BMCR 2013.08.36

The Women of Pliny’s Letters. Women of the ancient world

, The Women of Pliny's Letters. Women of the ancient world. London; New York: Routledge, 2013. ix, 436. ISBN 9780415374286. $90.00.


As the most recent addition to the Routledge Series Women in the Ancient World, Jo-Ann Shelton’s The Women of Pliny’s Letters treats subjects located within a space of early imperial time from Nero through Trajan against a background of contemporary social customs and values that often incorporates comparative references to the late Republic and Augustan Age. Although J.M. Carlon’s 2009 Pliny’s Women pioneered the topic with discussion of individuals named in selected letter texts, Shelton’s coverage encompasses all 70 of Pliny’s women including many whose circumstances he describes without giving names. In her introductory “Writing about Lives” Shelton defines her challenge as that of constructing biography, observing that scholars’ customary mining of the letters for “data about women’s roles in society” has given “little attention to the possibility of capturing images of the lives of the individual women he mentions”. If biography amounts frequently to prosopography, a reader needs such supplementary information to give substance to the often shadowy figures visible within the letter texts, from which women’s voices are almost entirely absent. Notably the only women to whom Pliny gives spoken words in his letters are those in direful circumstances, the vestal Cornelia on trial for incestum (unchastity), and two wives of husbands condemned to political suicide, one of whom is herself called to answer in court. NaturallyPliny’s sketches allow us to infer the sentiments of many women, but, give or take a degree of idealization to be suspected when issues close to Pliny’s heart are involved, the women who inhabit the letters, unlike those of Rome’s non-historical genres (Statius excepted), appear more genuine than fantasized. Some belong to husbands known from historical sources; a few have extant funerary inscriptions.

From the assemblage of portraits certain topics emerge preeminently: marriage and the determined loyalty of the univira in widowhood, sympathy with husbands’ views and careers; concern for children; perpetuation of family ideologies and traditions by emulating the virtues of fathers but also those of mothers, inheritance and property ownership, and even financial sagacity. Shelton bases her chapter topics on roles that women play in society. Chapters one and two showcase three generations of women whose lives were made heroic through adherence to their dissident menfolk. The third chapter is devoted to the culture of wives, Pliny’s own and others. Following this are three chapters categorically based on family relationships: mothers, daughters, surrogate mothers, etc., while the final chapter includes Vestals, slaves and prostitutes. Women of Pliny’s personal acquaintance are central to each chapter but surrounded by others as thematically appropriate.

Chapters one and two canonize traditions of familial ideology in that the women whom they bring to the fore—the two Arriae, mother and daughter, Fannia, Anteia—are all marital partners of famous Stoic or Stoicizing freedom fighters driven to their deaths under Nero, Vespasian and Domitian. Telling their stories involves exposition of Pliny’s own political stances, but leaving Nero aside, Shelton does not wholly subscribe to her author’s total defamation of the emperors who sentenced them. Carlon had broached the possibility that the Helvidii were trouble makers under the Flavians. Shelton goes further in introducing Dio and Epictetus’ testimony to what pains in the neck these martyrs were (64-65). Feminine heroism appears in two versions: the joint suicide of Arria with her husband Caecina Paetus and the choice of her daughter and granddaughter to forego death for the sake of their children. Because Arria II and Fannia accompanied their husbands into exile, Shelton tracks the political history of wifely presences on provincial assignments. Additionally, women figure as guardians of memory: Marcia the daughter of Cremutius Cordus rescues her father’s histories and Fannia commissions a biography of Helvidius II from the journal she has saved. A review of political suicides from Cato to Seneca includes the determined death of Brutus’ Porcia and the survival of Seneca’s Paulina. But these strong characters are by no means harridans, as we see in Pliny’s praises of Fannia’s amiable feminine persona (86-88). Shelton does bring out Pliny’s self-representational strategy in constructing his admiration for these women as testimony to his consistently anti-tyrannical sentiments and in distancing of his own successful pre-Trajanic career from compromising ambiguities.

The title of Chapter 3, “Pliny’s Wives”, is somewhat misleading in that its full content, embracing several wives other than his own, is the nature of wifely conduct. The profile of Pliny’s own Calpurnia, the wife of Books 4-10, figures in a series of sketches interspersed with others throughout the chapter. Calpurnia is typical of Roman elite women in her mid-teen marriage, the result of benevolent negotiation with her paternal family in Como, and also not atypical in having lost both parents at an early age. She is exemplary in her response to conjugal education, “training”, as Pliny puts it, which is a matter of making his career and writings her paramount concern. In this she appears as a junior counterpart of Trajan’s Plotina, whose merits, according to praises in the Panegyricus, were likewise a formation of her husband’s influence (104-106). Another product of such “training” is the wife of one Saturninus, whose elegant Latin prose seems to belie female capabilities as if written by the husband himself (119). A particular emphasis falls on the child-bearing obligations of wives, including mention of the woman whose husband “employed” her fertility almost beyond the limits of his pocket book (143-144). Other examples of female dedication include wives who protested their husband’s intentions of suicide. Frequently in describing some particular instance of conduct Shelton asks us to imagine her mute subjects’ unfathomed thoughts. She often reminds us of the customary age differences between spouses, for Roman women saw almost no coeval marriages. Especially she conjectures how destabilizing an experience it might have been for a girl in her mid-teens to leave her paternal home and assume the responsibilities of a household, with a likelihood of child-bearing within the year. Which may well have been true, although their expectations were oriented toward this disposition no less than those of our daughters toward moving away to college. And even in present times when alliances of equal age are the norm, girls under 20 can often experience fascination with an older man. Was this the case with Calpurnia’s malleability, Shelton asks frequently. Did she contentedly become the ideal wife or did she simply learn to play this role? Although Shelton engages with Foucault’s theorized notion of mid-imperial society as one of companionable, affectionate marriages, the impression one takes from her analysis is that of constructive conjugality as learning to master a role.

Mothers and maternal substitutes are the topic of Chapter 4. The examples and cultural illuminations considered here focus responsibility in providing for children’s education and inheritance, with some intimations of affection. Pliny’s own widowed mother seems disappointingly colorless, save as we see her anxious reaction to the Vesuvian crisis, but she does fulfill one valuable function of mothers in creating a network of social associations for her son. Thus her presence in the letters is quite overshadowed by those of her female friends in Como, the sister and daughter of his cherished mentor Corellius Rufus. Care-givers also include nurses, for Pliny bore a particular affection or sense of responsibility for his aged nurse, to whom he made the gift of a small farm. This fact gives rise to discussion of the customary employment of nurses to ease the maternal burdens of elite women.

With attention to grandmothers, aunts and mothers-in-law Chapter 5 extends the topic of maternal surrogates. The chapter stars two individuals, Calpurnia Hispulla, the paternal aunt to whose influence Pliny credits the virtues of his wife Calpurnia, and one Ummidia Quadratilla, just now deceased short of her eightieth year, who provided a sound upbringing and properly crafted will for her grandson Ummidius, who is Pliny’s protegé. Ummidia was a colorful personage sound of mind and body with a fondness for board games and watching performances of mime actors. Inscriptions at her family seat at Casinum document her generosity to compatriots with gifts of an amphitheater and temple alongside renovation of the theater that earlier members of her family had built (241). With their reputation for lascivious content, mimic performances raise the spectre of decadence, but Ummidia has protectively sequestered her grandson from such corrupting influences while she excuses her own indulgences as compensations for the excessive, unoccupied leisure of aristocratic women. Noting Ummidia’s protective oversight of her grandson’s morals, Shelton is kindly disposed to her and even entertains the speculation that Ummidia’s mimic troupe might have been a family business rented out for public performances. Another interesting person is Pompeia Celerina, the mother of Pliny’s deceased second wife, who maintains such cordial terms with her erstwhile son-in-law as to offer the hospitality of her several villas as way-stops on his Italian travels.

With the “Daughters and Sisters” of Chapter six the discussion engages its highest degree of family sentimentality. The chapter begins with speculations on the extent of female exposure as raised by the comparatively lesser presence of daughters in Roman literary record. Despite the financial burden of properly raising a daughter and providing a suitable marriage, fathers who have chosen to accept newborn girls as family members may value them highly. Thus Pliny’s consular friend Minitius, whose mourning for his prematurely deceased daughter compares with Cicero’s grief for Tullia (275-282). Shelton’s discussion includes the legalities of dowries, and Pliny is pleased to let readers know that he has contributed in two instances to provisions for the daughters of impecunious friends (285-288). From everyday families to the imperial court, Shelton relates the sad life-story of Julia, Titus’ daughter, to whom Pliny gives brief notice in order to put her uncle Domitian under suspicion of incestuous exploitation as generating the pregnancy whose abortion caused her death.

Conceivably the woman whose appearance Pliny fans will be anticipating is the Vestal Cornelia whose condemnation and punishment under Domitian dominate chapter seven, “Women outside the Family”. In preparation, Shelton opens the chapter with a short history of the Vestal College from its supposed inauguration by Numa Pompilius, giving attention to their selection, duties, prohibitions, and privileges. Coming then to the text of Letter 4.11, which she terms “a prime example of Pliny’s co-optation of literary form for the construction of historical narrative”, she shows with close-grained literary analyses how Pliny puts the devil in the details, slanting his images of Domitian and Cornelia so as to make the victim, even if guilty, a more sympathetic personage than her judge and executioner.

Amid Shelton’s richly detailed representation the mature women of Como are the figures who stand out most conspicuously. If the book can be faulted it is for the unnecessarily frequent repetitions of factual information about these key players. In exploring the themes and topics evoked by the letters, Shelton keeps her readers consistently aware how a rhetorical adept like Pliny can craft a positive ethos for public view, but balances this against observations on ways in which his portraits also reflect the images of his subjects as they themselves wish to be seen, as when he pays tribute to the noble Fannia’s personal charm. One component of favorable self-portraiture is social validation, and Pliny’s positive spin on the world of Trajan is often remarked. Barring a few exploitative provincial governors, and greedy legacy seekers whom Pliny the orator can cheerfully marginalize, Pliny omits almost all the inevitable negatives. None of the women of his letters is divorced and only one is adulterous, and she is in a provincial location. Among social enemies disease and early death are the most pernicious. What ultimately emerges is a sympathetic portrayal of Pliny himself, an observer with a degree of social sensitivity, a beneficiary of privilege and security nevertheless aware of financial burdens and hardships and of the sadness of loss. With thought for his posthumous fame, he seeks earnestly to deserve it as the solidly constructive public servant progressing from one to another post of duty, wistfully desiring children as much for familial as for political reasons, but able to lend kindly attention to parental concerns of friends and associates. Overall one has to think that Calpurnia came off fortunately from the early imperial marriage exchange.