BMCR 2022.06.19

The arts of imitation in Latin prose: Pliny’s “Epistles”/Quintilian in brief

, The arts of imitation in Latin prose: Pliny's "Epistles"/Quintilian in brief. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. Pp. xviii, 557. ISBN 9781108476577 $140.00.


The imitative technique of Latin poets has been the focus of scholarly interest for several decades[1] and recently increasing attention has been devoted to the presence of intertextual references in Latin prose.[2] In the volume under review here, Christopher Whitton offers a detailed analysis of the imitative technique of Pliny the Younger and of the intertextual presence of Quintilian’s Intitutio oratoria in the Epistles, thus producing an important case-study on imitationas a key to reading Latin prose.  The main purposes of the book—well achieved by the author—are three: (1) to shed light on the reception of Quintilian in Pliny’s Epistles; (2) to read Pliny’s collection from a new perspective: “textual, autobiographical, intellectual-historical and above all as a unique achievement in miniaturist art” (p. xii); and (3) to spur a discussion about the intertextuality of Roman prose and rhetorical culture. The book is structured into twelve chapters (1–494), preceded by a table of contents (ix–xi), a few pages Ad lectorem (xii–xiv), the section Quintilian in Brief, in Brief (xv–xvii), in which the author introduces in nuce the contents of the book, and a list of abbreviations (xviii). The volume is enriched by an updated bibliography (References: 495–530), followed by three indexes: an index locorum (531–549); an index of Greek and Latin words (550), and a general index (551–557).

The first two chapters bring the reader in medias res by giving an example of the method with which the author approaches the texts of Quintilian and Pliny and, more generally, their cultural and literary milieu. The chapter Two Scenes from the Life of an Artist (1–19) is conceived as a prelude providing the reader with two examples (Ep. 1.6 and 9.36) in which Pliny reworks passages from the Institutio oratoria. The subsequent chapter, Setting the Stage (20–68), aims (1) to present the dramatis personae of Quintilian and Pliny and their teacher-pupil relationship, (2) to provide an overview of the early reception of the Institutio oratoria and of the Epistles, considering the latter’s intertextual patterns and scholarship,[3] and (3) to pave the way to a more enlightened understanding of the presence of Quintilian’s work in the Epistles as a complex performance of μίμησις and to shed light on its relationship to the culture of Roman imitatio in which it was produced.

Chapters 3 to 8 provide the reader with methods for reading Pliny’s imitation of the Institutio oratoria. The mainstay of the third chapter (69–107), Brief Encounters, is the following question: “When Pliny uses words or phrases familiar from the Institutio, how will we legislate between inadvertent or unconscious echoes on the one hand, imitatio on the other?” (69). Whitton develops his case providing the reader with ten or so loci where Pliny reworks an isolated detail (e.g. “a metaphor, an epigram, a touch of point” [71]) of the Institutio oratoria in order to define some aspects of the Plinian imitative technique and to show that these are deliberate reworkings of the model. Chapter 4 (108–133), Dancing with Dialectic, focuses on dialogicity between Pliny’s Epistles and Quintilian’s Institutio oratoria and explores a wider variety of liaisons which show that “there is a system in the consistency with wich Pliny adapts, incorporates, remodels” Quintilian’s text (133). In Through the LookingGlass (134–191) the author takes into account four letters (Plin. Ep. 2.14, 3.13, 4.7, and 5.8) which contain a ‘window imitation’ (i.e. the text A reworks a text B that is in turn imitating another text C): one leading to Thucydides and three to Cicero (two to the De oratore and one to the Orator).[4] The sixth chapter (192–248), On Length, in Brief (Ep. 1.20), persuasively shows that Ep. 1.20, addressed to Tacitus, has been written by Pliny with a sharp eye on part of Quint. Inst. 12.10. Before grappling with the analysis of Ep. 7.9, covered in chapter 8, Whitton’s chapter 7, Letters to Lupercus (249–271), aims to show two modes of imitation that can be found in Ep. 2.5 and 9.26, arguing that, as far as imitative technique is concerned, Lupercus’ second letter is a sort of ‘sequel’ to Epistles 1.20, while his first is like a ‘prequel’ to Epistles 7.9: “If Epistles 9.26 is unusually slippery in imitative terms, the sheer imitative density of Epistles 2.5 puts it in the running for the title of Pliny’s wittiest act of transformation. Until we turn the page to Epistles 7.9” (271). As mentioned above, the following chapter (272–322), Studiorum secessus (Ep. 7.9), delves into showing that Ep. 7.9, addressed by Pliny to his protégé Fuscus Salinator to guide him in his studies, is heavily indebted to Quint. Inst. 10.5 and draws on passages from Cicero’s De oratore and Pro Archia, recognised as Quintilian’s models.

In chapters 9 and 10 Whitton explores two interrelated issues: “the place of Quintilian in Pliny’s ethopoeia, and the possibility that his Q-imitatio is holistic and systematic” (xvi). The discussion in chapter 8 about the ‘imitative acme’ of Pliny shown by Ep. 7.9 leads the author to take into account in Docendo discitur (323–352) the cycle of letters concerning C. Ummidius Quadratus and Fuscus Salinator (esp. Ep. 6.11, 6.29, 9.36 and 9.40),[5] in order to show that the Institutio oratoria is not only a model for language or rhetorical lore, but also for a ‘project of ethopoeia’. In the same vein as the previews of chapters 1 and 2, chapter 10 (353–406), Reflections of an Author, falls into two parts. In the first half Whitton shows Pliny’s reworking of the Quintilianic prefaces: in particular Ep. 2.9 and 8.4, a pair of cameos for Trajan, where the author detects Inst. 4 praef. as model, and the epicedion for Minicia Marcella addressed to Aefulanus Marcellinus in Ep. 5.16, indebted to Inst. 6 praef. The second part of the chapter sheds light on a divided imitation of Inst. 12.11, where Quintilian shares his insights on the orator’s retirement, across Ep. 3.1, Ep. 3.5 and 9.3; the latter in particular, showing how Quintilian, Seneca, Sallust and Cicero merge with the author’s voice, is “a useful reminder that imitatio in the Epistles is a polyphonic business” (405).

Drawing us deeper still into the penetralia of Pliny’s imitative technique, the eleventh chapter (407–472), Quintilian, Pliny, Tacitus, pursues two main directions: (1) to explore the Panegyricus and the correspondence with Trajan known as Epistles 10 in order to better define Pliny’s imitatio in the Epistles, and (2) to argue that the Dialogus de oratoribus of Tacitus, who was as careful a reader of Quintilian as Pliny, antedates the Plinian epistolary, in which it is indeed frequently imitated, and that “the whole Tacitus cycle is bound into a specifically Quintilianic project” (xvi). The title of the final chapter (473–494), Beginnings, is an omen: Whitton takes into account the intertextual references found in Inst. 1 praef. and in Plin. Ep. 1.1–2 and 9.1–2 to try to answer the question of whether the Epistles are in their entirety a “scripted supplement” to Quintilian’s Institutio oratoria and comes to the conclusion that “the Institutio is hard-wired into the structure of this collection, and the trail runs from Pliny’s first words to his last” (494).

Overall, Christopher Whitton is undoubtedly as much vir doctus as scribendi peritus; his highly articulate prose is clear, his arguments stringent and convincing. The subject matter, although very complex, is made a pleasant reading by the author’s personality that emerges here and there to amiably draw the reader’s attention. This comprehensive study of Pliny’s complex interactions with Quintilian’s Institutio oratoria provides a nuanced picture of the imitative technique of the imperial-age author and, at the same time, gives the readers food for thought on the application of different imitation strategies and on the method by which to approach them. Needless to say, this book is a very useful addition to Plinian scholarship and, more generally, a milestone for all those concerned with intertextuality.


[1] On imitation in Latin poetry, see, e.g., David West & Tony Woodman (eds.), Creative Imitation and Latin Literature, Cambridge 1979; Gian Biagio Conte, The Rhetoric of Imitation: Genre and Poetic Memory in Virgil and Other Latin Poets, Ithaca & London 1986; Philip Hardie, The Epic Successors of Virgil: A study in the dynamics of a tradition, Cambridge 1993; Stephen Hinds, Allusion and Intertext: Dynamics of Appropriation in Roman Poetry, Cambridge 1998; Lowell Edmunds, Intertextuality and the Reading of Roman Poetry, Baltimore 2001; Damien P. Nelis, Vergils Aeneid and the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius, Leeds 2001; Gesine Manuwald & Astrid Voigt (eds.), Flavian Epic Interactions, Berlin & Boston 2013. See recently the studies collected in Neil Coffee, Christopher W. Forstall, Lavinia Galli Milić & Damien P. Nelis (eds.), Intertextuality in Flavian Epic Poetry, Berlin & Boston 2019 (with further bibliography).

[2] Concerning intertextuality in Latin prose, see e.g. Wolfgang Polleichtner (ed.), Livy and Intertextuality. Papers of a Conference Held at the University of Texas at Austin, October 3, 2009, Trier 2010; Kelly E. Shannon, “Livy and Tacitus on Floods: Intertextuality, Prodigies, and Cultural Memory,” in: Olivier Devillers & Breno Battistin Sebastiani (eds.), Les Historiens grecs et romains: Entre sources et modèles, Bordeaux 2018, 233-246; Myrto Garani, Andreas N. Michalopoulos & Sophia Papaioannou (eds.), Intertextuality in Senecas Philosophical Writings, London & New York 2020. On Tacitus’ imitative technique, see e.g. Timothy A. Joseph, Tacitus the Epic Successor. Virgil, Lucan, and the narrative of civil war in the Histories, Leiden 2012; Anthony J. Woodman, From Poetry to History: Selected Papers, Oxford 2012, esp. 243–256 and 384-394. An interesting case of study is the imitation of Latin poetry by Greek novelist; see Daniel Jolowicz, Latin Poetry in the Ancient Greek Novels, Oxford 2021. See also Gavin Kelly, Ammianus Marcellinus: The Allusive historian, Cambridge 2008.

[3] On the imitative technique of Pliny the Younger see e.g. Ilaria Marchesi, The Art of Plinys Letters: A poetics of allusion in the private correspondence, Cambridge 2008; Ead., “The Regulus connection: displacing Lucan between Martial and Pliny,” in: Alice R. König & Christopher Whitton (eds.), Roman Literature under Nerva, Trajan and Hadrian: Literary interactions, AD 96138, Cambridge 2018, 349-365.

[4] The ‘window reference’ has been defined by Richard F. Thomas, Virgil’s Georgics and the art of reference, in: Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 90 (1986), 171–198, esp. 188–189; see, recently, Colin Burrow, Stephen J. Harrison, Martin McLaughlin & Elisabetta Tarantino (eds.), Imitative Series and Clusters from Classical to Early Modern Literature, Berlin & Boston 2020. This kind of imitation has been studied for Valerius Flaccus, reader of Apollonius Rhodius and Virgil, by Damien P. Nelis (see e.g. Damien P. Nelis, “Allusive technique in the Argonautica of Valerius Flaccus,” in: Neil Coffee, Christopher W. Forstall, Lavinia Galli Milić & Damien P. Nelis (eds.), Intertextuality in Flavian Epic Poetry, Berlin & Boston 2019, 65–86). See also Lorenzo Vespoli, “Unbeknownst to parents: the intertextual models of Val. Fl. 1.179-181 (Hom. Od. 2.372–376, Ap. Rh. 3.736-739, and Verg. Aen. 9.287-292),” in: Una-Koinè 2 (2021), 135–149.

[5] For the notion of Plinian ‘cycles’ see Roy K. Gibson & Ruth Morello, Reading the Letters of Pliny the Younger: An introduction, Cambridge 2012; see also Thomas J. Keeline, The Reception of Cicero in the Early Roman Empire: The rhetorical schoolroom and the creation of a cultural legend, Cambridge 2018, 289-290.