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  • Pliny and the Art of Saying Nothing
  • Ruth Morello

This paper examines Pliny's habit of "evasive display," a practice which exploits the recusatio to the full and produces the sense of endless deferral in the letters. Letters are generically fluid, covering a broad spectrum in style, content, length, and function. Social constraints, however, are considerable, since letters, both as physical objects and as intellectual artifices, form part of the currency of amicitia, to be exchanged with correspondents as (and with) gifts and representations of the absent friend. The social constraints help to generate, in Stanley Hoffer's word (1999), the "anxieties" of the letters, as Pliny must establish the value of his currency in a literary market in which the "gold standard," so to speak, is still set by the Ciceronian letter collections.

The paper looks first at the two letters which most clearly articulate this anxiety, 9.2 and 3.20, in which Pliny contrasts the paucity of his own material with the richness of Cicero's and develops strategies for successful trading even in a debased currency. The second part of the paper focuses on a type of letter with which Pliny articipates most explicitly in reciprocal gift-exchanges: the "cover letters" sent to friends with copies of his speeches or poems. Many are remarkably uninformative, and this paper asks why they are so reticent about the literary works they accompany and examines their contribution to Pliny's activities in the amicitia market.

The "Nothing to Say" Motif

At 9.2, Pliny offers his readers a programmatic recusatio. Sabinus has apparently asked for more and longer letters; Pliny replies that he lacks material for such letters ("nec materia plura scribendi dabatur"). In contrast to his model, Cicero, whose career and circumstances offered an abundance [End Page 187] of varied and important topics, Pliny and his generation are so constrained (quam angustis terminis claudamur, 9.2.3) that long letters may be only scholasticae and umbraticae.1 Sure enough, Book 9 consists mostly of short letters ("every scrap that his optimistic nature considered worthy of immortality," in A. N. Sherwin-White's memorably catty judgement [1966.50]), with the exception of 9.13 and 9.26, the latter of which, a disquisition on oratorical style, is undoubtedly scholastica.

Letter 9.2 is an elegant piece and displays the characteristic sensitivity to potential mismatches between genre, content, and recipient which will be obvious in several other letters discussed in this paper: Pliny's material must be appropriate not only for lengthy exposition but also to the circumstances of the recipient. In this case, umbraticae litterae or news about frigida negotia (i.e., any accurate representation of the writer's circumstances) would be inappropriately addressed to a man on active military service in a hot, sunny climate (sudorem pulverem soles, 9.2.4).2

In 9.2, then, Pliny uses Cicero's letters self-deprecatingly as a foil for the inadequacies of his own letters. He also assigns to his addressee the espousal of Cicero as an appropriate model ("ad cuius exemplum nos vocas"), a natural strategy for a recusatio, and one which partially exonerates Pliny from the responsibility of aemulatio in the epistolary genre at least-he himself explicitly aspires to a Ciceronian model only in his oratorical works.

A similar anxiety about subject matter, also generated by the dominant Ciceronian model, appears at the end of 3.20, where Pliny says he has seized an opportunity (rare under the emperor's benevolent rule) to write about the res publica: [End Page 188]

Haec tibi scripsi, primum ut aliquid novi scriberem, deinde ut non numquam de re publica loquerer, cuius materiae nobis quanto rarior quam veteribus occasio, tanto minus omittenda est. Et hercule quousque illa vulgaria? "Quid agis? Ecquid commode vales?" Habeant nostrae quoque litterae aliquid non humile nec sordidum, nec privatis rebus inclusum. Sunt quidem cuncta sub unius arbitrio, qui pro utilitate communi solus omnium curas laboresquesuscepit.

I have told you this primarily to give you some genuine news, and then to be able to talk a little about political matters, a subject which gives us fewer opportunities than in the old days, so none must be missed...


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pp. 187-209
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