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Answering the Natural Questions: Pliny Ep. 4.30 and Ep. 8.20

Christopher V. Trinacty

Oberlin College

This paper argues that Pliny the Younger activates specific intertexts to the third book of Seneca’s Naturales Quaestiones (NQ) as part of his self-fashioning. While scholars have identified Seneca’s influence elsewhere (Cova 1997, Marchesi 2008: 14-20, Tzounakas 2011, Gibson and Morello 2012: passim), the NQ has not been subject of intertextual study. Seneca’s own epistolary and scientific prowess are recalled in Pliny’s careful and erudite letters, but Pliny also adds his own literary perspective to the genre of natural science. In doing so, Pliny hopes his readers will acknowledge his aemulatio of the source material, but also marvel at his own controlled perspective of the mirabilia under consideration. His handling of the material acts as a useful lens to his persona and his perspective on the epistolary genre for philosophical and literary expression.

Epistle 4.30, addressed to Licinius Sura, considers the periodic spring near Lake Como. Pliny opens this letter stating, attuli tibi ex patria mea pro munusculo quaestionem altissima ista eruditione dignissimam. Both munusculum and the use of quaestio draw the reader into Seneca’s epistolary (munusculum, e.g. Ep. 10.5.1, 16.7.2) and scientific works (quaestio repeated often in Seneca’s Naturales Quaestiones, e.g. 2.1.1, 3.18.1). Seneca himself discussed periodic springs at NQ 3.16.1, relating them to the larger time-cycles of human life (childbirth) and the natural world (the seasons) in order to frame the larger philosophical concerns of the book (both meteorological and ethical). For Pliny, it is an opportunity to put into practice Seneca’s theories in the NQ and to describe an example from his own personal experienceHe is a careful reader of Seneca and verbal connections stress his reception of Seneca’s work (e.g. spiritus, latentibus venis). He ends the letter by stressing Licinius Sura’s ability to solve this problem, scrutare tu causas (potes enim), quae tantum miraculum efficient: mihi abunde est, si satis expressi, quod efficitur (4.30.11). By stressing the epistolary relationship and Sura’s own intellectual curiosity, Pliny embodies how learning is passed on and how epistles act to transmit such knowledge and encourage additional investigation. Pliny, having learned of the physics of such springs from Seneca, passes on his knowledge and expects it to be appreciated and validated by Sura. In essence, he highlights how the “community of scholars” (Hine 2006) that Seneca evokes in the NQhas continued and includes Pliny and Sura themselves. 

Epistle 8.20 tackles the topic of floating islands, a recurrent theme in ancient natural science (Sen. NQ 3.25.8, Pliny the Elder Nat. 2.209). The example he gives about those in Lake Vadimon are meant to delight (delectant, Ep. 8.20.10) the addressee Gallus and the letter shows Pliny’s light touch with the material handed down to him. Once again, information from Seneca’s NQ is made to contextualize this wonder as part of de rerum natura (see Sherwin-White 1966: ad loc.), but from his own point of view (audivi pariter et vidi, Ep. 8.20.3). Much like his tendency to compose “miniatures” from history or epic (Gibson and Morello 2012: 79), this letter stresses his active creation of natural science. His belief that such curiosities and novelties can be found nearby is embodied by his own neologism (cumbula. Ep. 8.20.7) and the sailing metaphors and “travels” of cows on these islands. One does not need to go far away (or to far-off authors), but can find something novel and worthwhile in the work of Pliny. The letter becomes emblematic of the natural world. In fact, Pliny encourages his readers to open their eyes to the wonders at hand, even in Rome, and adopts Seneca’s protreptic rhetoric to reinforce this modus vivendi.

These two letters show how Pliny competes with Seneca’s literary and scientific auctoritasand creates his own innovative answer to the Naturales Quaestiones. Pliny’s literary natural philosophy vies with Seneca’s larger treatise to provide an epistolary take on these curiosities of rerum natura.

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Ethics and Morality in Latin Philosophy

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