Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.03.08

Paul Roche (ed.), Pliny's Praise: the Panegyricus in the Roman World.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2011.  Pp. x, 208.  ISBN 9781107009059.  $95.00.  

Reviewed by Andrew Gallia, University of Minnesota (


Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this collection of essays is that nothing like it already exists. As we are frequently reminded in the pages of this slender volume, the speech of thanksgiving that Pliny the Younger delivered upon entering his consulship in 100 CE and subsequently published in the expanded form that has come down to us as the Panegyricus is the best surviving example of Roman public oratory from the death of Cicero to the late third century CE. Although it has long been central to our understanding of the nature of rhetoric, politics, and culture under the Principate, this speech has rarely been treated as an object of serious study in its own right. Recourse to the dismissive aestheticism of previous generations cannot explain this scholarly neglect, especially when Valerius Maximus’ compilation of hackneyed exempla has been the subject of multiple insightful monographs and even callow declamation has begun to receive its due.1 With the appearance of this welcome book, Pliny’s “exceptionally important speech” (p. 4) shows that it, too, deserves to be taken seriously.

The contributions are generally of high quality, and together they give a good sense of the range of issues upon which the Panegyricus can be brought to bear. By the end, however, a sense of claustrophobia begins to settle over the reader. The world beyond the speech is by no means absent from these discussions, but apart from Roger Rees’ concluding discussion of the speech’s Nachleben, there is a tendency to turn inward and focus on the text itself, rather than to open up the discussion and use Pliny’s work as a window on the world in which he lived.

This impulse is most noticeable in the three chapters (4-6) that treat the preceding and contemporary context for Pliny’s praise of Trajan. In “The Panegyricus and rhetorical theory,” D. C. Innes traces the principles of encomium as laid out primarily by Pliny’s teacher Quintilian and Menander Rhetor. After explaining that the handbooks were not prescriptive, but rather provided a loose framework of terms that an orator was expected to shape according to circumstances, she goes on to briefly examine Pliny’s adaptation of these topoi to his purpose. Gesine Manuwald, in “Ciceronian praise as a step to Pliny’s Panegyricus,” likewise begins by surveying the role of encomium in Cicero’s oratory (most notably pro Marcello and de lege Manilia) before drawing a few connections with the work of his emulator. Bruce Gibson, in “Contemporary contexts,” is more subtle in moving back and forth between the speech and chosen comparanda, but the premise remains that these other works (including Frontinus’ de Aqueductu, Dio Chrysostom’s kingship orations, and Flavian poetry) are used to illuminate the Panegyricus, not the other way around.

In contrast, the chapters that precede this triad (2 and 3) are the most expansive in the collection, insofar as they examine the speech as a carefully managed representation of its historical circumstances. In “Self-fashioning in the Panegyricus,” Carlos F. Noreña takes on what has become a prominent theme in the study of Pliny’s published correspondence (one that he has touched on elsewhere with regard to the letters to Trajan): the role of the text in constructing a public persona for its author.2 Rather than dwell on the narratological complexities that have excited literary critics, Noreña focuses on “self-fashioning” in the sense given to the term by Stephen Greenblatt, whereby Pliny uses the speech to promote the best possible image of himself and his standing in his social milieu. This entails not just the tendentious autobiography of Pan. 95.3-4, but also the description of Trajan’s exemplary demeanor in his third consulship, which serves to increase the dignity of an office that Pliny has just attained himself.

After this comes Paul Roche’s “The Panegyricus and the Monuments of Rome,” which is not so much about the urban context of the speech itself as it is about how the meanings that applied to things (like buildings) were redefined after the fall of Domitian. Emblematic of this process is the way in which Pliny represents the “Domus Flavia” (by which Roche presumably means the entire residential complex on the south corner of the Palatine)3 as transformed from a symbol of Domitian’s isolation and tyrannical monstrosity into a site where Trajan’s accessibility and public-mindedness are on display for all to see.

Two other chapters (7 and 8) justify their more narrow focus by explicating in detail particular aspects of Pliny’s rhetorical program. G. O. Hutchison’s “Politics and the sublime in the Panegyricus” shows how notions of sublimity permeate not only Pliny’s praise of Trajan but also his condemnation of Domitian’s vanity. His enlightening discussion of Pliny’s views on the sublime (outlined in Ep. 9.26 and illustrated by the speech) presents an important counterpoint to the better known arguments of Longinus, and offers a useful way of thinking about how politics and aesthetics configure themselves around one another in this, or any other, context.

“Down the Pan: historical exemplarity in the Panegyricus,” by John Henderson, is typical of its author’s oeuvre, densely packed with ideas, to the point that it presses up against the boundaries of conventional expression (and orthography) at every turn. By far the longest contribution in the book, it comes replete with a running commentary on the entire text, through which the common thread is a discussion of how Pliny manipulates the exempla tradition to build up an image of Trajan as his Optimus princeps, the ultimate expression of Roman ideals. The book closes with another take on the speech and its context, in Rees’ “Afterwords of praise” (Chapter 9), which outlines the subsequent tradition of Imperial panegyric. If Pliny’s decision to publish his gratiarum actio was intended as an act of self-promotion, Rees suggests that its consequences were not what he might have expected. Already in Fronto’s day, prose panegyric was well established as a literary genre, but Pliny’s authority within this burgeoning tradition was far from absolute. The inclusion of his speech among the late antique collection of XII Panegyrici Latini suggests a privileged status, but Pliny’s influence seems to have derived more from his status as a trailblazer than as a model for subsequent efforts.

It bears repeating that all of these chapters attain a high scholarly standard, and that each is successful according to the goals it establishes for itself. What is lacking from the volume as a whole, however, is a sustained engagement with the larger issues raised by the speech. Of these, there are only glimpses. For example, Pliny’s discussion of Trajan’s godlike qualities and his relationship to the divine is treated primarily as an aspect of the speech’s sublime aesthetics (pp. 130-3), and otherwise only mentioned in passing (114, 173, etc.). Readers must look elsewhere for a full discussion of Pliny’s sentiments and the extent to which they reflect contemporary thinking about the emperor’s religious authority and the nature of ancient ruler cult.4

One issue that does receive sustained attention centers on what Shadi Bartsch has identified as Pliny’s “efforts at authenticity,” i.e., his constant protestations that praise of Trajan is not flattery, but genuine.5 Innes argues that this emphasis on truthfulness is Pliny’s way of bringing a new rhetorical color to the already familiar contents of imperial panegyric (pp. 78-9). Gibson, in contrast, takes Bartsch’s observations more seriously, noting that much of the praise directed at Trajan in the Panegyricus, including even comments about his resistance to flattery, carry over from what we find in literature written under Domitian (116-24). Where Bartsch saw the source of Pliny’s anxiety about his perceived sincerity in the inherent unreliability of the “public transcript” of all speech under autocracy, Gibson locates it instead in the instability of the boundaries that the orator was attempting to demarcate between the Domitian’s despotism and the “new era” dawning under Trajan.

This analysis is thought-provoking, but it defers a more basic and challenging question, to wit: why did the terms of praise remain unchanged from one ruler to the next? Was Pliny simply too conventional or unimaginative to rethink a framework of virtue inherited from a regime he now disdains? Or does the continuity of values tell us something about the deep structures of imperial ideology? We may assume that Pliny praises Trajan’s height because he was, in fact, tall (Pan. 22.2), but why did anyone attempt to praise Domitian for his modesty if what the orator says about him was true?

I think part of the answer lies in the protreptic function of praise, which Pliny especially highlights in his justification for publishing the speech (Ep. 3.18.2-3). The point, which others have made before, is that the Panegyricus does not simply rehash a set of well-worn talking points; it represents a deliberate attempt to articulate, both for Trajan and his successors, the ideals that a Roman princeps was expected to embody. 6 Manuwald, in her discussion of Cicero’s use of praise (especially as demonstrated by the pro Marcello), is the only contributor to allude to the speech’s potential impact on the ruler to whom it was addressed. Her argument is neatly summed up on p. 100: “Cicero thus prepared the way for Pliny’s Panegyricus not only by providing a paradigmatic example of sophisticated political oratory, but also by showing strategies of employing panegyric as a political tool within a political framework dominated by individuals.” Ultimately, the greatest shortcoming of this book is that it does not do more to examine the workings of this “political tool” or assess what it was designed to accomplish.

The book is handsomely produced and seems free of typographical errors. The editor’s introductory chapter includes a survey of the careers of Domitian, Trajan, and Pliny, which, given the enigmatic nature of the evidence, cannot help but foster quibbles.7 The Index locorum is haphazard and not very useful (Tacitus, Agricola 3.3 does merit inclusion, for example).

Criticisms aside, this is a welcome contribution to our understanding of an underappreciated text. Whether it provides an impetus to future research remains to be seen, but we may note with anticipation that one of the contributors is preparing a new commentary on the speech. Scholars who want to build on these achievements will find much that is useful in these studies.


1.   W. M. Bloomer Valerius Maximus and the Rhetoric of the New Nobility. (Chapel Hill 1992). U. Lucarelli, Exemplarische Vergangenheit : Valerius Maximus und die Konstruktion des sozialen Raumes in der frühen Kaiserzeit. (Gottingen 2007). E. Gunderson, Declamation, Paternity and Roman Identity: Authority and the Rhetorical Self. (Cambridge 2003), B. Breij, (ed.) “Special issue: An International Project on the Pseudo- Quintilianic Declamationes Maiores.” Rhetorica 27.3 (2009).
2.   C. F. Noreña, “The Social Economy of Pliny’s Correspondence with Trajan,” AJPh 128 (2007) 239-77. Cf. J. Radicke, “Die Selbstdarstellung des Plinius in Seinen Briefen,” Hermes 125 (1997) 447-69, M. Ludolph, Epistolographie und Selbstdarstellung. Untersuchungen zu den ‘paradebriefen’ Plinius des Jüngeren. (Tübigen 1997). J. Henderson, Pliny’s Statue: The Letters, Self-Portraiture and Classical Art. (Exeter 2002).
3.   Thus on p. 60 and ff. Cf. L. Sasso D’Elia, s.v. “Domus Augustana, Augustiana” LTUR II (1995) 40-45. More care should likewise attend Roche’s use of the neologism “Aula Regia” (p. 61).
4.   E.g., D. N. Schowalter, The Emperor and the Gods: Images from the Time of Trajan. (Minneapolis 1993), absent from the present volume’s bibliography.
5.   S. Bartsch Actors in the Audience: Theatricality and Doublespeak from Nero to Hadrian. (Cambridge, MA 1994) 185.
6.   M. P. O. Morford, “Iubes Esse Liberos: Pliny’s Panegyricus and Liberty,” AJP 113 (1992) 575-93, cf. M. Durry, Pline le Jeune: Panégyrique de Trajan. (Paris 1938) 21-4, M. Molin, “Le Panégyrique de Trajan : éloquence d’aparat ou programme politique néo-stoïcien?” Latomus 48 (1989) 785-97.
7.   Some hesitancy should attend the claim (p. 22) that M. Cornelius Nigrinus as governor of Syria was the one exerting pressure on Nerva in the months leading up to Trajan’s adoption. Also (ibid.), mention might be made of the fact that Pliny only obtained his post as prefect of the aerarium after attacking its previous occupant, Publicius Certus, for acting as a delator under Domitian (Plin. Ep. 9.13).

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