We can understand such a mood; it is pleasant to contemplate the imperfections of our neighbors and the despicable inferiority of the world as compared with our dreams. Our enjoyment in this case is sharpened by Juvenal’s street-corner vocabulary, his easy-moving colloquial hexameters, his grim humor, and his lusty style. But we must not take him literally. He was angry; he had not made his way in Rome as rapidly as he had hoped; it was sweet revenge to lay about him with the bludgeon of a hatred that never feigned to be fair. His moral standard was high and sound, though tinged with conservative prejudices and delusions about the virtuous past; by those standards, used without mercy or modesty, we could indict any generation anywhere. Seneca knew how old a pastime this is. “Our forefathers,” he wrote, “complained, we complain, and our descendants will complain, that morals are corrupt, that wickedness holds sway, that men are sinking deeper and deeper into sinfulness, that the condition of mankind is going from bad to worse.” Around the immoral hub of any society is a spreading wheel of wholesome life, in which the threads of tradition, the moral imperatives of religion, the economic compulsions of the family, the instinctive love and care of children, the watchfulness of women and policemen, suffice to keep us publicly decent and moderately sane. Juvenal is the greatest of Roman satirists, as Tacitus is the greatest of Roman historians; but we should err as much in taking their picture as accurate as we should were we to accept without scrutiny the pleasant and civilized scene that rises before us as we read the letters of Pliny.


When he was born at Como in 61 he was named Publius Caecilius Secundus. His father owned a farm and villa near the lake and held high office in the town. Orphaned early, Publius was adopted and educated first by Virginius Rufus, governor of Upper Germany, and then by his uncle Caius Plinius Secundus, author of the Natural History. This busy scholar made the boy his son and heir and died soon afterward. According to custom, the youth took his adoptive father’s name, causing confusion for 2000 years. At Rome he studied under Quintilian, who formed his taste on Cicero and must receive some of the credit for the Ciceronian fluency of Pliny’s style. At 18 he was admitted to the bar; at 39 he was chosen to deliver an address of welcome to Trajan. In the same year he was made consul; in 103, augur; in 105, “Curator of the Bed and Banks of the Tiber and the City Sewers.” He took no fees or gifts for his legal services, but he was a rich man and could afford to be magnanimous. He had properties in Etruria, at Beneventum, Como, and Laurentum, and offered 3,000,000 sesterces for another.

Like many aristocrats of his time, he amused himself by writing: at first a Greek tragedy, then some poems, lighthearted and occasionally obscene. Reproved by some, he confessed his fault impenitently, and proposed again “to indulge in mirth, wit, and gaiety, and enter into the spirit of the most wanton muse.” Hearing his letters praised, he composed some for publication and issued them at intervals from 97 to 109. Intended not only for the public but for the pleasure of the circles he described, they avoided the darker aspects of Roman life and passed by as too serious for his purpose the larger problems of philosophy and statesmanship. Their worth is in their graceful intimacy, and in the rosy light they shed upon Roman character and patrician ways. Pliny reveals himself with half the candor and all the felicity of Montaigne. He has an author’s inevitable vanity, but so openly that it hardly offends. “Nothing, I confess, so strongly affects me as the desire of a lasting name.” He speaks appreciatively of others as well as of himself, adding that “one may be sure a man has many virtues if he admires those of others”; in any case it is a relief, coming from Juvenal and Tacitus, to hear an author speak well of his fellow men. He was as generous in act as in words, ever ready with favors, loans, or gifts, from finding a husband for a friend’s niece to enriching his native town. Finding that Quintilian could not give his daughter a dowry befitting the high station of the man she was marrying, he sent her 50,000 sesterces, excusing the smallness of the gift. He gave an old schoolmate 300,000 to make him eligible for the equestrian class; when the daughter of a friend inherited a legacy of debts he paid them off; and at some risk he lent a considerable sum to a philosopher banished by Domitian. To Como he gave a temple, a secondary school, an institute for poor children, a municipal bath, and 11,000,000 sesterces for a public library.

What is especially pleasing in him is his love for his home, or his homes. He does not denounce Rome, but he is happier in Como or Laurentum, near the lake or the sea. There his chief enterprises are reading and doing nothing. He loves his gardens, and the mountain scenery behind them; he did not have to wait for Rousseau to make him enjoy nature. He speaks with the greatest tenderness of his third wife, Calpurnia, her sweet temper and pure mind, her fond delight in his success and his books. She read them all (he believed) and learned many of his pages by heart; she set his poems to music and sang them, and had a private corps of couriers to keep her informed of every development when he was trying an important case. She was but one of many good women in his circle. He tells of the modesty, patience, and courage of a fourteen-year-old girl who, just betrothed, learned that she had an incurable illness, and cheerfully awaited death; of Pompeius Saturninus’ wife, whose letters to her husband were lyrics of affection and fine Latin; of Thrasea’s daughter Fannia, who uncomplainingly bore exile for defending her husband Helvidius, nursed a relative through a dangerous illness, caught it, and died of it; “How complete,” he exclaims, “is her virtue, her sanctity, her sobriety, her courage!” He had a hundred friends, some great, many good. He joined with Tacitus in prosecuting Marius Priscus for dishonesty and cruelty as proconsul in Africa; the two orators corrected each other’s speeches and invested in mutual compliments; Tacitus lifted Pliny to heaven by reporting that the literary world was pairing them as the leading writers of the age. He knew Martial, but from an aristocratic distance. He took Suetonius with him to Bithynia and helped him to get the “right of three children” without having any. His circle buzzed with literary and musical amateurs, with public recitals of poetry and speeches. “I do not believe,” says the learned Boissier, “that in any other period has literature been so greatly loved.” Homer and Virgil were being studied on the banks of the Danube and the Rhine, and the Thames was trembling with rhetoric. It was, in its upper half, an elegant and amiable society, rich in loving marriages, parental affection, humane masters, sincere friendships, and fine courtesies. “I accept your invitation to supper,” reads one letter, “but I must make this agreement beforehand, that you dismiss me soon, and treat me frugally. Let our table abound only in philosophical conversation, and let us enjoy even that within limits.”