BMCR 2008.12.37

The Art of Pliny’s Letters: A Poetics of Allusion in the Private Correspondence

, The art of Pliny's letters : a poetics of allusion in the private correspondence. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. xii, 278 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780521882279. $99.00.

Marchesi’s book applies to a text in prose the interpretative instruments of intertextual analysis commonly used for poetic texts. The fundamental question that Marchesi aims to answer is: what is it that makes the collection of Pliny’s private letters a work of literature? Her methodological intentions are clearly explained in the Preface and the Introduction (and they are constantly recalled during the analyses of the single letters that make up the substance of the book). Marchesi makes reference to the new approach to studies on Pliny, which has shifted the focus of interest from the historical and social background of the letters to specific problematic aspects of the author’s individual situation.1 However, Marchesi intends to distinguish her approach from these recent studies: she moves the attention from the extra-textual reality represented by the author to the text in itself, considered as a self-sufficient, and consciously self-reflecting literary artefact. The survival to which Pliny’s letters aspire is not the personal survival of their author, but their own survival as texts: that is to say, their capacity to enter into the canon of imitable works. The still-fluid nature of the epistolary genre allowed Pliny to negotiate their insertion into the canon. The instrument that he chooses is allusion. According to Marchesi, allusions function in two different ways in Pliny’s collection: they set up a dialogue between the letters and other works that possess the authority of models, and at the same time, they create internal resonances within the collection, thus contributing to structuring it. For this operation, which makes use of poetic material, and is, in itself, poetic, Pliny had a model in the poetic collections of the Augustan age (which included also collections of texts in an epistolary form: Horace’s Epistulae and Ovid’s Epistulae ex Ponto). For this extremely subtle operation, according to Marchesi, Pliny had to trust in the active participation and the hermeneutic ability of his public, which shared with him the same “mental encyclopaedia”. Bringing to the surface and recognizing connections where Pliny’s early readers saw them is the task that Marchesi aims to carry out. And we must admit that in its turn, it is an extremely subtle, delicate task.

Marchesi’s working method is based on a close reading of single letters or of clusters of letters that are closely connected. The organisation of the book is determined by the selection of three main fields (poetry, rhetoric, historiography) in relationship to which Pliny’s dialogue with the models of the past combines with his desire to intervene in the present, in order to redefine the canon in which his own works and those of his contemporaries will be included. The first two chapters (pp. 12-52 and pp. 53-96) regard Pliny’s dialogue with poetic precedents, while the following two chapters (pp. 97-143 and pp. 144-206) deal with his dialogue with Tacitus, respectively concerning rhetoric and historiography. The fifth chapter is dedicated to the relationship with the dominant epistolographic model, Cicero (pp. 207-240).

By avoiding a single addressee and a chronological order, Pliny invites his readers to carry out a fragmentary reading of the letters; however, according to Marchesi, he gives cohesion to the collection by means of strategies of a narrative and intertextual character. The latter kind of strategy, to which Marchesi dedicates particular attention, applies to very small portions of the text, and requires a detailed examination. One particularly significant example of the allusive technique of composition that Marchesi recognizes in Pliny, with which she opens her discussion, is found in two letters placed almost at the beginning of the collection. In ep. 1.2 and 1.3, Marchesi identifies an allusion to Aen. 6.129-30 hoc opus, hic labor est. Pauci quos aequus amavit/Iuppiter (pp. 27-33). This is a divided allusion, which in this specific case is composed of an actual quotation in the first letter, followed by a more subtle reference in the second one. In ep. 1.2, Virgil’s line is quoted with reference to Pliny’s attempt, which he presents as necessarily imperfect, to imitate the great orators: nam vim tantorum virorum, “pauci quos aequus…” adsequi possunt. In ep. 1.3, Pliny exhorts his addressee to devote himself to studies, in terms that echo the first part of Virgil’s line: Hoc sit negotium tuum hoc otium; hic labor haec quies. By likening his own literary accomplishments, and those of his friends, to Aeneas’ descent to Hades, Pliny forces Virgil’s verse to assume a meta-literary dimension. But besides connecting 1.2 and 1.3 in a micro-cycle, according to Marchesi, the Virgilian allusion creates a connection between the first and the last book of the collection (pp. 36-39). Through the image of an ascent to fame as to a bright, higher world, the language of ep. 9.14 seems to refer to the same verse by Virgil, and 9.13 already contained a quotation from line 6.105 of the Aeneid. The Virgilian reminiscence placed in the last book of the collection (where it likewise has a meta-literary value) invites the reader not only to connect the last book with the first one, but also to re-interpret the tone of the incipit in a more confident sense. Likewise, a double allusion can be found to Catullus (pp. 39-50). In ep. 1.12 (referring to the heroic suicide of Corellius) Pliny uses the same language ( destinasse, obstinate, induruisse) that Catullus uses in c. 8 to formulate his renunciation of love. And 1.13 contains another allusion to c. 8, completing the previous one, though this can only be noticed after appreciating the first one: at the verbal level, the reference can be noted in the parallel perdiditperdidisse.

The second chapter deals particularly with the relationship between Pliny and Catullus. Pliny not only writes verses in the style of Catullus, but he also defines the poetics of his epistles through a critical re-reading of Catullus. The neoteric poet is at the same time a model of style and a polemical target in view of the potentially antisocial ethical choice that he represents. For Pliny, neoteric poetry can become a part of the literary canon only if its antisocial character is neutralised. By reinterpreting neotericism purely as a question of style, and refusing its political and polemical significance, Pliny was continuing a kind of reading that had already been adopted by the Augustan poets. The conditioned acceptance of the Catullian model is the principle that controls Pliny’s use of a broad network of allusions to Catullus. In counting on the active collaboration of his readers, Pliny thus added his contribution to the contemporary cultural debate, and took part in the redefinition of the canon.

According to Marchesi, Pliny’s participation in the debate about rhetoric is to be found not only in those passages of his letters which specifically deal with the subject, but also in his dialogue with Tacitus, conducted by means of a series of allusions. Employing a procedure that Marchesi defines as “allusion in praesentia” Pliny uses, in his letters to Tacitus, passages that were written by Tacitus himself, taking them either from published works or from letters that he received from Tacitus. Pliny does not share the negative vision of contemporary rhetoric that Tacitus makes Maternus express in the Dialogus (a vision which Pliny identifies as that of Tacitus himself). By means of allusion, he ironically overturns the pessimistic position of Tacitus, indicating that the dynamics of the literary exchange have, in general, taken a turn for the better.

Pliny’s dialogue with Tacitus also deals with history. Pliny’s meditation on history is essentially expressed in three letters to Tacitus. Pliny does not write history, but his letters contain a historical potential, and are already, partly, historical works. Pliny is interested in historiography as a canonical form of writing, that is to say, its literary aspect and its relationship with rhetoric. He aspires to the role of an author and an actor of history. One particularly significant document is ep. 6.20 (pp. 173-189), which contains his personal testimony regarding the eruption of Vesuvius, and is an experiment of para-historical narrative presented in a pathetic register, in which the writer is also the protagonist. The literary and poetic sources that Pliny uses (Livy, Virgil, Lucan, Ovid) also serve to create an ironic distance from his own way of writing history. The overall attitude with which Pliny regards historiography brings us back to his opinions about rhetoric. Pliny claims a task for the orator that is in competition with that of the historian: the orator can discuss, above all in elogia and in portraits, historical themes in his own manner, from a stylistic and ethical point of view. An example is offered by the eulogy of a pathetic and “familiar” character for Virginius Rufus in ep. 2.1 (pp. 190-198). Also in this case, Pliny’s reference point is Tacitus, in particular his Agricola.

For Pliny, Cicero is a model that he seeks to emulate on different levels (rhetoric, political commitment, etc.). In his relationship with Cicero, it clearly emerges that Pliny carries out a cultural renegotiation, interpreting the past with reference to his involvement in the present debate. While in other fields Pliny admits that he cannot surpass the Ciceronian model, in epistolography he can go even further, doing what Cicero has not been able to do: he could publish his own letters as a product of the author’s selection, ordering and revision, as an editorial project. As Marchesi rightly observes, Pliny’s letters survive thanks to the non-Ciceronian care with which he edited them.

In the final chapter (pp. 240-251), the author presents a brief summary of the subjects discussed, laying particular emphasis on the reading public’s capacity to understand the subtle strategies that Pliny adopted in order to enter into the epistolographic canon (a canon which he himself was setting up, starting from a series of practices that had not yet been stably defined). The readers’ “encyclopaedia”, their education of the memory, and their ability to go beyond the barriers between prose and verse could enable them to appreciate Pliny’s literary project. One final example is given (pp. 249-250) of the care with which Pliny constructed his text, modelling it on the collections of poetry of the Augustan age: the connection between the first and last letters of the corpus, expressed by the contrasting similarity between the names of the addressees ( Clarus / Fuscus).

An appendix lists the main passages by Pliny for which thematic or other references to Cicero have been indicated; each time the reference is not to the scholar who pointed out the connection, but to the one who has dealt with the subject in greatest detail. In the notes, Marchesi includes a discussion of the comparisons. The volume has been edited with great care, and includes appropriate indexes.

As I have said, the task that Marchesi tackles, that of illustrating the network of allusions by which the letters rise beyond their original condition of variety and causality, to become a work of art capable of entering into the literary canon, is extremely subtle and delicate. The figure of the sceptical reader, evoked by Marchesi in the short chapter of Acknowledgements at the beginning of the book, occasionally comes sympathetically to mind. For example: it does not seem to be very convincing that there is a significant affinity between the death of Corellius in ep. 1.12 and the “metaphorical death” of the lyrical “I” of Catullus in c. 8, and the connection between Cat. 8, 10 nec quae fugit sectare and Hor. sat. 1.4.115 f. vitatu quidque petitu / sit melius (p. 50 s.) seems even less convincing. Given the doubtful nature of many connections, we may be surprised when Marchesi, in turn, casts doubts, quite rightly, on connections proposed by other scholars. And yet Marchesi is right in her insistence, exemplified by her work, to subtract allusions from the field of chance, and to recognize them as parts of an overall network constructed by the author, to be re-constructed by means of a careful reading.

In single cases, Marchesi probably goes too far, and sees too much in the texts she examines. But what she proposes is undoubtedly a fascinating journey through the minds of the early readers of Pliny. His addressees and his early readers possesses a culture and a memory different from ours. They were also, as Marchesi recalls, producers of literature, as well as beneficiaries. And for them, furthermore, the boundaries between prose and poetry were less rigid than they are for us. The attempt to reconstruct their relationship with those texts of prose and poetry which have come down to us and for them were already canonical, and to reconstruct the connections that might be activated by reading a new text that aspired to a position in the canon, is an operation that, given the sense and value that it has in itself, goes beyond the cogency of the single comparison. The comparisons proposed by Marchesi often lead us to wonder about the resonance that even common expressions might have, and the connections that they might activate in relation to texts that were extremely familiar in the minds of readers. In some cases, the connection proposed, while not appearing to be wholly convincing in itself, throws new light on other passages involved in Marchesi’s reading. For example, the idea that the historical paradigms used both by Ovid in trist. 1.3 and by Plin. in ep. 6.20 include Livy’s description of the capture of Alba Longa (pp. 85-188) may appear to be doubtful: but the reference that Marchesi makes to two other passages in which Ovid and Pliny refer to Livy (the inclusion of the name Mett(i)us in trist. 1.3.75-6, and the indication of the author as occupied in legere and excerpere Livius in ep. 6.16) does not allow us to reject the hypothesis, and on the contrary, makes it attractive.

From Marchesi’s reading of the texts, we are continually led back to the external context: to the cultural and historical conditions in which works were created, and also to the psychology of their authors (for this aspect, the reconstruction of Pliny’s attitude towards Tacitus is particularly interesting). In this sense, the close adherence to the texts has a disciplinary value, avoiding the risk that these aspects external to the text may predominate. But, in turn, the close reading of the texts performed by Marchesi does not claim to reach any exclusive, dogmatic truth. The author does not impose her reconstructions, but offers them as possibilities. Her work is open-ended: at the end of the book (that is to say, when the close reading of a selection of Pliny’s letters is concluded), readers are invited to take up Pliny’s book again, and to read it again from the beginning. The last words, both of the Preface and of the Introduction were “his own”: in the sense that in view of the variety of interests to which it responds, Pliny’s text may appear to be “his own” to every reader, and that, as a carefully edited book, it is “his own” work for the author. In investigating the most minute structures of the work, and at the same time inviting readers to search in other directions, Marchesi follows the double approach that she detects in the author. For its originality, intelligence and serious approach, this book may rightly take its place among the most significant works dealing with the present renewed interest in Pliny.


1. Besides the two collections of essays from the Manchester and Como conferences (R. Gibson-R. Morello, eds., Re-Imagining Pliny the Younger, Baltimore 2003 = Arethusa 36. 2 and L. Castagna-E. Lefèvre, eds., Plinius der Jüngere und seine Zeit, Munich-Leipzig 2003), Marchesi acknowledges her debt to M. Ludolph, Epistolographie und Selbstdarstellung. Untersuchungen zu den “Paradenbriefen” Plinius des Jüngeren, Tübingen 1997; S. Hoffer, The Anxieties of Pliny the Younger, Atlanta 1999; J. Henderson, Pliny’s Statue: The Letters, Self-Portraiture, and Classical Arts, Exeter 2002.