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Arethusa 36.2 (2003) 109-113
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Ruth Morello and Roy K. Gibson
This collection has its origin in a one-day conference held at the University of Manchester in November 2000, part of which was then taken on the road as a panel for the APA Annual Meeting in Philadelphia in January 2002. The impetus for the project was twofold: first, the sense that Pliny had for too long been a quarry for critics prospecting for Realien, who mined the rich seams of the letters for "information" on all aspects of Roman social, agricultural, and legal life or imperial government; and, secondly, that the monumental guide to such practices that was Sherwin-White's magisterial commentary of 1966 needed to be re-evaluated and its effects balanced out by more "literary" approaches, particularly those of critics who showed a more modern awareness of how Pliny "salted his mine" by constructing and controlling in a highly crafted epistolary mosaic (to use the image proposed by Henderson in the first paper of this volume) the representation of himself and his world. That these images—of mosaic and mine/quarry—seem uneasily combined in this way reflects the tensions inherent in the critical handling of the "authenticity" of the letters: for some critics, they are raw material, rough stones and ores, while for others, including all of the contributors to this volume, they have already been cut and polished to precisely calibrated dimensions and assembled by the epistolary craftsman into a masterly design.
Our collective enterprise is, we believe, timely, as Pliny is beginning to have his share in the revival of interest in Latin literature of the so-called "silver age" which has hitherto largely focussed on the poets of the immediately post-Augustan era (Statius, Lucan, Martial, and Valerius Flaccus have all received one or more recent major studies) and on the enduring colossus of Tacitus. A useful onomasticon (Birley 2000) and several monographs have appeared recently, including those by Ludolph (1997), Hoffer [End Page 109] (1999), and Beutel (2000), of which Hoffer, in particular, has substantially contributed to the development of these papers in the aftermath of the conference. 1 Our collection is avowedly diverse in its critical viewpoints, but all the papers are united by the desire to focus the gaze of critics on the letters themselves as bearers of meaning, on Pliny's carefully hidden agenda and the attention-deflecting strategies of concealment he deploys, or on the nature of the literary monument he has constructed. In the interests of moving away from the search for Realien, we have excluded consideration of Book 10, but the papers collectively cover a representative range of letters, topics, and issues from the first nine books.
The opening two papers deal with general, but central, issues: the fallacy of the "documentary" approach and the self-fashioning of the writer of epistles. The first paper, by John Henderson, lays out the basic context in which research on Pliny has taken place in the Anglophone world: namely A. N. Sherwin-White's monumental commentary (1966), his edition of Fifty Letters of Pliny from the following year, and the various contributions of Betty Radice in article and translation form. These scholars emphasised the transparency of the letters and their provision of relatively easy and unmediated access to Pliny the man and to the society in which he lived. Henderson emphasises instead the extent to which the letters provide a highly self-conscious self-representation: addressees are carefully chosen, letters carefully edited, and doubt, fear, and hesitation skilfully deflected away from the persona of the writer himself. Particularly telling for his remodelling of the self, it is argued, are Pliny's villa letters (which feature twice later in the volume), which offer a studiously idealising self-portrait of their owner and of his letters.
Anna de Pretis, in concord with Henderson's approach, likewise insists that a documentary approach, a search for "authenticity," "sincerity," or "truth and accuracy" in the letters is mistaken. Rather, she seeks to establish an alternative approach based on "epistolarity": the use of the letter's formal properties to generate meaning. The paper...