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Arethusa 36.2 (2003) 127-146
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"Insincerity," "Facts," and "Epistolarity":
Approaches to Pliny's Epistles to Calpurnia
Anna De Pretis
I do hate to tell about myself every day! As if I were the crops.
Mrs. Carlyle, Letters
A good letter is an exercise of the ego, a modest letter writer a contradiction in terms.
Clifton Fadiman, Any Number Can Play
One of the "egos" from the ancient world we can convince ourselves we know best is that of C. Plinius Caecilius Secundus, the Younger Pliny. Indeed, he is in the company of Horace, Cicero, and Ovid in having inspired the likes of such works as Pliny: A Self Portrait in Letters (Radice 1978) and Pliny on Himself (White 1988). All of these authors—we cannot fail to notice immediately—wrote letters, 1 and if it is true that "more than kisses, letters mingle souls; / for, thus friends absent speak" (John Donne, To Sir Henry Wotton), the temptation to listen to those ancient Romans' words as if to those of long-lost friends reaching us through the mists of the centuries [End Page 127] proves almost irresistible for classical scholars. It is the generative impulse of classical scholarship, but is it the only way?
The aim of this article is to suggest a new approach to the reading of Pliny's Letters, one centred around the concept of "epistolarity" (which Janet Gurkin Altman defines as "the use of a letter's formal properties to create meaning" 2 ), and, to that effect, an analysis will be offered of the three letters to Calpurnia (6.4, 6.7, and 7.5) and of 4.19 (in which Pliny talks in some detail of his wife). The basis of the concept of "epistolarity" here espoused is the abandonment of the opposition between "real" and "fictitious" letters, which is central to so much classical scholarship, in order to focus on Pliny's Epistles as instances of a specific (literary) genre, epistolary writing, and to analyse the set of formal and thematic features that combine to determine their affiliation, making them recognisable as letters. (This, of course, if we believe that these features go beyond the date and the initial and final greetings, 3 and if these features, "far from being merely ornamental, significantly influence the way meaning is consciously and unconsciously constructed by writers and readers," Altman 1982.4.)
To start with, though, it will prove fruitful to briefly analyse the ideological assumptions that underlie much of the best scholarship on Pliny's Letters (and on Roman epistolary writing in general), by examining the approaches adopted, in their almost contemporary works, by two influential scholars, A. N. Sherwin-White and Georg Luck, to one of Pliny's Epistles in particular (6.4 to Calpurnia), but with the intention of identifying the ideology that is the basis of all their work. [End Page 128]
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My love, I have received your letter on April 19—it is in a bad style.
Sherwin-White's approach to Pliny is also discussed by Henderson elsewhere in this collection, 4 and, for the sake of our argument, it will be necessary just to underline how Sherwin-White's focus in his Commentary (1966) on the "facts" of Pliny's life on which each letter sheds light, 5 involves emphasizing the "informal" nature of the letters. When letters are related to each other, it is on the grounds of the "events" they seem to refer to, 6 whilst the remark "to this separation we owe Pliny's three letters to her" (Sherwin-White 1966.359) is not followed by an attempt to see the three letters to Calpurnia as being in a dialogue with each other from a thematic or literary point of view (despite the fact that, as we will see in more detail later, it is precisely the thematic and semantic dialogue that the three letters seem to establish with each other that induces us to see them as a coherent group, since there is nothing openly said that links them from a circumstantial point...