Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Complete Letters of Pliny the Younger

Our book today is the Complete Letters of Pliny the Younger, this time in a new translation by P.G. Walsh. Walsh's translation is quite startlingly good - a marked improvement over even the best previous renditions - but there's only so much he can do with his author, because Pliny Secundus, Pliny the Younger, was a boob, a ponce, and a monumental suck-up.

He was born well and fostered well - when his father died, he became the ward of awe-inspiring consular Verginius Rufus and, more importantly, his uncle the Elder Pliny, about as vicious and remarkable an individual as is ever born into any generation. If the Elder Pliny's collected works - there were upwards of 40 books, not counting ten volumes of collected correspondence - were still extant in their entirety, they would overshadow the nephew to the point where we could safely ignore him. But they are not, and the nephew's correspondence, preening and blockheaded (and cringing, when it comes to his letters to the emperor) though it is, nevertheless sheds valuable light on the life and inner workings of imperial government in the first century. They are sometimes compared in this regard to the voluminous correspondence of Cicero, which is unfair: Cicero was an as big or bigger horse's ass than Pliny the Younger, but he could at least write - his letters flow like rivulets, they're beguiling. Pliny's letters are more of the Radar O'Reilly variety, plodding, point-driven, and relentlessly self-absorbed.

They aren't total disasters - there are ghost stories and lots of plummy bits about household slaves and real estate prices. And books - refreshingly, the letters are full of the love of books, which wouldn't have been evident in the writings of his celebrated uncle, who didn't enjoy books so much as use them like an old, alcoholic British attache might have used the young Thai girls on his ministry staff.

And there's some joshing, all done in a Plimptonesque mandarin style but companionable nonetheless:

To his friend Paulinus
I am angry. Whether I should be I am not sure, but I am angry. You know how love-feelings are sometimes unjust, often intemperate, and always susceptible. But what provokes them is weighty and perhaps just. Anyway, it is as if my anger is as justified as it is fierce. I am considerably angry because I have not heard from you for so long. There is only one way you can prevail on me, which is to send me, now at long last, streams of the lengthiest letters, for in my eyes this is the only genuine means of excusing yourself. All other excuses will not ring true. I won't hear of 'I was not in Rome,' or 'I was too busy.' As for 'I was somewhat out of sorts,' even the gods would not buy that!
I am on my estate, enjoying the two fruits born of leisure, books and idleness. Farewell."

There's at least a human quality here, albeit a middling one (even on this, Cicero beats him - when the latter's marble facade comes down, it comes all the way down).

He tries to hit this collegiate note as often as he can, wanting badly to appear the fuzzy-prioritied man of letters:

"To his friend Julius Naso

Etruria has been battered by hail, and the report from across the Po is of a bumper-harvest but with prices correspondingly dirt-cheap. My Laurentine estate alone offers a return. In fact, I have nothing there but the house and the garden, and the beach immediately beyond. None the less, it is my only profitable property, for there I write a lot, and cultivate not my non-existent land but myself with my studies. Already I can show you a full cupboard of papers, the equivalent of a full granary elsewhere. So if you are keen on a reliable and rewarding property, purchase something here! Farewell."

Charming? Maybe. But there you see the reality peeking through despite itself: the skeleton of this lovely little picture is a late-night TV real estate pitch, one specifically aimed toward wealthy acquaintances. It's letters like these that give you the impression you might not have liked Pliny the Younger all that much. You certainly wouldn't have liked his ambition.

And he had loads and loads of ambition. He was deficient in courage (his uncle the Elder died while trying to save people from the firestorm of erupted Vesuvius; the Younger, also present, was content to sightsee from a safe distance), but he knew how to go after what he wanted. Under the reign of Domitian he started up the ladder of public offices, and under Trajan he was awarded the governorship of Bithynia-Pontus. Ponce or no ponce, governors need watching, and as a result we have among Pliny's letters a collection of exchanges between him and Trajan on various matters pertaining to the management of his province. Here Pliny is abject and fawning to the one Roman emperor who found such behavior distasteful, and he's extra-punctilious about everything because he no more trusts himself than others trust him. Trajan (or rather, Trajan's clerks, the emperor not really being a paperwork kind of guy) is constantly besieged with letters from his new governor on every subject conceivable:

"Gaius Pliny to the emperor Trajan

I am asking you, my lord, to state in reply what rights you wish the cities of Bithynia and Pontus to have in demanding the moneys owed to them from rents or sales or other sources. I have found that several proconsuls have allowed them the right of first claim, and that this had the force of law. My view, however, is that through your foresight some procedure should be established and ratified, by means of which their interests can be protected for ever. For the decisions made by the proconsuls, though wisely conceded, are temporary and precarious unless your authority is brought to bear on them."

What Pliny is talking about here, when all his mincing equivocations are removed, is graft - he's asking whether or not the governor's office, and not the city municipalities, might not have first crack at all owed revenues (most certainly including taxes), and he's asking Trajan to endorse the graft officially. The emperor's reply squelches the idea, as anyone but Pliny would have known it would:

"The rights which the cities of Bithynia and Pontus should wield in the matter of the moneys which for one reason and another are owed to the public weal must be decided in accordance with the law of each. If they have the privilege by which they are ranked before all other creditors, it must be safeguarded; or if they have no such privilege, it will not be incumbent on me to grant it and do injustice to private individuals."

In other words, things were working fine before you got there, leave them alone. Two years later, when Pliny died in office, he was not an overly wealthy man.

Walsh's translation, as noted, does all that can be done with this material, and his end-notes are ample and widely read. The volume is part of the Oxford World's Classics series, which can always be trusted to be excellent. Pliny is above all things a gossip, and those of you who find gossip fascinating (and you know who you are) will find much to please you here. Those with meatier interests can only hope that more of the Elder's works come to light someday.


Beepy said...

Steve, you know what it does to me when you talk about the Plinys. me.

Sam said...

Is there NO extant writing of Pliny the Elder?

steve said...

Oh, there's enough to fill a book - Penguin, of course, used to publish a volume of the most coherent remainders. But it's a tiny, tiny fraction of the whole! Pliny the Elder wrote all the time, published all the time, and on a staggering variety of subjects. It's like if 2000 years passed and all we had of Gore Vidal was 'Kalki.'

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