Ancient History & Civilisation

A Roman Gentleman

He helped ladies with their financial problems and advised them on family matters. He wrote letters of recommendation for his friends’ children and used his influence in their behalf. He worried over the health of his household staff, even sending them overseas for a cure when he felt they needed it. He subscribed to the spectrum of worthwhile charities. He attended every literary occasion and considered it his duty to encourage promising talent (he had, of course, his own definition of “promising”). He was an ornament to the bar, at his proudest when, clad in a pure white, elegantly draped toga - the Roman equivalent of the barrister’s wig and gown - he held jurors and audience spellbound as he pressed a client’s suit with telling phrases.

We know hardly anything about the private lives of most figures from the ancient world. For writers, there are only the scraps of information to be gleaned from their works, for historical personages the statements made by friends, enemies, or scandalmongers. Pliny the Younger is one of a handful of exceptions, because we have the letters he wrote to his circle of friends; he meticulously saved copies and published them. They are not at all intimate, informal missives hot from the pen, like Cicero’s, which race along in colloquial language and leap from point to point, from burning issues of the day to the most trivial private matters. Pliny wrote his with the thought of publication in mind: He polished every sentence until it glistened, and he almost sounds at times as if he felt posterity were glancing over his shoulder as he sat with his pen and tablets. But the letters are no less revealing for all that. They reflect unerringly the image of an eminently proper Roman, ready to raise an eyebrow at the slightest breach of decorum, always striving to be comme il faut, utterly lacking in fresh or original ideas, yet at the same time the kind of man the world may be thankful exists, one dedicated to the old-fashioned ideal of public service, intelligent and understanding, far readier with praise than censure, decent to the core.

Pliny was born in A.D. 61 or 62. His father died when he was young, and he was adopted by his uncle, his mother’s brother, Pliny the Elder, an eccentric gentleman who spent every crumb of time he could spare from an active career as public servant in the research that enabled him to compile the enormous one-man encyclopedia that has made his fame; one of his nephew’s best-known letters tells how he died when his eager curiosity led him to take too close a look at Vesuvius during the fatal eruption that buried Pompeii. Young Pliny was a model child, dutiful, hard-working, earnest, and precocious - at age fourteen he had written a Greek tragedy, which years later he was not quite ready to admit was all bad. The son of a rich and eminent family, he was tutored at home, and he admired and respected his teacher. University education in his day was almost wholly devoted to the study and practice of public speaking - how to make political orations, how to address a court. Pliny took his at Rome under none other than the renowned Quintilian, the John Dewey of Roman education. He then embarked on the standard career of a responsible Roman aristocrat, a lifetime devoted to public service. After a stint in the army - he served as lieutenant with a unit stationed in Syria - he began a steady climb up the rungs of the political ladder, achieving in A.D. 100, when not yet forty, the office of consul, or titular head of state. Both before and after, he filled posts that the emperors, aware of his sense of responsibility and capacity, entrusted him with. Whether it was as commissioner of sewers for Rome or governor of an important overseas province, he carried out his duties in exemplary fashion, with total dedication. But his true joy lay in his career as a barrister. Forensic oratory in his day was more than a matter of law, it was one of the highest forms of literary endeavor, and Pliny fancied himself first and foremost a literary man. He argued not only important cases involving property and inheritances in Rome’s most prestigious court, but a number of causes célèbres in the Senate, in which he defended or prosecuted fellow members charged with malfeasance while serving as governors of overseas provinces. Pliny was proud of the part he played in these, and why not? - he was able to hold forth for five hours with a captive audience that included the cream of Roman society right up to the emperor.

He was married three times. We know nothing of the first union, of the second only that his wife died, but a good deal about the third. It was with a much younger woman who worshiped him - or convinced him she did - as a literary giant. In a letter to her aunt, he reports how she reads every word he writes, listens to every public recitation he makes, chants his poetry, composing her own musical accompaniment on the lyre, and follows his pleadings in court so anxiously that she has couriers on hand in the audience to race back with word of favorable reactions, outbreaks of applause, and the verdict. Pliny, who shared her opinion of his literary merits, adored her. His one sorrow was that, through her girlish ignorance, she neglected to take some appropriate precautions and so brought on a miscarriage that forever prevented her from having children. He was sorely disappointed, for he wanted offspring to carry on the family name and tradition of public service, but it was the sole sadness this paragon of feminine dutifulness (or shrewdness) ever caused him.

Pliny’s birthplace was Como, on the lake, where the family owned considerable property. He moved to Rome in his teens for his higher education and stayed there to carry on his career in politics and at the bar. He had a house in the fashionable district on the Esquiline Hill and passed his days like most Roman gentlemen of the time: up at dawn to make or receive calls, then off to the Senate, the courts, or any of the myriad chores of a busy and important man. “If you ask someone,” he writes to a friend, “‘What did you do today?,’ he’ll tell you, ‘I was at a boy’s coming-of-age ceremony or a betrothal or a marriage, one fellow asked me to witness a will, another to stand by him in court, another to advise him in rendering verdicts. . . . ‘“ To all this Pliny added punctual, dutiful, and never-failing attendance at literary recitations. These played in the cultural life of the city the role that musical recitals or art shows do today. The literary lions read their poems or orations or essays or whatever in the elegance of a rich friend’s salon; the threadbare writer on the make spent his last penny to hire some barren hall. The sessions invariably went on for hours and not uncommonly for days. Pliny spent three whole days listening to the poems of one of his long-winded literary friends - and took three himself to read in toto a panegyric he had composed on the emperor Trajan. Pliny spelled literature with a capital L and believed it was to be supported at all cost, so whatever recitations were going on were sure to find him in the audience, listening attentively and directing killing looks at those who sauntered in late or ostentatiously left before the reading was over or, worst of all, sat stony-faced without showing the least sign of appreciation. He was on intimate terms with all the well-known literary figures. He collaborated with Tacitus, the historian, in conducting a celebrated prosecution in the Senate. Suetonius, the biographer of the Caesars, was a close friend, and Pliny was responsible for getting him political favors. Martial wrote a flattering piece comparing him with Cicero, and Pliny repaid with money for the journey when the poet left the city. To be accounted a literary light was his greatest pleasure, and he tells with gusto the story of how someone sitting next to Tacitus at the races, after some serious literary conversation, inquired who his neighbor was, and when Tacitus replied, “You know me, of course, from your reading,” asked, “Are you Tacitus or Pliny?”

It was de rigueur for all who belonged to the upper crust to escape periodically from the daily round in the city and relax in their country villas. Everybody of means boasted not merely one but several, in various attractive spots along the shore and in the mountains. Then there were the manor houses on the farms they owned for income; a visit to these enabled them to combine country air with business. Pliny had an elaborate seaside villa conveniently located not far from Ostia, near enough for him to be able to leave the city after a day’s work and arrive before dusk; if he was not staying long enough to make it worthwhile to fire up his own set of baths in the villa, it was no trouble to run over and use commercial baths nearby. In a long letter, he describes the place in detail, a charming, rambling complex whose rooms commanded lovely views of the sea. It had every kind of salon and chamber, including one study so secluded that Pliny was able to escape there even from the hullabaloo of the Saturnalia. His preferred summer villa was in the Tuscan hills. There the emphasis was on countering the heat rather than on pleasing vistas. The rooms, mostly on inner courts, were cool and dark, the walks were quiet and shaded, and day and night the sound that pervaded the place was the murmur of water, the plash of fountains. Pliny describes in detail how he used to spend his days there:

I wake when I please, generally at dawn, often earlier, rarely later. I don’t open the shutters, in the stillness and darkness being wonderfully removed from distractions. . . . I concentrate on what work I have on hand . . . then call my secretary and, letting in the daylight, dictate what I’ve composed. . . .

About the fourth or fifth hour [8:30-10:30 a.m.] - there’s no observing fixed times - I go to either the terrace or the covered portico, depending on the weather, think out, and dictate the rest. Then into my carriage, to continue concentrating just as when lying abed or walking . . . a short siesta, then a walk, and then I recite aloud a speech in Greek or Latin clearly and with emphasis, not so much for the sake of my voice as my digestion, though of course both are equally strengthened. Another walk, a rub-down with oil, exercise, and a bath. If I dine with my wife or a few people, we have a book read to us. After dinner, reading of a comedy or music. Then a walk about with my staff, some of whom are learned men. And so we pass the evening chattering on various topics. . . . Friends dropping in from the nearby towns take up part of my day; at times, when I’m feeling tired, the interruption is welcome and helps. Occasionally I go hunting - but with pen in hand, so that I come back with something even when I’ve bagged nothing!

Country life, however, was not always literary composition, strolling, and pleasant dinner parties. What made these activities possible, as well as the leisure in Rome to orate at the bar and in the Senate or to attend poetical declamations, was a substantial income, produced by the farmlands Pliny owned. The bulk of them were in the neighborhood of his birthplace, near Lake Como (the manor house in one was so close to the lake that Pliny could fish by dropping a line out of his bedroom window). Most were vineyards, and his practice was to let them out to tenants; the alternative, to farm them through slave labor, was repugnant to him: “I have no slaves in chains anywhere,” he asserts categorically. But exploiting his properties gave him constant trouble. The tenants were forever falling so far in arrears that there was no chance of their ever catching up; he even decided to try sharecropping, a system that held little appeal for him. When the middlemen who had bought his grape crop on the vine discovered that things were turning out badly, Pliny decided it would be wise to allow them substantial rebates. One thing, however, is clear: Despite all the talk of business troubles, Pliny never lacked for money, never had to reduce his standard of living, and never was forced to sell off any of his lands.

Public service to Pliny meant generosity not only with his time but with his income as well: He contributed to every conceivable kind of charity. Once when he was visiting in Como, a friend dropped by with his son to pay his respects. “Do you go to school?” Pliny asked the boy.

“Oh, yes.”


“At Milan.”

“Why not here?” At this point, the boy’s father broke in to explain that there was no school available at Como. Pliny, who, as we know, was childless and hence acting altogether disinterestedly, offered at once to help with a matching grant: He would supply one-third of the funds needed to hire teachers if interested parents would supply the other two-thirds. He was ready, he explains, to assume the whole expense, but if he did, it would have to be done through the municipality, and that always meant graft and nepotism; a parent-run school was a far better idea. His interest did not stop with providing money; he sent off a letter to his friend Tacitus to find out whether the historian had among his literary acquaintances any likely candidates for the potential faculty. The school was only one of a number of handsome charities in behalf of his hometown. He established an endowment for the support of needy boys and girls consisting of land that produced a yearly revenue of 30,000 sesterces ($120,000). He built both a set of baths and a public library and thoughtfully included endowments to cover the cost of their upkeep. He set up a fund of close to 2 million sesterces ($8 million), the income from which was to maintain 100 slaves he had freed, and at their death, to finance an annual memorial banquet in his name for all the townspeople. He built a temple for the village near his Tuscan estate, he rebuilt a shrine that happened to be on one of his properties - the list could go on and on.

And then, when he was of an age to settle down to the full enjoyment of his routine in city and country, he was called away from it: The emperor Trajan appointed him governor of the province of Bithynia on the south shore of the Black Sea with particular instructions to straighten out as best he could the finances of the principal cities; these, because of local extravagance and mismanagement, were sadly in need of supervision. And so, in the fall of A.D. 111 or perhaps a year or so earlier, Pliny set out for his new post. It is one of history’s great pieces of luck that, in his precise and methodical manner, he preserved not only the letters he wrote to the emperor but the latter’s replies; the correspondence gives us a fascinating glimpse into the operation of Roman government, the manifold responsibilities the central administration took upon itself, and the care it gave to their execution. At Nicomedia, the province’s chief center, Pliny found things in a lamentable state: The city, he informs Trajan, had poured a fortune down the drain in building a new aqueduct that turned out to be faulty, still more in trying another; might he please have the services of one of the imperial engineers to help plan a proper one? The town exported marble, timber, and other products, but it was terribly expensive to haul these the sixty-odd miles to the port; might he please have the services of one of the imperial engineers to explore the possibility of digging a canal? A huge fire had recently wiped out part of the city; might he go ahead and have the town set up a fire department? Things were hardly better elsewhere. The theatre at Nicaea, though not yet completed, was already falling to pieces because of poor construction, while the new gymnasium, replacing one that had burned down, was equally ill-planned. At Claudiopolis a new bath complex was being built in so badly chosen a spot that whether its completion would be worthwhile was questionable; in the lovely town of Amastris an open sewer that ran alongside one of the main squares not only looked horrible but stank to high heaven; at Sinope an aqueduct was desperately needed, and so on. On top of all these problems was the behavior of an odd religious sect whose members politely but stubbornly refused to display appropriate religious deference to the image of the emperor and the statues of the gods; they assured him that “the sum and substance of their fault or error was that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath . . . not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not to falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so [apparently they were explaining to Pliny the Ten Commandments]. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food - but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after the edict by which, in compliance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.” Orders were orders: Christians by their refusal to acknowledge the official deities fell into the category of a subversive association, and the governor had no alternative except to prosecute them.

The last letter we have from Pliny’s pen is an apology to the emperor for having made an exception to the rule that only people on official business might use the carriages and inns of the government courier service: He had granted permission for their use to his wife, who had just heard of the death of her uncle and was desperately anxious to rush back to Rome to comfort her aunt. It is not likely that Pliny ever rejoined her there. We hear no more of him, and the probabilities are that he died while still in Bithynia, thousands of miles away from the people, places, and way of life he had immortalized.

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