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  • Self and Community in the Younger Pliny
  • Andrew M. Riggsby

Pliny the Younger described himself as an imitation, if a somewhat pale one, of Cicero (4.8.4–5, 9.2.2–3). 1 In a recent paper examining this connection, I argued that its value for Pliny lay in the identification of both men as orators and the further identification of the orator as an “engaged public figure.” 2 In this paper, I want to nuance that claim by giving further consideration to the connection between “engaged” and “public.” Examination of this notion involves consideration of the interaction of individuals with a community and the way this interaction is framed in ethical terms. This, in turn, leads to the question of the precise nature of the individual/community distinction. A reading of Pliny’s letters against the texts of some of his near contemporaries reveals significant differences in their respective theories of the self and its interaction with the world. In particular, Pliny can be shown (contrary to some recent accounts) to employ for the most part a remarkably conservative notion of the relationship between individual and community.

In letter 5.3, Pliny defends his production of light verse not only with exempla of senators and emperors (including Cicero) who did the same (5.3.5), but also of Vergil, Nepos, Accius, and Ennius, who are included on the strength of their sanctitas morum (5.3.6). 3 The Roman elite had always conflated their social standing and political authority with moral [End Page 75] superiority to some degree. It would be but a short step for Pliny to construct, if only locally, a hierarchy of authority based purely on moral grounds; he makes only a token apology for the possible innovation. Compare Pliny’s teacher Quintilian, who enthusiastically adopts Cato’s definition of the orator as a uir bonus dicendi peritus, “a good man, skilled in speaking” (; 2.15.33–34, 16.11, 17.31; 12.1.1, 3). This definition and Quintilian’s entire discussion of the perfect orator (12.1) focus on an ethical interpretation of the role of the orator, quite likely in response to the role of delatores in unpopular prosecutions. 4 To Pliny’s priuata exempla we might also compare the entire collection of Valerius Maximus. Bloomer 1992.19, 147–229 notes a procedure of “dehistoricization” that goes on in the composition of his exempla. The details of Republican power politics are elided so as to better fit the stories to the moral categories that structure Valerius’ work. We ask, then, whether Pliny’s view of the orator has taken part in this moralization. If so, does that make the orator’s significance more “private” or is Pliny merely extending the traditional tendency to conflate moral and social order?

Pliny’s most extensive discussion of the function of the orator is 6.29. He starts (§§1–2) by accepting the three reasons advanced by one Thrasea for accepting legal cases: 5 friendship, charity to those without other options, and the importance of precedent-setting (ad exemplum pertinentes) cases. He then adds a fourth category of his own: glorious and notable cases (§3). Friendship is certainly an ethical issue; charity could be considered under this head, though Pliny also recommends it because it will improve the orator’s reputation (§2). Similarly, famous cases will improve the orator’s visibility. But why the cases ad exemplum pertinentes? Because their outcome actually matters (§2): quia plurimum referret, bonum an malum induceretur, “because it matters much whether good or ill results.” [End Page 76] At the end of the letter, Pliny lists several cases he has undertaken under this head (§§8–11). They are all criminal prosecutions and defenses (mostly repetundae), public cases the likes of which had made Cicero’s reputation. Thus the orator not only may, but must, take action which is “public” in the strongest sense: it is not only visible, but consequential for the community. In some sense, this too may be regarded as a demand on the orator’s character, but the orator is nonetheless judged ultimately by concrete effects he will have on those around him.

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