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Pliny the poet.

In letter 4.14, Pliny the Younger remarks that he doesn't worry too much about criticism of his poetry since he's not planning to give up the day job ([sections] 10):

nam si hoc opusculum nostrum aut potissimum esset aut solum, fortasse posses durum uideri dicere `quaere quod ages': moue et humanum est `haloes quod ages'.

For if this little work were my chief or sole effort it might possibly seem unkind to tell me to `find something else to do': but there is nothing unkind in the gentle reminder that I `have something else to do'.(1)

This well sums up Pliny's basic outlook on his poetic composition, as a hobby rather than a full-fledged occupation. His comments on his poetry throughout his letters demonstrate that the writing of poems as a literary activity is, for Pliny, secondary to the `real' work of oratory. Nevertheless, Pliny still managed to compose two, or possibly three, books of poetry.(2) Not only did he circulate this poetry among his friends (often the letters accompany his verses (e.g., 9.16), or are responses to friends' comments on his most recent offerings (e.g.,5.3 or 9.25)), but his work was also published more widely; Pliny also recited his poetry to select gatherings of friends (8.21; cf. 5.3.1 and 9.34).

Rather than taking up time which could be devoted to his oratorical work, Pliny wrote poetry only in his spare moments: at 4.14.2 he describes how he composes hendecasyllables `in uehiculo, in balineo, inter cenam' (`in my carriage, my bath, or at dinner').(3) By filling his free time with poetic composition, however, Pliny displays the same workaholic industry and zeal that he regularly shows with respect to his oratory. His time for otium, like his time for negotium, is consumed by activity. Gamberini is especially interested in the distinction between otium and negotium, and also in the different kinds of otium, which, he points out, can be divided as `brief spaces of time' and `the period of retirement from the cursus honorum and official duties in old age', as well as longer, but still fairly brief, breaks from public life, such as a summer vacation.(4) Gamberini goes on to say that while Pliny seems to support the view that poetry is, for some, `capable of featuring as a negotium in [the] scale of values', Pliny himself always keeps the composition of poetry reserved for the short periods of otium that arise in his busy schedule.(5) Nevertheless, Pliny's poetic endeavours were not wholly divorced from his oratorical work; rather, writing poetry was seen to have utilitas as an aid to speech-writing. In 7.9.12, Pliny notes that the great orators of the past both amused and trained themselves with verse composition. The main utility of such training lies, from Pliny's point of view, in the fact that writing prose is easier than writing poetry (7.9.14): `quod, metri necessitate deuincti, solute oratione laetamur et quod facilius esse conparatio ostendit libentius scribimus' (`when we have been bound by the restrictions of metre, we delight in the freedom of prose and gladly return to what comparison has shown to be the easier style').

When Pliny gives advice to Pedanius Fuscus Salinator in 7.9 about what sorts of literary exercises would be helpful in his oratorical training, he recommends, among other activities, the composition of original poetry. He does not advise Fuscus to embark on a large poetic undertaking, however: `carmine . . . non dico continuo et longo', he says in section 9, `sea hoc arguto et breui' (`not a long continuous poem . . . but one of those short, polished sets of verses'). The reason he gives for this recommendation is that while the composition of long poems, which cannot be completed quickly, is not suited to otium, at least that sort of limited otium enjoyed by busy men in their prime, writing short poems gives one just the right break from other responsibilities. An additional reason which might be seen behind Pliny's advice is of a more stylistic nature, what I would call `expedient Callimacheanism', a depoliticized poetics filtered through Catullus and the neoterics and through the Augustan Age's peculiarly Roman appropriation and internalization of Callimachean poetics.(6) A carmen which is continuum and longum recalls [GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] which the Telchines criticized Callimachus for not writing (Aetia fr. 1.3 Pf.), or Ovid's perpetuum carmen (Met. 1.4) which, in good Callimachean fashion, he asks the gods to deducere.(7) The continuous and long poem also fits into the Hellenistically influenced poema/poesis distinction which was often made by literary theoreticians, taking the side of lengthy, epic poesis (cf. especially Varro, Men. 398: `poema est lexis enrythmos, id est, uerba plura modice in quandam coniecta formam; itaque etiam distichon epigrammation uocant poema. poesis est perpetuum argumentum e rhythmic, ut Ilias Homeri et Annalis Enni' [`"Poema" is rhythmical language, that is, many words, according to a rule, placed in a certain form; thus even a two-line epigram is called a "poema". "Poesis" is continuous narrative in accordance with rhythm, like the Iliad of Homer and the Annals of Ennius']).(8) Instead of this kind of poem, Pliny, conforming to the Alexandrian-cum-neoteric aesthetic of his age, suggests writing poetry which is argutum and breue, the poema in Varro's opposition. Pliny's use of argutus may especially point in this direction. Cicero applies the word to poetry at In Pisonem 70, when he describes a poet writing a poem so elegant, `nihil ut fieri possit argutius' (`that nothing would be able to be more clever'). Vergil uses the word as a Callimachean signpost at Eclogue 9.35-6, when Lycidas says that though others call him a poet, he does not believe it, `nam neque adhuc Vario uideor nec dicere Cinna / digna, sed argutos inter strepere anser olores' (`for I do not yet seem to speak things worthy of Varius or Cinna, but am a goose among tuneful swans'). Compare also Vergil's Callimachean Circe at Aeneid 7.14, who `arguto tenuis percurrens pectine telas' (`weaving slender threads with an acute comb'). Pliny, when he is complimenting himself on one of his orations in 6.33, says that it has `copia rerum et arguta diuisione' (a `lively arrangement of the abundant material') ([sections] 8). Pliny uses argutus in an explicitly Callimachean context at 4.3.3-4 when he is complimenting Arrius Antoninus on his Greek epigrams:

quantum ibi humanitatis uenustatis, quam dulcia illa, quam amantia, quam arguta, quam recta! Callimachum me uel Heroden uel si quid his melius tenere credebam.

Their sensitivity and grace, their charm and warmth of feeling, their wit which never wants propriety, made me imagine I held Callimachus or Herodas in my hands, or even some greater poet.

Not only are Callimachus and the Hellenistic poets referred to directly in this way, but also their early exponents in Rome: when Pliny mentions the poetry of Pompeius Saturninus at 1.16.5 he enthuses

facit uersus, quales Catullus aut Caluus. quantum illis leporis, dulcedinis, amaritudinis, amoris! inserit sane, sed data opera, mollibus leuibusque duriusculos quosdam, et hoc quasi Catullus aut Caluus.

He also writes verses in the style of Catullus and Calvus which might indeed be theirs, for these are full of wit and charm, bitterness and passion; and, though he sometimes strikes a harsher note in the even flow of his measures, it is done deliberately and in imitation of his models.(9)

All this skirting around issues of poetics begs the question of Pliny's own stylistic views on poetry. Certainly his approach to poetry is made to fit conveniently around the far more pressing concerns of oratory and `real' work, but, in spite of Gamberini's claim that Pliny, who is so concerned with the stylistic theory of oratory, lacks any interest in the stylistic theory of poetry,(10) I think Pliny's various remarks can be regarded cumulatively as expressing a view, if only a by-this-point conventional, post-Augustan-Callimachean view, defused of its polemical content, about poetic style, but without adherence to the poetic lifestyle which was part and parcel of a `genuine' Callimachean aesthetics. If anything, Pliny might be aligned not so much with Catullus and the neoterics as with the pre-neoterics like Lutatius Catulus (mentioned by Pliny in his list of past orator/poets at 5.3.5) who were strongly influenced by Hellenistic poetics and wrote short, careful, varied nugae. As Conte explains, these poems were `the product of otium, of time withdrawn from civil duties and devoted instead to reading and intelligent conversation', but nonetheless, `for a Catulus poetry was marginal, an occasional diversion from a life still centred on the duties of the citizen -- it is not a coincidence that the same Catulus is also a writer of historical works'.(11) The similarities with Pliny and his attitude towards his poetic composition are obvious. But it is not necessary to go back quite so far to find a model for Pliny's literary activity: Calvus, mentioned in the same breath as Catullus by Pliny, was not only a well-known and influential neoteric poet, but also a prominent orator, a rival to Cicero (he is classified by Pliny as an orator at 1.2.2, 5.3.5 and as a poet, with Callimachus, at 1.16.5, 4.27.4).

To say that Pliny held a Romanized-Callimachean viewpoint, then, is not to say that he shunned the epic genre, any more than Vergil or Ovid, though steeped in Callimachean poetics, shunned it. While Pliny chose not to pursue the composition of epic in his limited spare time, he still appreciated it, as his frequent quotations of Homer and Vergil demonstrate.(12) Moreover, he holds up epic poetry as a model for literary sublimity. It was a commonly held idea in antiquity that a general familiarity with poetry is beneficial for the orator, since he can then include quotations in his speeches, as well as use the sublimity of poetry to elevate his own work. Quintilian discusses the value of including poetic quotations in speeches at Institutio Oratoria 1.8.10-12; at Inst. 10.1.27 Quintilian sums up poetry's overall contribution in oratory:

plurimum dicit oratori conferre Theophrastus lectionem poetarum multique eius iudicium sequuntur, neque immerito. namque ab his in rebus spiritus et in uerbis sublimitas et in adfectibus motus omnis et in personis decor petitur, praecipueque uelut attrita cotidiano actu forensi ingenia optime rerum talium blanditia reparantur . . .

Theophrastus says that much is contributed to an orator's training by reading poetry, and many follow this lead, reasonably enough: for the poets are a source of inspiration in subject, sublimity in language, range of emotion, appropriateness in depiction of character. In particular, minds deadened by the daily round of legal activity find especial refreshment in the attractions of poetry.(13)

`Longinus', discussing the value of imitating the style of great men in On the Sublime, recommends asking `How would Homer have said such-and such?', when something needs to be expressed in an elevated and grand way (14.1). A slightly more cynical view of the influence of poetry on oratory appears in Tacitus' Dialogus de oratoribus, in which the orator Aper is trying to convince Maternus to abandon poetry and to devote himself whole-heartedly to oratory; Aper remarks at 20.4 that young men are especially impressed `siue sensus aliquis arguta et breui sententia effulsit, siue locus exquisito et poetico cultu enituit' (`by some short, sharp, brilliant epigram, or a passage resplendent with out-of-the-way poetic colouring"(14)), and he continues ([sections]5-6):

exigitur enim iam ab oratore etiam poeticus decor, non Accii aut Pacuuii ueterno inquinatus, sed ex Horatii et Vergilii et Lucani sacrario prolatus. horum igitur auribus et indiciis obtemperans nostrorum oratorum aetas pulchrior et ornatior exstitit.

Yes, an orator now has to provide poetic beauty as well, not the Accius or Pacuvius variety, mildewed with age, but drawn from the shrines of Horace, Vergil, and Lucan. These are the ears and these the judgements that contemporary orators have to pander to - and it is for this reason that they have become more pretty and more ornate in style.

Pliny allows for the possibility and suitability of epic sublimity in oratory, for example in 7.9.8, where he says that the subject matter of a speech may call for such elevation, and in 2.5.5 where he notes that in a particular oration it was proper for him to treat the descriptions of places `non historice tantum sed prope poetice' (`[with] a touch of poetry [in] plain prose'). In his consideration of the topic in 9.26, because he is not discussing his own work, Pliny expresses the most admiration for poetic diction in orations, although not without ambivalence. Unlike Tacitus' Aper, who thinks poetic flights of fancy inappropriate in proper oratory, Pliny supports the view that getting carried away in one's style can contribute to the impressiveness of one's oration,(15) although he himself does not write in such a manner ([sections]7):

nec nunc ego me his [i.e. certain Homeric verses] similia aut dixisse aut posse dicere puto. non ita insanio; sed hoc intellegi uolo, laxandos esse eloquentiae frenos nec angustissimo gyro ingeniorum impetus refrigendos.

Not that I think that these are the times and I am the person to have written words like these, nor that I have the ability to do so: I am not so foolish. But I want to make the point that eloquence should be given its head, and the pace of genius should not be confined within too narrow a ring.

He then goes on to discuss the idea `at enim alia conditio oratorum, alia poetarum' (`you may say that orators are different from poets') ([sections]8), and, using Demosthenes as his example, illustrates that in fact orators frequently can reach epic heights. At times, moreover, Pliny himself aims at epic sublimity in his letter writing: for example, at 5.6.43 he defends the length of his description of his Tuscan villa on the grounds that Homer and Vergil devoted many verses to the descriptions of Achilles' and Aeneas' shields.(16)

Not only was Pliny versed in epic and other `higher' poetic genres, but he also enjoyed less elevated, more popular genres: at 5.3.2 he mentions his familiarity with comedy, mime, lyric poetry, and notoriously obscene Sotadic verse. This catholic taste was not limited to what Pliny read; Pliny also wrote poetry in a number of genres. In 7.4 he provides a brief account of his poetic career in which he tells how he wrote a Greek tragedy (or at least something which bore a figured relationship to a Greek tragedy) at the age of 14 ([sections]2), and also mentions that as a young man he dabbled in elegy and epic ([sections]3). He then explains that he was inspired to his new poetic work in hendecasyllables after hearing some epigrams of Cicero ([sections]3); this experience resulted, for Pliny, in a restless afternoon siesta -- which neatly echoes Catullus' restless night in poem 50 after he spends a dies otiosus writing poetry with Licinius(17) -- and in Pliny's composition of a poem about his new inspiration to write (reproduced in [sections]6) -- which also neatly echoes the self-reflexive outcome of Catullus 50, namely, poem 50 itself. Pliny then describes how he tried his hand at other metres, including elegiacs ([sections]7), and settled on producing the volume of hendecasyllables ([sections]8) (once more following in Catullan footsteps), which Pontius, the letter's addressee, has just read.

Pliny's poetry concerned various topics. Of his three extant poems, one deals with his renewed desire to compose verse, and specifically love poetry (at 7.4.6), one praises the virtue of flexibility (at 7.9.11), and one, the authenticity of which is questionable,(18) is a drinking song in elegiacs (which can be found at Anth. Lat. 710R). At 7.9.13 Pliny says that poetry can deal with `amores, odia, iras, misericordiam, urbanitatem, omnia denique quae in uita atque etiam in foro causisque uersantur' (`our loves and hatreds, our indignation, compassion and wit, in fact every phase of life and every detail of our public and professional activities'), and at 4.14.3 he tells how in his own hendecasyllables `iocamur, ludimus, amamus, dolemus, querimur, irascimur' (`here are my jokes and witticisms, my loves, sorrows, complaints and vexations'); all of this suggests that Pliny's poetry covered a wide variety of subject matter. Furthermore, Pliny handled these different topics in a number of ways: `describimus aliquid modo pressius modo elatius' (`now my style is simple, now more elevated') ([sections]3), which may imply that the poetry was in a variety of genres, although Pliny at 4.14.9 explains (in a comment which reflects the uncertainty, prevalent in both ancient and modern literary criticism, over whether or not genres should be assigned to poems according to their metre or subject matter) that he himself prefers to classify the work simply by its metre:

proinde siue epigrammata siue idyllia siue eclogas siue, ut multi, poematia seu quod aliud uocare malueris licebit uoces, ego tantum hendecasyllabos praesto.

You call them what you like -- epigrams, idylls, eclogues, or simply `short poems', which is the popular name, but I shall stick to my `hendecasyllables'.

It is worth noting that, in spite of Pliny's remark that many people use the name poematia, it is a rare word, the Latin version of the equally rare Greek word [GREEK TEXT DATA NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], and appears twice in Pliny's letters (also 4.27.1) but nowhere else. The use of poematia may again signal the Romanized Hellenistic aesthetic which finds its way into Pliny's poetic outlook; compare `Longinus' 33.5, where the Erigone of Callimachus' follower Eratosthenes is called an [GREEK TEXT DATA NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (a `flawless little poem'). Elsewhere Pliny talks about a book of poetry he has composed which is `opusculis uarius et metris' (`consist[ing] of short pieces in different metres') (8.21.3); he gives as a reason for this variety his fear of boring his audience ([sections]4), although this fear appears ever so slightly disingenuous since it did not prevent him from detaining his audience for two days while he recited the book in its entirety, and no doubt a desire to display his technical mastery of poetic form is not completely absent from his motivation as well. But his main concern, that of satisfying his audience, appears again: Pliny remarks in 4.14.3 that he covers a variety of subjects in a variety of styles because he wishes to provide the proverbial something for everyone: `ipsa uarietate temptamus efficere ut alia aliis, quaedam fortasse omnibus placeant' (`I try through variety to appeal to different tastes and produce a few things to please everyone'). This idea of uariatio, then, is an important aspect of Pliny's own poetic work and outlook, and is one which he recommends to and praises in the poetry of others.(19) The poematia of Sentius Augurinus, for example, are especially pleasing to Pliny because of their stylistic diversity (4.27.1): `multa tenuiter, multa sublimiter, multa uenuste, multa tenere, multa dulciter, multa cum bile' (`many are simple, many in a grand style: many are full of delicate charm and express either tender feelings or indignation'); compare also the uariatio of Pompeius Saturninus' poetry highlighted by Pliny at 1.16.5 (quoted above), or the praise of Calpurnius Piso's poetic style (5.17.2): `apte enim et uarie nunc attollebatur nunc residebat: exilia depressis, exilia plenis, seueris iucunda mutabat, omnia ingenio part' (`he showed an appropriate versatility in raising or lowering his tone, and the whether he descended from the heights to a lower level, rose to complexity from simplicity or moved between a lighter and more serious approach to his subject'). The concept of uariatio is also noteworthy as it is an important -- and initially controversial -- element of Callimachean poetics: the Diegesis on Iambus 13 explains that the poem was an answer to critics who complained about the [GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] of Callimachus' poetry.

In spite of its carefully considered uariatio, how successful Pliny's poetry actually was at pleasing everyone is another matter. On several occasions Pliny must defend his choice of subjects and their presentation from charges that they are not serious enough and that they are even somewhat offensive. In 5.3 he argues in favour of writing 'non numquam uersiculos seueros parum' ('verse which is far from serious') ([sections] 2) on the grounds that many great and learned men -- orators, senators, even emperors -- have written such verses. Justifying his own 'non nulla . . . paulo petulantiora' ('rather indelicate') poems at 4.14.4, Pliny says that in the past serious men have 'non modo lascinia rerum sed ne uerbis quidem nudis abstinuisse' ('neither avoided lascivious subjects nor refrained from expressing them in plain language'). At the same time he quotes Catullus' defence of poetic free speech, based on the separation of author and text, 'nam castum esse decet plum poetam/ipsum, uersiculos nihil necesse est' ('the true poet should be chaste himself, though his poetry need not be') (Catul. 16.5); but notably Pliny leaves unsaid that poem's truly licentious refrain, 'pedicabo ego uos et irrumabo'.

Pliny is not alarmed by his public's occasional objections to his poetry. He is pleased by the debate his poetry has prompted in Titius Aristo's household (5.3.1):

cum plurima officia tua mihi grata et iucunda sunt, tum uel maxime quod me celandum non putastis fuisse apud te de uersiculis meis multum copiosumque sermonem, eumque diuersitate iudiciorum longius processisse . . .

I have many welcome acts of kindness to thank you for, but you do me a real service by thinking I ought to know that my verses have been the subject of much discussion at your house, a discussion which was prolonged because of difference of opinion.

On the whole, however, the response to Pliny's poetry, as this is presented by Pliny, is highly positive. Pomponius Mamilianus has been complaining about his duties, Pliny writes at 9.25.1, but 'lusus et ineptias nostras legis, amas, flagitas, meque ad similia condenda non mediocriter incites' ('you can read my bits of nonsense as if you had all the leisure in the world -- you even enjoy them, clamour for them, and are insistent that I produce more like them'). Augurinus, whose poetic work Pliny so admires, is so taken with Pliny's poetry that he devotes a poem to it (reproduced in 4.27); here is Radice's translation:

My verse is light and tender, as Catullus long ago, But what care

I for poets past, when I my Pliny know? Outside the courts in

mutual love and song he makes his name; You lovers and you

statesmen, to Pliny yield your fame!

Radice notes 'the free translation reflects the banality of the original'. Not surprisingly, Pliny finds Augurinus' poem about Pliny the poet altogether delightful: 'uides quam acute omnia, quam apta, quam expressa' ('this will give you an idea of the wit and polished perfection of his style') ([sections] 5); on such grounds are mutual admiration societies formed. Nor is this positive reception limited to his friends: Pliny reports that his poems are met with wide approbation and acclaim, so much so that Greeks are learning Latin just to be able to read and sing them (7.4.9); at home, his wife's appreciation of his poems leads her to set them to music (4.19.4).

Pliny's own attitude towards his poetry is somewhat different from that of his adoring public. The self-deprecating stance he takes on his own poems, even if we take the view that it is just false modesty (but we do not have to take this view), is still notable. He refers to his poetry as lusus (4.14.1, 9.25.1), ineptiae (4.14.8, 9.25.1), nugae (4.14.8, 7.2.2), and uersiculi (5.3.1) which are belittling, sometimes derogatory terms, but also are descriptive of the very type of poetry which Pliny extols and which was practiced by, among others, Catullus (writing his libellum of nugae [Catul. 1.1.4]) and Callimachus. A statesman first and a poet second, Pliny is always quick to supplement his reports of poetic success with modest disclaimers: so, for example, at 7.4.10, after relating his contribution to the Latin education of Greeks, he hastens to add:

sed quid ego tam gloriose? quamquam poetis furere concessum est: et tamen non de meo sed de aliorum iudicio loquor.

But I must not boast (though poets can talk wildly!) even if it is not my own opinion I am quoting but other people's.

But Pliny seems to take his poetry a bit more seriously than his modest remarks at first indicate: certainly his defence of his poetry in 4.14 and 5.3 suggests that he was serious enough about it not to dismiss criticism of it,(20) as does the fact that he devoted two days to reading a book of poetry to his friends in order to revise it in the light of their comments (8.21), and also that he requests comments from those to whom he sends his work: in this way Pliny treats his poetry with the same perfectionist intensity with which he treats his orations. At times Pliny hints at the larger possibilities offered by poetic composition, which can rival those offered by oratory: great poetry, like great oratory, can win glory for its author.(21) At 9.25.2, Pliny tells Mamilianus, who has praised his poetry,

incipio enim ex hoc genere studiorum non solum oblectationem uerum etiam gloriam petere post indicium tuum, uiri grauissimi, eruditissimi, ac super ista uerissimi.

I am in fact beginning to think that I can look for more than mere amusement from this kind of writing, and now that I have the opinion of one who is both learned and serious, and above all sincere, I may even think of fame.

While Pliny is, of course, being ironic here, as is further made clear by his subsequent promise to send his 'little sparrows and doves' to Mamilianus, who can either allow them to go among his eagles or can put them in a cage or nest ([sectiions] 3), nevertheless there is a sense that something genuine underlies the remark. During his discussion of the benefits of poetic composition in 7.9, Pliny mentions in a more straightforward way the potential for glory from writing poetry ([sections] 10): 'lusus uocantur: sed hi lusus non minorem interdum gloriam quam seria consequuntur' ('this is called light verse, but it sometimes brings its authors as much fame as serious work').

As an aside, the idea, closely related to that of gaining glory from writing poetry, of gaining glory from being the subject of poetry comes up several times m Pliny's letters (e.g., 1.17.3, 2.1.2),(22) most explicitly, and most relevantly from Pliny's perspective, in 3.21, which concerns the death of Martial. In the letter Pliny repeats part of Martial's flattering poem about him (Mart. 10.20) and then comments ([sections] 6)

dedit enim mihi quantum maximum potuit, daturus amplius, si potuisset. tametsi quid homini potest dari maius quam gloria et laus et aeternitas?

He gave me of his best, and would have given more had he been able, though surely nothing more can be given to a man than a tribute which will bring him fame and immortality?

before delivering his famous verdict of the epigrammatist's work, that it would probably not last forever, even though Martial intended that it should (Pliny, anyway, was doing his bit to make sure that the poem about him would last by including it in his [published] letter).(23)

It might be useful to compare Pliny's gently ironic approach to his poetry and to the possibilities offered by poetry to the more intense approach of Cicero.(24) In addition to translating Greek poetry into Latin (including Aratus and passages from Homer and the tragedians), Cicero also wrote his own poetry, including the infamous 'o fortunatam natam me consule Romam', mocked by Juvenal in his tenth satire. In his youth, Cicero, influenced by the Hellenistic poetics which he would later criticize, wrote in various metres and genres, and in his maturity he composed, or contemplated composing, a number of epic poems: the Manus, at least one epic concerning Caesar, and two epics devoted to himself -- the De consulatu and the unfinished De temporibus suds. These last two he had to write himself since no one else would do it for him; but he did so without too many qualms, since as he remarks on his choice of subject matter, 'si est enim apud homines quicquam quod potius laudetur, nos uituperemur, qui non potius alla laudemus' ('if there is any more fitting subject for eulogy, then I am willing to be blamed for not choosing some other subject') (Aft. 1.19.10).(25) Cicero, like Pliny, valued gloria highly,(26) and saw the potential of poetry to deliver it: in the Pro Archia he explains that his desire to have his consulship recorded in verse arises from 'amore gloriae nimis acri fortasse, uerum tamen honesto' ('a passion for fame over-keen perhaps, but assuredly honourable') (11.28); the poet Archias was to have composed such a poem and had even begun it (Arch. 11.28), but then prudently changed his mind (Aft. 1.16.15).

Unlike Pliny, who, while eager to have his poetry accepted, was not overwrought at the prospect of either its positive or negative reception, Cicero was very anxious about the public response to his poetry, or at least of one member of the public: he writes to Quintus (Q. fr. 2.16.5):

sed heus tu, celari uideor a te. quomodonam, mi frater, de nostris uersibus Caesar? nam primum librum se legisse scripsit ad me ante, et prima sic, ut neget, se ne Graeca quidem meliora legisse. reliqua ad quemdam locum padvuoTEpa. hoc enim utitur uerbo. dic mihi uerum, num aut res eum, aut [GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] non delectat?

But look here you, it seems to me that you are keeping something back from me. What oh what, my dear brother, did Caesar think of my verses? He wrote to me some time ago that he had read my first book; and of the first part he declared that he had never read anything better, even in Greek; the rest of it, as far as a certain passage, was rather 'happy-go-lucky' that is the term he uses. Tell me the truth -- is it the subject or the style that does not please him?

It is hard to imagine Pliny worrying so much over his poetry's reception, nor was there any real need for him to do so. It was Cicero's politically expedient desire to ingratiate himself with Caesar that prompted him to undertake the composition of an epic about Caesar's expedition to Britain; he informs Quintus of his decision to write it in Q. fr. 2.14.2, but later he produces a number of excuses for why he cannot continue with the task, including lack of time, lack of energy, lack of inspiration, and no lack of anxiety for concerns weightier than poetry (Q. fr. 3.4.4). One wonders whether Caesar was disappointed or relieved.

Cicero, however, was not an unimportant poet. He made significant contributions to the development of the Latin hexameter, and allusions to his poetry can be found in such poets as Horace and Vergil.(27) In his day, as Plutarch notes in his Life of Cicero (2), Cicero was renowned for his poetic ability:


Cicero got the name of being not only the best orator, but also the best poet among the Romans. His fame for oratory abides to this day, although there have been great innovations in style; but his poetry, since many gifted poets have followed him, has altogether fallen into neglect and disrepute.

As the Plutarch passage hints, Cicero the poet is most famous for engendering critical ill-will. Juvenal was by no means his only critic in antiquity, although he was one of the more mocking. The Elder Seneca states 'Ciceronem eloquentia sue in carminibus destituit' ('Cicero's eloquence left him in poetry') (Contr. 3, praef. 8). Aper in the Dialogus, discussing other Republican orators, remarks 'fecerunt enim et carmine. . . non melius quam Cicero, sed felicius, quia illos fecisse pauciores sciunt' ('they did write poetry . . . they were no greater than Cicero, but they had more luck -- fewer know about it') (21.6). Although he claims that Cicero did not over-praise himself in his orations, Quintilian finds fault with his boastfulness in his poetry: 'in carminibus utinam pepercisset' ('would that he had been more sparing in poetry') (Inst. 11.1.23). Pliny himself, far from mocking or even criticizing Cicero the poet, pays him the great compliment of saying that it was Cicero's poetry which inspired him to take up his stylus once again (7.4.3, 6). But it is notable that Pliny's inspiration came from what must be one of Cicero's early 'Hellenistic' poems, a lasciuum lusum. No doubt he was also inspired by the Republican orator's additional fame as a poet, and names Cicero first and without apologies in his list of great figures of the past who wrote praiseworthy light poetry (5.3.5). Pliny politely ignores Cicero's later, embarrassing epics.

Pliny's poetry, far from serving overtly political aims, functions rather as a depoliticized leisure activity, a temporary diversion fom the pressures of public life. When he suggests the possibility of attaining glory from his poetry -- one of Cicero's main purposes in composing his self-serving epics -- it is only in an off-handed way, and this glory would be reflected on him from the success of his verses rather than from having enshrined himself within them (there were others who might do that for him). Cicero the poet had the double pressure of a self-aware talent and of the need to use it to its -- and his -- best advantage. Pliny the poet was under no such pressures. While his modesty may appear disingenuous at times, Pliny never made any serious pretensions to poetic greatness. If, then, he never achieved poetic greatness, it is not a source of posthumous embarrassment; at least he gained the satisfaction of a certain amount of popular success in his own day. As a poet, he did not reach Cicero's heights, and consequently did not have Cicero's great fall (and not only in poetry, but also, of course, in politics). Besides, he always trusted not in his vacation verse composition but in his day job to win him enduring glory, and, as literary history has shown, this trust was not wholly misplaced.(28)


(1.) All translations of Pliny are from B. Radice's Penguin edition.

(2.) See F. Gamberini, Stylistic Theory and Practice in the Younger Pliny (Hildesheim, 1983), pp. 9091 on the possible third book.

(3.) Pliny also mentions writing while travelling in 9.10.2, although it is not clear if the 'non nulla leuiora' are the languishing poemata referred to two sentences later.

(4.) Gamberini (n. 2), p. 103; on otium and negotium, pp. 103-9.

(5.) Gamberini (n. 2), p. 109.

(6.) Cf. Gamberini's qualification of the notion of Pliny as a 'neoteric' at pp. 92, 111.

(7.) Ovid's blending of Callimachean and non-Callimachean practices in the Metamorphoses is a striking illustration of the complicated, sometimes politicized, sometimes depoliticized approach to Callimacheanism which developed in Roman poetry, a full consideration of which is beyond the scope of this paper; on Ovid's Callimacheanism see, e.g., H. Hofmann, 'Ovid's Metamorphoses: carmen perpetaum, carmen deductum', PLLS 5 (1985), 223-41, B. Harries, 'The spinner and the poet: Arachne in Ovid's Metamorphoses', PCPhS n.s. 36 (1990), 64-82, J. Wills, 'Callimachean Models for Ovid's "Apollo-Daphne"', MD 24 (1990), 143-56; on Callimacheanism in Roman poetry in general, see, e.g., W. Wimmel, Kallimachos in Rom, Hermes Einzelschriften 16 (Wiesbaden, 1960), W. Clausen 'Callimachus and Latin Poetry', GRBS 5 (1964), 181-96, G. A. Kennedy (ed.), The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism. Volume 1: Classical Criticism (Cambridge, 1989), pp. 246-54.

(8.) On this distinction see, e.g., H. Dahlmann, 'Varros Schrift ,,de poematis" und die hellenistischromische Poetik', Abh. Mainz 3 (1953), N. A. Greenberg, 'The Use of Poiema and Poiesis', HSCPh 65 (1961), 263-89, R. Haussler, 'Poiema und Poiesis', in W. Wimmel (ed.), Forschungen zur romischen Literatur (Wiesbaden, 1970), pp. 125-37.

(9.) Cf. the beginning of Sentius Augurinus' poem, recorded and praised by Pliny in 4.27, which also displays this type of retro-neoteric aesthetic: 'canto carmine uersibus minutia, / his olim quibus et meus Catullus / et Caluus ueteresque.'

(10.) Gamberini (n. 2), p. 111.

(11.) G. B. Conte (J.B. Solodow, trs.) Latin Literature: A History (Baltimore, 1994), p. 137.

(12.) See Gamberini (n. 2), pp. 92, 111-12.

(13.) All translations of Quintilian by M. Winterbottom, from D. A. Russell and M. Winterbottom (edd.), Ancient Literary Criticism (Oxford, 1972).

(14.) Translations of the Dialogus by M. Winterbottom, from Russell and Winterbottom (n. 13).

(15.) Relevant here, perhaps, is the on-going conflict between the exuberant Asianic and the more restrained Attic styles of oratory; on this (frequently deconstructible) opposition see in general, e.g., Cicero, Orat. 22-32, Brut. 325, Opt. Gen. 7-13, Dionysius of Halicarnassus Orat. Vett., praef Quintilian Inst. 12.10.10-26 with R. G. Austin ed.), Quintilian Book XXI (Oxford, 1948), and [sections] 10.16; U. v. Wilamowitz, 'Asianismus und Atticismus', Hermes 35 (1900), 1-52, R. Syme, The Roman Revolution (Oxford, 1939), pp.245-6, A.D. Leeman, Orationis Ratio: The Stylistic Theories and Practice of the Roman Orators, Historians and Philosophers (Amsterdam, 1963), pp. 140-67, 219-42.

(16.) Often it was deemed necessary in antiquity for an overt distinction to be made between poetry and oratory: see Leeman (n. 15), pp.311-14, who cites as examples Cicero, Orat. 68 and Quintilian, Inst. 10.1.28; cf Tacitus' Dialogus, which takes as its starting point the separate merits of poetry and oratory. The distinction between the two fields became increasingly elided, see for example, the question of whether or not Vergil was an orator, e.g., in Florus' lost dialogue Vergiiius orator an poeta, or in Macrobius' Saturnalia (esp. 5.1.1ff.); for the debate over Vergil see G. Highet, The Speeches in Vergil's Aeneid (Princeton, 1972), pp. 3-8, 277-90. At all times the two literary fields are closely related, although the exact nature of the relationship is highly variable: see, in general, D. A. Russell, Criticism in Antiquity (London, 1981),pp. 15-16.

(17.) The siesta-time setting of Pliny's scene ([sections] 4: '. . . cum meridie [erat enim aestas] . . .') also recalls the setting of Ovid's afternoon love-making session with Corinna (Am. 1.5.1: 'aestus erat'), lending Pliny's scene an erotic undertone which will be reflected in his announced turn to amorous poetry.

(18.) See E. Courtney (ed.), The Fragmentary Latin Poets (Oxford, 1993), pp. 369-70.

(19.) Gamberini (n. 2), pp. 113-14.

(20.) Gamberini (n. 2), p. 98.

(21.) Cf. Vergil Geo. 4.6-7: 'in tenui labor; at tenuis non gloria, si quem / numina laeua sinunt auditque uocatus Apollo' ('the work is on a small scale, but the glory will not be slight, if unpropitious divinities grant it [to the poet], and Apollo, being spoken to, hears'); note that the poet's gloria is a result of his Callimachean poetry (see R.F. Thomas [ed.], Virgil, Georgics lll-lV [Cambridge, 1988] ad loc.). Gloria was, of course, a major concern not only to Pliny, who refers to it repeatedly, but to Romans in general, for whom it was an important, non-negligible motivator (see, e.g., Caesar, Gal. 7.50.4, Vergil, Aen. 4.232-72, Aen. 5.394, Valerius Flaccus 1.76-7 ('tu sola animos mentesque peruris, / Gloria . . .' ('you alone, Glory, fire spirits and minds')), but also with the potential for harm if pursued too zealously (see, e.g., Horace, Odes 1.18.15, Vergil, Aen. 11.708); on gloria see, e.g., U. Knoche, 'Der romische Ruhmesgedanke', in H. Oppermann (ed.), Romische Wertbegriffe (Darmstadt, 1967), pp. 42045, J. Hellegouarc'h, Le Vocabulaire latin des relations et des partis politiques sous la republique (Paris, 1972), pp. 369-83.

(22.) This is another common topos: cf., e.g., Cicero, Arch. 19-22, esp. 23, Ovid, Pont. 3.2.35-6 ('uos etiam serf laudabunt ssepe nepotes, / claraque erit scriptis gloria uestra meis' ['often late-born descendants will praise you, and your glory will be bright because of my writings']).

(23.) This is not the only time Pliny expresses his opinion of a contemporary (and still extant) poet: see 3.7.5, where he gives his cautious judgement of Silius Italicus: 'scribebat carmine maiore cure quam ingenio' ('he took great pains over his verses, though they cannot be called inspired'). He is more complimentary of the poets in his immediate social circle: see, e.g., 1.16.5 (Pompeius Saturninus), 4.27 (Sentius Augurinus), 5.17.2 (Calpurnius Piso), 4.3.3-5, 4.18, and 5.15 (Arrius Antoninus); cf 1.13.1 ('magnum prouentum poetarum annus hic attulit' ['this year has raised a fine crop of poets']).

(24.) For a study of Cicero's poetry, as well as a commentary on the fragments, see W. W. Ewbank, The Poems of Cicero (London, 1933); see also Conte (n. 11), pp. 200-2.

(25.) AH Cicero translations are from the Loebs.

(26.) Cicero even wrote a treatise on the subject; the testamonia and fragments are in Garbarino's editions of Cicero's fragmenta (Turin, 1984).

(27.) On Cicero's hexameters: Ewbank (n. 24), pp. 40-71, Conte (n. 11), pp. 201-2; on later poets' allusions to Cicero's poetry: Ewbank (n. 24), p. 16.

(28.) I would like to thank Professor M. Winterbottom, in whose Pliny seminar an earlier version of this paper was presented, and Dr D. P. Fowler.
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Date:Oct 1, 1995
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