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Arethusa 38.1 (2005) 103-129

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Docta Otia:

Garden Ownership and Configurations of Leisure in
Statius and Pliny the Younger1

University of Virginia

It is in the works of Statius and Pliny the Younger that we find some of the first full-scale literary descriptions of villas and their gardens. In the Silvae, Statius includes a number of encomiastic poems describing the extravagant private estates owned by his patrons (1.2, 1.3, 1.5, 2.2, 2.3, and 3.1), while Pliny composed two of his longest letters on two of his own estates (Epistles 2.17, 5.6). Both authors use these descriptions of extensive and elaborate estates as ecphrastic models of self-representation, literary programmatics and ideals, representations of patrons, and moral positioning. These texts reflect in important ways the circumstances of leisure and the pursuit of literature in their times.

The similarities as well as the differences between the two authors' literary treatments of estates are telling. Both authors seek to justify villa life and the wealth that makes it possible by giving it transcendent meaning.2 As an admiring guest, Statius takes us on tours that expose the wondrous marvels of his wealthy patrons' estates while revealing the virtuous qualities of their owners, most of whom have retired from public affairs. Pliny, however, writes of his own estates in a manner that is meant to illustrate his [End Page 103] own qualities as both writer and aristocrat and to validate his leisure time—in opposition to his activities as an active and successful politician.

Through what could be called a "poetics of real estate" (Hinds 2001), the villa gardens of Statius and Pliny function as powerful displays of material wealth and as symbols of an acceptable form of intellectual and, above all, literary otium redefined to fit the new times as "learned leisure," docta otia (Silvae 1.3.108; Pliny 1.22.11: studiosum otium), which is distanced from suggestions of political disapproval or resistance. Many of Statius's wealthy patrons in the Silvae are themselves involved in literary composition and recitation, which is indicative of the high level of dilettante activity in this period. Pliny's letters confirm the importance of the pursuit of literature as a class responsibility (e.g., Epist. 1.13, 3.15, 4.3, 5.17, 8.12). Peter White suggests that, in the first century, the recognition of recitation as a new forum for self-advertisement led to literature being co-opted "as a manifestation of Roman excellence and integrated into patterns of social activity."3 At the same time, both leisure and literature become more perilous under the empire. In the marginal domains of country villas, Statius and Pliny represent literature and intellectual studies as flourishing,4 but on themes now increasingly limited in scope.

A shift in attitude towards leisure has been identified in the later empire. Already under Augustus, political developments encouraged more display of, and competition in, private luxury, as public opportunities for advertisements of social status were increasingly co-opted by the imperial family (see Eck 1984). A lavish way of life became a potent—and safer—way the elite could express social distinctions and power.5 As traditional virtus became increasingly suspect (see Pliny Pan. 45.1: "priores quidem principes . . . vitiis potius civium quam virtutibus laetabantur," "previous emperors took greater pleasure in the vices of their citizens than in their virtues"), A. J. Woodman argues that there were "powerful reasons why during the empire men described their lack of ambition in terms of otium."6 The practice of leisure was safer than a political career (see Pliny Epist. [End Page 104] 8.14.7 on life under earlier "bad" emperors: "cum suspecta virtus, inertia in pretio," "when ability is suspect, inactivity is prized";cf. Tac. Agr. 6 on life under Nero: inertia pro sapientia fuit, "to be inactive was to be wise"). Statius's villa patrons can be seen as pursuing this emphatically non-ambitious otium. Pliny, on the other hand, praises the Emperor...


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