sun. A snug and sound leisure, untroubled by effort, as we sink quietly forgotten into the twilight of our days.
Others say that that we should contend and extend ourselves. We should strive to leave footsteps that can be retraced with pleasure or interest when we are dead and gone.
When I look at your perfect mediations, I know they deserve the praise of future to come. At the same time, I despair of my effort. Perhaps it is nothing more than the miserable, thankless appearance of activity.
Valerius Paulinus, a legal acquaintance of Pliny's, was highly regarded for his honesty and courage. This letter suggests that the former Consul was engaged in intellectual pursuits and, I imagine, is the sort of short letter you would send after a meeting for coffee in the Capitol to hear of a friend's brilliant exploits.
The original letter contains an element of self-doubt, which i have seized on and used for the final sentence.
Again we return to the question of how best to spend your leisure - should you watch TV or go to see a game? Or should you devote your time to study?
Usually, Pliny has a clear-cut preference. Here the answer is less certain.
Voconius - On Life
To VOCONIUS ROMANUS Good Health
You have never been to the Tuross, or you would have written to me telling me about it. In fact, you would describe it in such detail that I would remember your visit instead of my own. Well, for once, we have been somewhere before you, and you will have to put down your pen. Listen to me, for I have tramped all over the place, and informed myself of all you need to know.
The river rises in high tree-clad mountains. At its wild head, it cascades down steep valleys and leaps from the tops of cliffs into deep pools far below, before emerging from the deep ravine it has cut to a broad coastal plain. The water is so bright and pure that you can make out every detail of the river bed, every pebble and stone, tossed from far by the tumult of the younger river, to settle here in its slow old age.
Close by the coast, it opens into a lake, before venturing across a sandy shore to the wave-tossed ocean. In the vast expanse of its final journey, it is not a safe place for seagoing ships but instead delights in the moderate traffic of small boats and pleasure craft. But, while sun-soaked on the white sandy beaches, the water retains a touch of the icy cold from its birthplace, in the mountains to the west.
The icy cold holds a different spirit, for this is an ancient place, traveled for time immemorial. The great spirit of the river, like the Roman river God Clitumnus, once walked upstream, gouging great pools under waterfalls as it moved, and stocking each reservoir with fish of every type. It is said that, in times of great desperation, people may cross the boundaries into the wilderness and follow the river upstream. There they may live well for a season, on the donation of the spirit. For even if the flow fails, the pools are so deep that they will remain stocked with food even in the worst of times.
Today, along the coast, people live on and around the river, rejoicing in its gentle bounty. How could you resist the wild pleasures of such a place, particularly when paired with excellent food and accommodation? But wait, there is more. The spirit of this place so regulates its citizens, that they pay homage to the river through theatre and song.
Even you may approve of such rustic entertainments, although perhaps you will also laugh. But no. I cannot imagine my good-natured friend making sport of those merely adoring the spirit of the land.
Voconius Romanus is Pliny's closest friend. Pliny calls him, "my mirror". There are lots of references and letters to Voconius, including this, a simple account of Pliny's day as a tourist.
Pliny wrote about the Clitumnus River (in Umbria) and its associated temples (the pagan temple to the river god was rebuilt as a paleochristian church, which still stands). I have chosen to write about the great river of the Deua, the Tuross, using Pliny's approach as a rough guide.
I feel the hand of Calpurnia in the construction and form of this letter.
Erucius - On Life
TO ERUCIUS, Good Health!
I used to be fond of Saturninus, but there is a side to him that I had not appreciated, and now I am wholly devoted to him.
Recently he read me some letters. At first, I believed them to have been composed by one of the great masters. He disabused me of that notion, telling me that his wife had prepared them.
Julia is someone to be reckoned with. Julia was young when she met him, but now exceeds the skill of her teacher just as her teacher now brims with grace, sweetness, irony, and love.
I was initially drawn to Saturninus by his intellect. Today I have realized that the orator, historian, and poet I admire is more than just the man he once was, and this pleases me more than I can tell.
We should not wait for a person to die before we laud them with praise. I commend this life to you as a model.
Erucius Clarus is a shadowy figure at this point in time, but is destined to become Consul twice. From the Transpadane Region, Erucius is related to the knight who will become Hadian's closest military advisor, Septicus Clarus, to whom Pliny's Letters are dedicated.
Pliny can be obscure when he pleases but when we trim away the frills of the original letter; this is about Saturninus and his wife, and her impact on Saturninus.
More than this, there is an unspoken symmetry here that permitted Saturninus to broach the letters with Pliny.
Suetonius - On Shadows
To SUETONIUS TRANQUILLUS, Good Health!
Pull yourself together, your court case is on today.
Calm down! Dreams might be God-sent, but the future is ours to win. You just had a bad dream. Are you sure we should delay your case on that basis alone? Are you on such good terms with the Gods that all your dreams come true? Let me tell you a secret: hardly any of my dreams come true.
When much younger, I defended a politician against a serious claim. The night before mounting my defense, I had a nightmare about the capitol burning in a fiery conflagration. I attended court anxious about what might happen. Instead of death and destruction, we won the verdict through clarity and calm explanation. Sometimes the heart and the head give different counsel. And the Gods mix up the dates all the time. Place your reliance in Homer: "The only constant is the fight for truth."
Still, you are the best judge of what this means to you, and if you are sure that the Gods have told you to flee, I will get an adjournment. It will be hard, but I think I can delay the case a day or so, although I might have to cover my face with white clay, throw my arms in the air, and pass out at the feet of the judges. Look, your case is solid, the Court expects us in an hour - tell me what you want me to do.
1. I imagine this communication in the early dawn, as the city starts to wake.
2. Yes, you know Suetonius Tranquillus. He is the historian who captured the lives of the emperors from Augustus to Domitian, and which has given form to most novels or dramas of the early Imperial years.
He was also a friend of Pliny and, perhaps, accompanied Pliny when he went to govern Bithynia.
Suetonius might have been a good writer but he was timid and poor with money. Pliny encouraged him to write his biographies, and helped him purchase a farm.
3. If i had a drachma for every time a client sought an adjournment of a court case (that is, persuading the court to delay a hearing of the case for a time), i would be ridiculously wealthy. Every lawyer has a standard line to calm a client: I understand you are anxious about what might happen in court today but let's get it done!
4. It was a practice in some Roman Courts, for a lawyer to apply a white clay mask on the face, or half the face, as circumstances required. These days, they just put on wigs.
They sit at the stern of the boat, skimming across the flat sea.
Calpurnia nestles into Pliny and asks, "Remind me why we are sailing away from the center of the world to it's far edge."
Pliny smiled grimly.
Calpurnia insisted, "I thought the Emperor was your friend. What did you do to attract such honor."
"It could have been worse. We could be heading to meet the fractious Gauls up north, or those filthy Britons and their wretched weather."
She waited, letting the moment pass, "Hush. We will make our own weather."
He smiled, "We always do."
Dim shapes slowly move on the far horizons.
Calpurnia tries again, "Why Bithynia?"
"This is not my doing. But, since you ask, you may be as responsible for this as I."
"I have defended governors returning from the province from charges brought in the Senate alleging corruption. I know a thing or two about the province. Very litigious people, the Bithynians."
"Oh dear, they have lawyers as well?"
Pliny smiles and looks into her eyes, "But that is not the reason the Emperor has sent us to Bithynia. I think it started with you hooking up Fruscus with his chief adviser's daughter. That is the root cause of our cruise."
"The Gods approved the match between Fruscus and Julian's daughter. Such beautiful children they had. Pity we do not live a little closer."
"The little one will be walking by the time we return. Julian had a word to the Emperor. He meant well, but we have ended up here."
"Well, the trip has been smooth sailing, so far. I always wanted to cruise the Grecian Islands."
Pliny laughed, "You are doing far better than poor Suetonius. He hasn't left his sling."
Calpurnia murmured something impolite.
Pliny continued, "Not just poor Ip, some of the guard are indisposed. Even my old centurion is looking like he has just been hooked from the deep."
"It was nice of you to rescue Suetonius from his creditors, but why bring him to such a strange place. And why do you give him that silly name. "Ip." It reminds me of the small lizards and birds back at Lake Como."
"He is safer with us for now. He writes beautiful histories, but he and the present world have never seen eye to eye."
"And his nickname, what art painted that?"
"Not I, but the power of red wine and hiccups conspired to craft that mistake. I do not use it to tease him, rather it reminds me to protect him from himself."
"And what secret name do you dress me in? You, the man I am following to the edge of the world, the love of my life?"
The water sped under the prow.
For a moment, he remembered his meeting with the Emperor a couple of weeks earlier. They met on horse, some miles outside Rome.
Trajan greeted him with a wave and the two men rode together to the outskirts of the city.
Trajan's eyes sparkled, "So, do you approve my plan for Bithynia and Pontus?"
Pliny nodded, "The Greek colonies dress extravagantly. They could be so much more if they acted with a little more prudence."
Trajan was grim, "This is a Senatorial Province, we must act with craft. Your predecessors, including those you once defended, failed Rome."
Pliny's horse danced as Trajan dismissed Pliny's protest, "Oh, some tried to do the right thing. But the rich and powerful of the Province were quick to undermine their efforts back here before the Senate. And they will attack you in the same way."
Pliny sighed, "I will do my best."
Trajan laughed, "You will do more. Julius tells me you are publishing your letters."
Pliny tried to make light of the effort.
Trajan said, "Not much get past Julius, except his daughter."
Pliny blushed, and Trajan laughed, "Julius showed me your letters. They gave me an idea. Your predecessors failed because the colonials assumed, probably correctly, that I was busy elsewhere. This time, I give you absolute power - not just the powers of a governor, but full charge over their local finances. And I want you to use your letter writing to best advantage. Make them public. Use them as a stage, in which I can demonstrate my complete support for your administration, and where you can use your powers of suasion to change the culture of the province."
Pliny was at a loss for words.
Trajan looked at the approaching city, "I wish I was going with you. I would rather be out on the edges of the world than trapped here by the webs of those seeking my favor."
Pliny said, "I am assured that the Senate will support my appointment although there is some doubt about what might be achieved in the span of a normal twelve month appointment."
Trajan said, "I did not think your wife would allow you any more time. You have Eighteen months. Eighteen months to take the province out of bankruptcy and put it back on the road to prosperity."
The Emperor and the grasslands next to the road into Rome disappeared.
The water sped under the prow.
Pliny finds Calpurnia resting in a cool nook, looking out to the ocean.
He smiles, "I promised to write to the Emperor when we arrived here. Ip is still too green to write. Shall we compose the letter together?"
"Of course. But, I have never written to an Emperor before. What if I make a mistake and smudge your reputation?"
"Emperor Trajan forms opinions on the basis of more than elegant diction or well formed letters."
Calpurnia is not convinced, "Surely he is too busy to attend to correspondence from the edge of the world. I hear his correspondence is tended to by the Palace."
Pliny remembers the look in the Emperor's eye, "Let us see whether it is he who watches us, or the Palace."
"What shall we write? Shall we tell him of those days on the Greek islands kicking sand, or our visit to the Temple of Artemis here?"
Pliny shakes his head, "He has probably made some small allowance for our side trips. His main interest will be in our progress to the province."
Calpurnia thinks for a moment, "Let us tell him of this place! The city of Ephesus is a jewel in his Empire. How much I have learned in a couple of days. The city established by the Amazons, where men and women stand as equals. In the city academies both men and women teach every discipline. Here is a model worth regard and repetition."
Pliny nods his head, "You can tell him yourself when we return to Rome. Every city is a little different to the next. But in one regard they are the same: they are jealous of their own pre-eminance and blind to their own shortcomings. Our correspondence will be public, and every word we write will be picked over for meaning by our friends, and our enemies. We will see many great cities on this mission. Let us save our accounts and recommendations for Trajan's private ear."
Calpurnia smiled, "That makes sense. As you wish. I am ready, tell me what to write."
Pliny smiles, "If you were Pliny, what would you write."
Calpurnia draws the letters on his skin as he places them on parchment, and then prepares a copy.
I am pleased to advise that, despite contrary winds, I have passed the storm tossed cape of Sparta and we have now arrived at the trading port of Ephesus.
I confirm that my mission includes my wife Calpurnia, the historian Suetonius (who has agreed to act as my secretary) and Nymphidius Lupus (who acts as my military assessor) and the troop of officers you assigned to me.
I will now make the final trek to Bithynia, using a mix of coaster boats and land carriages. Based on local advice, I hope to minimize the effect of oppressive heat and the northerly Etesian winds that summer brings.
Calpurnia asks, "Not too dry?"
Pliny places the seal of his office on the original, "You have snuck a hint of wind and adventure. I need him to pay attention to this mission. Let us see if we have his eyes. The shortcut I propose might give us a little time to enjoy the rest of the journey and learn a little of these lands."
In summer, the northern wind beats down the coast off Ephesus, making a coastal journey to Pergamum painfully slow. Pliny's shortcut, taking the coastal road over five days, was a calculated risk that looked good from a distance. Oppressive heat and a dire fever saw the plan misfire.
Pliny had the fever on him when the mission took refuge from the heat at the Governor of Asia's residence at Pergamum five days later.
Pliny was placed in a room catching the sea breeze, his face being dabbed with cool water. Suetonius was reading him the history of Alexander, who had once conquered the lands of Bithynia and the Pontus for the Greeks.
Pliny heard her footsteps and interrupted Suetonius.
Calpurnia said with alarm, "You are still not well."
Pliny's smiled and said, "I will sleep a little more. Every part of me aches from the carriage ride. We must tell the Emperor..."
Pliny shut his eyes and slept fitfully.
Suetonius said, "What is he talking about? We are still a week from Bithynia. What will we do?"
Calpurnia clapped and said to the others in the room, "He is sleeping, go take your own rest for a moment. Get Nymphidius."
Calpurnia turned to Suetonius, "Hush. Pliny has told me what to do."
Suetonius hesitated for a moment and Calpurnia glared at him, "Don't make me wake him up!"
Nymphidius entered the room and bowed his head, then turned to Calpurnia, "We cannot travel while the fever is with him."
Calpurnia asked, "I agree. How long will it take correspondence to reach the Emperor from Asia?"
Nymphidius took on a thoughtful look, "The Emperor spends a lot of time away from Rome, but something is brewing and he is at the capitol. Imperial mail is conveyed at the speed of the fastest horses in the Empire, day and night. Routine correspondence travels at 250 miles a day using relays of fresh horses. Local experience is that, from Ephesus or here at Pergamum or East Bithynia, correspondence to Rome will take about the same time: 8 days."
Calpurnia asked, "How long will it take us to travel to Prusias?"
He said, "A day and a half to the coast, half a day along the coast to Alexandria Troas, then two days on the road past Troy and Lampsacus, then two days through the Sea of Marmara to Prusias. So maybe six days, if the Gods are with us, and eight if normal luck prevails. "
Calpurnia thought and then spoke, "There is no point bothering the Emperor with a report at this stage. Let's work on the remaining trip taking us eight days. Make the arrangements. We need to arrive, in good health, to receive the Emperor's reply at the Province. So, we have three days here for my husband to recover, to learn as much as we can of this place and to find a more comfortable carriage for Pliny."
Pliny slowly regained his health but was still recovering when they boarded the merchantman sailing the final leg to Prusias.
Local dignitaries met them on their arrival, and walked to the Governor's residence. Pliny dismissed the townsfolk, promising to meet the local council, and called for the clerks to bring him the accounts of the town.
The Imperial courier arrived later that day and made his way to Calpurnia, handing her his pouch. She dismissed him to take refreshment.
Pliny heard her footsteps and interrupted Suetonius.
Calpurnia whispered, "The pouch was addressed to my hand. How did he know?"
Pliny grimaced, "We are never really alone. Best assume that he knows everything. Here, Suetonius, read this please."
Suetonius broke the seal reverently and scanned the response. Nervously, he read the letter.
Trajan to Pliny
I read your report my dear Secondus, thank you.
I am greatly interested in the way your journey has unfolded, and am following reports of your passage near my relay stations.
In view of the season, I think it sensible to rely on local advice.
Calpurnia came to hold Pliny, "Be careful of what you wish?"
Pliny coughed, "No, this is good. I hear his voice and feel his eyes. If the fever doesn't kill us all, our mission will be a success. Make sure that the original and the response is read to the entire mission, and a copy passed to the Governor of Asia. Nail a copy to the forum walls." Pliny was flushed and short of breath.
Calpurnia asked with concern, "You should rest."
Pliny paused for a moment and smiled. He said, "I am excited. The Emperor might as well be right next to us. We will sleep after we eat with the mission. In the meantime, Nymphidius and I will review security. Will you prepare the response to the Emperor with Suetonius?"
Calpurnia clapped and dismissed all the others in the room, after Pliny left.
Suetonius said, "Oh no! What will we do?"
Calpurnia turned to Suetonius and whispered, "Hush. Pliny has told me what to do. I will dictate the response for your hand."
Suetonius hesitated for a moment and Calpurnia shot him a quick glare.
To the Emperor Trajan
While the sea journey from Rome to Ephesus on the shores of Asia was favorable, the journey north by road was hot and left me with a fever, delaying the mission briefly in Pergamum. From there, the mission proceeded to the coast and the Sea of Marmara. Sadly I was delayed yet again by contrary winds.
However, I am pleased to report that we landed at the Province in time to celebrate your birthday and receive your correspondence.
Calpurnia paused and added, "At this point, please add a little about the work your are engaged on here and any initial impressions Pliny has formed. What have you found, buy the way?"
Suetonius stuttered a little, "The rich of Prusias dont like paying their taxes and seem to be hiding the full extent of their taxable land. But, they are very generous in spending the Emperor's money and are determined to make this city the most beautiful in the world."
She smiled, "It sounds like home. What would the rich fear the most?"
Suetonius said, "They fear only the Emperor's temper. But he is far away, and some here pretend to be his close friends."
She said, "Ha! Summarize your account and add a request for a surveyor."
Suetonius said, "Pliny said that the Palace will not send a surveyor."
She replied, "Our letter to the Emperor, criticizing the rich and calling for a surveyor will be nailed to their forum wall. It will take 16 days for the Emperor's response to arrive. In that time, the rich will be busy correcting their position in fear of what might befall them."
The Imperial courier took the letter pouch from Calpurnia, bowed and moved quickly through the Governor's residence to his horse and rode down the main road past the market to the port. There he boarded a fast cutter, that set sail for Macedonia. Within 2 days, the courier was riding through the vineyards along the Aegean Coastline, changing horses at every station. When, in turn he tired, the pouch was taken by others into the high mountainous regions of Macedonia and then the Adriatic Sea. A galley took the courier holding the pouch across the Adriatic Sea to the port of Brundisium crowded with coastal fishing vessels and (avoiding the pickpockets on the wharf) then, by relay horses across the Italian Peninsula to Rome. Eight days later a courier entered the Imperial Palace and made his way to the Emperor. There he was briefly interrupted by Trajan's Secretary before being guided into Trajan's reading room.
Trajan took the letter, and raised it to his face, taking a deep breath. He asked the courier, "Soldier, from whose hands did this come and how long has it been in transit."
The courier raised his eyes and said, "It was delivered into the hands of the Proconsul's courier by the Lady Calpurnia, eight days previously."
Trajan scanned the letter, He nodded to the courier, "Take refreshment, a response will be prepared now."
Trajan turned to the map unrolled on a table. He walked to the map and pointed to the Black Sea, He said, "Pliny is in place. So it begins."
Next to him, a shadow detached itself from the walls. Julian laughed, "Now just the small matter of raising two armies, and fleets to carry them and their supplies. And doing it without the Parthians suspecting your plan."
Trajan says, "If Pliny can turn Bithynia around, we will have all the local support we could hope for. And I will follow Alexander's footsteps all the way to India."
Trajan gave the letter to Julian. Julian shook his head, "The Gods are with us. Still, it is a very small mission."
Trajan responded, "I cannot do more than I have without raising questions in the minds of the Parthians. Who will question the action of a middle aged senator trying to sort out the internal problems of that province."
He paused for a moment, "Respond to the letter. Express my concern about the inconvenience of the second part of his journey and my pleasure with his arrival."
His secretary wrote as the Emperor spoke. "Address Pliny in the most familiar of terms, and commend him on looking at the accounts. The people of Prusius are spendthrift and they are evidently in disarray. Make it clear that I am personally interested in this."
The secretary nodded and asked, "What of his request for a surveyor?"
Trajan laughed, "He has used the oldest trick in the book. The rich of the province will have already employed the best local talent to avoid my wrath." He paused, "I wonder... Politely decline the request."
The Secretary finished the letter and handed it to the Emperor. He read it aloud as his Secretary made a copy. "Good." Trajan sealed the letter and called for the courier.
Trajan called the courier and said quietly, "To the hands of the lady Calpurnia."
Julian looked at him with a little surprise and Trajan answered, "It is a matter of trust."
Pliny finished his examination of the financial accounts of the city of Prusias, as summer took grip of the land.
The city council awoke the next day to an invitation to dinner at the Governor's residence that evening. The evening was heaving with the threat of a later storm as the council members gathered outside the residence. One of the guests noted the unusually large military presence at the residence, and the flow of couriers in and out of the compound. Pliny assured them with a smile that it was his military adviser's way of keeping interested bystanders at a distance.
Contrary to general expectations, dinner was a frugal affair and there were no acrobats nor dancers from Cadiz. Instead, before dinner as they were served fresh spring water, Suetonius recited a brief biography of a corn dealer who was caught trading short and Calpurnia entertained the increasingly nervous land owners with a short lyric account of the sack of Carthage set to her lyre.
After the entertainment, Calpurnia stood by the Governor and thanked them for their attendance, addressing one of the council members specifically, "All the world has heard of the sage advice of the philosopher Dio Chrysostom. We are honored to have you in this province, in this city, in this council, and tonight as our honored guest."
A thin, older man, Dio Chrysostom turned to her carefully and nodded in appreciation, "I thank you, lady. And thank you for reminding us of the fate of Carthage. You may find it interesting to know that, a long time ago, Carthage was responsible for establishing some of the Greek colonies in Bithynia."
Calpurnia smiled, "I look forward to learning a little more of the past of this wonderful part of the Empire. But, coming to the the present, I would like to express my admiration for your essay on the obligations of the Emperor."
Dio Chrysostom eyes searched the room, suddenly feeling like a rat caught in grain silo.
She continued, "Do you have any advice your might think apposite to this mission?" She smiled disarmingly as Pliny took a long draught of water.
Dio Chrysostom thought, "We are all servants of the Emperor, Lady. It behooves us all to act as the Emperor commands, and not to question his motives. For none of us can really guess what grand plan is unfolding in the world around us."
Pliny nodded and clapped his hands for the dinner to start.
After the sparse dinner, Pliny invited each member in turn to give a public account of his tax arrears and how each was going to address the shortfalls.
Earlier that month, following the publication of the Emperor's letters, each member had rushed to correct earlier oversights and misunderstandings. At dinner, members found that Suetonius had prepared a memorandum for each confirming the repayment amounts, which each signed without protest.
In bidding his guests farewell, Pliny made reference to the glorious work being undertaken by the Emperor in the southern cities of Ephesus and Pergamum, made possible by the hard work of the merchants and artisans of those cities. He concluded, "It is not enough to have dreams of living in a great city with grand public buildings, and spacious facilities for its citizens. There is potential here, but it will not be realized without effort by all of us in this room. The goodwill demonstrated here tonight is a start, but I want you all to concentrate your efforts and come back to me with concrete prudent suggestions for the city."
They all stood, some allowing themselves to wonder whether it would be too late to arrange for a proper dinner to be prepared back home.
Pliny again thanked them for their support and, almost as an aside, complimented them on establishing a city in such a congenial location. He had found the weather to have had a wonderful recuperative effect and, in the absence of any pressing business in the rest of the province was inclined to stay, and spend a little more time working on the city's accounts. The members present lapsed into an uneasy silence when a merchant with a long hooked nose coughed and asked if the Governor had heard of the problems with prisoner arrangements at the city of Nicosia to the East.
There was a murmur of agreement, while another mentioned the re-emergence of piracy on the Black Sea, aided by rogue elements from Samaria.
Pliny dismissed both as problems for the local authorities, but welcomed intelligence that the loyal council members might wish to impart.
Each member left the dinner a little thinner, with the word 'prudent' ringing in one ear and 'glory' in the other.
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.
Hidden in the letters are 100 stories of life.
My novel, inspired by his Letters, is split into two parts:
- The first is based around Pliny's letters in Books 1-9.
- The second is an attempt to recreate his period as Procounsel of Bithynia (today northern Turkey) and his relationship with the Emperor Trajan.
Part One is based on Pliny's domestic letters. It is presented in a number of different forms. Sometimes, they reflect the original letter, and often-times they are based on a letter but reflect my own experiences. These are not 'translations' or simple attempts to rewrite his letters in modern language (although this is sometimes the 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 for these. They are roughly arranged by subject/addressee and are split the flow into chapters exploring a theme. Publishing by subject/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).
The second part is based on official correspondence with the Emperor, recreating the world of 110 CE and Trajan's attempt to follow in Alexander's footsteps.