BMCR 2001.03.28

Epistolographie und Selbstdarstellung: Untersuchungen zu den ‘Paradebriefen’ Plinius des Jüngerer. Classica Monacensia 17

Matthias Ludolph, Epistolographie und Selbstdarstellung : Untersuchungen zu den "Paradebriefen" Plinius des Jüngeren. Classica Monacensia, Bd. 17. Tübingen: Narr, 1997. 228 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm.. ISBN 3823348760

In this engaging theoretical essay on the “literariness” of Pliny’s nine books of private letters, Ludolph offers a reconsideration of Pliny’s position in the landscape of Latin literature of the first century C.E. by inviting us to turn our attention away from the socio-historical questions that have dominated Plinian studies since the publication of Sherwin-White’s commentary on the letters in 1966 to the literary aspects of Pliny’s work.1 The book is almost perfectly balanced between the proposal of a theoretical model of interpretation for the correspondence, in which Ludolph discusses what one may call Pliny’s literary and historical determinants—his conception of literature and his negotiation of the search for glory under the Principate (1-88)—and a detailed “line by line and word by word reading” of the first eight letters of the collection (89-208), in which he traces each of Pliny’s statements back to its “intra- and extra-textual context” (195). For Ludolph, Pliny’s literary program is first manifested in the arrangement of these eight initial “Paradebriefen,” which set the tone for the rest of the work. The central contention is that in spite, or rather on account, of the variety of the arguments they cover and their carefully varied tone, these display-epistles are arranged according to a plan and with a function similar to those devised by Horace for the opening nine poems in Book 1 of the Odes.

In his introduction Ludolph argues that Pliny’s appetitus gloriae is the primary motive for his literary enterprise and that the private correspondence is Pliny’s attempt to build into an eminently literary project his own “epistolary I” (a central concept of Ludolph’s argument, which he models on the “poetic I”). Through this construct, Pliny aims at gaining recognition and praise. This line of inquiry has two related consequences for Ludolph’s argument. First, on the plane of literary criticism, it leads him to insist that the letters of Pliny, though designed to give the impression of having been written to fulfill a practical purpose, are to be read as carefully planned literary artifacts. Consequently, we should abandon the question of their sincerity and should instead attempt to reconstruct the author’s strategic presentation of his “epistolary I.” Second, on the level of cultural history, Ludolph reads into Pliny’s choice of entrusting a positive self-image to the genre of epistolary writing a sign of the conflict in his day between the outdated but still powerful Republican ethos, based on the search for personal glory, and the limited and dangerous space in which this glory could be attained under the Principate. According to Ludolph, Pliny’s paradoxical strategy of “modestly” seeking glory—a glory, moreover, strictly confined to the sphere of literary otium —was his way of negotiating the necessary compromise between promoting a positive image of himself in a world in which the Princeps dominated political life and the rivalry for prominence in the political sphere that exposed a public figure to life-threatening envy from his peers.

Ludolph’s notion of the “epistolary I” emerges from the tension between the strictly limited relationship that Pliny’s letters establish with their primary addressees and the much broader relations they engage in with the unlimited circle of general readers. By entering the public realm through publication, his letters serve to fashion a public image of their author. In advancing this thesis Ludolph combines the theoretical model for the presentation of one’s self in the public eye constructed by E. Goffman with the tripartite scheme of the epistles’ functions elaborated by Bühler.2 This creation of an author’s image “endowed with temporal permanence” (45) links Pliny’s letters to the similar project of publishing ostensibly private material initiated in the poetic genre by Catullus’ nugae and continued in the “personal” lyric poetry of Horace (37-9), both of which feature in Pliny’s collection as preferred macro- and microtextual intertexts.

Setting Pliny’s project of self-promotion (as laid out especially in 1.8) against the contemporary cultural and political background, Ludolph argues that the strategy of publishing a collection of private letters as a literary artifact serves two purposes. First, it situates Pliny’s activity in a field (literary otium), in which the striving for glory did not engage with the preeminence of the Princeps, to whom all initiatives in the traditional sphere of public life now belonged. Second, Ludolph maintains that by always conveying his desire for glory only obliquely, Pliny preempts the envy elicited in his peers by any act of self-promotion. In Ludolph’s reconstruction, the preoccupation with a balance among appetitus gloriae, immortalitas, and invidia that characterizes Tacitus’ portrayal of Agricola is active also in Pliny. For both the “epistolary I” of Pliny and Tacitus’ father-in-law, glory is attained insofar as it is not sought and only when it is expressed through systematic understatement. For Ludolph, the key-elements of Agricola’s success fall into this category: his verecundia in praedicando ( Agricola 8.2; echoed by Pliny in 6.10) and ipsa dissimulatio famae ( Agricola 18.6) represent Agricola’s careful understatement of his political (military) visibility (82-88). Similarly for Pliny his adoption of the “modest” and unobtrusive literary genre of the epistle and his chosen techniques of self-representation enable him to construct a “modestly monumentalized” autobiography, the only form of self-promotion that a society held in balance by centralized power could allow.

Ludolph devotes the opening of his second chapter to a consideration of the special role the first eight letters play in the collection. In his view several factors single out these “Paradebriefen.” First, they display a series of addressees who, with one exception, receive at least three more letters. Second, letters 2-8 appear to be arranged in an alternating scheme according to their mode of discourse: narration ( narrare 2, 5, 8), conversation ( loqui 3, 4), or joking ( iocari 6-7).3 The absence of 1.1 (which Ludolph regards as introductory and therefore “non-specific,” 96) is curious, because this epistle closely resembles a letter of the conversational type ( loqui), presenting itself as a concise response to a request made by an addressee ( Frequenter hortatus es ut…) and incorporating parts of the other half of a dialogue ( si quas…scripsissem). Furthermore, its peculiar status as a letter introducing a collection of letters makes it an ambiguous text, simultaneously homogeneous with the rest of the work and external to it. Ludolph hints at the liminality of this proem-epistle but does not pursue the question in detail. Greater attention to the ambivalent quality of the first letter would have been a good starting point for a more specific definition of Pliny’s literary self-consciousness and the allusive technique he deploys in the structuring of his work. In fact, the practice of introducing collections of short pieces with introductory letters had a long tradition. Catullus had opened his libellus of poems with a prefatory poem, Ovid his books of poetic epistles ( Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto) with a prefatory poetic epistle; Martial in five of his twelve books of epigrams and Statius in the Silvae opted to have prose letters accompanying poetry.4 If Ludolph is right in maintaining that Pliny wants to present himself as a man of letters, his choice of opening a carefully organized collection of epistles with an introductory letter sheds light on Pliny’s compromise between a model of introducing a collection of short pieces with a homogeneous text (Catullus and Ovid) and a model based on the traditional prefatory function of the letter (Martial and Statius). Pliny combines these models by prefacing his collection with a formally ambiguous specimen of the material that follows.

For Ludolph, the fundamental element distinguishing the first eight letters from the rest of the work is their following in part Horace’s arrangement of Odes 1.1-9. He sees the parallel structure principally in the following arrangement of the letters according to theme: just as Horace’s Odes 1-3 constitute a unity in which the poet displays the central themes of his lyric poetry (1: life-choice and poetic program; 2: civil wars and political order; 3: friendship and philosophical investigation), so Pliny’s first three epistles constitute a unitary block in which he offers the central object of his self-presentation, namely his devoting otium to studia (1: Pliny as editor/publisher; 2: Pliny as orator; 3: importance of studia). The second block of Horace’s “Paradenoden” is arranged in a symmetrical progression from an outer ring of 4 and 9 (Spring and death/Winter and death, united by the common theme of carpe diem), to an inner ring of 5 and 8 dedicated to love, to the central pair of 6 and 7 dedicated to poetry, with 7 devoted to the choice of lifestyle. Similarly—but with a fundamental divergence in the location of a single letter (6 to Tacitus) at the center of the composition in place of two poems balancing one another—Pliny devotes the outer ring of letters to the presentation of his own virtutes (4: humanitas, in relation to his slaves; 8: munificentia, in the funding of a library in Comum), the internal ring to negotia (5: politics, hinting at his role in the opposition to Domitian; 7: activity in the forum, centering on his role as patron), and finally the central piece of the composition (6), on his personal way of turning otium (hunting) into a productive activity (writing). The centrality of the letter is reinforced by a reiteration of the central theme of the first section, the special addressee (Tacitus), and the peculiar tone (auto-ironic)—all of which single it out as a privileged moment of self-conscious literary self-representation.

This thematic schema (laid out in a table on page 97) is both the strength and the weakness of Ludolph’s argument. To be sure, the ordered group of “Paradebriefen” is suggestive of the presence of a careful compositional strategy in the arrangement of the very same letters that Pliny disingenuously claims to have published “ut quaeque in manus venerat” (1.1). But the specific parallels with Horace’s schema are not particularly close, and the amount of ingenuity Ludolph expends in isolating a single central theme in the variety of streams running through each letter raises questions about the operation itself. The force of Ludolph’s argument for Pliny’s compositional strategy would be more cogent if, instead of focusing on Horace’s Odes 1-9, we were to recognize its debt to a widespread practice of structuring poetic collections engaged in by a variety of poets from earlier and contemporary generations. This is not to say that Ludolph’s overall interpretation or his detailed analyses are invalidated by his privileging one theme over another in any specific letter but solely that the reading grid fruitfully superimposed by Ludolph on the opening section of the corpus, though suggestive, cannot be considered definitive. One may compare the rather different central themes isolated in the same texts by Stanley E. Hoffer in his recent The Anxieties of Pliny the Younger (1999). Hoffer identifies certain “anxieties” that Pliny betrays (especially in 1.1, 3, 5, and 8) and recognizes concerns that he shares with his class, his cultural circles, and his time. Whereas Hoffer frames Pliny’s work as symptomatic of the conflicts of his time, Ludolph adopts, rather, the model of what Freud called Witz : not the involuntary and pathological emergence of conflicting drives but the socially negotiated expression of the repressed. The curious circumstance that two new studies of the literary qualities of Pliny’s letters published so close in time necessarily have to ignore each other might be seen as—more than just uno scherzo del destino in Plinian studies—a symptom of the presence of a deeper divide in Roman literary studies. The two models of symptom and Witz, both useful tools to demonstrate the literary complexity of a text, reflect in the end two quite contradictory conceptions of the role of “the author” in the literature of the Early Empire, the import of which goes beyond the interpretation of local portions of a particular work. Regardless of the preference one may express on this matter, Ludolph’s thoughtful thesis suggests forcefully that Pliny’s prose has a complex literary dimension that invites and supports sophisticated readings of his text.


1. A.N. Sherwin-White, The letters of Pliny: A historical and social commentary, 1966.

2. From Ervin Goffmann ( The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, 1959) Ludolph draws a distinction between the image of the self “one consciously gives” and the impression “one unconsciously projects.” The scheme Karl Bühler ( Die Axiomatic der Sprachwissenschaften, 1933) elaborates for the types of communicative situation created by epistolary writing classifies letters according to their focus on “the presentation of a subject” (Inhalt/Darstellung), “the appeal to the addressee” (Addressat/Appell), or “the expression of the sender” (Absender/Ausdruck). Ludolph combines Goffmann’s and Bühler’s models to stress that Pliny’s letters present their readers with a self-fashioned sender who explicitly controls the image “he consciously gives” in the letters of the third type and implicitly controls also the image he “unconsciously projects” in the letters of the first two types.

3. See the chart on page 96. The taxonomy of types results from Cic. Att. 5, 5, 1; 7, 5, 4ff.; 6, 5, 4. Ludolph discusses it on 23-5.

4. For a treatment of epistolary prefaces see, in general, T. Janson, Latin Prose Prefaces, 1964. The significance of Pliny’s opening epistle is discussed in detail by John Bodel in his work-in-progress, Reading Pliny’s Letters.