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Arethusa 36.2 (2003) 227-234
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Pliny and Gloria Dicendi
If you approach the younger Pliny through a standard selection of his letters, or as the subject of a short essay in a literary history (e.g., von Albrecht 1997.2.1146-57, Conte 1994.525-29, or Goodyear 1982.655-60), or in a sketch of his life (say, Sherwin-White 1969), you will not find him given his due in one respect, namely, as an orator. Yet it was his oratory that secured him his place in the Roman élite and upon which he hoped to base enduring fame. I want to argue that the Letters are designed to keep our attention fixed upon Pliny as orator and to provide as well a sort of insurance policy for the oratory. Pliny was aware that his forensic speeches would be unlikely to command as much interest as Cicero's, but they were, after all, the sum total of his achievement. So he devised clever ways of enhancing interest in his oratory through the Letters (which were arguably not in themselves to be the vehicle of his posthumous renown). I propose, then, that we re-imagine Pliny as what he was on his own terms, an orator.
Pliny's standard image is not, at least to the contemporary sensibility, all that beguiling. He seems to trumpet his own achievements too much for our taste—though Sherwin-White 1966.104 rightly traces this sort of self-advertisement back to Aristotle's Magnanimous Man, who claims his due of praise, in order to show that Pliny was, in this as in so many other ways, thoroughly traditional. (Roy Gibson's essay in this volume addresses itself to this issue.) As a member of the Roman élite, and perhaps all the more as a nouus homo ("new man," i.e., newcomer to the senate and magistracies), Pliny believed that the reward of exceptional uirtus ("excellence in performance") was gloria, a widespread and long-lasting renown accorded by one's fellow citizens for remarkable service to the state. One of the most striking features of the letters, a feature always remarked upon, is Pliny's unslaked appetite for fame. Anne Marie Guillemin quite properly [End Page 227] dedicated a chapter to it (1929.13-22), and she pointed out that Pliny was not content with merely contemporary renown, it had to be renown that would last. In a word, he wanted gloria.
But Pliny was aware of obstacles in his path. I want for a moment to widen the scope of my observations at this point, because I believe that gloria, as a fundamental value of the Roman élite, needs more investigation (which I hope to provide myself in the coming years). The terms in which that value was defined had, at least from the time of the elder Cato, been subject to reappraisal, and what constituted gloria could never be taken for granted, least of all under the principate, when all the traditional avenues to glory were under reconstruction. Let me briefly explain. Cicero—whose late, two-book work de Gloria is, alas, lost—perhaps gives us a précis of its tenor in the second book of his de Officiis. He there acknowledges two avenues to gloria: arms and oratory. By the time he came to think about glory as an aspiration, he could see that military success had proven dangerous to the state where not disastrous to the individual (recall the fate of Crassus, beheaded by the Parthians after his defeat at Carrhae in 53 B.C.). Cicero, not surprisingly, urges more strongly the claims of oratory, particularly forensic oratory, in the service of the state. The principate changed all that. The success of a general—now only dux ("leader"), not imperator ("commander-in-chief")—was circumscribed by the emperor under whose auspices he commanded. The most conspicuous deprivation was the triumph, now restricted to the imperial household. Tacitus will make much of this in the case of Agricola or Corbulo. But Pliny, too, deplored the fact that a great man like Verginius Rufus still...