Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Letters of Pliny the Younger

There have been a number of pieces in this series to which I've grown so attached as I read that finishing them was like saying goodbye to a close, dear friend.  The letters of Pliny the Younger was one such piece.  I was grateful for the placement.  Just as before what you suspect will be two very starchy, heavy meals later in the day, it can be some great comfort to take a pleasantly light meal.  My next two are Adam Smith and Darwin.

Which is not to say that Pliny the Younger was not rich material.  By no means!  The letters of Pliny (pronounced Pl-in-ee, not Pl-eye-nee, although I have found that inevitably when you speak of him in a group of any size, someone will try to correct your pronunciation with the wrong one.  You have my permission to make much of their faux pas and shame them out of the room) are a historical jewel.  They put you right into the lives of the Romans.  I found Pliny himself to be charming, warm, intelligent, and informative.

His letters take on a number of forms.  Some are words of encouragement, a remarkable number of them are letters of grief over a recently deceased friend or loved one, some are accounts of important events of his day, some of those events may have seemed more important to him than they do to us, but be that as it may, even that gives us a rare portal into another time in human history.  I was continually amazed at how little difference there actually was between the world of a man nearly 2,000 years dead and my own time.  People live and die, they fight, they learn things, economics and class struggles appear to be just about the same as they ever were.

Some of my favorite passages came from Pliny's love of gardens and architecture.  He had several letters where he would try to entice people to visit his estate by describing beautiful features (the flowers and plants, the different rooms, books, streams, and so forth) of the place in great detail.

 Aside from just being charming, he also exhibits great wisdom in his letters detailing legal proceedings to be sure, but especially in his letters to Emperor Trajan.  These letters are a bit drier than the rest and seem a bit obsequious to modern American eyes, but they show a discerning character.  Of special interest is the section concerning the treatment of Christians.  It's finally decided, if I understood them correctly, that the policy of that administration would be that the Christians wouldn't be persecuted so long as they don't do it in the town square (where they might scare the horses.)

One thing I am learning about this series is that all of the material has been profitable and undoubtedly educational.  There are, however, some books that I expect to reread again and again over the course of my life and others which I will be perfectly happy to have read once.  This is, without a doubt, one of the former.  


  1. Pliny and Cicero are as you discovered, rewarding reading. Good luck with the next two, Adam Smith and Darwin though 'Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle' does have its moments.

  2. Darwin seems to be the most represented author in the series. "Beagle" is later. "Origin of Species" is next, right after "Wealth of Nations."