In Which I Am a “Daily Life Whore” and Read about Pliny’s Literary Life

Fifty Letters of PlinyPliny the Younger (c. 61-113 A.D.) is a charming Roman writer whom few bother to read.  Was Pliny on our reading list?  I don’t think so.   Yet I took a course in Roman letters, greatly enjoyed Cicero’s self-absorbed outpourings, was fascinated by Seneca’s Stoic letters/essays, and delighted in Pliny’s personal letters. Pliny selected and published nine volumes of his personal letters, which are often spoken of as “artificial.”  Yes, they are polished and rhetorically shaped, but the sentences are short, simple, and readable.  The letters range in topic from his literary efforts to life in the country to the price of land to Trajan’s policies and politics.  Although most of the letters for the course were historically significant–“Pliny asks Trajan for instructions how to treat Christians in his province (XCVI)”; or “How Pliny the Elder perished in the eruption of Vesuvius (XVI)”– I love Pliny because you can glean gossipy information about daily life.

Historians are fascinated that Pliny wrote to the emperor Trajan.

I want to know if his friend Octavius Rufus published his poetry.

Pliny was a writer, lawyer, senator, and government official, so he had it all, but I am “a daily life history whore,” and  more interested in Octavius Rufus than Trajan.

In Volume 2, Letter 10, Pliny tells his friend Octavius Rufus that it’s time to publish his poetry. If he doesn’t, the few of his poems that have become publicly known are likely to be attributed to someone else.

Pliny letters oxfordBelow is a rough, literal translation of a few lines so you can see the vivid pictures his words create.  The elegant Latin is more economical than the English, and could also be translated more abstractly, but this is Latin 101…

“Some of your verses have become known and, though you are unwilling, they have broken their locks (broken out). Unless you drag these back into the main body, one day, as vagabonds, they will find someone else whose they will be said to be…..”  (Enotuerunt quidam tui versus, et invito te claustra sua refregerunt. Hos nisi retrahis in corpus, quandoque ut errones aliquem cuius dicantur invenient.)

Pliny goes on to say that giving public readings is the thing to do.

“And about publication, certainly [do] as you wish in the meantime, but anyhow give readings, so that you will feel more inclined to publish, and will finally feel the joy I have long anticipated for you not without reason.” (Et de editione quidem interim ut voles: recita saltem quo magis libeat emittere, utque tandem percipias gaudium, quod ego olim pro te non temere praesumo.)

Pliny loved giving readings himself and tells his friend what he may expect.  “For I imagine what crowds, what applause, what even of silence awaits; when I speak or read, I delight in silence not less than the applause, if it is a silence of close attention and desirous of hearing more.”  (Imaginor enim qui concursus, quae admiratio, te, qui clamor, quod etiam silentium maneat; quo ego, cum dico vel recito, non minus quam clamore delector, sit modo silentium acre et intentum, et cupidum ulteriora audiendi.)

I love readings so much that I thought briefly of organizing a vacation around a literary festival.  I got over that very quickly, though.

Still, if Octavius Rufus is giving a reading I’ll be there…

2 thoughts on “In Which I Am a “Daily Life Whore” and Read about Pliny’s Literary Life

  1. Jim enjoyed Pliny; we have two different editions of his letters and I remember Jim reading aloud from them this and that passage to me. He’d remember them too. Izzy also enjoys them. The genre of letters begins with the Romans ….

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  2. How nice that Jim shared Pliny with you! He’s one of my favorites. Yes, it’s a hop and a skip from Pliny to Montaigne and Charles Lamb. Well, they’re all very different, but the genre is there.

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