(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Pliny the Younger c. 61–-112

(Full name Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus) Roman letter writer and orator.

Pliny the Younger, nephew of the great naturalist Pliny the Elder, was a Roman orator and administrator who is now chiefly remembered for his Epistulae [1915; Letters], which offer a close look into public and private life during the height of the Roman Empire. Published between 100 and 109, the letters are preserved in ten volumes and include personal correspondence as well as Pliny's official communication with the Emperor Trajan from Bithinia. Also extant is Pliny's Panegyricus Trajani (100) [Panegyric to Trajan], a speech praising the Emperor Trajan. While the latter work has often been faulted for its stilted, bombastic language, Pliny's letters have been admired by scholars for their diverse style and vast variety of subjects covered. Although some commentators have found Pliny a somewhat uninteresting figure because of his moderate character and focus on administrative and personal affairs, others have appreciated his unusually sympathetic portrayal of women, his generosity, and his moral principles as revealed in his letters. The epistles are also highly regarded because they were the first of their kind—a new genre of the letter, written for publication. Because of their literary and rhetorical qualities, the works have also prompted discussion about Pliny's veracity regarding certain matters. Pliny also composed a significant body of poetry, but almost all of it has been lost. His reputation today rests almost entirely on his 318 letters, which are viewed as a unique record of Roman political history and social life in the first century.

Biographical Information

Pliny was born in Como, Italy, around the year 61, to a rich landowning family. Tutored by Virginius Rufus, a general in the Roman army, after his father's death, Pliny was adopted by his uncle, Pliny the Elder, who brought him to Rome. There he studied under the Roman rhetorician Quintilian and the Greek rhetorician Nices Sacerdos. He began writing at the age of fourteen, mostly tragedies and poetry. After his uncle died in 79, Pliny began his legal career and entered the Senate soon thereafter. He advanced rapidly through the imperial civil and military service, largely due to his reputation as an honest and moderate man. He held the positions of priest in the cult of the Emperor, civil judge, military tribune in Syria, commander of a cavalry squadron, and urban quaestor while in his twenties. In his thirties he was named a tribunus plebis, then praetor, praefectus of the military treasury, and consul. In 103 he became a member of the college of Augurs before assuming the post of director for the Tiber River, and finally, imperial governor in Bithinia. Pliny was highly regarded as a civil servant—he held most major Roman public offices during his career—and found favor with the emperors of the time, particularly Domitian and Trajan. He was also financially successful and owned several villas in Italy. He had three wives, although only his last wife, Calpurnia, is mentioned in detail in his letters. He died in 112 while serving in Bithinia.

Major Works

Pliny's chief surviving work is his ten-volume Epistulae (Letters). The 247 personal letters contained in the first nine volumes were written beginning in 97, when Pliny was a Roman official. They continue until shortly before he took his post as governor of Bithinia. The letters cover a variety of subjects, with each epistle focusing on a single topic, using a distinct style—historical, poetical, or oratorical—suited to its theme. Examples include letters to young men whose careers Pliny wished to further; one to the historian Tacitus describing the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the death of his uncle, Pliny the Elder; a letter to his wife's aunt describing the qualities of his new bride, and so on. Other famous letters, such as the first one in the collection, are directed to Septicius Clarus and serve as an introduction to the letters that follow, including some about his villas; one about Martial's death; and one that contains a fascinating ghost story and considers questions about the supernatural. The letters are unique because, while they are authentic pieces of correspondence to specific people, they are not spontaneous; each piece is carefully composed. Indeed the letters of the first nine books were carefully selected, rewritten, and arranged by Pliny for publication, and they appeared at various intervals between 100 and 109. The letters of the tenth volume, published posthumously, are very different from the others. This volume contains Pliny's correspondence with Trajan (71 letters from Pliny and 51 replies from the Emperor) between 109 and 111 and focuses largely on administrative business in the governance of Bithinia. The most famous exchange of letters in the tenth book is concerned with policies about how to deal with the Christian communities. While the letters in this last volume lack the color and grace of Pliny's more personal correspondence, they offer a close view of Roman administrative methods, providing specific insights into the regime of Trajan.

Pliny's only surviving oratory, the Panegyricus, also sheds light on Trajan's reign. Although the speech, which praises the Emperor, has been faulted for being badly constructed and overly verbose, it is the only surviving specimen of Latin oratory from the century-and-half after the death of Cicero. Pliny's poetry has not survived except in his letters, but it is clear that he took great pride in it, even though he considered it largely a diversion from the more serious business of state.

Critical Reception

While Pliny enjoyed a distinguished career as a Roman civil servant, he was not known for his literary achievements during his lifetime. In the centuries after his death, Pliny's reputation as an orator far surpassed his renown as a letter-writer, although some writers were clearly aware of the letters and used them as historical sources. Pliny's letters were likely preserved near the end of the fifth century, but because there was no commercial reproduction of the works, they were not widely read. There seemed to be little demand for the letters until the Renaissance, at which point there was an effort to publish an authoritative edition of the letters using extant manuscripts. It was not until the late-nineteenth century that such an edition of the work became available for study. Since then, there has been a small resurgence in scholarship on Pliny, focusing on the letters. Critics have paid attention to the manuscript history of the letters, discussed the portrait they provide of first-century Rome, remarked on Pliny's relatively enlightened view of women, and used them to highlight the portrait of a complex man. His letters reveal Pliny as magnanimous, stoical, efficient, and loyal; in some ways different from other Romans of his day, but at the same time representative of the type of official who made the vast administrative machinery of the Roman Empire workable. And while his poetry and surviving oratory are usually discussed only in passing or in relation to the correspondence, Pliny's letters are regarded by most classicists today as the best source available for information about the political and social climate of Rome in the early years of the first century.