Monday 16 December 2013, 13:42
Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the Roman letter-writer Pliny the Younger.
I’m afraid this will be rather short. I’m sitting in front of a fire, bunged up with a chesty cold, put on antibiotics, taking a cough mixture, dreaming of a hot toddy, having fed on medicines for the last day or two. I usually manage to miss these little personal calamities of winter, but it got me this time.
One of the interesting things about Pliny’s letters is their lack of modesty. Roy Gibson pointed out that modesty and self-effacement were not considered as virtuous at that time. He suggested that Christianity brought that in. Christianity was one of a number of sects, and the notion of it eventually eating up the Roman Empire and taking the Roman Empire into the Holy Roman Empire and beyond would not have crossed their minds, even persons as perspicacious as Pliny the Younger.
Pliny the Elder was of course his uncle, but I did find it a little odd when Catharine Edwards referred to him as Uncle Pliny. I suppose that was a term two thousand years ago, but it seems so contemporaneous. But then a lot of the past is contemporaneous.
Cicero later wrote letters having published his great law cases – one of which, Pro Milone, was my set book for A-levels and a monster it was – and he too was brought into play in Pliny’s constant and almost compulsive comparisons with the great persons of letters that he saw around him; Tacitus, for instance, was also often referred to.
Pliny died suddenly at the age of fifty-two and no-one seems to know why. Again, this was pointed out by the contributors that it was not a bad age. Life expectancy at the time was thirty-five. Given that so many people died before ten, that meant that there were quite a few who pushed into their fifties, but very few who got any further.
I thought that they were rather hard on Pliny the Elder (as I keep calling him) when they said that he didn’t have a plan when he went over to Vesuvius, and instead spent the night in bed and woke up to find the wind in the wrong direction, etc. After all, he’d gone out to look at a volcanic eruption, the like of which he had never seen before and had never been witnessed before, and to think that he’d worked it all out in advance is asking a bit much of the old boy.
That incident is curious for one other thing. Pliny’s description is so vivid and detailed, and yet it took about 1800 years for people to believe that it had happened like that. That particular sort of volcano was not observed as closely until the early twentieth century, and it was only then that the brilliance of Pliny’s observation was given the credit it deserved.
So there we are. Reading Plato for the first programme in the New Year.
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