Narrative Structure in Pliny’s Epistulae: Letter 9.14 and the amicitia-arc

Introduction

§1.1 What can one letter say in three sentences that ten other letters cannot? This is the question one must ask when reading letter 9.14 of Pliny’s Epistulae. This short, unusually concise letter marks the end of correspondence between Pliny the Younger and Cornelius Tacitus. Both were eminent statesmen of consular rank in the first and second century AD, and the one-sided conversation recorded in Pliny’s Epistulae reflects that. These letters Pliny sent to Tacitus are concerned with many topics, but all are tied by the common theme of friendship. These friendship letters make up what is essentially a narrative arc of their own. Reciprocal literary exchange is directly tied to the notion of a literary friendship, and here we find a unique version of it: the letters often represent the very issues they seem to discuss. The self-referential nature of the Epistulae is a sign of its overarching narrative structure, within which we find the amicitia-arc. The arc itself simply comprises a series of letters within the narration written on friendship. I would propose that letter 9.14 serves as the capstone for the amicitia-arc.

Narrative Structure

§2.1 When we review the books of the Epistulae, certain things are clear. We know that Pliny had authorial control over the first nine books, though likely not the tenth, and this control is demonstrated when we view what appear to be doublets within the Epistulae’s first and last books. These doublets show Pliny’s self-awareness in his creation and organization of the Epistulae, and we can observe distinct narrative structure both on the book-level and on the collection-level. But, since Pliny starts these arcs with various letters in Book 1, he also must end them. Pliny does this in the form of “closing letters”, one of which is letter 9.14. At only three sentences long, it would be easy to dismiss this letter, but I believe evidence suggests that Pliny designed this letter as a mechanism to conclude the friendship-arc within the letters.

Letter 9.14—Subtlety and Summation

§3.1 Letter 9.14 reads:

3.2 Nec ipse tibi plaudis, et ego nihil magis ex fide quam de te scribo. Posteris an aliqua cura nostri, nescio; nos certe meremur, ut sit aliqua, non dico ingenio — id enim superbum — sed studio et labore et reverentia posterorum. Pergamus modo itinere instituto, quod ut paucos in lucem famamque provexit, ita multos e tenebris et silentio protulit. Vale.

§3.3 You do not applaud yourself, and I write nothing more deeply rooted in faith than about you. Whether following generations will have any care for us, I don’t know; certainly we deserve some notice—I don’t say for our skill, as that would be arrogant, but for our studies, effort, and veneration for posterity. Let us proceed on the course set out for us, for though it has led few into light and fame, nonetheless many emerge from the shadows and silence.

§3.4 Pliny establishes the necessary framework in which we should read the letter quite clearly. He and Tacitus wrote often on literature and literary critique (Johnson 52), so when Pliny begins 9.14 by saying that nothing he writes is more from faith (or fides) than that about Tacitus, he situates the letter definitively within the framework of their relationship. He goes on to reference studies (studia) and labor (labor)—both common appearances in prior letters where they often function as vehicles of glory, creating a material manifestation of one’s intellectual legacy as a studious individual (Lendon 274-275). Further, Pliny’s exhortation to “continue on their established path” points back to their own studies—for Tacitus, his respectable histories, and for Pliny, the more revolutionary collection of letters. The structure of 9.14 itself may be a quotation of Tacitus’s own style (Marchesi 113), further suggesting 9.14’s self-aware nature and reaffirming its role as the wrap-up letter within the amicitia arc. By referring to his studies, his vehicle of glory, within itself, Pliny places himself and Tacitus among the great men whom they previously commemorated. This manner of looking at Pliny and Tacitus’s friendship is unique to 9.14—it questions how they will be viewed by following generations, passive recipients of veneration because of their studia and labor rather than simply the ones doing the venerating. It steps back, providing a kind of closure to their friendship—still idealized, as elsewhere, yet viewed in the light of history’s fullness.

§3.5 Yet this is not a new way of looking at a friendship. The trope of noble friends appears in the most ancient of traditions, from which Pliny draws. Cicero and his good friend Atticus, paralleled by Scipio and Laelius in De Amicitia, provides one clear parallel on the themes of remembrance, immortality, and friendship. Writing from the first-person perspective of Laelius, Cicero states that he is delighted that “the memory of our friendship shall be everlasting” (Cic. Am. 15). While Cicero gains distance from his own friendship with Atticus by writing as Laelius, Pliny has no such luxury, and must make the shift manually within his letters. A similar sentiment is found within Seneca’s Epistulae (addressed solely to Lucilius, his good friend). Pliny’s familiarity with the works of Cicero and Seneca is undeniable. As he previously used them both as justifications for his light poetry (Plin. Ep. 5.3), his use of the same trope and style of writing appears deliberate. By pulling his focus on their friendship outward, Pliny draws his readers back to that kind of amicitia, showing himself and Tacitus as fulfilling those crucial roles.

§3.6 Yet the focus on friendship as such is only one aspect to 9.14. Stating merely that the letter reinforces their friendship as a realistic version of the amicitia archetype is insufficient as an argument, as Pliny also delves into many of the same themes elsewhere. The explanation lies in 9.14’s positioning relative to the other letters in Book 9 and, indeed, with respect to the entirety of the Epistulae. The careful attention Pliny gave to what essentially constitute ‘topical arcs’ within the Epistulae has been well established by scholars; his mastery of his medium is evident. There are, then, two primary matters to consider when reviewing 9.14’s placement, both of which feed directly into its role as a narrative linchpin and tie up what is arguably the most important arc of the entire collection.

§3.7 The first factor is that the majority of letters in Book 9 can be tied in some way to letters in Book 1. No such thing can be accomplished with 9.14. While in many cases Book 9 letters serve to essentially close prior cases opened up in Book 1, I propose that 9.14 serves to give a proper closing to the entirety of Pliny’s correspondence with Tacitus in the Epistulae. By drawing both on prior letters to Tacitus but also thematic literary precursors like Cicero and Seneca, Pliny pulls together various threads through his letters and, in the process, creates a short but meaningful final letter to his amicus. What distinguishes 9.14 is that the other Book 9 letters are closings or doublets to specific letters, while 9.14 is an endpiece to an entire series of correspondence or narrative arc on any number of topics. This essentially pulls it closer to the amicitia-literature of Cicero and Seneca than any of Pliny’s other letters. Because 9.14 is the last letter to Tacitus in the Epistulae, it is literally Pliny’s closing statement, if you will, to his friend—perhaps the most important friend mentioned in the Epistulae.

§3.8 The second factor reinforces the first, and relies on letter 9.23.In 9.23, Pliny states, “I cannot describe how pleasurable I find it to have our names associated with literature, and belonging to it, so to say, rather than to our identity, and also that each of us should be known from our writings to people to whom we are otherwise unknown.” [1] At its heart, this is functionally a reiteration of the same sentiment as 9.14 [2], but with greater distance—though not the same kind of distance. 9.14 owed its distance from prior Tacitus letters primarily to what one could call a “big picture” viewpoint—if prior letters mentioned the nuts and bolts of their literary exchange and duties of friendship, 9.14 took a step back and reflected distantly but intimately how they would be viewed in the light of history. 9.23, however, recounts a specific instance to one who would not have Tacitus’s knowledge of their relationship, giving it greater distance in terms of personal intimacy and temporality.

§3.9 Letter 9.14, then, plays into the tradition of amicitia-literature while the author is, in fact, bidding farewell to his dearest amicus within his work’s narrative structure. Its role as a final goodbye to Tacitus, recipient of the most letters Pliny writes, in the Epistulae clearly signals not only an end to their correspondence insofar as it is present in the structure of the work but suggests the narrative end of the book to come. The letter is aware of the tradition in which it operates, and hence reflects Cicero and Seneca, yet it is also aware of its medium—referencing itself in such a way that it draws attention to the carefully planned narration of their friendship, one of the most consistent threads throughout the whole work.

Three Sentences and a Farewell

§4.1 At the beginning I posed the question, “What can one letter say in three sentences that ten other letters cannot?” The answer, I think, is before us. In those three sentences, Pliny subtly combines his own topical references with common literary tropes regarding Roman friendship. The combination of personal correspondence with preexisting archetype provides a fitting end to his exchange with Tacitus in the Epistulae —an elegant, artistic way for one to bid farewell to a fellow homo studiosus. The letter bids farewell to a dear friend while harkening back to an entire tradition of Roman friends musing upon the very same topic. Through nuance and careful planning, Pliny bids farewell perhaps not only to Tacitus but, unintentionally, to us readers. As a consequence, 9.14 offers an invaluable opportunity to examine Pliny’s artistry in treating the Epistulae’s entries not simply as a collection of letters, but a set of distinct literary units, one of which is logically ended with letter 9.14.

Bibliography

Saller, Richard P. Personal Patronage Under the Early Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1982. Print.

Sherwin-White, A. N. ed. Fifty Letters of Pliny. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1969. Print.

Lendon, J.E. Empire of Honour. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1997. Print.

Marchesi, Ilaria. Art of Pliny’s Letters. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2008. Print.

Pliny the Younger. Complete Letters. trans. P.G. Walsh. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2006. Print.

Johnson, William A. Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire. New York: Oxford University Press. 2010.

Footnotes

Note 1
“Exprimere non possum, quam sit iucundum mihi quod nomina nostra quasi litterarum propria, non hominum, litteris redduntur, quod uterque nostrum his etiam e studiis notus, quibus aliter ignotus est.” Pliny’s Epistulae 9.23.

Note 2
A similar sentiment may be found in 7.20, which Saller notes as a “source of unmistakable pride” (Saller 125).

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