Pictures from Roman Life and Story - Alfred J. Church

A Roman Gentleman

To the younger Pliny—for it is in him that I see the type of a "Roman Gentleman"—my readers were introduced in an earlier chapter. He was then living with his uncle and adopting father, learning from him, and helping in his literary work. Of his earlier history—he was then in his eighteenth year—there is little to be told. He was a native of Comum, where his family, a branch of the Cæcilii, had been long settled. His father died in early manhood, leaving him to the guardianship of Verginius Rufus, a distinguished soldier and statesman, who afterwards twice refused the imperial throne.

Verginius was at the time absent in command of the legions which guarded the frontier of the Upper Rhine. Opportunely enough, his mother's brother, the elder Pliny, left Rome at this time to reside at Comum. With him the widow and her two sons (for there was an elder boy who seems to have survived his father for but a short time) went to live. The arrangement lasted till A.D. 72, when the elder Pliny was summoned to Rome by the Emperor Vespasian. Plinia and her son, who by this time had been adopted by his uncle, accompanied him, and remained with him for the rest of his life. A year after his uncle's death Pliny made his first appearance as an advocate in the "Court of the Hundred," which had a jurisdiction in what we call equity. He was not yet nineteen. Very soon afterwards he was made a subordinate magistrate. Some period of military service was obligatory, and we find him in the following year (A.D. 81) holding an honorary commission as tribune in Syria. He saw no active service, being employed in the finance department of the provincial government. Most of his leisure was spent in the learned and philosophical society of Antioch.

Returning to Rome, probably as soon as the obligatory term of six months was completed, he practised with diligence and success as an advocate. In 89 he was Quæstor; in 91 Tribune; in 93 Prætor. His prætorship was marked by the discharge of an important duty. He undertook, in company with a friend, the prosecution of Bæbius Massa, late Procurator of Bætica (Portugal) at the instance of the province, and obtained a verdict against him.

Perilous times followed. A reign of terror made the name of Domitian as infamous as that of Nero had been before him. Informers plied their trade with such zeal and success that no man's life was safe. Pliny's name had been already inscribed on the fatal list (his old enemy, Massa, was now in high favour) when Domitian fell by the hand of an assassin, and Rome began to breathe again. The new régime  brought to Pliny new honours and employments. In A.D. 100 he was made consul, and about eleven years afterwards received, by a special arrangement between the Senate and the Emperor, the governorship of Bithynia. After this we hear no more of him.

The last sixteen years of Pliny's life are covered by a series of letters, which he began to publish in A.D. 97. There are ten books, the last of which contains a correspondence which refers for the most part to the governorship of Bithynia. These letters furnish, as may be supposed, abundant material for my picture.

It is curious to see within what narrow limits the activities of a Roman gentleman who aspired to take a part in public life were confined. In Pliny's case they are almost limited, till he went to take up the government of his province, to what we should call State trials. As Quæstor and Tribune he had practically nothing to do; his duties as Prætor were apparently confined to the management of the public shows and games. But when he was holding this last office, he prosecuted, as has been already said, a corrupt official, and after the fall of the tyrant he became more active in this direction. Immediately after the accession of Nerva, he impeached one Certus, who had been a particularly noxious informer, and though the Emperor vetoed the proceedings, succeeded in stopping the guilty man's career.

Two years afterwards he undertook, this time in concert with his intimate friend, the historian Tacitus, the prosecution of Marius Priscus, who had been scandalously venal in his government of Northern Africa, and pleaded for his old friends of Bætica against the representatives of their late Governor, Classicus. His subsequent appearances in cases of this kind were for the defence. Political life proper hardly existed under the Empire. Still more remarkable is the complete control which we find the Emperor exercising over the proceedings of the Provincial Governor. It is simply astonishing to find how matters of detail, which a Town Council would now dispose of without any hesitation, are referred by a Governor, specially appointed, it should be remembered, for his efficiency, to the decision of the Emperor.

The people of Nicæa had been building a new gymnasium in place of one that had been burnt down. The new structure was very ill-arranged, and a second architect, who had been called in to advise, declared that the walls were not properly cemented. Pliny wants to know what was to be done. Nicomedia had been half burnt down, while the people looked on without offering help. Would the Emperor sanction the enrolment of a volunteer fire-brigade? Trajan answers with a decided negative. Volunteer associations were apt to become political clubs. At Amastria the river had been turned by sewage into a huge drain—one might be reading of a modern town—would the Emperor sanction the expense of covering it over? After a while Trajan remonstrates, when, for instance, he is asked to send an architect from Rome to superintend some local works. But, on the whole, the system, which implies a quite amazing amount of centralization, approved itself to him. That high officials under it were nothing more than clerks, is perfectly evident.

One can easily understand, therefore, that literature offered more of a career than politics. It is in literature that Pliny's chief interests centre. He was an author himself, though of a somewhat dilettante sort.

He liked to publish any important speech that he made in the Courts or before the Senate. The letters from which I quote were a new experiment in literature. Cicero's letters had, indeed, been published after his death by his freedman and secretary, Tiro. But the publication was meant as a contribution to history. Pliny published his correspondence, book by book, with a distinctly literary purpose. Then he was something of a poet, though he does not seem to have aimed at anything higher than writing "society verses." But his interest in the literary activity of others was great and genuine. When the opportunity occurred, he played with great zest the part of the kindly critic or the liberal patron.

He makes a handsome present to Martial, the epigrammatist, when he leaves Rome for his native Spain, and laments the poet's death four years afterwards in a sympathetic letter. The Greek littérateurs  and rhetoricians, against whom Juvenal pours out such unmeasured wrath, found in him a warm friend, ready to help them with his purse, and with what some patrons find it harder to give than money, his personal presence and encouragement.

This he was ready to lend to all aspirants after literary fame. Nothing, indeed, shows the good-nature of the man more than the way in which he speaks of the recitations or public readings by which it was the common practice for writers at Rome to introduce their works to the notice of a larger circle than that of their immediate friends. There is reason to believe that these readings had become a bore of the first magnitude at Rome in Pliny's time. Horace complains of the "troublesome reader," and Juvenal includes among the terrors of city life "the poet who recited from the first day of August till the last."

Pliny seems to have attended these performances with unwearied diligence. He mentions in one of his letters that the year had produced a quite amazing crop of poets, there having been, in particular, scarcely a day in April on which some one did not give a reading. He gravely blames people who were less enthusiastic or patient than himself. There were many who lounged outside as long as they possibly could, and only entered the lecture-room when they were assured that the reader had got through a considerable part of his manuscript. Coming late, they also went away early, some creeping out by stealth, some boldly leaving the room without any attempt at concealment. Pliny will have none of this indifference and half-heartedness. He has not failed, he tells his correspondent, a single reader. He had stopped in town to hear his friends, and even some who were not his friends, recite. Now he was going to enjoy the leisure that would enable him to write something himself, "something," he adds, "which I shall not read."  He would not have it thought that he had been doing a service which he looked to have repaid.

This was no affectation in Pliny. Sometimes, doubtless, his presence was chiefly due to a kindly courtesy; but it commonly expressed a genuine interest in literature. In fact this was the most important thing in life to him. His words, when he is speaking on this subject, have an unmistakable ring of true feeling. "I find," he says, "my joy and solace in literature. There is no gladness that this cannot increase, no grief that this cannot lighten. The ill-health of my wife, the grievous sickness, and sometimes, alas! the death of my friends troubles me, but I fly to my books as the alleviation of my fears." The words may seem cold to us who have had the opportunity of learning what Pliny never knew; but they at least show us a man who disdained an ignoble refuge from the ills of life.

Education is closely akin to literature, and in education Pliny showed the liveliest and most practical interest. His native town was without a school. He had himself found an efficient instructor in his uncle, but less fortunate lads had to go for their education to Milan. Accordingly he promised the people of Como that he would add such a sum to what they themselves should raise, that his contribution should bear the proportion of one third of the whole. He would have been glad to give all, but that his experience told him that such endowments were often jobbed away. People, to be careful, must feel that it was their own money that they were spending. With equal sagacity he determined to put the appointment of the teacher into the hands of the townspeople themselves. Pliny seems to have given this money in his lifetime, for it does not appear among his legacies. Indeed his language implies as much. An inscription to a schoolmaster, discovered at Como, the modern representative of Pliny's birth-place, seems to show that the school was actually founded.

The love of a country life was a prominent feature in Pliny's character. He had abundant opportunities of gratifying it when the time came for leaving Rome. He gives us to understand that he was not in the first rank of wealthy men; nevertheless he seems to have possessed a quite amazing number of country-houses. Two—his winter residence, some twenty miles south of Rome, on the coast of what is now the Campagna, and his summer retreat in Etruria, at the foot of the Apennines—are described at great length. It is not easy to realize their plan and appearance from what their owner tells us about them, but it is quite clear that they were fine houses, with tennis-courts, handsome baths, places for horse exercise, and spacious gardens. He had seats also, which he does nothing more than mention, at the favourite summer resorts of wealthy Romans, as Tusculum, Tibur, and Præneste. And he had several villas on the lake of Como (then commonly known as the Lacus Larius) of which two were his favourites, called respectively, Tragedy and Comedy, from the sombre character of the one, and the cheerful appearance of the other.

We generally connect the idea of sport with a country life. Pliny was not wholly without the taste for such amusements, but he seems to have followed them in a half-hearted sort of way. He would go out boar-hunting when he was at his Tuscan country-house, but contented himself with sitting by the nets, equipped at once with a hunting spear and a pen. If no game happened to come his way, he was perfectly content to spend the time in jotting down something on his tablets. If the hunting goddess, as he puts it, did not favour him, he might be more fortunate with the goddess of letters. Of angling he makes a slight mention. It was an attraction in one of his Como villas that he could fish in the lake from out of the windows.

The glimpses that Pliny gives us of his home life are very pleasing. His first wife he lost in his early manhood; we know nothing about her, not even her name. The second was a Calpurnia, and a native of the same town as her husband. To her he was most tenderly attached. His letters are the letters of a lover. "I am glad," he writes in one, "that you miss me. For my part, I read and re-read your letters, taking them up again and again, as if they were newly come. But all this only stirs in me a keener longing. Write as often as you can, though this tortures me as much as it delights." In another we read, "I spend a great part of the night awake and dwelling on your image; by day, when the hour returns at which I was wont to visit you, my feet take me, without my knowledge, to your chamber. The only time that is free from these torments is when I am worn out by business. Judge what my life must be when I find my repose in toil and my relief in anxiety!" Writing to an aunt of his wife, another Calpurnia, he is loud in her praise. He dwells on her intelligence, her frugality, her keen interest in his pursuits. It specially charmed him that she set to the harp and sang his verses, taught, he says, "by love, who is the best of masters."

He seems to have had no children. This, indeed, was the greatest disappointment of his life. Of his freedmen and slaves, he always speaks in the kindest way. We find him sending a consumptive freedman to Egypt, and afterwards, when a relapse had come on, to Fréjus in the Riviera. The death of his slaves troubled him, he writes to a friend, greatly, not because they were property, but because they were men. He was always glad to make them free. They had his leave to make wills, with this restriction only that they were not to leave away their property outside the family. Altogether, we may believe, Pliny's slaves had a fortunate lot.

Pliny's friends were numerous. He numbered great soldiers, eminent patriots and famous men of letters among them. He can write to them in very varied moods. He is sportive and serious by turns, and he is especially happy when he seeks to console in trouble.

We may allow that his aims were not very lofty. Perhaps a nobler temper would have been less content with the world in which he lived. We miss entirely the note of spiritual feeling. But he lived we may believe, up to his light, a cultured, blameless man, who did his best to make others happy.