Pliny the Younger (A.D. 62?–c.A.D. 113). Letters.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.
XXXIV. To Nepos
I HAVE constantly observed that amongst the deeds and sayings of illustrious persons of either sex, some have made more noise in the world, whilst others have been really greater, although less talked about; and I am confirmed in this opinion by a conversation I had yesterday with Fannia. This lady is a granddaughter to that celebrated Arria who animated her husband to meet death, by her own glorious example. She informed me of several particulars relating to Arria, no less heroic than this applauded action of hers, though taken less notice of, and I think you will be as surprised to read the account of them as I was to hear it. Her husband, Cæcinna Pætus, and her son, were both attacked at the same time with a fatal illness, as was supposed; of which the son died, a youth of remarkable beauty, and as modest as he was comely, endeared indeed to his parents no less by his many graces than from the fact of his being their son. His mother prepared his funeral and conducted the usual ceremonies so privately that Pætus did not know of his death. Whenever she came into his room, she pretended her son was alive and actually better: and as often as he enquired after his health, would answer, “He has had a good rest, and eaten his food with quite an appetite.” Then when she found the tears she had so long kept back, gushing forth in spite of herself, she would leave the room, and having given vent to her grief, return with dry eyes and a serene countenance, as though she had dismissed every feeling of bereavement at the door of her husband’s chamber. I must confess it was a brave action in her to draw the steel, plunge it into her breast, pluck out the dagger, and present it to her husband with that ever memorable, I had almost said that divine, expression, “Pætus, it is not painful.” But when she spoke and acted thus, she had the prospect of glory and immortality before her; how far greater, without the support of any such animating motives, to hide her tears, to conceal her grief, and cheerfully to act the mother, when a mother no more!
Scribonianus had taken up arms in Illyria against Claudius, where he lost his life, and Pætus, who was of his party, was brought a prisoner to Rome. When they were going to put him on board ship, Arria besought the soldiers that she might be permitted to attend him: “For surely,” she urged, “you will allow a man of consular rank some servants to dress him, attend to him at meals, and put his shoes on for him; but if you will take me, I alone will perform all these offices.” Her request was refused; upon which she hired a fishing-boat, and in that small vessel followed the ship. On her return to Rome, meeting the wife of Scribonianus in the emperor’s palace, at the time when this woman voluntarily gave evidence against the conspirators—“What,” she exclaimed, “shall I hear you even speak to me, you, on whose bosom your husband, Scribonianus, was murdered, and yet you survive him?”—an expression which plainly shews that the noble manner in which she put an end to her life was no unpremeditated effect of sudden passion. Moreover, when Thrasea, her son-in-law, was endeavouring to dissuade her from her purpose of destroying herself, and, amongst other arguments which he used, said to her, “Would you then advise your daughter to die with me if my life were to be taken from me?” “Most certainly I would,” she replied, “if she had lived as long, and in as much harmony with you, as I have with my Pætus.” This answer greatly increased the alarm of her family, and made them watch her for the future more narrowly; which when she perceived, “It is of no use,” she said, “you may oblige me to effect my death in a more painful way, but it is impossible you should prevent it.” Saying this, she sprang from her chair, and running her head with the utmost violence against the wall, fell down, to all appearance, dead; but being brought to herself again, “I told you,” she said, “if you would not suffer me to take an easy path to death, I should find a way to it, however hard.” Now, is there not, my friend, something much greater in all this than in the so-much-talked-of “Pætus, it is not painful,” to which these led the way? And yet this last is the favourite topic of fame, while all the former are passed over in silence. Whence I cannot but infer, what I observed at the beginning of my letter, that some actions are more celebrated, whilst others are really greater.