BMCR 2015.05.41

Pliny the Younger: Epistles, Book II. Cambridge Greek and Latin classics

Christopher Whitton, Pliny the Younger: Epistles, Book II. Cambridge Greek and Latin classics. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. xiii, 328. ISBN 9780521187275 $34.99 (pb).

Christopher Whitton’s commentary on Pliny’s Epistles 2 reinforces the growing scholarly tendency to read the Epistles in sequence and to appreciate individual books as distinct literary units (e.g., Whitton 2010; Gibson and Morello 2012). Whitton’s volume rejects previous anthologizing approaches, instead focusing on the twenty letters of Epistles 2, the shortest book of the collection. As stated in the Preface, the volume aims to “help readers construe Pliny’s Latin, to situate his work in a historical (and scholarly) context and to offer a literary interpretation” (p. vii). Whitton’s chief contribution lies in the third goal, whereby attention to Pliny’s structural engineering provides readers an opportunity to appreciate fully the artistry of Book 2and, as well, the entire corpus of Epistles. The return of individual letters to their books and to the whole collection, Whitton notes, “is not only to pay due respect to the integrity of an aesthetically arranged work of art, it is essential to an appreciation of it” (pp. 12-13). Whitton’s volume admirably achieves this objective, offering a welcome resource for students and scholars alike, both of whom will benefit from the author’s philological expertise and interpretative insight.

The 41-page introduction is divided into 9 sections: (1) Epistles in brief; (2) Pliny’s world; (3) A book of letters; (4) Prose d’art; (5) Rhythm; (6) Intertextuality; (7) Afterlife; (8) Transmission, text, indexes; (9) Ad lectorem. In the first, Whitton situates Pliny’s letters within their historical context, the epistolary tradition, and previous scholarly approaches to the collection; more recent trends, he observes, have been aimed at reversing the customary mining of letters for use in historical source books or anthologies, which has too often resulted in “eradicating…such meaning as may reside in sequence and interplay within and between books” (p. 1). Section 3, in particular, underscores Pliny’s conscientious self-fashioning in producing an “epistolary monument” that will secure his literary immortality. Here Whitton more explicitly demonstrates the benefits of reading the individual book as a unit, aligning this approach with those traditionally applied to books of poetry, such as Horace’s Epistles 1 or Odes 2. Attention to Epistles 2 as an independent literary work is, however, balanced by Whitton’s observations on the Book’s role within the collection as a whole, especially as the second half of a diptych ( Epistles 1-2), which weaves together Pliny’s preconsular life through analogous letter pairings (p. 19). At the same time, of course, Epistles 2 is constantly engaged in the act of reframing, with many topics and themes anticipating parallel letters in subsequent books (e.g., 2.17 on Pliny’s Laurentine villa and 5.6 on the Etruscan villa; Regulus’ perjury on his son’s life in 2.20 and on the death of his son in 4.2). Sections 4, a glossary of literary terms, and 5, an examination of prose rhythm, will prove especially useful to less experienced Latinists by illustrating Pliny’s rhetorical art and stylistic tendencies through specific textual examples.

Following the Introduction is the full text of Epistles 2 (pp. 45-64); Whitton follows the editions of Mynor (1963) and Schuster (1958), noting the few textual divergences in the Introduction (p. 42). The commentary proper (pp. 65-281) elaborates many of the points raised in the Introduction (especially Sections 1-3). Whitton helpfully introduces each epistle with a brief outline of the letter’s content, including its political and social milieu, followed by prosopographical remarks. Comments are nicely balanced between grammatical explanations and suggestions for fitting translations that are eloquent and refreshingly modern. Explications of individual words and phrases encourage nuanced readings of the text, offering insightful notes, including intertextual observations and comments on the cultural context in which Pliny wrote. Occasionally, Whitton is prone to over-liberality as, for example, his gloss of precibus ( Ep. 2.9.6), “entreaties, common in P. of canvassing” (p. 146), which seems unnecessary, or studiis (( Ep. 2.2.2) “intellectual activity, esp. of a literary kind, abl. with fruor ” (p. 88). Yet, in the case of students, more is more, and Whitton’s explanations of less familiar usages (e.g., gaudemus with the infinitive, Ep. 2.5.4, p. 114) or technical and idiomatic expressions such as those related to court proceedings (e.g., Ep. 2.11) will benefit even more advanced Latinists and scholars. Abundant cross-references highlight the role of intertextuality in Pliny’s letters, increasing the reader’s appreciation of Pliny’s stylistic and thematic indebtedness to predecessors.

Literary and structural analysis is at the forefront of Whitton’s commentary; he discards simple varietas as the organizing principle of Epistles 2, unpacking the book’s many structural and thematic complexities. Less discerning readers will certainly benefit from Whitton’s observations on the interwoven arrangement between letters, such as the topic of the stingy dinner host ( Ep. 2.6) and the statues awarded to Spurinna and Cottius ( Ep. 2.7), of which both are introduced by a pair of analogies (a meal and a statue) in Ep. 2.5; or the theme of frugalitas, introduced in ( Ep. 2.4 and echoed in ( Ep. 2.6. Yet, Whitton’s helpful articulation of less immediately obvious connections, especially thematic strains carried across books and within the dyadic Epistles 1-2, offers all readers a much richer reading experience of Pliny. For example, Whitton highlights links between the portrait of the sophist Isaeus in Ep. 2.3, which echoes that of the sophist-philosopher Euphrates in Ep. 1.10 (pp. 89-90), while his discussion of Regulus in Ep. 2.20 makes connections to Pliny’s exploitation of him in Epistles 1.5, 4.2, 4.7, and 6.2, significantly enhancing the reader’s appreciation of Pliny’s epistolary architecture.

No less illuminating are Whitton’s analyses of Ep. 2.11 and 2.17, the longest letters of Book 2, in which he aptly demonstrates how 2.11’s careful structure accentuates Pliny’s dramatic, exemplary role in the court proceedings against Marius Priscus; likewise, the challenging ekphrastic aspects of 2.17 (the Laurentine villa) receive elucidation through Whitton’s careful attention to the letter’s narrative organization. Thus, in revealing how aspects of length, correspondent, narrative framework, and larger symmetrical and thematic concerns (e.g., otium vs. negotium, pp. 13-15) govern the arrangement of Book 2, Whitton highlights the literary design of the Epistles as a whole.

Some readers may perceive oversights in Whitton’s volume: aside from brief comments in the Introduction (Section 1, pp. 4-5) on the issue of authenticity, relevant discussions on epistolary theory and epistolarity are largely absent; so, too, is a fuller account of the court system of the time, a somewhat surprising omission, given the prominence of ( Ep. 2.11 as the central letter of Epistles 2 and the lengthy commentary accompanying it. Yet, these are minor objections and do not in the least detract from the volume’s overall success. Whitton’s insightful interpretations reveal a profound understanding of Epistles 2 and Pliny’s collection more generally. Significantly, while the volume maintains the philological and intellectual rigor expected of “Green and Yellow” texts, it does not alienate less experienced Latinists (as I have experienced first-hand with my undergraduates this past semester). In sum, Whitton’s philological expertise and insightful discussions provide a sophisticated resource for mature academics and a catalyst for invigorating classroom discussion for students. As a volume that complements the resurgence of epistolography and Plinian studies, Epistles 2 offers Latinists an opportunity to enjoy the experience of reading Pliny’s letters in sequence and, subsequently, to appreciate the overall literary and artistic design of Pliny’s epistolary oeuvre.