Feast of Pliny

The Villas of Pliny from Antiquity to Posterity

by Pierre de la Ruffinière du Prey
University of Chicago Press, 377 pp., $65.00

Among all the ancient Romans who ever lived, an earnest public servant named Caius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, or Pliny the Younger (c. AD 61–113), is one of the few who have offered posterity a glimpse of their personal lives. He has done so in a series of letters, most of them composed between 96 and 113 AD, and addressed to the people who made up his corner of the Roman Empire: his wife, his in-laws, his mentors, his protégés, his friends, and the emperor Trajan, with whom he enjoyed the peculiar kind of friendship an ordinary mortal might have with a person whose titles include “Lord God.”

In his own world, Pliny the Younger was an important man; he once held the consulship, the highest elective office in the Roman state, and he died on duty as Trajan’s special envoy to the troubled province of Bithynia (in modern Turkey), a sign of that sage emperor’s extraordinary trust. Pliny’s friends included the historians Tacitus and Suetonius. His uncle, Pliny the Elder, had been a renowned scholar. What makes his letters such fascinating reading, however, is neither his illustrious connections nor his references to the occasional startling event; it is the disarming immediacy of the man himself.

The limitations that kept Pliny the Younger from true greatness, either as a writer or as a statesman, are what make him such a companionable guide through Imperial Rome. Born in a provincial town of northern Italy, Comum (modern Como), and sent to Rome for advanced rhetorical studies and the beginnings of a career in law and politics, he never seemed driven by ambition, and hence he never suffered the agonies over the recognition of his genius that so mark the letters of another provincial boy who made good in the big city, Marcus Tullius Cicero. Pliny is no common man, yet his letters have a way of distilling situations so as to express their essential humanity, whether he is describing panicky neighbors caught in the eruption of Vesuvius, snooty patricians refusing to clap at a poetry reading, or stubborn Christians who cannot find it within themselves to burn a bit of incense to a statue of the Emperor.

Pliny’s letters are vividly written, and none of them more so than the two in which he describes his two favorite country houses: the Laurentine villa, a winter retreat at the seaside south of Rome, and the Tuscan villa, a remote summer place high in the foothills of the Apennines. We know nothing about when he acquired these properties, or about how many others he may have had (there were at least two others, both along the shores of Lake Como), nor, with one exception, do we have any idea what his role may have been in their design. That exception is a secluded suite at the end of a long covered hall in his Laurentine villa, which he describes as “my favorite, really my favorite…I put it there myself …

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