Pliny’s Letters

Pliny the Younger

97-109 AD

(A wealthy lawyer reveals his personality and attitudes, and the way of life in Imperial Rome.)

PlinyAndMotherVesuviusCrop of Pliny the Younger and his Mother at Misenum, 79 AD, by Angelica Kauffmann (1785). Here Pliny dictates his most famous letter as he and his mother observe the eruption of Vesuvius. Courtesy of the Princeton Art Museum.


Many of us are acquainted with, or at least aware of, a certain species of lawyer, politician, or businessman.  At first we notice the more grating aspects of his personality.  He is near the top of his game, and can barely see beyond his own prosperity.  He knows a whole lot of people, many of whom are famous, and somehow he reminds us of this in nearly every conversation.  He loves to talk of his success stories, his valuable properties, praise he has received, and difficult decisions or tight places from which he has emerged victorious.  He is sensible of the fact that his reputation is what keeps him successful, and he has become entrained on reputation to such an extent that the development of it is unabashedly the single guiding force in his life, the basis upon which he makes all significant choices.  Maybe this is true for all of us to some extent, but what our bold tycoon doesn’t often realize that so ardently exhibiting a concern for reputation can actually harm your reputation.

PlinyLetterMSTake this image, transfer it back two thousand years, and with remarkable consistency across time, space, and culture, we have the lawyer and public official Pliny (the nephew of the other famous Pliny, whom we call the Elder, who wrote the long Natural History).  Pliny the Younger was one of the most powerful men in Trajan’s Rome (especially if we take his own word for it), a man of many positions and many more friends, an owner of sumptuous villas and large sums of money.  He speaks powerfully and convincingly, wins most of his cases in the Roman Senate, and strategically piles fame upon fame with his orations, donations, connections, and of course, his self-publicity.

From the start, however, we see that he has not “made it” for nothing.  He has a way with words, a charming and charismatic air, a clear talent for arguing logically and forcefully, and no shortage of shrewdness and the ability to understand people.  He is astonishingly pragmatic in his decisions, develops relationships well, keeps his friends happy, and knows exactly what to say (and what not to say) in any situation.  And beneath the surface, as we get to know him, we see that the career-man is not all there is to Pliny.  He has a much more personal and endearing side: he needs companionship, misses his beloved wife, is offended at being overlooked or not needed, gobbles up compliments like a little boy, is sensitive to criticism and tries diligently to improve himself, mourns the loss of friends and family, worries about his own death, wonders about the meaning of life, and wishes that people were more honest and that the world were a better and (in some respects) more democratic place.

Pliny idolizes Cicero, and although Pliny’s orations do bring him fame and fortune, and although he did write these letters with the idea that they might eventually become published as Tully’s had, we cannot fool ourselves that Pliny is quite in the same league as his hero.  But the letters do read well, especially in a translation based on William Melmoth’s that is often regarded as presenting the best possible interpretation of Pliny’s attitudes and style in our language.  Readers will also be attracted and entertained by the logical flow and common sense infusing many of the letters.  The many epigrams are eminently quotable.  His humor is also very entertaining, whether intended or not (when his conceit comes through it can really be amusing).  Perhaps the greatest impression Pliny’s letters leave on one’s mind, however, is the view of Imperial Rome itself.  The descriptions of relationships, legal cases, landscapes, entertainment, and current events are remarkably fresh and give one the startling impression that the world has not changed much in two millennia.  Pliny’s letters have not lost their currency partly because the social topics are still timely, whether they are property values going up in Tuscany, scandals over the acceptance of bribes or the adultery of public figures, an invitation to dinner, the playing of a prank, or just plain gossip.

Some of the recurring subjects of his letters are:

  • updates on the actions of the unprincipled rogue Regulus
  • letters of reference in favor of certain people that Pliny would like to see advanced in society
  • cover letters accompanying Pliny’s own speeches and other writings he is asking others to review
  • descriptions of his properties and of events he has attended (these often include famous personages such as the emperor, and famous events such as the great eruption of Mount Vesuvius, of which Pliny gives two amazing accounts)
  • private and public dinner affairs
  • discussions of speeches and the more spectacular cases that come to court
  • panegyrics on great persons Pliny admires, often upon their deaths
  • advice, often to younger people on how to advance their reputation.

Here I cover only the first six short books of Pliny’s letters (he wrote 10 in all).  All of his letters would fit into a comfortable volume; the Loeb Classical Library edition with the Latin and the English is in two volumes, the portion I cover here being Volume I.


SUMMARIES (those marked with an asterisk (*) are a few of the more interesting or profound):

Book I:

i. To Septicius

-Introduction, presenting his letters to the public.

 ii. To Arrianus

-Commendation of a speech of his to a friend, and a request for his opinion.

iii. To Caninius Rufus

-Inquiry after his hometown, and an exhortation to a talented budding academic.

iv. To Pompeia Celerina

-Courtesies to a hospitable mother-in-law.

v. To Voconius Romanus

-Dealings in the court against an unprincipled rival; Pliny’s rhetorical skill makes the day.

*vi. To Cornelius Tacitus

-Consideration of the woods and the hunt as a source of literary or imaginative inspiration.

vii. To Octavius Rufus

-Display of goodwill towards an acquaintance, but also hesitancy to become too involved in a suit of a province against its governor.

*viii. To Pompeius Saturninus

-A somewhat amusing account of a speech Pliny would like to publish, but thinks it might be too boastful; with interesting thoughts on boasting and glory for one’s virtue.

*ix. To Minicius Fundanus

-On the time we spend on frivolous things, and our need to get away and be simpler and truer, even if we do nothing.

*x. To Attius Clemens

-Commendation of an esteemed philosopher and role model of Pliny’s day, named Euphrates.

xi. To Fabius Justus

-Admonishment of a friend to write more often.

xii. To Calestrius Tiro

-Expression of grief for a man who has committed suicide to relieve himself of a chronic illness.

xiii. To Sosius Senecio

-In favor of poets and writers, despite the public’s apathy.

xiv. To Junius Mauricus

-Presentation of a friend as a good suitor for another’s niece.

xv. To Septicius Clarus

-Gentle, good-humored chastisement of an acquaintance who failed to show up for dinner.

xvi. To Erucius

-Admiring words for a contemporary author.

xvii. To Cornelius Titianus

-Praise for a man who is known for praising others.

xviii. To Suetonius Tranquillus

-Doubts on the predictive power of ominous dreams.

xix. To Romatius Firmus

-Account of a fortune that Pliny magnificently and somewhat arrogantly bestows upon a friend of the family.

xx. To Cornelius Tacitus

-A defense of lengthy discourses, containing some good arguments.

xxi. To Paternus

-Lighthearted, jocular thanks for recommending some slaves for purchase.

*xxii. To Catilius Severus

-A portrait of a wise, good, and admirable man who has taken ill.

xxiii. To Pompeius Falco

-Advice that it is unbecoming a magistrate to act as an advocate.

xxiv. To Baebius

-Expression of hope that a friend may be able to procure a particularly nice little form at a reasonable price.


Book II:

i. To Voconius Romanus

-Praise for a recently deceased man of great glory and virtue who was very kind to Pliny.

ii. To Paulinus

-Rage at a friend’s lapse of communication.

iii. To Nepos

-Praise for an excellent rhetorician, and encouragement to a friend to come hear him.

iv. To Calvina

-Vain, self-aggrandizing forgiveness of a debt owed by a woman after her father’s death.

v. To Lupercus

-Cover letter accompanying a patriotic speech of which Pliny would like to receive critical comments.

*vi. To Avitus

-Against mean treatment of guests according to social rank under the guise of frugality; in favor of equality of treatment.

vii. To Macrinus

-Praise of a Senate decision to build a statue of a young warrior who recently died.

viii. To Caninius

-Disappointment with a multitude of responsibilities and anticipation of leisure time.

ix. To Apollinaris

-Recommendation for a candidate, sent to preserve Pliny’s own reputation as much as anything else.

x. To Octavius

-Encouragement of a friend to publish his poetry.

xi. To Arrianus

-Account of a public scandal and trial in the Senate: an honored noble is convicted of extortion and even of accepting bribes to hurt and kill innocent men (an excellent view into the Roman justice system).

xii. To Arrianus

-Account of the punishment of an accomplice of the noble discussed in the last letter, by the confiscation of the property granted to him as a senator.

xiii. To Priscus

-Plea to a noble, for aid in advancing a friend’s career.

*xiv. To Maximus

-A look at the decline of decorum and the increase in corruption in the Centumviral Court.

xv. To Valerianus

-On troublesome estates.

xvi. To Annianus

-Response to the wish of a dead man that was not formalized in his will: Pliny follows his conscience rather than the letter of the law.

xvii. To Gallus

-Detailed description of his villa at Laurentium: a magnificent seaside resort and haven.

xviii. To Mauricus

-Account of a visit with schoolchildren while looking for a tutor for a friend’s nephews.

xix. To Cerealis

-Reservations about reading a speech of his to a private audience, especially on account of the differences in atmosphere and expectation between the courtroom and parlor.

xx. To Calvisius

-Three stories exhibiting the gall, deceitfulness, greed, and disrespectfulness of a certain Regulus, who makes a living insinuating himself into peoples’ wills.


Book III:

i. To Calvisius Rufus

-A day in the life of a man 78 years young, orderly and edifying, an inspiration to Pliny as a model of old age.

ii. To Vibius Maximus

-Request for the favor of an honorable office for an estimable friend.

iii. To Corellia Hispulla

-Appeal to a mother to adopt a certain virtuous tutor, a friend of Pliny’s.

iv. To Caecilius Macrinus

-Request for the opinion of a friend in the delicate and controversial matter of prosecuting a provincial governor.

v. To Baebius Macer

-An outline of the character and works of Pliny’s uncle, Pliny the Elder, a remarkably studious man.

vi. To Annius Severus

-Account of the purchase of an ancient bronze statue, which Pliny is going to donate to a temple.

vii. To Caninius Rufus

-Discussion of an old man who recently euthanized himself; the event elicits nostalgia, then a sense of mortality, and subsequently an incentive to virtue and diligence in life.

viii. To Suetonius Tranquillus

-Agreement to bestow a favor for a friend, of granting a post to someone he recommends.

ix. To Cornelius Minicianus

-Description of a trial of a corrupt provincial governor and his accomplices, with Pliny as prosecuting attorney.

x. To Spurinna and Cottia

-Discusses and seeks advice from a couple on the matter of composing an encomium on their dead son.

xi. To Julius Genitor

-Of a philosopher Artemidorus, who spoke well of Pliny.

xii. To Catilius Severus

-Acceptance of a dinner invitation, with an exhortation to temperance.

xiii. To Voconius Romanus

-Request for comments on a letter; with remarks on good writing.

xiv. To Acilius

-Report of a murder of a noble by his slaves.

xv. To Silius Proculus

-Agrees enthusiastically to read poems of a friend, whose work he already recognizes as beautiful.

xvi. To Nepos

-A praising account of a woman who exhibits profound courage and loyalty to her husband, culminating in her suicide in order to die with him when he is condemned.

xvii. To Julius Servianus

-Anxious exhortation of a friend to write.

xviii. To Vibius Severus

-On a panegyric on the current Emperor (Trajan) that Pliny recently recited in the Senate; Pliny was pleased with its reception by them and the public audience. He attributes this to a rise in appreciation of such “polite literature”, due in part to the fact that the current emperor is worthy of praise, unlike many in the past.

xix. To Calvisius Rufus

-Request for advice on purchasing a property abutting his own, with pros and cons.

xx. To Messius Maximus

-Discussion of a recent Senate decision to use secret ballots rather than open voting; Pliny, despite reservations, thinks it probably a good and orderly idea.

xxi. To Cornelius Priscus

-Offering of some thoughts on Martial on his death, including a verse Martial wrote about Pliny.


Book IV:

i. To Fabatus

-Promise to visit his grandparents-in-law after dedicating a temple he had built in a village near his villa.

ii. To Attius Clemens

-Gossip on Regulus, whom Pliny despises as a greedy, base liar; Regulus has lost his son and is conducting subsequent affairs as befits his lack of character.

iii. To Arrius Antoninus

-Praise for an acquaintance’s leadership, personality, and Greek poetry.

iv. To Sosius Senecio

-Request for a position for an acquaintance.

v. To Julius Sparsus

-A series of boasts for a recent speech of his, especially that it received as much applause as some famous Greek orations.

vi. To Julius Naso

-Discussion on the current state of his properties; his cultivated land is not flourishing, but it is the place where he cultivates his mind that is his favorite.

*vii. To Catius Lepidus

-A humorously scathing diatribe against Regulus’s lack of virtue, taste, and oratorical skill.

viii. To Maturus Arrianus

-Exultation in his being appointed the priestly title of Auger, for life.

ix. To Cornelius Ursus

-Account of the controversial extortion trial and sentencing of a man whose life was noted for misfortune; Pliny defended him.

x. To Statius Sabinus

-Urging of a coheir to follow the deceased’s wishes rather than the letter of the law, by freeing her slave.

*xi. To Cornelius Minicianus

-Account of Domitian’s harsh sentence of a Vestal Virgin and a man accused of being her lover; and of another man banished for pleading guilty to a similar crime.

xii. To Maturus Arrianus

-Praise for a man who recently gained glory for being honest about a small sum of money he knew he had no right to keep.

xiii. To Cornelius Tacitus

-On the value of children being educated close to home and of parents picking and paying their own kids’ teachers; Pliny convinces a town’s people to pool their money for a teacher, and asks an acquaintance to search for appropriate candidates.

xiv. To Paternus

-Cover letter accompanying some verses of which he would like an opinion; he is rather attached to and defensive of them, but claims to want an honest critique.

xv. To Minicius Fundanus

-Praise for a friend and a request that the recipient, who is soon to be consul, benefit him somehow.

xvi. To Valerius Paulinus

-Admission of the encouragement Pliny feels by the crowded and enthusiastic reception his orations recently received.

xvii. To Gallus

-Agreement to defend a daughter of a man to whom Pliny is very grateful for having aided his reputation throughout life.

xviii. To Arrius Antoninus

-On Pliny’s attempt to write Latin poetry, and his consciousness of his limitations and those of the language.

xix. To Calpurnia Hispulla

-Tender and admiring words about his wife to her aunt.

xx. To Nonius Maximus

-Adulation for an acquaintance’s sorrowful and sublime speech.

xxi. To Velius Cerealis

-Grief for the family of two sisters, both of whom died in childbirth; now the continuance of the family rests on one son.

xxii. To Sempronius Rufus

-On the abolishment of games in Vienna that, as in Rome, were affecting the people’s character.

xxiii. To Pomponius Bassus

-On the edifying nature of an acquaintance’s retirement, and how he looks forward to his own.

xxiv. To Fabius Valens

-Recollection of past years and the ups and downs of his career.

xxv. To Messius Maximus

-Disappointment at some goofballs in the Senate who wrote nonsense on ballots.

xxvi. To Metilius Nepos

-Gratification at a request for him to edit works of his that another has collected.

xxvii. To Pompeius Falco

-Praise for a poet, who just happens to have written an epigram on Pliny that he reproduces.

xxviii. To Vibius Severus

-Request to find a painter who will copy portraits of two his friends.

xxix. To Romatius Firmus

-Warning to a senator not to shirk his duties at court.

xxx. To Licinius Sura

-Several hypotheses as to why his natural fountain ebbs and flows on a regular basis, three times a day.


Book V:

i. To Annius Severus

-Description of a delicate matter involving a dispossessed man, and Pliny’s pleasure and pride at having acted nobly in it.

ii. To Calpurnius Flaccus

-Thanks for a gift of thrushes, and an apology that he has nothing to give in return at that time.

iii. To Titius Aristo

-Admission that he engages in the sometimes criticized practice of reading, writing, and reciting light and entertaining—even comic and erotic—poetry.  He defends himself with reference to esteemed company throughout history.

iv. To Iulius Valerianus

-Use of the beginning of an interesting trial to bait a friend to return communication.

v. To Nonius Maximus

-Reflection on being moved by the death of a man in the middle of writing a great work.

vi. To Domitius Apollinaris

-A lengthy description of his expansive, artistic, and idyllic Tuscan villa with its landscape. Then he defends his belief that such long accounts are not tedious if they stay on track!

vii. To Calvisius

-Request for support in a matter of bending the law to accommodate the intention of a man who has died and willed money to a town, which is technically illegal.

*viii. To Titinius Capito

-Consideration of the possibility of writing history, mainly to increase his fame. After elaborating the differences between history and oratory, he decides he cannot do both in the same period of time. He then considers the pros and cons of writing ancient versus recent history.

*ix. To Sempronius Rufus

-Contention over a sudden reform of a Praetor, that lawyers may not be paid by those they advocate.

x. To Suetonius Tranquillus

-Demand that a friend cough up some of his poems for public consumption, or else!

xi. To Calpurnius Fabatus, his wife’s grandfather

-Praise and congratulations to his grandfather-in-law for building structures in honor of himself and his son.

xii. To Terentius Scaurus

-An explanation of how and for what purpose he assembles a small audience for rehearsals of his speeches, followed by a request for a friend’s comments on one speech.

xiii. To Valerianus

-Accounts of two recent governmental events.  A lawyer is excused for skipping out on his case. Then the emperor, a concern for corruption having been expressed to him, outlaws the acceptance of money and gifts by senators.

xiv. To Pontius Allifanus

-Delight at an admired friend being appointed to a similar curatorial office to his own.

xv. To Arrius Antoninus

-Praise for a friend’s verses, which he likes to imitate.

*xvi. To Aefulanus Marcellinus

-Sorrow at the death of a wonderful young girl, even as she approached her wedding day.

xvii. To Vestricius Spurinna

-Praise for a young man’s recitation of a poem, and hope that the present generation exhibits more of such promise.

xviii. To Calpurnius Macer

-Salute to a friend in a villa, even as Pliny is at his own, hunting and studying.

xix. To Valerius Paulinus

-Expression of concern for a virtuous and talented household servant with an ailment.

xx. To Cornelius Ursus.

-Account of a hearing where speeches of varying quality are made.

xxi. To Pompeius Saturninus

-Sorrow at the near death of one man, and the death of another in the flower of his labors. For the good of his own well-being he attempts to banish his grief.


Book VI:

i. To Tiro

-On misses an absent friend even more now that he is in Rome too, so near to him.

ii. To Arrianus

-Thoughts following the death of the rogue Regulus.  Pliny does not really mourn him, but recognizes that at least the man spoke long and liberally in his cases, unlike many today who are dishonorable by spending very little time speaking on behalf of their client (this is followed by a good argument for open-ended disputation).

iii. To Verus

-Reminder to an acquaintance who promised to take care of a property Pliny gave to his nurse.

iv. To Calpurnia (his wife)

-Fear and concern for his wife’s welfare, as she moved away for a while on account of ill health.

v. To Ursus

-Disgust at the sensationalism and abusive language between two senators that characterized a recent session.

vi. To Fundanus

-Request for assistance in helping a friend achieve a political office.

vii. To Calpurnia (his wife)

-Reflections on missing his wife: just as she reads his works for company, he reads and rereads her letters.

viii. To Priscus

-Demand that an acquaintance sees to it that a friend receives some money he is owed by someone else.

ix. To Tacitus

-Assurance for a friend that they are on the same side regarding the candidacy of a mutual friend.

x. To Albinus

-On the dead being too soon forgotten.  Pliny misses an old, famous friend who died ten years ago, and is offended to see that his monument and inscription are still unfinished due to negligence.

xi. To Maximus

-Praise for two youths that impress him with their oratorical skill, and gratify him greatly by holding him up as their model.

xii. To Fabatus (his wife’s grandfather)

-Loyalty to his wife’s grandfather, and an assurance that Pliny would welcome any personal criticism from him, although in truth he would never fail in his duty.

xiii. To Ursus

-Indignance at unbecoming behavior in the Senate, involving a previous decree that is now being revoked with bad manners.

xiv. To Mauricius

-Promise to visit a friend’s villa, as long as the host doesn’t go to any bother.

xv. To Romanus

-Account of a funny misunderstanding at the recent recital of a poem.

*xvi. To Tacitus

-Account of the eruption of Vesuvius, in which his uncle, Pliny the Elder, died of suffocation.

xvii. To Restitutus

-Indignation at a few envious, haughty men in an audience to an oratorical performance; followed by a self-centered argument in favor of applauding everyone who speaks.

xviii. To Sabinus

-Agreement to advocate a people from a friend’s native land.

xix. To Nepos

-On two senatorial changes.  A new law prohibits bribery among candidates.   Also, the emperor now requires Senators to establish residence near Rome, so now is a good time for selling property there—as well as for buying it abroad.

*xx. To Cornelius Tacitus

-Account of Vesuvius’s eruption from Pliny’s perspective at Misenus. Tells of his flight with his aunt, with remarkable description of the effects of the eruption on the atmosphere, the land, and the frightened populace.

xxi. To Caninus

-Praise for the skill, wit, and eloquence of a contemporary dramatist, who is good enough to be ranked with some of the greats.

xxii. To Tiro

-Account of a trial of a noble’s friend who deceived him, and then proved an unprincipled defendant at his trial.

xxiii. To Triarius

-Agreement to be counsel for a friend, as long as a young lawyer new to the courtroom is allowed to share the case, in order to kick off his career.

xxiv. To Macer

-Honor for a woman who committed suicide with her husband when he had an incurable disease. He is disappointed that the act was not more famous, simply because of her low station in society.

xxv. To Hispanus

-Discussion of a man who went missing during a journey.

xxvi. To Servianus

-Congratulations for a man who betrothed his daughter to a worthy young man, and looks forward to future children.

xxvii. To Severus

-Description of Pliny’s strategy for a speech to be delivered to the emperor Trajan: he thinks the best compliment will be to refrain from the extreme praises typical of speeches honoring many of his (unworthy) ancestors.

xxviii. To Pontius Allifanus

-Lighthearted scolding on the lavish spread of food sent to him by a friend.

xxix. To Quadratus

-Comments on the circumstances under which one should defend a cause (very pragmatic), the pros and cons of practicing public speaking in order to improve, and a litany of Pliny’s accomplishments in the courtroom.

xxx. To Fabatus (his wife’s grandfather)

-Pliny’s grandfather-in-law needs an estate manager for his villa, but Pliny doesn’t know anyone rustic enough.

xxxi. To Cornelianus

-Description of an entertaining time spent at a villa where the emperor sat in judgment over several personal cases, including adultery and a supposedly forged will.

xxxii. To Quintilian

-Account of the donation of money to a less wealthy acquaintance whose daughter is getting married.

xxxiii. To Romanus

-Describes a speech which Pliny recently gave, and that he thinks is possibly his best. He is free with his self-praise [amusingly so, although other sources do say that this speech was excellent].

xxxiv. To Maximus

-Agreement with an acquaintance’s decision to stage a gladiatorial fight in Verona during his wife’s funeral celebrations, since the townspeople want it.

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TIDBITS OF SIGNIFICANCE (translated from Latin by William Melmoth, with revisions by W.M.L. Hutchinson):


But leave, my friend (for it is high time), the low and sordid pursuits of life to others, and in this safe and snug retreat, emancipate yourself for your studies. Let these employ your idle as well as busy hours; let them be at once your toil and your amusement, the subjects of your waking and even sleeping thoughts: shape and fashion something that shall be really and for ever your own. All your other possessions will pass on from one master to another: this alone, when once it is yours, will for ever be so. As well I know the temper and genius of him whom I am exhorting, I bid you strive to do justice to your talents; no more is needed, for the world to do the same.



...he is rich, and at the head of a party; there are many with whom he has credit, and more that are afraid of him; a sentiment that is often more powerful than love. But after all, ties of this sort are not so strong, but they may be loosened; for the popularity of a bad man is no more to be depended upon than he is himself.

-of Regulus, I.v.


He is a man of solid worth and great sagacity, formed upon a long course of experience, and who, from his observations on the past, well knows how to foresee the future.

-of Mauricus, I.v.


...the sylvan solitude with which one is surrounded, and the very silence which is observed on these occasions, strongly incline the mind to meditation. For the future therefore let me advise you, whenever you hunt, to take along with you your tablets, as well as your basket and bottle: for be assured you will find Minerva as fond of roaming the hills as Diana. have set spurs to a willing horse.



Virtue, though stripped of all external advantages, is generally the object of envy, but particularly so, when glory is her attendant; and the world is never so little disposed to wrest and pervert your honest actions, as when they lie unobserved and unapplauded.



I am sensible how much nobler it is to place the reward of virtue in the silent approbation of one’s own breast than in the applause of the world. Glory ought to be the consequence, not the motive of our actions; and though it should sometimes happen not to attend the worthy deed, yet such a deed is none the less amiable for having missed the applause it deserved.



There I live undisturbed by rumour, and free from the anxious solicitudes of hope or fear, conversing only with myself and my books. True and genuine life! pleasing and honourable repose! More, perhaps, to be desired than the noblest employments! Thou solemn sea and solitary shore, best and most retired scene for contemplation, with how many noble thoughts have you inspired me! Snatch then, my friend, as I have, the first occasion of leaving the noisy town with all its very empty pursuits, and devote your days to study, or even resign them to sloth: for as my ingenious friend Atilius pleasantly said, “It is better to do nothing, than to be doing of nothing”.



For as none but those who are skilled in Painting, Statuary, or the plastic art, can form a right judgement of any master in those arts; so a man must himself have made great advances in philosophy, before he is capable of forming a just notion of a philosopher.



Euphrates is possessed of so many shining talents, that he cannot fail to strike and engage even the somewhat illiterate. He reasons with much force, penetration, and elegance, and frequently embodies all the sublime and luxuriant eloquence of Plato. His style is rich and various, and at the same time so wonderfully sweet, that it seduces the attention of the most unwilling hearer.



He points his eloquence against the vices, not the persons of mankind, and without chastising reclaims the wanderer.

-of Euphrates, I.x. be engaged in the service of the public, to hear and determine causes, to explain the laws, and administer justice, is a part, and the noblest part too, of Philosophy, as it is reducing to practice what her professors teach in speculation.

-a comment of Euphrates, I.x.


I am not, you see, in the number of those who envy others the happiness they cannot share themselves: on the contrary, it is a very sensible pleasure to me, when I find my friends abounding in enjoyments from which I have the misfortune to be excluded.



...that sort of death which we cannot impute either to the course of nature, or the hand of providence, is of all others the most to be lamented.



...all that I have heard and all that I have read occur to me of themselves; but all these are by far too weak to support me under so heavy an affliction.

-on a friend’s death, I.xii.


So much the rather do those authors deserve our encouragement and applause, who have resolution to persevere in their studies, and exhibit their performances, notwithstanding this indolence or pride of their audience.



...shall we then, from a sort of satiety, and merely because he is present among us, suffer his talents to languish and fade away unhonoured and unadmired? It is surely a very perverse and envious disposition, to look with indifference upon a man worthy of the highest approbation, for no other reason but because we have it in our power to see him, and to converse familiarly with him, and not only to give him our applause, but to receive him into our friendship.

-of Pompeius Saturninus, I.xvi.


“Never do a thing of which you are in doubt”.

-"the maxim of the wary", I.xviii.


...the dignity we possess by the good offices of a friend is to be guarded with peculiar attention, since we must thereby justify his kindness.



In many cases a copious manner of expression gives strength and weight to discourse, which frequently makes impressions upon the mind, as iron does upon solid bodies, rather by prolonged than rapid blows.



It is in good compositions, as in every thing else that is valuable; the more there is of them, the better.



...I have ever found that different minds are to be influenced by different applications; and that the slightest circumstances often entail the most important consequences. There is variety in the dispositions and understandings of men, so that they seldom agree in their opinions about any one point in debate before them; or, if they do, it is generally from the movement of different passions. Besides, every man naturally favours his own discoveries, and when he hears an argument made use of which had before occurred to himself, will certainly embrace it as extremely convincing; the orator therefore should so adapt himself to his audience so as to throw out something to every one of them, that he may receive and approve as his own peculiar thought.



To delight and to persuade requires time, and a great compass of language.



For it is not concise and curtailed, it is copious, majestic, and sublime oratory, that with blaze and thunder perturbs and confounds the universe.



Though he conceives at once every point in debate, yet his reserve in judgement, deliberately weighing every opposite reason that is offered, traces it, with a most judicious penetration, from its source through all its remotest consequences.

-of Titius Aristo, I.xxii.


...he places no part of his happiness in ostentation, but refers the whole of it to conscience; and seeks the reward of a virtuous action, not in the applauses of the world, but in the action itself.

-of Titius Aristo, I.xxii.


...a wise man will take upon himself such only as he is capable of sustaining throughout the play.



He died full of years and of glory, as illustrious by the honours he refused, as by those he accepted.

-of Virginius Rufus, II.i.


For he lives, and will continue to live for ever; and his fame will be spread farther by the recollection and the tongues of men now that he is removed from their sight.

-of Virginius Rufus, II.i.


But love, you know, will sometimes be irrational; as it is often ungovernable, and ever jealous.



He handles every point with almost equal readiness; profound ideas occur to him as he proceeds.

-of Isaeus, II.iii.


He opens his subject with great propriety; his narration is clear; his controversy ingenious; his logic forcible and his rhetoric sublime. In a word, he at once instructs, entertains, and affects you, and each in so high a degree, that you are at a loss to determine in which of those talents he most excels.

-of Isaeus, II.iii.


There is something in the voice, the countenance, the bearing, and the gesture of the speaker, that concur in fixing an impression upon the mind, deeper than can even vigorous writings.



...what I want in revenue, I make up by economy.



...when I consider the affected niceness of readers, I am sensible the surest recommendation I can have to their favour is by the moderate length of my book.



“ give all my company the same fare; for when I make an invitation, it is to sup, not to be censored.”

-Pliny’s philosophy of hospitality,


Remember, therefore, nothing is more to be avoided than this modern conjunction of self-indulgence and meanness; qualities superlatively odious when existing in distinct characters, but still more odious where they meet together in the same person.


...they are not only memorials of our lost ones’ air and countenance, but of their glory and honour.

-of statues or other images of the departed, II.vii. affairs keep budding out of the old, while yet the former remain unfinished: such an endless train of business daily rises upon me, so numerous are the ties-- I may say the chains-- that bind me!



...thus it happens, that numbers will defend by joining in the general cry, what they would never propose by themselves. The truth is, there is no discerning an object in a crowd; one must take it aside if one would view it in its true light.



In fine, if you do not return me a letter as long as this, you need not expect to receive from me for the future any but the briefest.



Votes go by number, not weight; nor can it be otherwise in assemblies of this kind, where nothing is more unequal than that equality which prevails in them; for though every member has the same right of suffrage, every member has not the same strength of judgement to direct it.

-II.xii. there is a simple method of divination: take it for a rule, he that has the loudest commendations is the worst orator.

-II.xiv. object in possession never retains the same charms it had in pursuit.



...constant complaints generally end at last in being ashamed of complaining any more.



...nothing hinders, since the law of the land does not, my observing that law which I have laid down to myself.



But why should I fret myself at this in a city where impudence and iniquity have long received the same, do I say, even greater encouragement than modesty and virtue?



I look upon order in human actions, especially at that advanced period, with the same sort of pleasure as I behold the settled course of the heavenly bodies. In youth, indeed, a certain irregularity and agitation is by no means unbecoming; but in age, when business is unseasonable, and ambition indecent, all should be calm and uniform.



You would fancy you were hearing some worthy of ancient times, inflaming your breast with the most heroic examples, and instructing your mind with such an infusion of his native modesty, that there is not the least appearance of dictating in his conversation.

-of Spurinna, III.i.


His counsel steers me in my studies; for truth, honour and understanding, are the shining qualities which mark his character.

-of Arrianus Maturus, III.ii.


I love him, I confess: but my affection does by no means prejudice my judgement; on the contrary, it is in truth the effect of it.

-of Julius Genitor, III.iii.


For such is the disposition of mankind, you cancel all former benefits, unless you add to them a heap of subsequent favours; oblige people never so often, and, if you deny them on a single point, they remember nothing but that refusal.



For all our duties have their limits; and the best way of reserving to ourselves the liberty of refusing where we would, is to comply where we can.



“no book was so bad but some profit might be gleaned from it”.

-comment by Pliny the Elder, III.v.


I cannot but smile therefore when I hear myself called a studious man, who in comparison to him am a mere loiterer.

-of Pliny the Elder, III.v.


Such multitudes, however strong their vitality, are swept away in so short a space!

-on mortality, III.vii.


Let us strive the more earnestly therefore to lengthen out our span of life-- life that is poured out like water and falls as the leaf-- if not by action (the means to which lie in another’s power), yet in any case by study and research; and since it is not granted us to live long, let us transmit to posterity some memorial that we have at least lived.



I well know, you want not any incitement to virtue; but the warmth of my affection for you inclines me to forward you in the course you already pursue; as I have often found myself encouraged by your generous exhortations.



To deserve and to grant favours is the fairest point of view in which we can be placed.



For though honesty may, for the time being, offend those it opposes; yet it will at last be justified and admired, even by the very persons who suffer from it.



I accept of your invitation to supper; but I must make this agreement beforehand, that you dismiss me soon, and treat me frugally. Let our table abound only in philosophical conversation, and let us enjoy even that within limits.



...let temperance not only spread our table, but regulate our hours: for we are not arrived at so high a reputation, that our enemies cannot censure us but to our honour.



A strong imagination, and grandiose expression will sometimes break out in the most unpolished writer; but regularity in the plan of a work, and propriety in the figures, are the distinguishing mark and particular privilege of an improved genius. And yet the lofty and the elevated are not always to be affected. For as shades in a picture best bring out the high lights, so the plain and simple style in writing is as effective as the sublime.



...the most famous actions are not always the most noble.



…nothing is baser than to be outdone in affection.



To season that severity of virtue with sprightliness, and to temper dignity with politeness, is as difficult as it is great.



As “ignorance breeds daring, but reflection breeds hesitancy,” so modesty is apt to depress and weaken the well-formed genius, whilst boldness supports and strengthens the perverse.

-IV.vii (the first part quotes from Thucydides).


…it is much easier to go on without intermission, than to begin again after having rested.

-of oratorical arguments, IV.ix.


I know not how it is, mankind are generally more pleased with an extensive than even a great reputation.



…poems which are really excellent, no longer seem so when they appear in company.



Come on then, my friend, and let us earnestly pursue our studies, nor screen our own indolence under pretence of that of the public. We shall find no lack, rest assured, of either hearers or readers, if only we elaborate compositions worth the hearing, and worth committing to parchment.



You know the softness and solicitude of my heart where I have any tender attachments: you must not wonder then, that I have many fears, where I have great hopes.



But the vices of the Viennenses are confined within their own walls; ours spread far and wide; and it is in the body politic, as in the natural, those disorders are most dangerous that flow from the head.

-on the danger of corruption in a powerful and influential state, such as Rome, IV.xxii.


How do I long for the time when I shall enjoy that happy privilege! When my years will justify my following the example of your honourable repose! When my retirement shall not be termed indolence, but calm!

-looking forward to retirement, IV.xxiii.


“Nobody will know,” is the argument that emboldens depraved minds to commit these indecencies.



The satisfaction of my own conscience is not my only reward from this transaction; it has enhanced my reputation.



I confess that I sometimes write verses of no very strait-laced kind; I furthermore listen to comedies, witness broad farces, read love-poetry, and enter into the spirit of the most wanton Muse. Besides all this, I not seldom engage in mirth, wit and gaiety; and to sum up every kind of innocent amusement in one word, I am a man.

-V.iii (the last phrase is from Terence).


…virtue knows no distinction of rank or title.



…to have numerous friends has been a boast to many, a reproach to none.



For my part, I regard every death as cruel and premature, that removes one who is preparing some immortal work. The sons of sensuality, who have no views beyond the present hour, terminate with each day the whole purpose of their lives; but those who look forward to posterity, and prolong their memories by their works: to such, death is always sudden, as it always breaks off some unfinished design.



Let us strive then, while Life is ours, to secure that Death may find we have left little or nothing he can destroy.

-an exhortation to leave no important deed unfinished, V.v.


I hold it the first duty of an author to con his title-page, and frequently ask himself what he set out to write; and he may be assured if he closely pursues his subject he cannot be tedious; whereas if he drags in extraneous matters, he will be tedious to the last degree.


The countenance, the gesture, and even the tone of voice governs and determines the sense of the speaker: whereas a letter, being destitute of all recommendations, is liable to be misinterpreted by malicious minds.



Nothing, I confess, so strongly affects me as the desire of a lasting name.



…shall I write of the present times, and those wherein no other author has gone before me? If so, I may probably give offence to many and please but few. For in an age so over-run with vice, you will find infinitely more to condemn than approve; yet your praise, though ever so lavish, will be thought too reserved; and your censure, though ever so cautious, too profuse.



…[I] am never so well prepared, but that I am glad of delay.



It is the usual though inequitable method of the world, to pronounce an action to be either right or wrong, as it is attended with good or ill success; in consequence of which you shall hear the very same conduct attributed at different times to zeal or folly, to independence or insanity.



Generosity, when once she is set forward, knows not how to stop her progress; as her beauty is of that order which grows the more engaging upon nearer acquaintance.



…for as a fresh wound shrinks back from the hand of the surgeon, but by degrees submits to, and even craves for, the means of its cure, so a mind under the first impressions of a misfortune shuns and rejects all consoling reflections, but at length, if applied with tenderness, calmly and willingly acquiesces in them.



…bashfulness is somehow more becoming to people when they engage in literary pursuits, than a confident air.



“Eloquence is one thing and loquacity another”.

-quote of Julius Candidus, V.xx.


For I look upon it as highly presuming to divine before a cause is heard what time it will require, and to set limits to an affair before one is acquainted with its extent.

-VI.ii. cannot tell whether an argument be superfluous till you have heard it.



I fear and imagine every possible calamity and, as is the way of frightened people, my fancy paints most vividly just those that I most earnestly implore Heaven to avert.



...a faithful friend is so rare to be found, and the dead are so soon forgotten, that we shall be obliged to build even our very tombs, and anticipate every office of our heirs.



...intending reciters cannot look too carefully, not only to their own sanity, but to that of the audience they invite.



Happy I esteem those, whom Providence has gifted with the ability to either do things worthy of being written, or to write in a manner worthy of being read.

-VI.xvi. your talent greater or equal, or less than the performer’s you should still praise him; if less, because if one of more exalted abilities does not meet with applause, neither possibly can you: if greater or equal, because the higher his glory rises whom you equal or excel, the more considerable yours must necessarily be.



...some praying to die, from the very fear of dying; many lifting their hands to the gods; but the greater part imagining that there were no gods left anywhere, and that the last and eternal night was come upon the world.

-at the eruption of Vesuvius, VI.xx.


...depend mainly upon yourself in the government you have obtained, and not trust anyone very far.

-VI.xxii. man’s talents, however shining, can raise him at once from obscurity unless they find scope, opportunity, and also a patron to recommend them.



How much does the fame of human actions depend upon the station of those who perform them! The very same conduct shall either be extolled to the skies or lie unregarded in the dust, as it happens to proceed from a person of conspicuous or obscure rank.



“There are three sorts of causes which we ought to undertake: those of our friends, those of the deserted, and those which tend to form a precedent.”

-quoted from Thrasea, VI.xxix. [Pliny added a fourth: when it is "splendid and illustrious"]


Back to Section Head

READ THIS WHEN... wouldn’t mind listening for a while to snippets of a notable man’s life and ideas;

or, want to be teleported into the heart of Imperial Rome.



(for the snooper into the letters and lives of notable people:)

  • Plutarch, Parallel Lives, (early 2nd century)
  • Augustine, Confessions (c.400)
  • Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography (1789)
  • Boswell, Life of Johnson (1791)
  • Thomas Jefferson, Letters (d.1826)

(for the time traveler to ancient Rome:)

  • Cicero, Letters (68-43 BC)
  • Livy, Ab Urbe Condita Libri (c.29 BC)
  • Tacitus, Histories (105-108)
  • Juvenal, Satires (early 2nd century)


Of course, the Loeb! Latin on the left, English on the right.



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