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Pliny’s Telemacheia: Epic and Exemplarity Under Vesuvius

Jacques Bromberg

Pliny the Younger’s two letters on the eruption of Mount Vesuvius are among the most famous and widely read of all ancient epistulae (6.16 and 6.20).  For much of the last century, readers have focused on the historical or volcanological reconstruction of the events of August 24-26, 79 A.D. (Merrill 1918; Mierow 1931; Sullivan 1968; Forehand 1971 and 1972; Barrett 1972; Maritz 1974; Sigurdsson, Cashdollar, and Sparks 1982; Romer 1985).  Only comparatively recently have the literary qualities of the Younger Pliny’s letters begun to receive attention.  Some scholars have addressed social or political language of the letters (Leach 2003; Noreña 2007; Baraz 2012; Coleman 2012), others Pliny’s role as an historian (Traub 1955; Ash 2003; Augoustakis 2005), and still others his intertextual relationship with contemporary Latin literary forms (Miller 1987; Schönberger 1990; Jones 2001; Newlands 2010; Strunk 2012). Rarely has any intertext with a Greek author been seriously explored (Deane 1918; Johnson 2013).

This paper examines the epic intertexts in Pliny’s Vesuvius letters, arguing in particular that unsuspected allusions to Homer complicate the better-known Vergilian references. Throughout 6.16 and 6.20, the Odyssey and Aeneid establish a paradigm of heroism that illustrates the promise (and risk) of adoptive paternity. Writing in the early Nerva-Antonine dynasty, Pliny implicitly contrasts the newly-established model of adoptive imperial succession with the “degeneracy” of Julio-Claudian and Flavian succession by blood.  As Jones (2001) has argued, letters 6.16 and 6.20 form a structural and thematic pair that contrasts the Elder Pliny’s courageous curiosity in 6.16 with the Younger Pliny’s anxiety and self-doubt in 6.20. Pliny’s allusions to, and quotations from, Vergilian epic in 6.16 and 6.20 reinforce this reading: 6.16 begins  with a makarismos of the Elder Pliny (6.16.3), characterized as the Stoic Aeneas (6.16.11-12); a quotation from the Aeneid  opens 6.20 (6.20.12), and characterizes the Younger Pliny as the distraught Aeneas of Aeneid 2.  The devastation of Misenum evokes the epic destruction of Troy (6.20.8, 14, 18-19).

Perhaps because of their unmistakable transparency—and the skill with which Pliny weaves them into his narratives—these passages have received little comment.  Scholars observe that that they provide an “epic backdrop” for the letters (Augoustakis 2005 269-70); they situate Pliny’s eulogy of his uncle/father within the Roman literary tradition of narrating the deaths of famous men (Schönberger 1990 31-4).  However, the resemblances of 6.20 to the opening episodes of Homer’s Odyssey have never been observed, despite the degree to which they illuminate Pliny’s self-characterization in the letter. Pliny is aware of a boy’s duty to search for a lost father (e.g. 6.25.5, and Jones 2001 36-7), and as he hesitates to leave Misenum while the Elder’s fate is unclear, his crisis of pietas recalls Telemachus’ uncertainty about Odysseus.  A friend of the family plays Athena’s role in goading the young man into action (6.20.5), and Pliny’s mother, like Penelope, opposes her son’s newfound authority (6.20.20; cf. Odyssey 1.213-51; 306-24).

Given Pliny’s commitment throughout the collection of letters to developing models of relatedness that privilege deliberate selection over haphazard kinship (Bernstein 2008), the two Vesuvius letters shed light on Pliny’s attitude toward adoption.  Like the fatherless Telemachus of Homer’s ‘Telemacheia’, the teenaged Pliny is tested in the absence of an influential male parent.  The result reveals both the hopefulness and anxiety that underlie the transfer of power by adoption, and that characterize Pliny’s desire to recommend Trajan as an exemplum for his successors (e.g. 3.18.1-2, and Noreña 2007 268-9).  A close reading of the epic intertexts in these letters not only furthers our understanding of two famous documents from antiquity, but also allows us also to locate 6.16 and 6.20 within the sociopolitical project of Pliny’s letters.

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Family Values: Fathers and Sons in Flavian Literature

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