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Silent Virtue: Pliny’s Verginius Rufus as Imperial Exemplar

Laura Garofalo

Johns Hopkins University

L. Verginius Rufus, a lifelong friend and mentor of Pliny the Younger, is featured in three letters of Pliny’s Epistulae (Ep. 2.1, 6.10, and 9.19). Notably, Verginius’ most singular deed took the form of a refusal: in the early months of civil war in 68/69 CE, Verginius rejected multiple troop acclamations, effectively declining the principate. Nevertheless, Pliny defines Verginius’ restraint as a glorious, exemplary action, in effect lauding a man who could have been emperor in terms of Republican glory. Pliny’s Verginius letters suggest the tensions between Republican ideals and the limited possibilities for imperial exemplarity and fame.

In order to understand Pliny’s unusual combination of exemplary Republican rhetoric and imperial Realpolitik, I compare Verginius’ epistolary portrait with three alternate exemplary possibilities. First, Pliny evokes traditional exemplary values, such as deference to the state over the self, much like a Cincinnatus or Brutus. Second, Pliny’s Verginius reflects the forced modesty and restricted prospects of the imperial age, in the vein of Agricola’s silent virtue or Frontinus’ refusal of a monument in Ep. 9.19 (Sailor 2008; Marchesi 2008: 146-148; Whitton 2012). Third, and perhaps most contentiously, Pliny presents Verginius as an alternate emperor, in the traditionalist vein of Vespasian or Nerva. In each case, Pliny portrays the difficulties and discrepancies of memory under the empire, insisting upon his own version of how and why Verginius is remembered in the post-Flavian era.

For example, Verginius’ legacy and his immortale factum (6.10.3) seem less assured in the two later letters. In Ep. 6.10, Pliny laments Verginius’ incomplete monument; in Ep. 9.19, he defends Verginius’ legacy from competing claims of contemporary historiography and new types of memorialization. In these letters, Pliny portrays Verginius as both particularly traditional and well-attuned to imperial realities. This is revealed in Verginius’ intended, but ultimately un-inscribed epitaph: Hic situs est Rufus, pulso qui Vindice quondam / imperium adseruit non sibi, sed patriae “Here lies Rufus, who once defeated Vindex / He freed imperial power not for himself but for his country” (Ep. 6.10.4). Alongside the personal victory claimed by the epitaph, the verb adseruit served as a nouveau-Republican watchword, often connected with notions of senatorial libertas (Shotter 1975, 2001; Levick 1985).

However, this particular version of events relies upon Pliny’s portrayal of a noble, triple refusal of power. Under the Flavians, it was likely dangerous to promote Verginius’ actions as a virtuous refusal of imperium, particularly in contrast to the similar rise of Vespasian. This unflattering comparison is often invoked as the reason why the Flavians denied Verginius any official role during their twenty-six years of power (Townend 1961, Shotter 1975 and 2001, Levick 1985). Verginius’ third consulship in 97 CE, shared with the new emperor Nerva, suggests rehabilitation in the last years of Verginius’ life. Pliny ultimately ensures that this interpretation of events survives (Leach 2013). In doing so, Pliny transforms Verginius’ intended verses into a meta-literary epitaph that endures only through inclusion and circulation in the Epistulae.

In short, the post-Flavian era allows for a different kind of memory to emerge, in which Pliny can present Verginius’ refusals as a positive counter-memory to the silences and omissions of the Flavian era. The Verginius letters focus these concerns through the complex legacy of a single figure, allowing Pliny to perpetuate his mentor’s fame and re-frame it for posterity.

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Imperial Fashioning in the Roman World

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