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Pliny’s Tacitus: The Politics of Representation

Rebecca Edwards

Many scholars, most recently Whitton, have explored the sympathy between Pliny’s Letters and Tacitus’ works. Tacitus looms large in these studies. As Whitton puts it, “For many readers of Tacitus, Pliny is a convenient but disposable witness” (346). But suppose we could push Tacitus the author to the side and look instead at Tacitus the friend of Pliny. Pliny’s letters to Tacitus are especially concerned with binding their literary legacies together, often manifesting in an atmosphere of “friendly competition” (Griffin 142; Ludolph 80-81; Lefèvre 81). This friendly rivalry plays a large role in the way in which Pliny portrays the dynamic between himself and Tacitus.

In this paper I will use some of the ideas presented by Leach in her APA Presidential Address (2006), “that the character revealed within letters is actually one sculpted to the writer’s image of the recipient or that there is in the recipient the reflected image of a desired self” (252), to examine Pliny’s treatment of his friendship with Tacitus. Gibson and Morello (161-168) have laid the groundwork for such a study, but I believe that their approach can be taken further. In order to understand more fully how Pliny creates Tacitus as a “character” to promote his own literary image, we must lay aside previous conceptions of Tacitus formed by reading his works.

In her seminal article on self-fashioning in Pliny’s Letters, Leach (1990) analyzes Ep. 7.33 to Tacitus on the trial of Baebius Massa. While Pliny “ostensibly asks Tacitus for a portrait, his letter itself constitutes a self-portrait presenting his action as he hopes it will be seen” (19). Riggsby (1998) counters Leach’s focus on Pliny’s letters as read through Foucault’s “care of the self”, arguing that Pliny was fashioning himself within the context of Roman elite personae. Henderson (2002 and 2003) reconciles Leach’s and Riggsby’s ideas in his own treatment of Pliny’s self-presentation. Radicke also explores how each correspondent reflects a different facet of Pliny’s persona (461). These scholars all examine the tension between the different personae of Pliny, manifested in the very nature of his Letters as a collection to addressees from various levels of Roman society. Tacitus figures prominently in this collection as the most common addressee. More importantly, towards the end of the collection, the frequency and intensity of Pliny’s letters to Tacitus increases, as Pliny focuses on securing his own literary legacy. By this point, as Pliny himself makes clear in Epp. 6.16, 6.20, and 7.33, Tacitus is no longer seeking fame solely as an orator, but also as an historian. Pliny, who famously refuses an invitation to write history (Ep. 5.8), highlights Tacitus’ new literary identity and uses it to promote his own legacy.

Pliny uses several devices to shape “his” Tacitus and to reflect the fame he depicts Tacitus as receiving back upon himself. For example, Pliny begins Ep. 8.7 by stating that Tacitus has sent him something to edit, most likely a volume of the Histories (Sherwin-White 456). Pliny cites Tacitus’ own words (for more on this device, see Marchesi 98-99) – Neque ut magistro magister neque ut discipulo discipulus (sic enim scribis). Echoing Tacitus’ language, Pliny receives the work not as an equal, but as a student receiving a book (librum) from his teacher  – sed ut discipulo magister (nam tu magister, ego contra). But within a few sentences, the relationship is inverted, and Pliny agrees to take up personam magistri. Notably, Pliny couches his statement with the word persona. Ep. 8.7 further claims that Tacitus is calling Pliny back to school during his extended Saturnalia, implying role reversal. By using such techniques, in this and in other letters, Pliny eventually conjures up a literary Tacitus who can be confused with Pliny by an eques at the races (Ep. 9.23). Throughout, he uses humor and modesty to disarm both Tacitus and the larger audience of his work.

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Epistolary Fictions and Realities

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