Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.05.19

Stanley E. Hoffer, The Anxieties of Pliny the Younger.   New York:  Oxford University Press, 1999.  Pp. 250.  ISBN 0-7885-0565-3.  $29.95.  

Reviewed by Roy Gibson, University of Manchester (
Word count: 1964 words

The Anxieties of Pliny the Younger1 is a detailed study of fourteen of the 24 letters of Book One: letters 1, 3-5, 8-10, 12-14, 18, 21, 23-4. It does not pretend to be a general introduction to Pliny, and few concessions are made to those not familiar with the author, his historical and social context, and his letters and Panegyric. There is substantial crossover with Matthias Ludolph's recent monograph, the main body of which is devoted to a very detailed study of the first eight letters of Pliny's opening book.2 However, Ludolph's monograph (reviewed by Ilaria Marchesi in BMCR 01.03.28) was published in 1997, presumably too late for Hoffer to take it into account. Although Hoffer himself never categorises it as such, his book is in effect a running commentary, devoting most of its chapters to the study of single letters (supplemented by an introduction and conclusion, and an appendix on "Marriage and child-rearing among the Roman elite"). Like all species of commentary, Hoffer's work defies effective summary and demands close and repeated reading. Unlike Sherwin-White's more conventional commentary,3 however, the gaze of the work is firmly on the text in and for itself, rather than on the text as evidence for a broader historical and social context. Hoffer's approach is to ask not what do Pliny's letters tell us about the 'historical record', but what does the 'historical record' reveal about Pliny's letters -- what does he include, what does he exclude, what does he conceal etc. But the book's usefulness is not restricted to an enriched understanding of fourteen letters of Book One. The letters studied are representative of Pliny's collection as a whole; discussions within individual chapters are wide-ranging (including frequent percipient observations on Pliny's use of significant literary parallels and of Greek, and on his fondness for punning on an addressee's name) and a wealth of related letters from all nine books receive attention. Furthermore, as I shall show below, Hoffer has evolved a sceptical approach to Pliny which can be applied to the whole corpus. As in most types of large-scale commentary, detailed consideration of a wide range of issues relevant to understanding the text in hand is rarely sacrificed to the desire to reach a single (possibly reductive) conclusion about the text. Nevertheless, the whole collection is held together by several themes which receive repeated and sustained attention, notably that of (elite) anxiety and regret.

The choice of 'anxiety' as the central theme for the study of Pliny may seem an odd one. Few authors project such a confident and untroubled persona as Pliny. Hoffer explains his choice as follows: "The leading trait in Pliny's epistolary self-portrait is his confidence: confidence in himself and his friends, in their writings and activities, in the Roman government, and in the emperor ... This very absence of anxiety invites us to look at the opposite side of the picture, at Pliny's anxieties, to help us understand his aims in putting together and publishing the letters" (p. 1). At first sight, Hoffer appears to have fallen into the trap of using the hoariest of academic clichés to structure his book. Already in the 1970s, such an approach could seem stale. In a recent number of the TLS, Katharine Eisaman Maus reports a conversation over a quarter of a century ago with an undergraduate who comfortably combined (time-consuming) success on the stock markets with excellent grades as an English major.4 He described the secret of his academic success as follows: "First I wonder 'what's the main thing in this book?' and then I wonder 'what's its opposite?' When I write my paper, I claim that these two things, though they seem different, couldn't exist without the other, even though they are really two aspects of the same thing ... Near the end of your paper, you have to say that your two things, whatever they are, are 'locked in an unstable but mutually constitutive relationship.' Profs. just love that." This much-loved academic archetype of paired opposites has shaped the development of many a tedious book. But Hoffer's book works very, very well: few have thought to probe the "tensions, gaps or contradictions" which may indicate that "Pliny is hiding troubling aspects of his life" (p. 1), preferring instead to take Pliny's confidence at face value as yet another instance of his personal want of profundity. (Welcome also is the absence from Hoffer's work of the claim that confidence and anxiety are 'locked in an unstable but mutually constitutive relationship'.) Nevertheless, the value of the attention given the subject of anxiety ultimately lies in the depth and rigour of the readings which such a theme helps to unlock, rather than in any summative argument about Pliny's anxiety and regret.

Hoffer's sceptical approach to Pliny's confidence is explained in his conclusion, where he makes clear his refusal to accept Pliny's picture of himself. Instead he declares he has tried "to read critically and sceptically, and to search for false poses, bad faith, self-interest, and hypocrisy in every letter, in every line" (p. 227). Few will disagree that, in principle, this is a good idea so far as the study of Pliny is concerned. Failure to subject Pliny's view of his own life to critical pressure produces a picture which is neither plausible nor very interesting. Hoffer's sceptical approach produces a Pliny who is both more credible and of great interest. For example, where in letter 1.10 others have seen only evidence of Pliny's superficiality in his praise of the Stoic philosopher Euphrates for his literary style (rather than for the challenge of his philosophical message), Hoffer sees rather the attempt of an elite Roman to neutralise a Greek philosopher: "Pliny's slightly overemphatic praise of Euphrates' style is in keeping with the hint of irony at Euphrates' expense that runs throughout the letter. Surely Pliny knew about, but opposed, the total rejection of all externals preached by the more uncompromising Stoic and Cynic philosophers. There were enough bizarre aspects to Stoic doctrine ... to lead a Roman, especially a rich and powerful Roman, to praise it only at a safe distance" (p. 127). Of Pliny's worries in 1.5 that Regulus is too powerful to attack, Hoffer archly observes "in fact he is not powerful enough to be worth attacking, having no office that Pliny can usurp" (p. 83). (Pliny gained the prefecture of Saturn, the launching point for the consulship, by prosecuting Certus.) Or he points out the 'bad faith' behind Pliny's complaints that he is having his time used up with useless politics in 1.10: such public service in fact wins power and status for Pliny (p. 139). This approach does Pliny the signal service of taking him seriously, avoiding the condescension of Syme's Tacitus, the faint praise of those who see him as an interesting 'source', and the lightweight enthusiasms of those who prize Pliny's style above all else. (As Hoffer points out on p. 13: "Pliny's style has been widely admired, but less often analyzed ... Pliny's brilliant style often expresses or cloaks deeper concerns and tensions, which we can better understand through analyzing his literary style.")

The choice of anxiety and its suppression as a theme for the book proceeds from Hoffer's observation (pp. 9-10) that the dramatic date of Book One -- the troubled years of transition from Domitian to Nerva and ultimately to Trajan in 96-8 C.E. -- leaves few marks in the letters of the book. Pliny, whether by omission or revision of letters, produces a confident and optimistic picture of himself and his surroundings, largely free from the dangers and anxieties which must have characterised those years. Such suppression of anxiety may be seen in letter 1.12 (pp. 141-59), where Pliny contrives to give the impression that Corellius, who was determined to endure until the (happy) event of Domitian's death, committed suicide soon after the latter's assassination. In fact Corellius may have lived on for as a much as another two years. But the troubled times surrounding the adoption and accession of Trajan would hardly provide an appropriate setting for Corellius' contented departure from life, so Pliny conveys the impression that it took place soon after Domitian's assassination. The result of this piece of artifice and omission, as Hoffer points out, is the flattering implication that the stability which characterised Trajan's reign in fact dated back into the reign of Nerva. But Pliny's suppression of anxieties, whether his own or those of elite society at large, is not limited to those surrounding great political events. Letter 1.8, for example, involves anxieties of a more mundane type. This letter concerns the donation of money to Comum for a library and child-support scheme and Pliny's speech to the town decurions which accompanied the donation. Pliny confesses anxieties about the reaction of his audience to his speech, which he fears is open to the charge of self-promotion. But if, as Pliny says, the gift for the child-support scheme and accompanying exhortations to raise children were unpopular with the town, how can Pliny's speech run the risk of ostentatious ambition? As Hoffer points out, this contradiction alerts the reader to the fact that Pliny's real anxieties lie elsewhere (pp. 93-4). The sudden large donations of 1.8 come at a critical transition point in the government as well as in his own career: Pliny needed prestige with Nerva and Trajan, and for the higher offices he was now aiming at. Pliny's real anxieties involve the inner imperial circle and competitive jealousies with ruling-class colleagues at Rome. In the latter case, Pliny's donation allows him to exhibit a prestige from which provincial senators were excluded since the alimenta project of Nerva and Trajan was limited to Italy (p. 99). In the former case Pliny's anxieties concern the fact that he "must make a substantial enough donation to attract the emperor's attention without arousing political risks through too much local populism" (p. 100). It is really these anxieties which lie behind Pliny's worries about self-promotion. (On the subject of the child-support scheme at Comum, Hoffer is stimulatingly ungenerous to Pliny: he points out that the latter is in effect making repayment "to the people from whose labor Pliny has been making his money [in agriculture]" (p. 96) -- but his payments would provide only minimal support for 150 children from a possible total of 7000 free children.)

Being suspicious of Pliny and his motives on principle, however, is bound to produce some misses as well as hits. Can Pliny always have been so devious? Would anyone's life emerge well from a scrutiny which is characterised by an a priori scepticism? (Hoffer faces this problem in his Conclusion, where he points out the close parallels between Pliny's life and modern academic life -- in which he is himself heavily implicated -- before going on to admit that he probably would "not have done any better had [he] been born into his place, nor have been able to create writings such as his" [p. 227].) The occasional imbalance to which Hoffer's approach can lead is found, in microcosm, in the description of Pliny's estates as 'outrageously vast' (p. 222). Why not just 'vast'? How or who are we to judge what the 'proper' size of estate for a Roman aristocrat might be? Ultimately Hoffer's lack of charity towards Pliny, while producing some excellent readings of his letters, is not a good in itself. It is a good only in relation to this moment in Plinian studies. The danger is that in time Hoffer's work may come to seem unbalanced; may come to be regarded as a 'transitional' work. But this is certainly the book for the moment and for some time to come.

The book is well produced, typographical mistakes are few, and there is a helpful index.


1.   Originally published in American Philological Association, American Classical Studies series, no. 43, 1999, Scholars Press: Atlanta GA.
2.   M. Ludolph, Epistolographie und Selbstdarstellung: Untersuchungen zu den 'Paradebiefen' Plinius des Jüngeren. Tübingen, 1997 (Classica Monacensia 17).
3.   A.N. Sherwin-White, The Letters of Pliny: a Historical and Social commentary. Oxford, 1966.
4.   K. Eisaman Maus, Times Literary Supplement 25.04.01: 24.

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