Traversing the Empire of Letters in Pliny Epistles 1.10

Working Papers on Nervan, Trajanic and Hadrianic Literature 1.37 (22/3/15)

Traversing the Empire of Letters in Pliny Epistles 1.10’                                                                                                              Chris van den Berg

Abstract for a paper given at the project’s 3rd Literary Interactions conference, in Boston, 18-19 June 2015:

This paper offers a close reading of the tenth letter of Pliny’s first book of Epistles (to Attius Clemens, on the Syrian-Greek philosopher Euphrates). It examines how Pliny manufactures and manipulates distance and presence within the letter, arguing that Pliny’s careful—and at points confusing—treatment of these epistolary motifs serves two complementary functions. More immediately, Pliny reflects upon the literary aims and practical effects of his Epistles, seeking to complicate and redefine the traditional distinction between negotium (“public business”) and otium (“private activity”). Yet this vision of public literary engagement contains a second, cross-cultural element, as Pliny’s extended appeal to Euphrates as an exemplum outlines how to incorporate Greek culture and Greek individuals into the Roman community.

In this sense the letter is of a piece with Pliny’s inset Greek exempla in the first three books, Isaeus (Epist. 2.3) and Artemidorus (Epist. 3.11), each of whom in their respective fields, rhetoric and philosophy, mark the successful role that Greek individuals and Greek arts play in the construction of Roman identity and civic ideals in the Empire.

Pliny’s letter constitutes an important ancient conceptualization of cultural and literary interactions, and the paper concludes by considering briefly a much larger question: to what extent is Pliny’s redrawing of the lines that separate negotium from otium inextricable from his compelling association more generally of Romans with Greeks.