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The Letters
of 'Pliny the Younger' (Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus)
The original, squashed down to read in about 25 minutes

Statue representing Pliny the Younger on the Cathedral at Como.


Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, or Pliny the Younger, was born in 62 A.D. at Novum Comum, in the neighbourhood of Lake Como, in the north of Italy. On his father's death, Pliny, a boy of nine, was adopted by his uncle, the elder Pliny, and educated in literary studies and as a legal advocate. Through a succession of offices he rose to the consulship in the year 100, and afterwards continued to hold important appointments. His letters are an important source for the life of the Roman people.

Abridged: JH

For more works by Ancient Romans, see The Index

The Letters of Pliny the Younger

To Cornelius Tacitus

You will certainly laugh, and well may you laugh, when I tell you that your old friend has turned sportsman, and has captured three magnificent boars. "What," you say, "Pliny?" Yes, I myself, though without giving up my much loved inactivity. While I sat at the nets, you might have found me holding, not a spear, but my pen. I was resolved, if I returned with my hands empty, at least to bring home my tablets full. This open-air way of studying is not at all to be despised. The activity and the scene stimulate the imagination; and there is something in the solemnity and solitude of the woods, and in the expectant silence of the chase, that greatly promotes meditation. I advise you whenever you hunt in future to take your tablets with you as well as your basket and flask. You will find that Minerva, as well as Diana, haunts these hills.

To Minucius Fundanus

When I consider how the days pass with us at Rome, I am surprised to find that any single day taken by itself is spent reasonably enough, or at least seems to be so, and yet when I add up many days together the impression is quite otherwise. If you ask anyone what he has been doing to-day, he will tell you perhaps that he has been attending the ceremony of a youth's coming of age; he has assisted at a wedding, been present at the hearing of a lawsuit, witnessed a will, or taken part in a consultation. These occupations seem very necessary while one is engaged in them; and yet, looking back at leisure upon the many hours we have thus employed, we cannot but consider them mere frivolities. Looking back especially on town life from a country retreat, one is inclined to regret how much of life has been spent in these wretched trifles.

This reflection is one which often occurs to me at my place at Laurentum, when I am immersed in studies or invigorating my bodily health. In that peaceful home I neither hear nor say anything which needs to be repented of. There is no one there who speaks evil of anyone; and I have not to complain of any man, except sometimes of myself when I am dissatisfied with my work. There I live undisturbed by rumours, free from the vicissitudes of hope and fear, conversing only with myself and my books. What a true and genuine life it is; what a delightful and honest repose - surely more to be desired than the highest employments. O sea and solitary shore, secret haunt of the Muses, with how many noble thoughts have you inspired me! Do you then, my friend, take the first opportunity of leaving the noisy town with all its empty pursuits, and devote your days to study or leisure. For, as Attilius well says, it is better to have nothing to do than to be doing of nothing.

To Septicius Clarus

How did it happen, my friend, that you failed to keep your engagement to dine with me? I shall expect you to repay me what I spent on the festival - no small sum, I can assure you. I had prepared for each of us, you must know, a lettuce, three snails, two eggs, and a barley cake served with sweet wine and snow; the snow most certainly I shall charge to your account, as it melted away. There were olives, beetroots, gourds, onions, and a hundred other dainties. You would also have heard a comedian, or the reading of a poem or a lute-player, or even if you had liked, all three, such was my liberality. But luxurious delicacies and Spanish dancing girls at some other house were more to your taste. I shall have my revenge of you, depend upon it, but I won't say how. Indeed, it was not kind thus to mortify your friend - I had almost said yourself; for how delightfully we should have passed the evening in jests and laughter, and in deeper talk! It is true you may dine at many houses more sumptuously than at mine but nowhere will you find more unconstrained gaiety, simplicity and freedom. Only make the experiment, and if you do not ever afterwards prefer my table to any other, never favour me with your company again.

To Avitus

It would be a long story, and of no great importance, if I were to tell you by what accident I dined lately with a man who, in his own opinion, entertained us with great splendour and economy, but in my opinion with meanness combined with extravagance. He and a few of his guests enjoyed some very excellent dishes indeed, but the fare placed before the rest of the company was of the most inferior kind. There were three kinds of wine in small bottles, but it was not intended that the guests should take their choice at all. The best was for himself and for us; another vintage was for his friends of a lower order - for you must know he divides his friends into classes - and the third kind was for his own and his guests freed-men. My neighbor noticed this, and asked me if I approved of it. "Not at all," I said.

"What then," said he, "is your custom in entertaining?"

"Mine," said I, "is to offer the same fare to everybody. I invite my friends to dinner without separating them into classes. Everyone who comes to my table is equal, and even my freed-men are then my guests just as much as anyone else."

He asked me if I did not find this very expensive. I assured him that it was not so at all, and that the whole secret lay in drinking no better wine myself that I gave to others. If a man is wise enough to moderate his own luxury, he will not find it very expensive to entertain all his visitors on equal terms. Restrain your own tastes if you would really economise. This is a better way of saving expense than making these insulting distinctions between guests.

It would be a pity if a man of your excellent disposition should be imposed upon by the immoderate ostentation which prevails at some tables under the guise of frugality. I tell you of this as an example of what you ought to shun. Nothing is to be more avoided than this preposterous association of extravagance and meanness - defects which are unpleasant enough when found separately, but are particularly detestable when combined.

To Baebius Macer

I am glad to hear that you are so great an admirer of my Uncle Pliny's works as to wish to have a complete collection of them. You will wonder how a man so much occupied as he was could find time to write so many books, some of them upon very difficult subjects. You will be still more surprised when you hear that for a considerable time he practised at the bar, that he died in his fifty-sixth year, and that from the time of his retirement from the bar to his death he was employed in some of the highest offices of state, and in the immediate service of the emperors. But he had a very quick intelligence, an incredible power of application, and an unusual faculty of doing without sleep. In summer he used to begin to work at midnight; in winter, generally at one in the morning, or two at the latest, and often at midnight. But he would often, without leaving his studies, refresh himself by a short sleep. Before daybreak he used to wait upon the Emperor Vespasian, who also was a night worker, and after that attended to his official duties. Having taken a light meal at noon, after the custom of our ancestors, he would in summer, if unoccupied, lie down in the sun, while a book was read to him from which he made extracts and notes. Indeed he never read without making extracts; he used to say that no book was so bad as not to teach one at least something. After this reading he usually took a cold bath, then a light refreshment, and went to sleep for a little while. Then, as if beginning a new day, he resumed his studies until dinner, when a book was again read to him, upon which he would make passing comments. I remember once, when his reader had pronounced a word wrongly, someone at the table made him repeat it again; upon which my uncle asked his friend if he had not understood it. He admitted that the word was clear enough. "Why did you stop him then?" asked my uncle; "we have lost more than ten lines by this interruption of yours." Even so parsimonious was he of every moment of time! In summer he always rose from dinner by daylight, and in winter as soon as it was dark; this was an invariable law with him.

Such was his life amidst the noise and bustle of the city; but when he was in the country his whole time, without exception, was given to study except when he bathed. And by this exception I mean only the time when he was actually in the bath, for all the time when he was being rubbed and dried he was read to, or was himself dictating. Again, when travelling he gave his whole time to study; a secretary constantly attended him with books and tablets, and in winter wore very warm gloves so that the cold weather might not interrupt my uncle's work; and, for the same reason, when in Rome, he was always carried in a chair. I remember he once reproved me for going for a walk, saying that I might have used the hours to greater advantage; for he thought all time was lost which was not given to study. It was by this extraordinary application that he found time to write so many volumes, besides a hundred and sixty books of extracts which he left me, written on both sides in an extremely small hand, so that their number might be reckoned considerably greater.

To Cornelius Tacitus

I understand you wish to hear about the earthquake at Misenum. After my uncle had left us on that day, I went on with my studies until it was time to bathe; then I had supper and went to bed. But my sleep was broken and disturbed. There had been many slight shocks, which were very frequent in Campania, but on this night they were so violent that it seemed as though everything must be overthrown. My mother ran into my room, and we went out into a small court which separated our house from the sea. I do not know whether to call it courage or rashness on my part, as I was only eighteen years old; but I took up Livy and read and made extracts from him. When morning came the light was faint and sickly; the buildings around us were tottering to their fall, and there was great and unavoidable danger in remaining where we were. We resolved to leave the town. The people followed us in consternation, and pressed in great crowds about us on our way out. Having gone a good distance from the house, we stood still in the midst of a dreadful scene. The carriages for which we had sent, though standing upon level ground, were being thrown from side to side, and could not be kept still even when supported by large stones. The sea appeared to roll back upon itself, driven from its shores by the convulsive movements of the earth; a large portion of the sea-bottom was uncovered, and many marine animals were left exposed. Landward, a black and dreadful cloud was rolling down, broken by great flashes of forked lightning, and divided by long trains of flame which resembled lightning but were much larger.

Soon afterwards the clouds seemed to descend and cover the whole surface of the ocean, hiding the island of Capri altogether and blotting out the promontory of Misenum. My mother implored me earnestly to make my escape, saying that her age and frame made it impossible for her to get away, but that she would willingly meet her death if she could know that she had not been the cause of mine. But I absolutely refused to forsake her, and seizing her hand I led her on. The ashes now began to fall upon us, though as yet in no great quantity. I looked back and saw behind us a dense cloud which came rolling after us like a torrent. I proposed that while we still had life we should turn out of the high road, lest she should be trampled to death in the dark by the crowd.

We had scarcely sat down when darkness closed in upon us, not like the darkness of a moonless night, or of a night obscured by clouds, but the darkness of a closed room where all the lights have been put out. We heard the shrieks of women, the cries of children, and the shouts of men; some were calling for their children, others for their parents, others for their husbands or wives, and recognising one another through the darkness by their voices. Some were calling for death through very fear of death; others raised their hands to the gods; but most imagined that the last eternal night had come, and that the gods and the world were being destroyed together. Among these were some who added imaginary terrors to the real danger, and persuaded the terror-stricken multitude that Misenum was in flames. At last a glimmer of light appeared which we imagined to be a sign of approaching flames, as in truth it was; but the fire fell at a considerable distance from us, and again we were immersed in darkness. A heavy shower of ashes now rained upon us, so that we were obliged from time to time to shake them off, or we should have been crushed and buried in the heap. I might congratulate myself that during all this horror not a sigh or expression of fear escaped me, if it had not been that I then believed myself to be perishing with the world itself, and that all mankind were involved in the same calamity - a miserable consolation indeed, but a powerful one.

At last this dreadful darkness was dissipated by degrees like a cloud of smoke; real day returned, and even the sun appeared, though very faintly as he appears during an eclipse. Everything before our trembling eyes was changed, being covered over with white ashes as with deep snow. We returned to Misenum, where we refreshed ourselves as well as we could and passed an anxious night between hope and fear. There was more fear than hope, however; for the earthquake still continued and many crazy people were running about predicting awful horrors.

You must read my story without any view of writing about it in your history, of which it is quite unworthy; indeed, my only excuse for writing it in a letter is that you have asked for it.

To Calpurnia, His Wife

It is incredible how impatiently I wish for your return, such is the tenderness of my love for you, and so unaccustomed are we to separation. I lie awake great part of the nights thinking of you; and in the day my feet carry me of their own accord to your room at the hours when I used to see you, but not finding you there I go away as sorrowful and disappointed as an excluded lover. The only time when I am free from this distress is when I am in the forum busy with the lawsuits of my friends. You may judge how wretched my life is when I find my repose only in labour and my consolation in miseries and cares.

To Germinius

You must very well know the kind of people who, though themselves slaves to every passion, are mightily indignant at the vices of others, and most severe against those whom they most closely resemble. Surely leniency is the most becoming of all virtues, even in persons who have least need of anyone's indulgence. The highest of all characters, in my estimation, is that of a man who is as ready to pardon human errors as though he were every day himself guilty of them, and who yet abstains from faults as though he never forgave them. Let us observe this rule, both in our public and in our private relations - to be inexorable to ourselves, but to treat the rest of the world with tenderness, including even those who forgive only themselves. Let us always remember the saying of that most humane and therefore very great Thrasea: "He who hates vices, hates mankind."

Perhaps you will ask who it is that has moved me to these reflections? There was a certain person lately - But I will tell you of that when we meet. No; on second thoughts I will not tell you even then, lest by condemning him and exposing his conduct I should be violating the principle which I have just condemned. So, whoever he is, and whatever he may be, the matter shall remain unspoken; since to expose him would be of no advantage for the purpose of example; but to hide his fault will be of great advantage to good nature.

To the Emperor Trajan

It is my rule, to refer to you all matters about which I have any doubt. For who can be more capable of removing my scruples or of instructing my ignorance?

I have never been present at any trials of Christians, and am, therefore, ignorant of the reasons for which punishment is inflicted, as well as of the examinations which it is proper to make of their guilt. As to whether any difference is usually made with respect to the ages of the guilty, or whether no distinction is to be observed between the young and the old; whether repentance entitles them to a pardon, or whether it is of no advantage to a man who has once been a Christian that he has ceased to be one; whether the very profession of Christianity unattended by any criminal act, or only the crimes that are inherent in the profession are punishable - in all these points I am very doubtful.

In the meantime, the method which I have observed towards those who have been brought before me as Christians is this. I have interrogated them as to whether they were Christians; if they confessed I repeated the question twice again, adding threats at the same time; and if they still persevered I ordered them to execution. For I was persuaded that whatever the nature of their opinions might be, their pertinacity and inflexible obstinacy ought certainly to be punished. Others also were brought before me possessed by the same madness, but as they were Roman citizens I ordered them to be sent to Rome. As this crime spread while it was actually under prosecution, many fresh cases were brought up. An anonymous paper was given me containing a charge against many persons. Those who denied that they were Christians, or that they had ever been so, repeated after me an invocation to the gods, offered wine and incense before your statue, which for this purpose I had ordered to be placed among the statues of the gods, and even reviled the name of Christ; and so, as it is impossible to force those who are really Christians to do any of these things, I thought it proper to dismiss them. Others who had been accused confessed themselves at first to be Christians, but immediately afterwards denied it; and others owned that they had formerly been of that number, but had now forsaken their error. All these worshipped your statue and the images of the gods, at the same time reviling the name of Christ.

They affirmed that the whole of their guilt, or their error, had been as follows. They met on a stated day before sunrise and addressed a form of invocation to Christ as to a God; they also bound themselves by an oath, not for any wicked purpose but never to commit thefts, robberies, or adulteries, never to break their word, nor to deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up. After this had been done they used to separate, and then reassemble to partake in common of an innocent meal. They had desisted, however, from this custom, after the publication of my edict, by which, in accordance with your orders, I had forbidden fraternities to exist. Having received this account I thought it all the more necessary to make sure of the real truth by putting two slave-girls, who were said to have taken part in their religious functions, to the torture; but I could discover nothing more than an absurd and extravagant superstition.

I have, therefore, adjourned all further proceedings in the affair in order to consult with you. It appears to be a matter highly deserving your consideration, especially as very many persons are involved in the danger of these prosecutions; for the inquiry has already extended and is likely further to extend to persons of all ranks and ages, and of both sexes. This contagious superstition is not confined to the cities only, but has spread its infection among the villages and country districts as well; and it seems impossible to cure this evil or to restrain its progress. It is true that the temples which were once almost deserted have lately been frequented, and that the religious rites which had been interrupted are again revived; and there is a general demand for animals for sacrificial victims, which for some time past have met with few purchasers. From all this it is easy to imagine what numbers might be reclaimed from this error if pardon were granted to those who may repent of it.

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