Pliny the Younger: Tres Feminae |
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Latin Text

Pliny the Younger: Tres Feminae


The following portraits of three women are taken from the letters of the Younger Pliny, the famous letter-writer of Imperial Rome (61-113 A.D.) His mother’s brother was the famous naturalist and polymath, Pliny the Elder, and as a young man he was a witness to the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 when his uncle was killed while trying to organise assistance to the stricken communities on the Bay of Naples. Inheriting his uncle’s name and estate, theYounger Pliny enjoyed a successful career as a public servant. He was a distinguished pleader in the courts, and was a specialist in financial administration and property law. He became consul in 100 at the remarkably young age of 39, and in 111 was sent by the Emperor Trajan to Bithynia as governor, where he died in 113.

His extant works are his ‘Panegyricus’, a fulsome eulogium on Trajan, and the ten books of his ‘Epistolae’ (Letters). His best known letters are the two he sent to Tacitus on the effects of the eruption of Vesuvius and his uncle’s death (Book VI, 16 and 20) and his letter to Trajan concerning his treatment of Christians in Bithynia (Book X, 96, and 97, Trajan’s reply.) Taken as a whole, however, Pliny’s ‘Letters’ provide a fascinating insight into the life and thinking of a prominent man at the zenith of Rome’s power and wealth. The three extracts translated here give an indication of some of the values which he held dear.

The extracts translated, and the introductory summaries, are taken from the ‘Cambridge Latin Anthology’, Cambridge University Press, edited by Ashley Carter and Phillip Parr, 1996.

1. Arria (From ‘Letters’, Book III. 16).

Arria was famous in the Roman world for her remarkable courage. Here, in a letter to his friend, Nepos, Pliny recounts two lesser known stories about her which he thinks are even more heroic than the story which made her famous.

Gaius Plinius send greetings to his (friend) Nepos.

Arria’s husband, Caecina Paetus, was ill; their son was ill too, both of them very seriously, as it seemed. The son died, a young man very handsome and modest and dear to his parents. Arria arranged his funeral in such a way, (and) led the procession in such a way that her husband was unaware (of it); indeed, whenever she entered his bed-chamber, she pretended that their son was alive and even rather better, and to her husband asking very often how the boy was doing she replied: ‘He slept well and ate food willingly.’ Then, when the tears, having been held back for a long time, overcame her and broke out, she went out; then she gave herself to grief; having had her fill (of tears), she returned to the bed-chamber with dry eyes and with her face composed, as if she had left her bereavement outside.

The second story tells of Arria’s courage when her husband was involved in a short-lived revolt against the Emperor Claudius led by Scribonianus, the governor of Illyricum. As a result of his involvement, Paeus was arrested and taken to Rome. Pliny begins with an incident which had become very well-known: the ‘famous last words’ of Arria when Paetus had been condemned to death. Paetus was given the chance to anticipate the executioner by committing suicide. Arria was with him.

That (was) indeed a remarkable deed of the same woman, to draw a sword to pierce her breast, to draw out the dagger, and to offer (it) to her husband, and to add the immortal and almost divine words: ‘Paetus, it does not hurt.’

Pliny now goes back to an earlier point in the story, when Paetus was first arrested. He wants to point out that Arria’s courage was shown in other ways as well, not just in her famous last words.

Scribonianus had taken up arms against Claudius in Illyricum; Paetus had been on his side, and Scribonianus, having been killed, he was being brought back to Rome. Arria begged the soldiers that she should be put on board together with him. ‘Would you not,’ she said, ‘assign to a man of consular rank some servants, from whose hands he might take food, by whom he might be dressed and by whom he might be shod? I alone shall undertake all these (tasks).’ She did not succeed; she hired a small fishing smack, and followed the big ship in her tiny boat.

Then, in the presence of Claudius, she said to the wife of Scribonianus, when that woman was offering evidence, ‘Am I to listen to you, in whose lap Scribonianus was killed, and you are (still) alive?’ From this it is clear that her plan of a very glorious death was not a sudden (one). Even when her son-in-law, Thrasea, was begging (her) not to carry out her resolve to die, and among other things had said to her: ‘So, would you wish your daughter, if it were necessary for me to die, to die with me?’ she replied: ‘If she had lived for so long a time and in such great harmony with you as I (have) with Paetus, I would wish (it).’ By this response she had increased the concern of her family; she was watched more carefully; she noticed this, and said ‘You are achieving nothing; for you can bring (it) about that I die with difficulty, (but) you cannot bring (it) about that I do not die.’ While she was saying this, she leapt up out of her chair and dashed her head with great force against the wall opposite, and collapsed. Having been revived, she said: ‘I had said to you that I should find a way to death, however hard, if you denied (me) an easy (one).’ Farewell.

2. Calpurnia (From ‘Letters’, Book IV. 19).

Shortly after his marriage to Calpurnia, Pliny writes this letter to her aunt, Hispulla, praising the qualities of both women.

Gaius Plinius sends greetings to his (relation) Calpurnia Hispulla.

You yourself are a model of devotion (to your family), and you loved your best and most affectionate brother with equal love; and you love his daughter as your own, and you show to her not only the love of an aunt, but also (that) of her dead father. So without doubt you will rejoice very greatly when you will have heard that she is worthy of her father, worthy of you, (and) worthy of her grandfather. Her intelligence is very high, her frugality is excellent. She loves me, which is a proof of her virtue. Moreover, she is studying books on account of her love of me. She collects my speeches, she reads (them) repeatedly, (and) she even learns (them). With what great anxiety she is affected when I am seen about to plead in court, with what great joy when I have done (so)! She arranges for (people) to report to her what approval, what applause I have aroused, (and) what outcome to the trial I have achieved. Also, whenever I recite, she sits in proximity (to me), screened by a curtain, and hears my praises with the most avid ears. Indeed, she even sings my praises, and sets them to music on the lyre with no instructor teaching (her), but love which is the best master.

For these reasons I am led to the very sure hope that happiness will be permanent for us and greater in the days (to come). For she does not love my (young) age or my body, which will gradually fade and decay, but my reputation. Nothing else becomes a woman brought up by your hands and instructed by your precepts, who will have seen in your household nothing but what is honourable, and who will have just been accustomed to love me through your recommendation. For you loved my mother as a daughter, and from my childhood you used to mould and encourage me, and to predict that (I should be) such a man as I seem now (to be) to my wife. So, we give our thanks to you, I, because (you will have given) her to me, she, because you will have given me to her, as though you will have chosen (us) for each other. Farewell.

3. Ummidia Quadratilla (From ‘Letters’, Book VII. 24).

Gaius Plinius sends greetings to his (friend) Geminus.

Ummidia Quadratilla has died in a little less than the the eightieth year of her age; right up to her last illness she was a vigorous woman, whose body was sturdy and strong beyond the manner of a woman.

Her will was excellent. (As) heirs she left her grandson two-thirds, (and) her granddaughter a third part. I scarcely know her granddaughter, (but) I love most intimately her grandson, a remarkable young man, whom even those whom he is not related to by blood love as though (he were) a relation. For, firstly, although he was very handsome, he avoided both (as) a boy and (as) a young man all the gossip of spiteful people. Then, he was married during his twenty-fourth year, and, if god had approved (it), he would have been a father. He lived at the house of his pleasure-seeking grandmother most austerely, yet deferentially. She collected and indulged pantomime actors more lavishly than was suitable for a noble woman. Quadratus did not watch these in the theatre or at home, nor did she require (this). When she was entrusting to me the studies of her grandson, she said that she was accustomed, as (was natural for a) woman with nothing to do (lit. in that leisure of her sex) to relax her mind by playing at draughts, and she was accustomed to watch her pantomime actors, but when she was about to do either of the two, she always told her nephew to go away and study; it seemed to me that she did this not only from affection but also from respect (for his youth).

You will be surprised, and I was surprised: at the most recent sacerdotal games, the pantomime actors having been entered in the opening event, when Quadratus and I were coming out of the theatre together, he said to me: ‘Do you know that I saw my grandmother’s freedman dancing for the first time today?’ Her grandson (said) this. But, by Hercules, in honour of Quadratilla [it shames me to call (it) honour] utterly unknown men were running into the theatre in flattery, they were jumping up, they were applauding, (and) they were showing their admiration: then they imitated in songs the gestures of their mistress; they will now receive tiny legacies as a reward from an heir who never watched them. Farewell.

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