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You Can Go Home Again: Pliny Writes to Comum

Jacqueline Carlon

The function of Pliny’s letters as vehicles for self-representation is now well-traveled scholarly territory, with almost universal consensus that he has his sights set on immortal fame, as he himself readily admits (Ep. 9.3).  Achieving and maintaining social and political prominence in Pliny’s time generally required careful balancing  of global and local obligations and duties, particularly for elite men who hailed from districts removed from the immediate orbit of Rome.  Thus Pliny’s literary self-portrait would not have been complete without reference to his ongoing relationship with Comum and its residents.  Furthermore, Pliny’s hometown is also one of his most important audiences, one that he must continue to cultivate if he hopes to enjoy the kind of refined retirement he so often praises in his letters.  Through expressions of his affection for Comum, his descriptions of the beneficia he has bestowed on it and the letters he sends to his fellow townsmen, Pliny maintains a proper place for his eventual secessus there.

Close readings of his letters about Comum and its residents reveal a number of crucial elements in the relationship that Pliny is determined to foster.  Those that deal with his affection and benefactions treat his hometown like a beloved family member whose welfare he guards and supports with great care.  But, as Eleanor Winsor Leach has noted, Pliny is also deeply concerned about how his generosity is perceived and must, therefore, carefully frame his intentions so as not to appear cocky or self-aggrandizing (1990: 28-30).  John Henderson has called one of his donations “Pliny’s Billboard” (165), a very public means of promoting himself.  Yet, if he is to live comfortably among the ordinary folk of Comum, Pliny must be careful not to lord it over them, even though he cannot let his accomplishments and benefactions be forgotten.  What Leach terms “symbolic capital of exercising a constructive influence” (2012: 88) must be properly invested to create respect and understanding and to ward off the “competitive jealousies” that Stanley Hoffer envisions among Pliny’s fellow elites at home (99).  Indeed in a letter to Pompeius Saturninus in which Pliny considers the perils of self-promotion, he stresses his own impression of what should prompt euergetism: sequi enim gloria, non adpeti debet (Ep. 1.8.14).  His sensitivity to public perception of his intentions pervades his treatment of Comum in the Epistulae and is particularly apparent in his presentation of himself as an exceptionally careful donor, one with an “intellectual disposition” (Leach 1990: 29).   This characterization of his generosity as cautious and judicious is meant to reassure his fellow citizens that he has not been spoiled by life in the big city and close association with the emperor’s power.

Several groups of letters sent to otherwise undistinguished residents of Comum also serve to elucidate Pliny’s character, lifestyle and hopes for the future.  Through letters to Annius Severus, Calvisius Rufus, Caninius Rufus and Romatius Firmus, Pliny creates a sense of his continued intimacy  with Comum through long-standing relationships with some of its citizens. Reading Pliny through his addressees is one of the approaches modeled by Roy Gibson and Ruth Morello in their recent introduction to the letters (136-168) and one that is crucial to understanding his treatment of Comum as an audience.  With topics that include the disposition of his inheritances, the management of his properties, the pressures of his officia, the joys of literature, and the features of a proper and productive retirement, Pliny not only offers examples of his thoughtful behavior and integrity but also provides a detailed explanation of his vision for the future.  The letters to Caninius Rufus in particular focus on the joys of Comum, the pleasures of secessus, and the importance of writing in securing immortalitas (Ep. 1.3, 2.8, 3.7, 6.21, 7.18, 7.25, 8.4, 9.33) all of which point to Pliny’s return to his ancestral home and his need to secure his standing and assure his acceptance among its people.

Session/Panel Title

Epistolary Fictions and Realities

Session/Paper Number

24.3

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