The Letters of Pliny the Younger Essay - Critical Essays

Pliny the Younger

Critical Evaluation

Pliny the Younger, or Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, was the nephew and adopted son of Pliny the Elder, the author of the famous and importantly influential Natural History in thirty-seven books. The younger Pliny, like the elder, was a wealthy aristocrat who devoted himself to a public career. The younger Pliny’s surviving literary achievements are mostly a result of his public life as a lawyer, and public administrator, and landed gentleman; he has left us only one of his many now lost orations, and ten books of letters. His letters are one of the three important bodies of surviving Roman correspondence, the others being the letters of Cicero and the letters of Seneca.

The tone of Pliny’s letters is in a way a combination of the tone of the other two letter writers, both of whom Pliny admired. Seneca’s letters are more like philosophic treaties and moral essays than they are like familiar correspondence. Pliny’s letters, like Seneca’s, are usually organized around a single serious theme, are anchored by numerous moralizing asides, and were, in the surviving versions, consciously revised for transcription. Cicero’s letters, on the other hand, have the familiarity and ease of genuinely personal letters. Again, despite his similarity to Seneca, Pliny often gives us the impression of familiarity—the texts are full of intimate detail and personal observations—yet we always sense that the letters are carefully organized in their edited form to present us with the picture of a dignified, proper public gentleman.

Literarily, Pliny’s style is an interesting blend. Pliny was the friend of Tacitus, whose writing he admired, and he was the pupil of the great teacher Quintilian. On the other hand, his literary hero was Cicero and he consciously modeled himself on Cicero. As a result, Pliny’s writing is both Ciceronian and characteristic of the prose of the Silver Age of Roman literature. His flowing copiousness and his often classical vocabulary are strongly reminicent of Cicero. But in expression, use of neologisms, syntax, and figures of speech he is typical of the Silver Age.

The letters have come down to us in ten books. The first nine books, containing letters to various friends, present 247 letters to 105 recipients. These books were probably published in groups of three from A.D. 97 to 109. The order of the letters is largely chronological, and in his first Pliny claims that the texts were chosen at random from among his larger private correspondence. Critics, however, feel certain that the letters were carefully chosen and arranged according to the principle of variety. The tenth book of letters, which was published and has been preserved separately from the others, contains seventy-one official letters to the Emperor Trajan. They were written about 111 when Pliny was Governor of Bithynia. Fifty-one of Trajan’s replies are included with Pliny’s letters. The tenth book was probably edited by someone other than Pliny. One of the chief values of the letters to his friends as has often been pointed out, is that they show a respectable and civilized and pleasant side of life in the second century that contrasts with the seamy and vicious sides recorded by the satirists Juvenal and Persius and the historian Tacitus.

Among the things Pliny most often discusses in his letters is his own virtue and distinction. He was extremely jealous of his good name and fame among his contemporaries, and was concerned about the opinion posterity would hold of him. We see Pliny describe his consideration for his modest wife (6.4, 6.7, 7.5) and for his slaves, for whose health interests and welfare he is very concerned (5.19, 6.3, 8.16). He is a model landlord (5.15, 9.37, 8.2), and a generous friend, to inferiors particularly. He helps them economically, providing a dowry for the daughter of his old teacher, Quintilian (6.32), and passage to Spain for the poet Martial (3.21) who, by the way, had written one of his most...

(The entire section is 1623 words.)