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The Letters of Pliny the Younger: Teaching Pliny’s Correspondence in the Intermediate Latin Setting

by Gregory Starikovsky, Columbia University
Original Text © 2002 Gregory Starikovsky. All rights reserved.

Pliny the Younger undoubtedly belongs to the group of Latin authors whose writings have long dominated the intermediate Latin curriculum. The frequency with which second-year Latin courses incorporate Pliny in their syllabi testifies to this author’s immense popularity among intermediate Latin instructors. At Columbia University, for example, intermediate Latin courses that feature Pliny are offered almost every academic year.

It is little surprise that Latin teachers choose Pliny to instruct their students in the rigors of Latin prose. As Sherwin-White observes in his introduction to the Fifty Letters of Pliny:

Because Pliny does not write ‘periodic’ sentences like Cicero, with an accumulation of subordinate clauses preceding the main statement, the sentence construction appears more ‘natural’ to an English ear (p. XVII).

In the opening letter of Book 1 Pliny states that before publication he revised his letters “with some care” (paulo curatius). Pliny’s style is praised by such scholars as Ronald Syme (1958:96) who claims that “for graciousness of style… variety… delicacy… tact, [Pliny] has no rival.” Elaine Fantham in her book Roman Literary Culture: From Cicero to Apuleius (1996:220) also commends Pliny’s refined prose: “Pliny was more of a stylist, notoriously molding conventional content into brilliant form.” In addition to the digestible and polished Latin, Pliny’s letters provide students with an excellent introduction to the civilization of ancient Rome. Personally, I opt to integrate the study of Pliny’s letters into thematic units that cover specific topics of interest to students, such as slavery, patron-client relationship, Roman villas, early Christianity, etc. In this regard, I find that using supplementary materials such as historical background and visual aids can make the study of Pliny’s correspondence more meaningful.

The above-mentioned approaches and advantages, however, speak mainly for instructors’ attitudes towards Pliny. But what about the undergraduates who have to spend many weeks in the company of Pliny? It is not always easy to persuade a second year Latin student to appreciate the nuances of Pliny’s style. Intermediate Latin students have not been usually exposed to other Latin prose styles, which they might compare with Pliny’s. Their attention almost inevitably focuses on Pliny’s self-representation in his letters. His personality, conspicuous in much of his epistolary prose, elicits a critical response from students. Expecting to find a powerful character behind their classical text, they are disappointed to discover a mere human being who readily, if unwittingly, sets before the reader his few strengths and many more weaknesses. Students often describe Pliny as a “self-promoter,” “time-server,” or “complacent mediocrity,” and indeed he can appear to be inordinately satisfied with his own life. In his letters, Pliny emerges as an embodiment of normality, and it is this ambition to appear common that irritates many student readers of Pliny.



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