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Arethusa 36.2 (2003) 147-165

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Otium as Luxuria:
Economy of Status in the Younger Pliny's Letters

Eleanor Winsor Leach

Among Pliny's more poignant tributes to deceased senatorial colleagues is that honoring C. Fannius, whose death curtailed his writing of a lengthy historical account of the Emperor Nero's victims and abuses of power. The three volumes completed were diligently researched and stylistically engaging, inter sermonem historiamque medios. Frequent, enthusiastically received readings fired the author's desire for further production. Pliny attributes the unfinished state of Fannius's book to his need to economize his time for writing it amidst a schedule of judicial obligations. That Fannius was a public man added value to his work even while impeding its progress. Thus Pliny meditates on the antithesis of voluptates and opera (Epistles 5.5.4):

Nam qui voluptatibus dediti quasi in diem vivunt, vivendi causas cotidie finiunt, qui vero posteros cogitant, et memoriam sui operibus extendunt, his nulla mors non repentina est, ut quae semper incohatum aliquid abrumpat.

For persons dedicated to pleasures live as if from day to day, and daily they terminate their reasons for living, but those who think truly of future generations and extend their memory by their works, for these persons there is no death that is not untimely, as always interrupting something just begun. 1 [End Page 147]

Pliny's dichotomy of lifestyles centers about writings, which, as material products, confer a measure of value upon time. Paradoxically, it is Fannius's prospective immortalitas that renders his death untimely (immatura mors). Fannius's ambitious perseverance in writing makes him parallel with Pliny, who closes the letter with reflections on his own mortality and that of his correspondent, Novius Maximus, both motivated by the aim of creating a memorial that death cannot remove. These reflections are paradigmatic of the phenomenon I will discuss in this paper: Pliny's construction of time within the field of cultural semiotics as a location for symbolic capital. Just as productivity is opposed to indulgence, Pliny positions otium, or luxury time, as an alternative to material luxury: a sign of status whose valuation is wholly dependent upon its modes of employment and display.

From its first extant mention in Latin literature, a soldiers' chorus in Ennius's tragedy Iphigenia (frg. xcix Jocelyn), otium has defined itself by its separation from negotium, the precondition of its conceptual existence, but the relationship changes with the changing conditions of society. While the opposition between otium and negotium during periods of triumviral ascendency renders leisure an ambivalent condition for Cicero, 2 Pliny constructs this opposition as the reason for leisure to be prized. In his comprehensive study of the Roman intellectual history of otium, J. M. André traced (1966.531) Cicero's republican ambivalence into a downward spiral of pejorative associations with luxury among Augustan writers. Within this context, he judged Pliny's approach to temporal economics a republican throwback "showing the moral scruples of Cicero and a Catonian fear of wasted time" (535). This paper will take a rather different approach, invoking Pierre Bourdieu's concept of "symbolic capital" to argue that Pliny reinvents the Roman significance of otium for his social and political context, as luxury time, and associates it with cultural production in such a way as to confer distinction upon aristocratic life. 3 Cultural products gain value [End Page 148] as symbolic capital through connection with a society in which they can figure as commodities of investment and exchange. This paper will sketch four aspects of Pliny's construction of otium as luxuria: 1, its difficulty to obtain; 2, its value in reciprocity; 3, its status as reward; 4, its significance for government and society.

To appreciate the significance with which Pliny infuses his configuration of otium, we need to place it alongside contemporaneous cultural valuations of material luxuria, a topic on which Pliny is curiously silent. I say curiously because other imperial writers, almost without exception, have words of praise or blame on the subject. 4 Having in recent years become the focus of considerable...


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