Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.02.59

Jacqueline M. Carlon, Pliny's Women: Constructing Virtue and Creating Identity in the Roman World.   Cambridge/New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2009.  Pp. ix, 270.  ISBN 9780521761321.  $85.00.  

Reviewed by Peter Keegan, Macquarie University, Sydney (

The publication of A. N. Sherwin-White's historical and social commentary in 1966 represented a watershed in the study of Pliny the Younger's letters.1 Scholarship focusing on Roman society in the late first and early second centuries CE has used the letters and Sherwin-White's work as complementary sources fundamental to understanding administrative, economic, judicial, political and social relations of the period. By comparison, reference to, representations of, and relationships with women in Pliny's correspondence have not figured significantly in Plinian scholarship. Indeed, it is only in the last decades of the twentieth century that this important facet of Pliny's epistolary project has figured to any extent besides limited, illustrative excerption in treatments of his work.2 Jacqueline Carlon aims to present "a comprehensive examination of the women in the letters, focused particularly on their identities and the ways in which they serve Pliny's primary goals -- preserving his gloria and securing aeternitas" (pp.3-4). In doing so, she hopes to fill the considerable academic lacuna dealing with the appearance of women in Pliny's letters.3

Carlon's introduction (pp.1-17) outlines the focus of her study -- how Pliny's correspondence serves as a medium through which he can "secure lasting fame" (p.1) -- and what she takes into account in order to identify and evaluate the extent to which the letters which refer to or address women support this aim -- Pliny's life and career (pp.4-6), the letters themselves and their arrangement (pp.6-8), the integral role that they play in Pliny's self-representation (pp.8-12), and Carlon's methodological framework (pp.12-14). Key to Carlon's approach is explicit determination (where possible) of prosopographical detail and historical background for the women under consideration. Carlon then organises Pliny's women into five groups, based on familial and thematic connections, which form the basis for the ensuing chapter-length studies: members of the so-called Stoic opposition to the principates of Nero, Vespasian, and Domitian; persons connected to Pliny's patron, Corellius Rufus; recipients of Pliny's loyalty or benefaction; individuals contributing to his representation of 'ideal wife'; and women who are not ideal models of female behaviour (pp.14-17).

In Chapter One ("Pliny, Enemy of Tyrants," pp.18-67), Carlon identifies eleven women who, by association with that resistance of various kinds to the Roman principate during the first century CE generally described as Stoic opposition, are connected with one another. A lucid examination of prosopographical relationships (pp.21-36) registers the ties these women had with men encapsulating "intransigent republicanism combined with open criticism of the principate" (Clodius Thrasea Paetus, the Helvidii Prisci, and the brothers Arulenus Rusticus and Iunius Mauricus). In the ensuing study of nine letters (pp.36-64) -- which mention, once only, Arrionilla, a certain Iunia, Serrana Procula, the Helvidiae (two sisters), the Vestal Iunia, and Anteia; and, more than once, Verulana Gratilla, Arria the Elder and Caecina Arria the Younger (mother and daughter), and Clodia Fannia (granddaughter) -- Carlon demonstrates the important role which these Stoic women play in Pliny's epistolary program: as a basis for the creation or elaboration of (1) Pliny's consistent, long-term friendship with the Stoics, (2) credentials for his integrity of conduct during times of personal danger under the principates of Nero, Vespasian, and Domitian, and (3) his self-representation as the Stoics' avenger. A useful feature of each chapter, Carlon provides a brief conclusion (pp.64-67), in this instance establishing Pliny's motivation for establishing a decades-long Stoic association as the essential historical and personal foundation for a lost speech Pliny made in vindication of Helvidius Priscus the Younger.

Chapter Two ("Pliny, Model Protégé", pp.68-99) explores the importance of Q. Corellius Rufus -- "adviser, guide, companion in seeking offices, entering them, and serving in them" (p.69) -- to Pliny's self-portrait. Carlon shows how eight letters mentioning Corellius and surviving female family members (Corellius' sister, Corellia, his wife, Hispulla, and his daughter Corellia Hispulla) serve to illustrate the personal virtues and political disposition Pliny regarded as "fundamental to shaping his character and demeanor" (p.96). Essential to this purpose, according to Carlon, is Pliny's deliberate integration of letters that address his Corellian associations with the Stoic relationships discussed in the previous chapter. Interestingly, while Pliny's desire to generate a worthy exemplar for his own political identity relegates his use of the Corelliae to a demonstration of his careful maintenance of personal friendship (amicitia) and social bonds (iura), this "close and on-going association...also leaves us with a few lasting impressions of the power these women must have exercised over both family and financial matters" (p.99).

Carlon considers Pliny's personal interaction with female relatives and women illustrating the proper and improper behaviour of legatees in Chapter Three ("Pliny, Champion of the Vulnerable", pp.100-137). First, in eight letters mentioning the women of Pliny's family (his wife, Calpurnia, her aunt, Calpurnia Hispulla, Pliny's mother-in-law, Pompeia Celerina, his mother, Plinia, and a woman identified only as adfinis, Calvina), Carlon demonstrates the manner in which Pliny delineates himself as "a proper provider and caretaker of the women under his tutelage" (p.102). Pliny's beneficence is not limited to family members, however, and, in a further study of eight letters mentioning certain women (Sabina, Pomponia Galla, Attia Viriola, Verania Gemina, and Domitia Lucilla) in relation to the distribution of estates and oversight of testamentary provisions, Carlon draws out the significant role which proper creation and execution of wills played in civil Roman society. Whether the correspondence concerns female members of his wives' families or unrelated women requiring his assistance, Carlon is able to define what consistently informs Pliny's epistolary purpose: his personal integrity. Here, we should note a codicil to the incidental social information gleaned in Chapter Two. The women mentioned in these letters may be independent and in possession of substantial means, but they still require the protection of men like Pliny, men of extreme propriety, to defend their interests or wishes.

In her longest chapter (Chapter Four, "Pliny, Creator of the Ideal Wife", pp.138-185), Carlon elucidates how significantly Pliny's representation of the ideal wife underpins the fashioning of his self-image. It is, Carlon argues, the extent to which Pliny's individual capacity is defined by his selection and instruction of his wife, and the manner in which his lasting fama and gloria (that is, his aeternitas) depends on her affection for and dedication to him, that defines his epistolary identity. By contrast with previous attempts in Plinian scholarship to see his letters as constructing a single integrated portrait of what is best in a Roman wife,4 Carlon sets out what she refers to as "Pliny's trifold plan of the ideal wife" (p.148). Using the same kind of closely observed characterization that he adopts in describing male exempla of important Roman virtues, Carlon argues that Pliny may be seen to elaborate representative frames for the ideal wife in three stages of her life experience: a maiden on the threshold of marriage; the young wife; and the mature matrona. To achieve his plan, Carlon posits that Pliny portrays individual women whose age, attributes and virtues correspond particularly to one of the phases of the ideal wife's lifetime: Minicia Marcella (maiden); Calpurnia (young bride); Clodia Fannia (mature woman). In elaborating her argument, Carlon traces formative predecessors of female characterization (exemplary and scandalous) in historical, legislative, epistolary, and epigraphic texts (pp.139-45), and then examines nine letters which provide Pliny's readership with "an inventory of all that he should expect of an ideal wife and guidelines to follow in choosing and training her" (p.185). In keeping with the deeply masculinist discourse pervading the correspondence which Carlon has considered to this point, we see Pliny apportion his exemplary women qualities that are distinctively (and, given the likely majority of his audience, expectedly) masculine traits (gravitas, sanctitas, and constantia).

Carlon's fifth chapter ("Pliny, Arbiter of Virtue", pp.186-213) draws together the threads of Pliny's exemplary strategy by identifying women in the letters whose reputation is subject to question, who by contrast "highlight and reinforce the political and social models Pliny so carefully crafts through his interaction with and assessment of admirable women" (p.186). Given the moral imperatives which Carlon discerns shaping his correspondence, she rightly emphasizes how rarely Pliny considers women of dubious character. Four women only exhibit or are charged with what might be described as disgraceful behaviour: Casta, indicted with her husband Classicus for repetundae (Ep. 3.19); the Vestal Cornelia, condemned for incestum (Ep. 4.11); Gallitta, the adulterous wife of a military tribune (Ep. 6.31); and Ummidia Quadratilla, avia delicata, owner of pantomime actors, and unseemly influence on her grandson Ummidius, one of Pliny's most promising protégés (Ep. 7.24). In providing models of women who exhibit questionable character traits or participate in episodes of misbehaviour, Carlon sees Pliny reinforcing the binding purposes underlying his correspondence: drawing "comparisons between his past under Domitian and his present under Trajan"; emphasizing the distance "between proper and miscreant behaviour" and how untouched he is by the latter; and delineating himself as a resolute and critical judge of traditional Roman virtus (p.211).

Carlon reviews her analysis in a final chapter of conclusions (pp.214-220), stressing the integral role which Pliny's impulse to model excellence -- and, in consequence, to compel his readership to follow suit -- plays in his composition of mostly positive and contrastingly rare negative female exempla.

Carlon's study is a model of cautious scholarship. Drawing on close critical interpretation of Pliny's correspondence ("The Letters": pp.36-64, 76-96, 116-136, 148-182, 191-211), wide reading around the pertinent primary literature ("Index Locorum": pp.263-265), and a substantial bibliographical base (pp.241-262), Carlon establishes a sound evidentiary and analytical foundation on which to base three overarching, integrated premises. First, she foregrounds consistently throughout the importance of prosopographical, historical, and cultural context. In other words, Pliny's epistolary project can best be understood by taking account of the various competing influences pervading his political environment and social milieu and determining his intellectual, aesthetic, and moral standpoint -- as scholar, senator, financial administrator, rhetorician, philosopher, imperial panegyrist, son, brother, husband, and father. Second, Carlon recognizes the carefully framed nature of the correspondence, so that by approaching the arrangement of Pliny's letters as intentional and part of a final nine-book structure, it is possible both to contextualize and to establish relationships among the correspondence dealing with women.5 And third, at the heart of this carefully composed epistolary corpus lies a purposefully chosen self-representation of its author's character. To illustrate the centrality of ego in the structure and content of Pliny's letters, Carlon appends a useful tabulation recording the frequency of personal pronouns and possessive adjectives (pp.227-239).

In sum, Carlon fulfils admirably her stated aim of examining how the letters concerning women aid in Pliny's self-representation. Those readers interested in explorations of the historical reality of women's lives in early imperial Rome and patterns of gender relations in elite urban society will, quite rightly, need to look elsewhere. The range of subjects to be covered in this study is signaled clearly in its title. The thirty-three identifiable women in Pliny's letters can only be defined in relation to the correspondent, his cultural frame, and his compositional purpose: they are Pliny's women in a very real sense. We can be grateful that Carlon alerts us so lucidly to Pliny's use of characterization and idealized images, and to the deliberation with which he deploys rhetorical structure, diction, and content, in pursuit of his autobiographical intent.


1.   A. N. Sherwin-White (1966), The Letters of Pliny.
2.   e.g. E. S. Dobson, "Pliny the Younger's Depiction of Women," CB 58 (1982): 81-85; J.-A. Shelton, "Pliny the Younger and the Ideal Wife," C & M 41 (1990): 163-86; G. Viden (1993), Women in Roman Literature.
3.   Carlon is well aware of recent studies examining Pliny's compositional framework -- e.g. R. Morello and R. K. Gibson (eds.), Re-Imagining Pliny the Younger, a special issue of Arethusa 36.2; I. Marchesi (2008), The Art of Pliny's Letters -- and his use of the epistolary form in aid of vigorous self-representation -- e.g. E. W. Leach, "The Politics of Self-Presentation: Pliny's Letters and Roman Portrait Sculpture," CLAnt 9 (1990): 14-39; J. Radicke, "Die Selbstdarstellung des Plinius in seinen Briefen," Hermes 125 (1997): 447-461; J. Henderson (2002), Pliny's Statue: The Letters, Self-Portraiture and Classical Art; N. Methy (2007), Les letters de Pline le Jeune: Un répresentation de l'homme. It is lack of consideration of these elements in the letters mentioning women that she intends to address in this study.
4.   e.g. A. Maniet (1966), "Pline le Jeune et Calpurnia," AC 35: 149-185; Shelton, op. cit.; Viden, op.cit. chapter 4.
5.   Carlon concurs here with the argument proposed in the unpublished monograph of John Bodel (n.d.), The Publication of Pliny's Letters (Brown University).

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