Friday, April 29, 2016


Olivier Devillers (ed.), Autour de Pline le Jeune: en hommage à Nicole Méthy. Scripta antiqua, 74. Bordeaux: Ausonius Éditions, 2015. Pp. 321. ISBN 9782356131324. €25.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Ulrike Roth, University of Edinburgh (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

The study of Pliny the Younger has benefitted from a significant recent revival. This is particularly true for what has been termed Pliny's 'private' correspondence, which is now widely viewed as a literary art-work, but also as an 'imperial project' in which Pliny attempts to design and shape his role—and that of the senatorial élite at large—in the world the emperors made, in clear (and sometimes not so clear) dialogue with other writers. But the Plinian Spring has also caught onto his correspondence with that seemingly best of emperors, Trajan; and the results are not unlike those established for Pliny's 'private' letters: when once the Pliny-Trajan exchange was the treasure grove for the industrious ancient historian who sought to patch together from these epistolary snapshots the workings of the Roman provincial system, through what has been called '(crudely put) socio-historical data-mining campaigns',1 scholars now readily talk of the letters' 'social economy', even of an 'ideology of Empire', and of 'the poetics of empire' crafted by Pliny's pen.2

The present volume is a welcome addition to the growing literature on Pliny and his world. It is a Festschrift for Nicole Méthy, the author of Les lettres de Pline le Jeune. Une représentation de l'homme (Paris, 2007), and edited by O. Devillers, primarily known for his work on Tacitus.3 It presents 20 chapters, by colleagues and friends, and Méthy herself, a total of 17 scholars, in 4 different languages (12 French, 5 English, 2 Italian, 1 Spanish), grouped in three parts: 'The political and ideological context'; 'The cultural and literary context'; 'Plinian themes and texts'. The cover blurb states that 'the book focuses on Pliny the Younger', aiming primarily though to contribute 'to a better understanding of the 2nd century'. It is opportune to ask in this review how the volume responds (and contributes) to the modern monumentalisation of the man from Como (and to what has been called hyper-critically 'fashions' in Plinian-studies),4 and to current understanding of the 2nd century.

It comes as no surprise that the reader should enjoy some serious analyses of Pliny's intertextual adventures. I. Marchesi and M. Neger both take Pliny's relationship with Martial (and friends) to task, with some very good results, showing, inter alia, how Pliny invites to dinner, to put into its place the genre we call satire, or how Martial functions as a foil for Pliny's self-fashioning as a distinguished poet. C. Whitton's cliff-hanger takes the reader into one of those thick forests of purple prose on an audacious hunt for a richer understanding of Ep. 9.26, or at least of its opening lines' complex relationship with earlier texts, in both Greek and Latin, and the verbal metaphors not otherwise typical for Pliny: he avoids, like Pliny, the media via, by stretching the bounds of genre, here academic writing. S. Tzounakas discusses skilfully Pliny's own skilful self-identification with Demosthenes (to the detriment of Cicero). A similar theme is picked up by L. Deschamps in her chapter on Pliny's take on M. Terentius Varro, who emerges as an exemplum in his Plinian garb (and as Pliny's mirror image—and vice versa), precisely because of his 'faults', i.e. the love of different genres, light and serious: here is another nihil peccat ... not!

Not strictly intertextual, but still concerned with questions of responding to (and aiming to overcome) other (textual) representations, A. Billault argues that Pliny's (and Trajan's) sketch of Dio Chrysostom makes all but disappear the man's place amongst the league of orators, instead representing (Cocceianus) Dio as a subject of empire (perhaps because he was too close a competitor to Pliny's claim to be the new Demosthenes, as discussed by Tzounakas?). The idea of seeing individuals or communities as subjects of empire instead of recognising their persona (also) in other contexts challenges Méthy's argument (in a previously unpublished study) that next to the political voice in Trajan's replies, there is also a strong personal voice that treats individuals (including Dio Chrysostom) as human beings, and humanely, rather than as mere objects of power, based on 'le sentiment d'humanité' (elaborated in her 2007 book). Ethical considerations, and existentiential questions of being, are also central to the two chapters discussing the body, health, disease and pain, by G. Galimberti Biffino and S. Stucchi, concluding that disease and pain are yardsticks for individual dignity and greatness in Pliny. Would it be twisting Pliny's arm too much to go beyond what meets the eye and to flesh out the scholarly chin-wag on empire with (t)his epistolary body-map? I.e. to see the imperial body-politic through this literary skeleton of health and disease (as has been done with other writers), its pressure points, warts and loose limbs, its potions, remedies and cures?

The spectrum of interpretative possibilities of the emperor's actions is explored in the deft analysis of the vicesima hereditatum in Pliny's Panegyricus by E. Manoloraki, who shows with great clarity how Pliny not only used a seemingly dry administrative matter to shape the emperor's profile, but also his own as the 'architect of the imperial persona' (p. 258). The pax Traiana thus inaugurated could have been picked up in the discussion of familial and conjugal harmony in the survey of women's images in Pliny's letters by N. Boëls-Janssen, relegated to the cultural and literary part of the volume, and not concerned with its location in the Plinian imperial project, or with the role of Pliny's women, familial serenity and autonomia in his sketch of libertas. Differing (less charming) representations of women are explained through genre, e.g. Juvenal's satirical punch. Yes—but why and what for? Women's changing images (as those of some men) are also discussed by M.P. Gonzáles-Conde Puente with particular regard to those belonging to the gens Ulpia, in Pliny's Panegyricus and other (later) sources, to show how Trajan's rise to power required different representations of (for instance) Plotina and Marciana than Hadrian's reign. The theme of diverse depiction is developed further by S. Benoist, who argues for a fundamental unity even in contrasting representations of emperor and empire, such as in Pliny and Fronto, as proof of a shared responsibility towards construction of a political ideal: 'la preuve d'une construction collective d'un modèle politique idéal' (p. 47).

Back to Book 10, H. Zehnacker's survey of Pliny's (and Trajan's) use of Greek is introduced with an emphasis on the reciprocal influence of Latin and Greek. The chapter concludes that Pliny and Trajan (or his Chancellery) took different approaches to the use of Greek, and suggests that the emperor who was in charge of what was eight pages before referred to as 'un État officiellement bilingue', in which Greek dominated the eastern part, did not think Greek terms, loanwords, or Graecisms appropriate for use in communication with his provincial governor. This may well be so, and the Suetonian Tiberius serves as a role model for a bilingual emperor's avoidance of Greek in governmental contexts (Suet. Tib. 57.1): but why should it be emblematic of Roman rule in the 2nd century? And what does it say about Pliny to have fashioned a contrast between the good senator and the best of emperors in their choice of language? The role played by Greek (and Latin) amongst earlier emperors is discussed in the chapter by B. Rochette, mainly on the basis of the evidence provided by Suetonius: the conclusion that the attitude of the Julio-Claudians towards Greek is a reflection of an inherent ambivalence towards the Greek language at Rome, which one can never really master ('langue du même et de l'autre à la fois', p. 168), subscribes to the 'half-empty glass' approach, that perhaps not all living and working in two languages would inherently embrace without socio-linguistic proof. The last of the Julio-Claudian emperors, Nero, allows Devillers to explore some of the ways in which Pliny showcased Trajan as the better (and good) emperor, and to compare Nero's reign with that of Domitian—all neatly framed by Pliny's efforts to build a statue for his uncle. The volume is brought to a close with the chapter by G. Flamerie de Lachapelle, who discusses an entirely different reading of Pliny, by the 19th century French writer—one might say minor—Jules Janin, who, for us amusingly, rejected wholeheartedly the tempting notion, entertained by 'le républicain de 1789' Vittorio Alfieri (aka M. le comte Alfiéri d'Asti), of a Plinian attempt at persuading Trajan to abdicate in order to re-establish republican government.

Numerous issues explored in the volume would have benefitted from exchange between the contributors: the motivations for and effects of Pliny's use of silences, for instance (e.g. Billault and Marchesi); or the nature and purpose of Pliny's intertextual engagement with his contemporaries, Martial and others (e.g. Marchesi, Neger, Whitton); or his self-fashioning through alignment or contrast with one or other Greek or Roman (e.g. Deschamps, Tzounakas, Whitton); or his approach to and use of Greek (e.g. Tzounakas, Whitton, Zehnacker), as well as the issue of bilingualism (e.g. Rochette, Zehnacker); or, very generally, the representation of emperor and empire, and Pliny's (rhetorical) function in empire-building (e.g. Billault, Boëls-Janssen, Devillers, Manoloraki, Méthy, Rochette, Zehnacker). Naturally, such overlaps cannot always be explored without loss of focus or theme; but the complete isolation of the different chapters from one another makes for a somewhat odd read if the volume is enjoyed as a whole. There remains also the standard differentiation between the so-called 'private' letters and the ('public'?) correspondence with Trajan: given the recent revision of understanding of Book 10, there is surely scope to undo that separation with some good results? And what about intertextuality? A heavily employed concept in many contributions, and for a very good reason. But whether or not one should privilege oral delivery over textual consumption of Pliny's epistolary activity, as T.P. Wiseman has challenged us to do with regard to earlier Latin literature,5 if the Plinian exchange with (for instance) Martial is understood as a serious, and perhaps not entirely conjugal dialogue, then that exchange is not just taking place at the textual level, but has very serious roots and ramifications at the personal, social and political level. The question that arises is what we should call the exchange we refer to as 'Intertextuality' when not reduced to its present apogee, i.e. the surviving text?

There are other questions that press forward. What does it mean, for instance, for our understanding of the élite's role in the early second century that Pliny plays Demosthenes, or that he engages in a not entirely appreciative dialogue with Martial? How can (t)his ever better understood literary activity be used to advance our understanding not just of the texts that we study, or of the particular type of discourse, but of the society that has produced these? Put differently, how can one use Pliny's correspondence as a guide to what must have been an extraordinarily diverse ecology of political ideas, including disagreement on such fundamental concepts (and realities) as slavery and freedom, status and class, rights and duties? In his study of the allusive escapades of a quite different author in a quite different period, G. Kelly contends that '(b)y failing to read intertextually, political historians risk missing the politics'.6 It is a shame in this context that the papers put together to address the political and ideological situation in Part 1 do not engage as much as one would hope with those aspects and issues that are at the forefront of the papers more closely concerned with literary analysis of one kind or another. The tripartite grouping of the contributions is more generally not entirely satisfactory: many of the contributions in Part 2 could easily be fitted into Part 3, and vice versa. Why group them at all? And as with most volumes of this type, the quality of the contributions varies, as does their engagement with relevant scholarship, weakening the potential impact of the ideas presented on the debate, through a preference for unproblematised description and narration. Many of the chapters would have gained from being more tightly drafted. I personally see no need for an English abstract for a volume of this kind; but if one is offered, it should be in English. Leaving these quibbles aside, there is much here that will excite and enthuse, and not just those interested in Pliny's writings. Notwithstanding the original contribution on offer in many of the chapters, the volume leaves plenty of scope for future contextualisation of Pliny's 'architectural' endeavours towards the biggest-ever Roman building programme—and to get a better sense of the different roles played by planners, engineers, masons, sculptors, and brick-layers on the one hand, and squatters, saboteurs, industrial thieves and arsonists on the other, precisely to gain 'a better understanding of the second century', beyond the harmonising gaze on the best of worlds constructed by Trajan (or was it Pliny?). On y va.

Table des matières

Autour de Pline le Jeune. En hommage à Nicole Méthy
Avant-propos : p. 9
1. Le contexte politique et idéologique
Nicole Méthy : "L'Optimus Princeps : idéal et réalité. Les lettres de Trajan à Pline le Jeune" [inédit] : p. 13
Nicole Méthy : "Vainqueur et vaincu dans la pensée des empereurs romains de l'époque antonine" [1990] : p. 25
Stéphane Benoist : "Pline le Jeune et Fronton, deux protagonistes d'un discours impérial en actes" : p. 37
Pilar Gonzalez Conde : "El papel de la gens Ulpia durante el gobierno de Trajano: el Panegírico de Plinio y otras fuentes documentales" : p. 49
Olivier Devillers : "Néron selon Pline le Jeune : entre Pline l'Ancien, Tacite et Trajan" : p. 61

2. Le contexte culturel et littéraire
Nicole Méthy : "Le patriotisme des auteurs africains de langue latine au iie siècle p.C." [1982] : p. 75
Nicole Méthy : "Magie, religion et botanique. À propos de la formule herbae felicitas dans un passage de Pline l'Ancien" [1999] : p. 89
Nicole Boëls-Janssen : "L'image de la femme dans les Lettres de Pline le Jeune à la lumière de son environnement littéraire" : p. 103
Ilaria Marchesi : "The Unbalanced Dinner between Martial and Pliny: One Topos in Two Genres" : p. 117
Margot Neger : "Pliny's Martial and Martial's Pliny: the Intertextual Dialogue between the Letters and the Epigrams" : p. 131
Hubert Zehnacker : "Les mots grecs dans la Correspondance de Pline le Jeune avec l'empereur Trajan" : p. 145
Bruno Rochette : "Suétone et le bilinguisme des Julio-Claudiens" : p. 155

3. Thèmes et textes pliniens
Giovanna Galimberti Biffino : "'Scrivere' il corpo o della salute e della malattia nell'epistolario di Plinio il Giovane" : p. 169
Silvia Stucchi : "Lutto, dolore e dignitas in Plinio il Giovane" : p. 183
Lucienne Deschamps : "M. Terentius Varro vu par Pline le Jeune" : p. 197
Spirydon Tzounakas : "Pliny as the Roman Demosthenes" : p. 207
Christopher Whitton : "Pliny on the Precipice (Ep., 9.26)" : p. 219
Alain Billault : "L'image de Dion Chrysostome dans la correspondance de Pline le Jeune (Ep., 10.81-82)" : p. 239
Eleni Manoloraki : "Death and Taxes: The Vicesima Hereditatum in Pliny's Panegyricus" : p. 245
Guillaume Flamerie de Lachappelle : "Jules Janin et Pline le Jeune" : p. 259

Travaux et Publications de Nicole Méthy : p. 271
Bibliographie : p. 283
Index des passages : p. 311
Index des noms : p. 317


1.   I. Marchesi (ed.), Pliny the Book-Maker. Betting on Posterity in the Epistles (Oxford, 2015), 4.
2.   P. Stadter, 'Pliny and the ideology of Empire: the correspondence with Trajan', Prometheus 32 (2006), 61-76; C. Noreña, 'The social economy of Pliny's correspondence with Trajan', American Journal of Philology 128 (2007), 239-77; G. Woolf, 'Pliny/Trajan and the poetics of empire', Classical Philology 110.2 (2015), 132-51.
3.   e.g. O. Devillers, L'art de la persuasion dans les Annales de Tacite (Brussels, 1994); Tacite et les sources des Annales. Enquêtes sur la méthode historique (Louvain, Paris, Dudley/MA, 2003).
4.   'Moderichtungen': E. Lefèvre, Vom Römertum zum Ästhetizismus. Studien zu den Briefen des jüngeren Plinius (Berlin and New York, 2009), 14-8.
5.   T.P. Wiseman, The Roman Audience. Classsical Literature as Social History (Oxford, 2015).
6.   G. Kelly, Ammianus Marcellinus. The Allusive Historian (Cambridge, 2008), 30.

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