Pliny the Younger: What Do His Letters Tell Us About Ancient Rome?

Roman writer, lawyer, and senator, Pliny the Younger, wrote hundreds of letters during his illustrious career. Discover what these fascinating sources tell us about imperial Rome.

Apr 7, 2022By Laura Hayward, MA Classics, PGCE Classics, BA Latin with Greek
pliny the younger letter

 

The Letters of Pliny the Younger are one of the most important ancient sources regarding life in the Roman Empire in the first century CE. Pliny, a Roman lawyer and senator, sheds light on social issues, as well as important events in Roman political history. His Letters — most of which are also formal literary compositions — were largely written with an eye to publication, but many were also sent to their intended recipients. As a result, we also have access to interesting written responses, including some from Emperor Trajan himself. Pliny’s range of epistolary topics is impressive in its diversity. He covers everything from intriguing domestic matters and marital rows, to fascinating senatorial debates and the rise of Christianity.

 

Who Was Pliny the Younger? 

pliny the younger statue santa maria maggiore
Statue of Pliny the Younger from the façade of the Cathedral of Santa Maria Maggiore, Como, Italy, pre-1480, via Britannica

 

Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, known to us today as Pliny the Younger, was the son of a wealthy landowner from Comum in northern Italy. Following his father’s death, the young Pliny and his mother went to live with his uncle, Pliny the Elder, near Misenum in southern Italy. Pliny the Elder was the author of the famous ancient encyclopedia the Natural History. Sadly, he was one of the many thousands of people who lost their lives during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE.

 

Pliny the Younger completed an elite education in Rome and soon began a successful career in law and government. He entered the Senate in the late 80s CE and became a consul at the young age of 39 in 100 CE. Around 110 CE, he was appointed to the position of governor of the Roman province of Bithynia-Pontus (modern-day northern Turkey). He is thought to have died in the province around 112 CE.

 

kauffman pliny the younger and his mother at misenum painting
Pliny the Younger and his Mother at Misenum AD 79, Angelica Kauffmann, 1785, via Princeton University Art Museum

 

Pliny’s career is comprehensively documented in an inscription, fragments of which still survive today. Due to a Renaissance drawing, the text of this epigraphic artifact can be reconstructed. It highlights the vast wealth amassed by Pliny during his lifetime as it lists the millions of sesterces that he left behind in his will. He left money for the building and upkeep of a public baths complex and a library. He also left over a million sesterces for the support of his freedmen and half a million for the maintenance of children in the city. The bequests of the will provide an indication of the causes that were most important to Pliny, causes that were also recurring themes in his Letters.

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Pliny on Slaves

roman slave boy marble statuette
Marble statuette of a Roman slave boy, 1st – 2nd century CE, via Met Museum

 

The Letters of Pliny the Younger are an excellent literary source on the lives of slaves and freedmen in ancient Rome. But it is also important to bear in mind that Pliny was writing from a position of privilege and power. The views of such elite members of Roman society were often prone to idealism and exaggeration.

 

Slaves in ancient Rome had no legal rights and were deemed to be property rather than people under Roman law. The treatment of slaves varied widely, but it is believed that most masters did not display unnecessary cruelty toward their slaves. Indeed, maltreatment could be dangerous for masters who were largely outnumbered by their slaves. In Letter 3.14, Pliny demonstrates the threat faced by a cruel master when he tells the story of one Larcius Macedo who was murdered by his slaves while bathing at home.

 

slavery in ancient rome slave collar tag
A bronze collar tag for a slave with a Latin inscription, the translation is as follows: “Hold me so that I do not escape and return me to my master Viventius on the estate of Callistus,” 4th century AD, via British Museum

 

Pliny presents a largely humanitarian attitude toward slaves, by Roman standards. In Letter 8.16, he tells his friend Plinius Paternus that he allows his slaves to make wills, which he treats as legally binding in the event of their deaths. He also claims to be “always ready to grant … slaves their freedom.” The freedom of slaves was nearly always given at the discretion of their masters. Freedom was often granted in a will or at a special manumission ceremony. The slave would go on to assist their former master as their freedman. Freedmen were then supported by their former masters in return for certain obligations and duties in a system of patronage.

 

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Mosaic of slaves serving food and wine at a banquet from the ancient Tunisian town of Dougga, 3rd century AD, photograph by Dennis Jarvis, via Wikimedia Commons

 

In Letter 5.19, Pliny expresses genuine distress at the deteriorating health of his freedman Zosimus. He tells the recipient, Valerius Paulinus, about the excellent service that Zosimus gave as a slave. He also gives a touching account of his many skills and qualities as a person. At the end of his letter, he declares that he feels he owes his freedman the best possible care. He then goes on to ask if Paulinus will accept Zosimus as a guest at his holiday home. His reason being that “the air is healthy and the milk excellent for treating this kind of case.” Sadly, we do not know if Paulinus accepted this unusual request.

 

Pliny on Women

women in ancient rome glass portrait head
Glass (imitating lapis lazuli) portrait head of a woman, possibly the goddess Juno, 2nd century AD, via Met Museum

 

The Roman view of women is presented almost entirely through the eyes of men in the literary sources which survive today. This view often involves a curious dichotomy. On the one hand, there is the idealized Roman matron whose main role is to provide a legal heir and show loyalty to her husband. But, equally prevalent in the sources, is the untrustworthy and uncontrollable nature of the female psyche.

 

In Letter 7.24, Pliny the Younger reflects on the life of Ummidia Quadratilla, a 78-year-old woman who has recently died. Pliny focuses almost entirely on her physical appearance and often resorts to stereotyping. He describes Quadratilla as having “a sound constitution and sturdy physique which are rare in a woman.” He also criticizes her eccentric “sybaritic tastes” which involved keeping a troupe of mime actors in her household. He rather patronizingly blames her overindulgence on the fact that she had “a woman’s idle hours to fill.”

 

women in ancient rome terracotta sculpture
Graeco-Roman terracotta sculpture of two seated women, possibly the goddesses Demeter and Persephone, circa 100 BC, via the British Museum

 

In sharp contrast to Quadratilla is Arria, who appears in Letter 3.16. Here Pliny praises the qualities of a woman who has become famous for her loyalty to her husband. At the point at which her husband decided to commit a “noble suicide,” she took the dagger and stabbed herself first. She then handed the dagger to her husband and said “it does not hurt, Paetus.”

 

Pliny also reflects on her selflessness as a wife. When both her husband and son were ill, her son sadly died. However, in order not to cause her husband further worry she did not tell him of the son’s death until he had recovered. Meanwhile, she organized and attended her son’s funeral alone. Arria is presented as an example of the ultimate univira — a one-man woman — who puts her husband before herself at all times. Pliny’s character presentations of Quadratilla and Arria illustrate well the Roman view of women and its peculiar duality.

 

Pliny and Emperor Trajan

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A gold coin depicting Emperor Trajan on the obverse and Emperor Trajan mounted on a horse heading into battle on the reverse, circa 112-117 CE, via British Museum

 

In around 110 CE, Pliny the Younger became governor of the province of Bithynia-Pontus. As governor, he had a responsibility to report back to the authorities in Rome on various aspects of provincial life. Pliny appears to have corresponded directly with Emperor Trajan in a number of letters, published posthumously as Book 10 of his Letters. Interestingly, we also have Trajan’s response to many of Pliny’s letters. These letters offer valuable insight into the administrative duties of governors and also emperors in the early part of the second century CE.

 

map of roman empire second century ce
Map of the Roman Empire in the 2nd century CE, via Vox

 

In Letter 10.33, Pliny writes to Trajan about a large fire that broke out in Nicomedia, a city in his province. He explains that the fire spread quickly because of a lack of equipment and limited assistance from the local population. He says that he has ordered a fire engine and appropriate equipment as a result. He also asks for permission to set up a company of men to deal solely with future fires. But, in his response, Trajan rejects Pliny’s suggestion for fear of a political disturbance if official groups are sanctioned. His rejection is an indication of the constant risk of uprisings in some of the more hostile provinces in the empire.

 

gerome the christian martyrs last prayer painting
The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer, by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1863-1883, via the Walters Art Museum

 

In Letter 10.96, Pliny writes to Trajan with queries about how he should deal with people who are suspected of being Christians. Christianity did not become a sanctioned religion of the Roman Empire until 313 CE when Emperor Constantine passed the Edict of Milan. In Pliny’s time, Christians were still viewed with suspicion, hostility, and much misunderstanding.

 

Pliny asks Trajan how harsh the punishment should be for those who renounce their faith after questioning. He also gives details about the practices of Christians that have been revealed in interrogations. The practices mentioned include the singing of hymns, abstinence, and the taking of oaths to God. His conclusion is that Christianity is a “degenerative sort of cult carried to extravagant lengths.” It is interesting that this is the view of a person who displays enlightened views toward other persecuted groups, such as slaves and freedmen. The letter, therefore, gives us an idea of the widespread prejudice against Christians at this time.

 

Pliny on the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius

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An umbrella pine in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, photograph courtesy of the Vergilian Society

 

One of Pliny’s most fascinating letters is Letter 6.16, addressed to the historian Tacitus. The letter provides an account of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius on 24th August 79 CE, which also took the life of Pliny’s uncle. Pliny describes the events of the day through his uncle’s eyes. At the time, Pliny the Elder was in command of the Roman fleet stationed at Misenum, in the modern-day Bay of Naples.

 

The first sign of the eruption was a large cloud coming from Vesuvius, which Pliny describes as “being like an umbrella pine” in its appearance. Pliny the Elder was about to investigate further when he received a distress call from the wife of a friend in the form of a letter. He immediately set out by boat to rescue her further up the coast. Hurrying in the opposite direction to everyone else, he reached the lady as ash and pumice began to fall more thickly.

 

turner vesuvius in eruption painting
Vesuvius in Eruption, by J. M. W. Turner, circa 1817-1820, via Yale Center for British Art

 

The situation was becoming so perilous that the only option was to seek shelter at a friend’s house nearby. Apparently, Pliny the Elder then relaxed and dined in high spirits in an attempt to calm the fears of his companions. Later that night sheets of fire started to appear, and neighboring houses were set alight. Pliny’s uncle made the decision to head for the beach to get a better idea of how to escape. Sadly, he never returned and was later found dead on the sand. It is believed that he suffocated from the sulfurous fumes in the air. Pliny describes him as “looking more like sleep than death.” 

 

Pliny’s letter offers a harrowing and personal account of this infamous natural disaster. He gives poignant details of a failed rescue attempt, which must have been replicated up and down the coastline. His account has also been useful to archaeologists and geologists who have since tried to map out the various stages of the eruption that buried the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

 

The Legacy of Pliny the Younger

roman letter writing tools pliny the younger
A Roman letter writing kit, including a wax writing tablet, bronze and ivory pens (styluses), and inkwells, circa 1st-4th century CE, via the British Museum

 

The letters discussed here represent only a tiny percentage of Pliny the Younger’s prolific epistolary output. Aside from letter-writing, Pliny was also a skilled speechwriter. A surviving example is the Panegyricus, written in 100 CE. This was a published version of a speech dedicated to Emperor Trajan that Pliny gave in the Senate in thanks for his appointment to the position of consul. The speech displays the extent of his rhetorical skill in the contrasts made between the brutal Emperor Domitian and his more dignified successor Trajan. The Panegyricus is also a special literary source because it is the only surviving Latin speech between those of Cicero and the late imperial period. Pliny was, as we have seen, a man of many talents. As a hugely successful lawyer, senator, and writer he was uniquely placed to become one of our greatest sources on the society, politics, and history of imperial Rome.



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By Laura HaywardMA Classics, PGCE Classics, BA Latin with GreekLaura Hayward is a contributing writer and researcher from London, UK. She is a specialist in the field of Classics, in which she has either studied or worked for over twenty years. She holds a B.A. and M.A. in Classics from University College London. She has also worked as a teacher of Classics in a leading independent school in London. Her particular areas of interest are Latin language and literature as well as Roman art and epigraphy.