Pliny the Younger Essay - Critical Essays

Pliny the Younger


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.

Principal Works

Panegyricus Trajani [Panegyric to Trajan] (oratory) 100

Epistulae [Letters]. 9 vols. (letters) 100-09

Epistulae [Letters]. 10 vols. (letters) date unknown

Select Letters of Pliny the Younger [translator iunknown] 1835

Letters: Pliny the Younger (translated by William Melmoth) 1915

Epistulae: A Critical Edition (translated by Selatie Edgar Stout) 1962

The Letters of the Younger Pliny (translated by Betty Radice) 1963

Letters and Panegyricus of Pliny (translated by Betty Radice) 1969


Elmer Truesdell Merrill (essay date January-October 1915)

SOURCE: Merrill, Elmer Truesdell. “The Tradition of Pliny's Letters.” Classical Philology 10 (January-October 1915): 8-25.

[In the following essay, Merrill traces the manuscript history of and critical commentary on Pliny's Letters from Pliny's own day to the early twentieth century.]

It is my purpose to attempt in these pages a mere outline sketch, therefore without much argument, of the tradition of Pliny's Letters i-ix from the time of their first appearance down to the era of the early printed editions. Where I could I have avoided the duplication of discussion by referring to articles already published.

Jean Masson in...

(The entire section is 6975 words.)

Selatie Edgar Stout (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: Stout, Selatie Edgar. Introduction to Scribe and Critic at Work in Pliny's Letters: Notes on the History and Present Status of the Text, pp. 1-10. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1954.

[In the following essay, Stout offers a publication history of Pliny's Letters and notes that textual criticism on the work from the 1800s sheds important light on the authoritativeness of the source of the manuscripts used by scholars.]

For about 375 years after the death of Pliny the Younger, which probably occurred a.d. 113, his Epistulae were circulated in two corpuses, one containing the nine books of the Letters to His Friends and the other...

(The entire section is 4538 words.)

A. N. Sherwin-White (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: Sherwin-White, A. N. “General Introduction to the Private Letters.” In The Letters of Pliny: A Historical and Social Commentary, pp. ix-xli. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966.

[In the following essay, Sherwin-White praises the formal, yet simple language used by Pliny to illustrate the major themes and subjects in his Letters,, discusses their chronology and composition, and evaluates their authenticity as correspondence.]


Satura nostra tota est, was the Roman claim. They might have added epistula quoque, with justice so far as the surviving literature is...

(The entire section is 11141 words.)

A. N. Sherwin-White (essay date April 1969)

SOURCE: Sherwin-White, A. N. “Pliny, the Man and His Letters.” Greece and Rome 16, no. 1 (April 1969): 76-90.

[In the following essay, Sherwin-White examines Pliny's letters and notes that they reveal much about the writer's own personality, including his humanity, generosity, boldness, his weaknesses, and his pleasant nature.]

Pliny lived in the heyday of the Roman empire, being born in a.d. 62 in the middle of the reign of Nero, at Comum by Lake Como in north Italy, and he lived until about a.d. 112. His family were not of the old Roman nobility but belonged to the second grade of the Roman upper classes, the so-called Knights or equites Romani. Pliny...

(The entire section is 7393 words.)

Elizabeth Spalding Dobson (essay date April 1982)

SOURCE: Spalding Dobson, Elizabeth. “Pliny the Younger's Depiction of Women.” The Classical Bulletin 58, no. 6 (April 1982): 81-85.

[In the following essay, Spalding Dobson examines Pliny's letters, focusing specifically on his portraits of intelligent, virtuous, and heroic upper-class Roman women, noting the uniqueness of these characterizations in comparison with female characterizations by Pliny's contemporaries.]

A study of Pliny the Younger's letters to and about women provides some interesting cultural insights into the position of the aristocratic woman of Rome and its environs in the early second century A.D. At the same time, the reader gains insight into...

(The entire section is 3151 words.)

Albert A. Bell (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Bell, Albert A. “Pliny the Younger: The Kinder, Gentler Roman.” Classical Bulletin 66, no. 1-2 (1990): 37-41.

[In the following essay, Bell argues that Pliny's gentle nature and reputation as a good husband, generous employer, fair master, tender man, and principled public servant—evidence of which is culled from his letters—suggest a kinder side to Roman life than depicted by other, more satiric classical authors.]

If one were to play word association, the mention of “Roman” almost certainly would not evoke responses such as “kind” or “gentle.” Orgies, slaughter in the amphitheatre, exposure of newborn children, brutal treatment of slaves,...

(The entire section is 3219 words.)

Frederick Jones (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Jones, Frederick. “Naming in Pliny's Letters.” Symbolae Osleonses 66 (1991): 147-70.

[In the following essay, Jones studies Pliny's Letters as a means of gaining insight into the social conditions and protocols under which Latin name forms were used.]

Language inevitably makes and enacts presuppositions about the social conditions under which communication takes place. Thus Cicero distinguished private and various kinds of public discourse (ad Famm. 9.21; 15.21), Quintilian distinguished persuasive functions (12.10.59), and writing and speaking (12.10.49f), and stressed the importance of gauging the audience and the circumstances...

(The entire section is 7896 words.)

Mark P. O. Morford (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Morford, Mark P. O. “Iubes Esse Liberos: Pliny's Panegyricus and Liberty.” American Journal of Philology 113 (1992): 575-93.

[In the following essay, Morford defends Pliny's Panegyricus from the harsh criticism it has received, arguing that the work should be viewed within the conventions of ceremonial rhetoric.]

Pliny's Panegyricus has been harshly treated in recent decades. The opinion of Frank Goodyear is typical: “It has fallen, not undeservedly, into almost universal contempt.”1 Sir Ronald Syme is hardly more subtle: “The Panegyricus survives as the solitary specimen of Latin eloquence from the...

(The entire section is 7403 words.)

Gunhild Vidén (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Vidén, Gunhild. “Women in the Works of Pliny the Younger.” In Women in Roman Literature: Attitudes of Authors under the Early Empire, pp. 91-107. Goteborg, Sweden: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, 1993.

[In the following essay, Vidén discusses Pliny's Letters to and about Roman women, illustrating that Pliny included a number of women among his friends and that his traditional Roman view of marriage and family reflected his idea of the exemplary woman.]

It is hard to think of any author who differs more in tone from Tacitus than his contemporary and friend Pliny the younger. Where Tacitus gives proof of severity and harsh judgement Pliny's work...

(The entire section is 8041 words.)

John Bodel (essay date fall 1995)

SOURCE: Bodel, John. “Minicia Marcella: Taken before Her Time.” American Journal of Philology 116, no. 3 (fall 1995): 453-60.

[In the following essay, Bodel discusses discrepancies in an obituary composed by Pliny, theorizing that Pliny's account is not so concerned with factual details regarding the death as it is about the rhetorical, literary, and philosophical implications of the young woman's passing.]

Writing to his friend Aefulanus Marcellinus sometime in a.d. 105 or 106, the younger Pliny lamented the untimely death of the daughter of a mutual friend, Minicius Fundanus: destined for an advantageous marriage, the girl had been deprived of her appointed...

(The entire section is 3296 words.)

Debra Hershkowitz (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Hershkowitz, Debra. “Pliny the Poet.” Greece and Rome 42, no. 2 (1995): 168-81.

[In the following essay, Hershkowitz notes that although Pliny considered his poetry an interest that was secondary to his oratory, it was a significant part of his literary activity, often aiding him greatly in his work as a statesman and an orator.]

In letter 4.14, Pliny the Younger remarks that he doesn't worry too much about criticism of his poetry since he's not planning to give up the day job (§10):

nam si hoc opusculum nostrum aut potissimum esset aut solum, fortasse posset durum uideri dicere ‘quaere quod agas’: molle et humanum...

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Andrew M. Riggsby (essay date winter 1998)

SOURCE: Riggsby, Andrew M. “Self and Community in Pliny the Younger.” Arethusa 31, no. 1 (winter 1998): 75-97.

[In the following essay, Riggsby shows how a comparison between Pliny's letters and those of other Roman authors who concerned themselves with the role of the orator reveals him as an extremely conservative intellectual in terms of his thinking on the relationship between the individual and community.]

Pliny the Younger described himself as an imitation, if a somewhat pale one, of Cicero (4.8.4-5, 9.2.2-3). In a recent paper examining this connection, I argued that its value for Pliny lay in the identification of both men as orators and the further...

(The entire section is 9365 words.)

Further Reading


Griffin, Miriam. “Review of The Anxieties of Pliny the Younger, by S. E. Hoffer.” Journal of Roman Studies 91 (2001): 253-54.

Brief, positive review of S. E. Hoffer's analysis of Pliny's Letters, Book I.

Hoffer, Stanley E. Introduction to The Anxieties of Pliny the Younger, pp. 1–14. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1999.

Argues that Pliny's confident and reassured tone in his letters belies many underlying tensions in Roman society and in his own personal life.

Rand, Edward Kennard. “A New Approach to the Text of Pliny's Letters, Article I.” Harvard Studies in...

(The entire section is 270 words.)