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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Pliny the Younger (61/2–c. 113 A.D.)

PUBLIUS CÆCILIUS SECUNDUS, as he was at first named, was in his eighteenth year when his uncle and guardian, the elder Pliny, perished in the eruption of Vesuvius, 79 A.D., leaving his fortune and his name to his ward. The boy had been carefully educated by his mother, and his other guardian, the noble Verginius Rufus, whose virtues he afterwards commemorated in one of his epistles. Rich, well born, well educated, Pliny rapidly rose to eminence in his profession as advocate, pleading not only in the courts, but also having a part in important cases before the Senate. Not content with professional success, however, he revised and published his speeches, and aspired to be equally eminent as a man of letters; in this and other matters (as he was not ashamed to admit) following the example of Cicero. More than once his letters record the anxious care which he and his friends bestowed upon the elaboration of his orations; but nothing of them has survived save one show-piece, the so-called ‘Panegyricus,’ in praise of his friend and patron the Emperor Trajan. This is an ornate and labored production, which scarcely excites regret that the rest have perished. There were not wanting friends to tell him that his style was too daring, and Macrobius is probably quite correct in assigning him to the luxuriant and florid type of oratory.

Pliny’s advancement in office was equally rapid,—too rapid, perhaps, since he owed much of his early success to the hated Domitian. He was quæstor in 89, tribune 91, prætor 93, and subsequently filled important posts connected with the Treasury. It seems, indeed, to have been his unusual ability as a financier which commended him; but he is careful to inform us that after Domitian’s death, papers were found showing how narrowly Pliny had escaped the fate that overtook all virtue under that odious tyranny. In the year 100 his official career was crowned by an appointment as consul suffectus for the months of September and October; a consulship which he can hardly have enjoyed comparing with Cicero’s. Some eleven years later he was sent as proconsul to the province of Pontus and Bithynia; and there, or shortly after his return to Rome, he seems to have died.

The nine books of ‘Letters’ on which his fame now rests were composed after the death of Domitian, and published at intervals from 97 to 109. A tenth book was subsequently added, containing his correspondence with Trajan while in his province, together with the Emperor’s very business-like answers. In this last book occurs the famous letter concerning the Christians, probably the best-known passage in the entire collection. There can be little doubt that Pliny composed the vast majority of his epistles expressly for publication. It has been pointed out, for example, that only twice is any one of whom an unfavorable opinion is expressed, mentioned by name. Pliny, according to his own account, is the most gallant of husbands, the most amiable of friends; affectionate to all his relatives, generous to all his dependents, on the best of terms with all the world save Regulus;—and Regulus dies betimes. It is not hard for some readers of Pliny to vote him a prig, and to believe that his likeness to Cicero resides chiefly in his vanity and his weakness. And it is not easy for any one familiar with that period as depicted in the pages of Tacitus, Juvenal, and Suetonius, to recognize it when viewed from Pliny’s standpoint. So much amiability in the writer, so much virtue in his friends, seem a trifle suspicious. But it would be unjust to consider Pliny a mere poseur,—a deliberate flatterer of himself or of his age. Amiable, clever, cultured, successful, he was disposed to look upon the bright side of men and things. He too had lived through the Reign of Terror, and can tell gloomy tales of men’s baseness. But it is much to his credit that he prefers to record the good that survived to a happier epoch. Virtuous men and women, loyal friends, domestic happiness, were still to be found in Rome; and the many charming pictures drawn by Pliny are doubtless as free from exaggeration as the gloomy scenes painted by the more skillful brushes of his greater contemporaries.

While there is some attempt to observe chronological order in the arrangement of the letters, it is evident that the author has tried to heighten their attractiveness by varying his topics. With few exceptions each letter discusses but one subject, and the diction bears every mark of labored simplicity. The correspondence thus lacks that spontaneity and unconscious ease which are universally felt to be the highest charm of letter-writing,—those qualities which make so much of Cicero’s correspondence a delight, and the lack of which makes Pope’s letters a perpetual challenge to the reader’s criticism. But though Pliny has not “snatched a grace beyond the reach of art,” he is nevertheless very good reading. The style may smack of artifice; but with the utmost good taste, good sense, and good humor, he tells us (apparently) all about himself, and very much about the age in which he lived. Literary gossip, anecdotes of famous or infamous characters, ghost stories; descriptions of his villas, his poems, his suppers, his uncle’s library; the death of Martial, the eruption of Vesuvius, an invitation to dinner; the deterioration of the law courts, and the abuse of the ballot in the Senate; a plan to purchase an estate, to write an epic, to build a temple,—on these and a hundred other topics he affords us invaluable glimpses into the life of his day. He is sufficiently piquant, without being spiteful; sympathetic, without being sentimental; and while he can no longer be esteemed a genius, he is better loved and more widely known as a singularly pure man and a most entertaining companion.

It was as a genius, however, that he had hoped to live in the memory of posterity. The world of literature filled a large part of his thoughts; and there is no reason to suppose him insincere when he laments that his engagements, social and professional, prevent him from devoting all his strength to the “pursuit of immortality.” His uncle had been an indefatigable reader, writer, and collector of books. Among Pliny’s teachers was Quintilian, the great rhetorician of the age. Tacitus was his intimate friend. He patronized Martial, and knew well Suetonius, Silius Italicus, and many other writers less important in our eyes, because their works have perished. We may agree with Juvenal that authors’ readings must have been a deadly bore, but we need not conclude that Pliny was a hypocrite because he was untiring in his attendance upon them. His poems (as good, no doubt, as his model Cicero’s), his orations, his narrative pieces, are repeatedly mentioned, and were evidently the subject of his most anxious thought. So generous a patron, so appreciative a friend, could hardly have lacked favorable critics; and he very cordially welcomes from his contemporaries any forestallment of the verdict which he hoped from posterity. Yet it must be admitted that his critical insight was quite good enough to rate his friends much as later ages have ranked them. The vast merits of Tactitus he fully recognized, and was unfeignedly glad to have his name coupled with the great historian’s as an eminent literary character. Of Silius Italicus, on the other hand, he remarks that “he used to write verses with more diligence than force,”—a criticism which very few have been found to dispute. On other topics than literature, moreover, Pliny was often in striking agreement with modern sentiment. His humanity, even affection, for his slaves, his politeness to his dependents, his appreciation of the beauties of nature, his generous promotion of public education,—in these and other matters he is surprisingly unlike the average of his countrymen. No doubt he has idealized his own portrait, but we may well be grateful to the artist for such an ideal.

The facts of Pliny’s life have been fully discussed by Mommsen (‘Hermes,’ iii. 108). There is a good biography by Church and Brodribb (‘Ancient Classics for English Readers’), which was made the occasion of an especially good article on Pliny in the Westminster Review, Vol. 47, 1875. There is no complete (modern) edition with English notes; but there are good selections by J. E. B. Mayor (Book iii.), Pritchard and Bernard, and Merrill. There are German editions by M. Döring, Keil, and Müller. There is a very faithful translation in English by Lewis (Trübner, 1879), and a more readable version in Johnsonese by Melmoth, revised by Bosanquet for the Bohn series, and by W. M. L. Hutchinson for the Loeb Classical Library.