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Arethusa 36.2 (2003) 211-225
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"Aliud Est Enim Epistulam, Aliud Historiam . . . Scribere" (Epistles 6.16.22):
Pliny the Historian?
Dashiell Hammett, in his intriguing unfinished novel Tulip, has one of the main characters, Pop, remember a distinctive story which he had written earlier on in his career (1989.329-30):
A few years before that I had written a story on a Möbius band, designed to be read from any point in it on around to that point again, and to be a complete and sensible story regardless of where you started. It worked out pretty well—I don't mean perfectly; what story ever does?
But pretty well.
Pop's story must have succeeded not only by dispensing with a traditional narrative structure with its beginning, middle, and end, but also by transcending the constraints of a teleological and linear chronological format. 1 [End Page 211] In many ways, this mirrors the way we sometimes read Pliny's letter collection. Rather than beginning at Epistle 1.1 and progressing through to the end, we often plunge in wherever we want, just as a reader of Pop's "Möbius band" story would, or else, like magpies, we extract groups of letters which reflect our own interests. One reason why we feel entitled to do this must lie in Pliny's particular treatment of the epistolary format, which certainly allows us (potentially) to read individual letters in isolation from the rest of the collection. 2 For example, Pliny's letters are not formally dated and frequently prove difficult to date from their contents alone, 3 whereas many of Cicero's letters can be more easily placed in chronological order and, indeed, make much more sense when they are read in relation to other letters. 4 One might compare here Cornelius Nepos's reaction to Cicero's letters to Atticus: "Quae qui legat non multum desideret historiam contextam eorum temporum," "Somebody who reads them does not feel a great need for a connected history of those times" (ad Att. 16.3). Pliny may indeed offer us "historical snapshots" in his letters, but they could hardly be said to constitute a historia contexta. 5 Yet at the same time, this mode of presentation [End Page 212] does at least make it easier to read individual letters on their own as self-contained units. 6 Naturally, if we were (perversely) to choose to read a continuous historical narrative in this selective way, it would become much less accessible—and the difficulties involved in contextualising fragmentary historical narratives reinforce this point. 7
At first sight, then, it seems that there are huge generic differences between a collection of letters and a continuous historical narrative. Indeed, Pliny self-consciously plays with this idea, accentuating the gulf between "humble" letters and "respectable" historiography at several strategic points. In his very first letter, he makes clear that he is not publishing the letters in chronological order and makes a joke at history's expense (Epistle 1.1):
Frequenter hortatus es, ut epistulas, quas paulo curatius scripsissem, colligerem publicaremque. collegi non servato temporis ordine (neque enim historiam componebam), sed ut quaeque in manus venerat. superest, ut nec te consilii nec me paeniteat obsequii. ita enim fiet, ut eas, quae adhuc neglecta iacent, requiram et, si quas addidero, non supprimam.
You have frequently encouraged me to collect and publish any of my letters which I had written with some care. I have collected them, without preserving the original chronological order (for I was not writing a historical narrative), but just as they came into my hands. It remains for you not to regret having given the advice and for me not to regret following it. For so it will come about that I will search for those which up until now lie about having been neglected, and I shall not keep back any others which I shall write in addition. 8
Pliny's pose of casualness in collecting the letters is certainly disingenuous and reveals more about his epistolary persona than...