Bryn Mawr Classical Review

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Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.12.42

Roy K. Gibson, Ruth Morello, Reading the Letters of Pliny the Younger: an Introduction.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2012.  Pp. xi, 350.  ISBN 9780521842921.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Paul Roche, University of Sydney (


[I apologize for the lateness of this review.]

Roy Gibson and Ruth Morello have co-authored an elegant, clear and sophisticated introduction to Pliny’s Letters. Their contribution is all the more valuable because this is the first book-length introduction to Pliny’s collection of letters to be published. They repeatedly stress (in the manner of Quint. Inst. 10.1.20, cited at 247) the value and the potential rewards of reading and re-reading the entire collection, the importance of locating and considering each letter in the context of its book, and the suggestive development of themes at various (often far removed) points within the collection. Another keynote of the book is the letter collection’s ability to absorb a very wide variety of critical approaches and reading strategies. Pliny emerges (not only but perhaps above all) as a sophisticated editor and architect of his collection. This is an introduction which, like the letters themselves, “can appeal to readers at different stages of engagement with the text” (235); it is easy to imagine a newcomer to Plinian studies quickly becoming au fait with the collection, its scholarship and its potential as literature by following the very generous leads offered in this book and its appendices (more on this below).

In chapter one (9-35), Gibson1 examines book one for Pliny’s strategies of shaping biographical material to fit the larger thematic emphases of this opening book. The letters are promoted as hospitable to narrative reading but crying out for attentive re-reading: the key illustration is his deferral of (often important) information relevant to book one until (often much) later in the corpus of letters. The subtle and careful arrangement of book one is on display in this chapter. Gibson draws attention to the apparent tone of “friendly (disingenuous?) optimism” (22) in order to stress the role of literary matters in book one as a carefully constructed political point about the rebirth of civil society after Domitian’s death. The discussion of key “omissions” and their potential reintegration into book one in later readings (22-35) illustrates wonderfully the subtlety of Pliny’s arrangement and the consequences for the reader of considering this material amid the determinedly happy opening of the collection.

Chapter two (36-73) focuses on book six. It ably demonstrates the evidence for the Plinian book as an artistically arranged production and gives a sense of the critical returns on the reader’s effort to understand the book as a unit. Thematic symmetry and loose dating allow a “species of geometry” to emerge with correlations in the first and final three letters (I’m not sure why the dead-end 6.4 and 6.31 were included at 39): these correlations are indeed “delicate” (45), and some may remain unconvinced. In the remainder of the chapter, a close reading of book six (concentrating on 1-17) shows its overarching themes (central and southern geography; negotium; Trajan in his civilian aspect; absence) and the manner in which they echo and re-echo throughout the book. The chapter closes with the part played by a cycle of letters attending to Pliny’s career after the death of Regulus. I was especially struck by the notion that Pliny’s “loose dating” may preserve his own editorial arrangement in the manuscript (52-3); so too that 6.10 is positioned and crafted to cap “absent desire” (62), and Gibson’s fabulous freighting of 6.33.1 (mihi satis est certare mecum) with Regulus’ death (72).

Morello’s chapter three (74-103) reads a cycle of letters which suggests Cicero as a model for Pliny: as orator or statesman; as patron of poets; as versifier; as obsessive reviser of work; and—pointedly late (Ep. 9.2)—as epistolographer. Preliminary material (76-9) sharpens for the reader the position of Pliny’s epistolary program between those of Cicero and Seneca. The core of the chapter shows (a) Pliny’s interrelated concerns to have Cicero claimed for him by others and to preserve the appearance of his own commitment to contemporary literary culture; and (b) his success at combining the influences of multiple models. To carp at minor matters briefly, I don’t see Arist. Poet. 9 as a very useful fit for Pliny (79); a much clearer model is offered by Morello in Stat. Silv. 1.3, Pliny’s own Ep. 1.1, 9.28 and esp. 7.9 (80-3). I also wonder if near-contemporary claims of poetic speed (e.g. in the prefaces to Stat. Silv. 1 and 2) could or ought to be brought to bear on Pliny’s own speed of poetic composition at 7.4.5 (94-5).

Chapter four (104-35) examines a quartet of Pliny’s elders and betters (plus Silius Italicus). Vestricius Spurinna, Corellius Rufus and Verginius Rufus could offer Pliny senatorial models; the Elder Pliny could not. The latter emerges (after adolescent emulation at 6.16, 20) as too single-minded in his devotion to studia: the better model is Spurinna; the negative example is Silius. Gibson presents a mature middle position on his adopted models: Pliny gently stresses (with “steely self-confidence,” 131) the limits of his own emulation, and his own emerging status as model for the younger generation. This is another nuanced discussion; it capitalizes to great effect on the work (inter alia) of Henderson and Bernstein.2 Two small quibbles here: I was hoping for a more detailed discussion of the terms ingenium and cura which polarize Silius and the Elder Pliny; Hor. S. 1.4.140-1 as a model for Plin. Ep. 8.23.2 is a stretch for me.3

In chapter five (136-68) Morello turns from elders and betters to peers. She examines terms, markers and limits of friendship, as well as Pliny’s occasionally “tetchy self-positioning” (esp. in relation to Tacitus: 167) across letter cycles to five individuals: Calestrius Tiro, Voconius Romanus, Cornutus Tertullus, Septicius Clarus, and Tacitus.

Chapter six (169-99) treats otium, particularly in book seven. Morello positions Pliny’s typically pragmatic take on free time against Seneca’s philosophical prescriptions in the Epistulae Morales and Dialogues. Pliny’s is characteristically a more relaxed, “everyman,” approach stressing alternation (e.g. between the physical and the intellectual), repetition, and variety: the very generic hallmarks, Morello argues, of the letters which are themselves (in Pliny’s presentation) the product of well-managed otium (197).

In chapter seven (200-33) Gibson combines archaeological and literary critical approaches to the villa letters 9.7, 2.17 and 5.6 (with 3.1 as counterpoint). The Tuscan and Laurentine villas are promoted as a contrastive pair in the mode of “Tragedy” and “Comedy” on Lake Como (205-6). There is a thought-provoking reading of the villa descriptions as a (thematically) embedded ecphrasis on the model of the shield of Achilles, here pointing to inter alia the larger managed miscellanies of the epistolary collection. Once again the returns on considering the letters within the themes of their books is shown in the case of the Laurentine villa (2.17), here purged of duties, work and business as a counterweight to a book which otherwise stresses these aspects of Pliny’s life; so too in the case of Pliny’s Tuscan villa (5.6), which is read as an architectural response to the Elder Pliny. I’m not convinced that the point about boating from Lenno to Bellagio works (210-11); the careful topographical placement in 2.7 (217) might be illustrated (mutatis mutandis) by the tradition surrounding Publicola’s house on the summit of the Velia (e.g. Liv. 2.7.6, 11-12; with Roller CA 29 (2010) 128-30).

The final chapter (234-64) begins with a retrospective of the approaches on offer in the volume. It then outlines responses between books one and nine; the principle of variety combined with the intelligent arrangement of disparate and often hackneyed material; Pliny’s “manifesto” of variety, balance, studia, hard work and time- management (247-50). Finally attention is turned to book ten: it is considered as a possible crowning resolution of “sub narratives” and themes in books one to nine, and as a demonstration of what is possible in terms of politically engaged letters under the principate: now no longer peer to peer, but subject to emperor. Tentative suggestions (building on Pitcher and Fitzgerald on Martial4) are made regarding symmetries in book ten with Ovid’s exilic poetry.

Unusually generous help is to be found in the appendices. Across 51 pages, the authors offer a Pliny timeline (from the birth of Tacitus to the death of Trajan); the Comum inscription (in Alföldy’s text and accompanied by an adapted version of Radice’s translation) with basic orientation; a catalogue of addressees and subjects for the first nine books of letters; a bibliographical guide to 31 common topics in Pliny, wherein each entry has recommended letters, a two- tiered bibliography (“start with” and “further items”), plus cross-listing to other relevant topics in the list; and finally a list of the main characters in the letters. The volume finishes with a consolidated bibliography of 22 pages and two indices (locorum and rerum). Scholars, teachers and students of Pliny will be grateful to the authors for this superb resource.

In their final sentence, Gibson and Morello exhort Pliny’s readers to “keep reading, from the beginning right to the very end—and then start from the beginning again” (264); I offer the same advice to readers of this outstanding introduction.5


1.   I follow the attribution of chapters to author at 236.
2.   J. Henderson, Pliny’s Statue: The Letters, Self-Portraiture and Classical Art (Exeter, 2002); N. W. Bernstein, “Each Man's Father Served as his Teacher: Constructing Relatedness in Pliny’s Letters,” CA 27 (2008) 203-30.
3.   Although the Satires seem to have been on Pliny’s radar: Ep. 3.9.37 Hic erit epistulae finis, re uera finis; litteram non addam; cf. the closural device at Hor. S.1.1.121 verbum non amplius addam.
4.   R. A. Pitcher, “Martial’s debt to Ovid,” in F. Grewing (ed.) Toto Notus in Orbe: Perspektiven der Martial- Interpretation (Stuttgart 1998) 59-76; W. Fitzgerald, Martial: The World of the Epigram (Chicago 2007).
5.   The manuscript has been very scrupulously proof-read: I note only 29 “re-read to Book 1”; 63 “sentorial”; 92 Diuum Iulium: oddly translated as “the emperor Julius”; 317 the dedication of Bernstein (2008a) (above at note 2) has sneaked into its title. Also, it is not explained why “good emperor” is capitalized in chapter nine: is this being gently trademarked?

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