Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus (c.61-c.112 AD), known to history as Pliny the Younger, was a Roman lawyer, judge and public servant. Starting his legal career at 18, he inherited a considerable fortune from his uncle (Pliny the Elder) and went on to become a personal friend of the Emperor Trajan.
Pliny was a well-connected member of Roman high society, and his correspondents included the historians Tacitus, Suetonius and Fabius Rusticus; he also mentions the poets Martial and Silius Italicus. Other addressees comprised friends, colleagues and family members, including women.
He talks about bereavements, dinner parties, the affairs of the Senate, the art of oratory and events in his own life. He recounts ghost stories, provides a couple of well-known descriptions of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD, and complains about lawyers in the Centumviral Court (the law court in which he spent most of his professional life) hiring claques to applaud their speeches. Some of his letters are poignant. Here is one to his wife, Calpurnia:
You write that you've been greatly affected by my absence, and that you have only one consolation - that you hold on to my books as a substitute for me, and that you often even lay them in my place. I'm glad that you miss me, and glad that you find comfort in these remedies. For my part, I read and re-read your letters, and I take them into my hands again and again as if they'd just arrived. But this makes me burn all the more with desire to see you: if your letters are so sweet to me, how sweet it is to hear you in person! Write as often as you can, even though it torments me as much as it delights me. (6.7)And here is another one:
It is unbelievable how much desire for you holds me bound. The cause, firstly, is love - and also the fact that we are not used to being apart. So I lie awake thinking of you for a great part of the night, while by day, at the times when I used to see you, my own feet take me (I'm telling the complete truth) to your quarters - and then I slink back from the deserted threshold, feeling sick and sad, like a locked-out lover. There is only one time that is free from these torments, and that is when I am being worn out in the Forum and by the lawsuits of my friends. Judge what my life is like when my rest is in work and my solace is in misery and anxiety. (7.5)The only real villain who appears in the letters (apart from the dead emperor Domitian, who was hated and feared by the Roman aristocracy) is Regulus, another lawyer. Pliny didn't like Regulus at all. He reports that he made a habit of wheedling legacies out of acquaintances on their deathbeds and ruined his own son's funeral with an ostentatious show of false grief. He was also quite a lot richer than Pliny.
In some respects, Pliny's attitudes were far from modern. He was no egalitarian, and he accepted the institution of slavery without question. However, he was capable of humanity towards slaves, as this somewhat self-satisfied but pleasingly un-lawyerly letter shows:
You write that Sabina, who nominated us as her legatees, did not give any instructions that her slave Modestus should be set free, but that she did confer a legacy on him in these words: "To Modestus, whom I have ordered to be set free". You ask me what I think about this. I have consulted with some legal experts. Their unanimous opinion is that he is not entitled either to his freedom, because it was not expressly granted to him, or to his legacy, because it was left to him as a slave. But this seems to me to be clearly wrong, and so I think that we should act as if Sabina had written what she herself thought she had written. I'm sure that you will agree with my opinion, since it is your habit to adhere scrupulously to the wishes of the deceased, which for honourable legatees are tantamout to a legal obligation. For to us, honour has no less force than necessity has for others. Let us therefore allow the slave to have his freedom, and let him enjoy his legacy as if Sabina had attended to everything with all due care - for she took such care in choosing her heirs well. (4.10)This letter too is worth quoting in this connection:
It would take a long time, and would achieve nothing, to repeat in too much detail how it happened that I, a very unsociable man, came to be dining with a certain person - a man who in his own opinion is magnificent and thrifty but in my opinion is sordid and extravagant. He served some excellent food to himself and a few others, but cheap and small portions to the rest. He had even poured out three different types of wine in small flasks - not so that people could choose which to have, but so that no-one could refuse what they were given. He gave some of them to himself and a few of the rest of us, some to his less close friends (for he has different grades of friendship), and others to his and our former slaves. A man who was reclining close to me noticed this and asked if I approved of it. I said that I didn't. "So", he said, "what practice do you follow?" "I serve the same food to everyone - I am inviting them to dine, not to be categorised. I treat them equally in all respects, since I have made them equals at my table and couch." "Even the former slaves?" "Even them, for on such an occasion I think of them as fellow diners, not as former slaves." And he said: "That must cost you a lot." "Not at all." "How can that be?" "Because it's not the case that my former slaves drink the same as me, it's that I drink the same as them." (2.6)It will be apparent that, at his worst, Pliny could be somewhat pompous and precious (and there are indications that his contemporaries thought the same). On the whole, however, he was a thoughtful and decent man, and he deserves to be remembered benignly.
The last of the ten Books of letters in the collection consists of correspondence between Pliny and the Emperor Trajan dating from Pliny's special assignment as imperial legate to the troubled province of Bithynia and Pontus (in the course of which Pliny died). It has been noted that Pliny seems to have been a bit too quick to ask for instructions from Trajan, who appears to be slightly irritated in some of his replies. It is in this Book that we find the famous exchange of letters on the subject of how to deal with the new sect of Christiani which had appeared and which was attracting not only urban-dwellers but people in the countryside too. Pliny didn't like the new movement much, but he didn't consider it too much of a threat to the state: "I found nothing except a perverse and extreme superstition", he reported to the Emperor, before going on to note that more people had started going to the temples again.
We may close with Pliny's own reflections on his life and career:
Very recently, when I had been speaking before the combined bench at the Centumviral Court, the memory came to me of how I had spoken in the past in the same way before the combined bench. My mind continued on this train of thought, as is a habit with me: I began to recall the men who had been my work colleagues in that court and in the other one. I was the only one left who had spoken in both courts: such has been the effect of all the vicissitudes and fragilities of human life and the fickleness of fortune. Some of those who were active back then have died, and others are in exile. Some have been persuaded to retire by age and ill health, and others are enjoying of their own volition all the blessings of leisure. Some have taken up military commands, and others have withdrawn from professional life due to their friendship with the Emperor. As for myself, how much has changed!... If you count the years, the length of time is short. If you look at what has changed, you would think that an age had passed. (4.24)