Pliny on Regulus: ‘Will two stories serve you, or must you have a third, according to the canon of the schools?’

The following text was presented at the JACT GCSE Latin and Greek Conference at Westminster School London on 14 March 2014. I am immensely grateful to Ms Katharine Radice for the invitation to this event.

I.

Pliny did not like Regulus. He really did not. The twentieth letter of the second book of the Younger Pliny’s collection of letters – a text that purports to have been sent to one Calvisius Rufus – leaves little doubt: Marcus Aquilius Regulus was a monster, a legacy hunter (in addition to his well-known role as a professional denouncer in court under Nero and Domitian), in short, an altogether despicable person.

Which raises an obvious question: … so what?

Why does Pliny bother to write about him? Are things not bad enough already – do we need a lengthy letter recording this scum’s actions for posterity ? And should we, disregarding any shred of decency ourselves, and in open violation of the secrecy of correspondence and letters, be reading Pliny’s effusions?

The latter question is easily answered. Yes, we should – for Pliny’s letters, as we have received them, are not transcripts of actual letters. They were prepared for publication by the author himself, as he points out in the first letter of his first book, directed to Septicius Clarus, the prefect of the Praetorian guard. There is little reason to believe that a great deal of these letters preserved their original shape as a result of this editorial process – in fact, quite the contrary: there are excellent reasons to believe that Pliny edited them,  and re-wrote them, with a more general audience in mind.

That first letter of the first book is worth looking at in somewhat greater detail still. Pliny writes (Plin. epist. 1.1):

Frequenter hortatus es, ut epistulas, si quas paulo curatius scripsissem, colligerem publicaremque. Collegi non seruato temporis ordine — neque enim historiam componebam –, sed ut quaeque in manus uenerat. Superest ut nec te consilii nec me paeniteat obsequii. Ita enim fiet, ut eas quae adhuc neglectae iacent requiram et si quas addidero non supprimam.

You have often urged me to collect and publish any letters of mine which were composed with some care. I have now made a collection, not keeping to the original order as I was not writing history, but taking them as they came to my hand. It remains for you not to regret having made the suggestion and for me not to regret following it; for then I shall set about recovering any letters which have hitherto been put away and forgotten, and I shall not suppress any which I may write in future.

Letters composed with some care, epistulae quas paulo curatius scripsissem, not in chronological sequence (for that would constitute historia), but ‘as they came to hand’, ut quaeque in manus uenerat. What other ordering principles are there, though, other than ‘chronological’ or ‘by interlocutor’? Pliny’s letters do not follow either principle in their arrangement. And are we looking at a throwaway comment, or was it in fact Pliny’s actual intention to avoid the impression of a chronological historia? But why? And what exactly is his ‘anti-historia, genrewise-speaking?

What I propose to do, for the remainder of my paper today, is to ponder this matter somewhat further, using the twentieth letter of the second book – the letter to Calvisius Rufus, on the subject of Regulus – as my main paradigm.

II.

I am not an expert in curriculum design. I do not understand why, of all the possible texts, someone felt it necessary to choose Pliny’s letter to Calvisius as a text for GCSE level Latin. Admittedly, it is not the lamest text Pliny ever wrote (he left those to his infamous tenth book of letters, those letters written to the Emperor Trajan), but surely there are more exciting stories out there that one could read. That being said, what I understand even less than the choice, is the chunk of text that is designed for consumption: the GCSE level text does not represent the full text of the letter. And this is where matters get rather amusing.

How come?

The set relates two episodes of the life of Regulus, describing, in some detail, his dealings as a legacy hunter: first, he defrauds Piso’s widow Verania, then fails to do the same to Velleius Blaesus. The text does not have much of an opening – Pliny comes across as a story salesman (Plin. epist. 2.20.1):

Assem para et accipe auream fabulam, fabulas immo; nam me priorum noua admonuit, nec refert a qua potissimum incipiam.

Have your copper ready and hear a first-rate story, or rather stories, for the new one has reminded me of others and it doesn’t matter which I tell first.

Fabula – a story, my translation suggests. You recognise the word, for it survives in the English language as well: fable. But fabula signifies rather more than just ‘a story’. Derived from fari, to speak, it is a tale – and fabula, from the earliest documented periods, becomes the technical term for a theatrical performance, a play, drama: a dramatic performance made of pure gold, in this case, as Pliny would appear to suggest.

Will it be a comedy? A farce?

A tragic trilogy, following the custom of, and worthy of, classical Athenian theatre?

III.

The first fabula, chronological or not (Pliny almost appears to resume the idea that he had developed in his first epistle, namely his reluctance to write history in a chronological fashion – and it is in fact the most recent incident that is on the top of Pliny’s play bill!), is the case of Verania.

Regulus is described as the marito inimicissimus, the most hated man, as far as Verania’s husband – L. Calpurnius Piso Licinianus – is concerned. Verania, too, could not face him: he was ipsi inuisissimus. Yet, he manages to deceive Verania, performing bogus acts of medicine and sacrifice, resulting in Verania’s legacy left for Regulus. Pliny comments (Plin. epist 2.20.6):

Facit hoc Regulus non minus scelerate quam frequenter, quod iram deorum, quos ipse cotidie fallit, in caput infelicis pueri detestatur.

This is the kind of scandalous thing Regulus is always doing, calling down the wrath of gods (which he always manages to escape himself) on to the head of his unfortunate boy.

The wrath of gods, the ira deorum, is a tragic motive par excellence, and it is perfectly in keeping with the tragic genre as well, that said ira affects Regulus’ blood line, not just him (if him at all), triggered by Regulus’ frequent scelus: Regulus’ own child dies young.

In fact, the whole story unfolds in five classical acts:

  1. Verania is seriously ill.
  2. Regulus appears, a visit bad enough in and of itself, but worsened by his intrusion of the private space of the bedroom (proximus in toro sedit again reminds of dramatic language, to be sure);
  3. Regulus performs an act of divination (including a reading of entrails and of cosmological signs) – followed by an extended silence;
  4. Breaking the artificial suspense eventually, Regulus gives his verdict and performs an illegitimate, nefarious sacrifice;
  5. Verania changes her testament and dies, not without noticing her mistake – alas, it is too late to reverse the decision.

IV.

 The second fabula is less successful for Regulus, but by no means any less theatrical (and dramatic). Velleius Blaesus, a rich man and former consul, is approached by the ever-greedy Regulus. The story then unfolds in four essential steps:

  1. Regulus urges Blaesus’ doctors to extend his life-time for as long as possible (with the obvious, sinister motive of becoming an heir to Blaesus’ estate).
  2. Blaesus changes his will.
  3. Regulus now urges the doctors for the exact opposite, asking them just how much longer they wish to keep Blaesus alive artificially.
  4. Blaesus dies, but it turns out that he left Regulus nothing.

Apart from the feeling that Regulus’ actions, in an act of poetic justice, were given their due (namely: absolutely nothing), the central element – Regulus’ remarkable change of character – is noteworthy. Here is how Pliny puts it (Plin. epist. 2.20.8):

Postquam signatum est testamentum, mutat personam, uertit allocutionem isdemque medicis.

Once the will is signed there is a change of front, and the same doctors are attacked.

The repeat address of the same group by the protagonist, Regulus, already is somewhat of a giveaway. To make things even more obvious, however, Pliny uses a technical term of Roman theatre, persona – character. Personam mutare – this is rather strong language, in fact: it does not imply a minor shift in behaviour, nor does it imply a personality change. Following the logic of Roman theatre, this means: the same actor takes on an altogether different role, very much like that well-known character in Plautus’ Poenulus, who suggests, upon his departure, that alius nunc fieri uolo, ‘I now wish to become someone else’ (which applies to the actor, not the stage character of the play).

This is where the GCSE Latin text ends.

V.

It is not, however, where Pliny’s text ends, and as I have suggested before, this is, in fact, rather amusing. The main provider for light entertainment in this context is the very next sentence, following the cut-off point of the set passage. Pliny asks (Plin. epist. 2.20.9) –

Sufficiunt duae fabulae, an scholastica lege tertiam poscis? est unde fiat.

Are two stories enough, or do you want another according to the rule of three? There are plenty more I could tell you.

Well, two stories would appear to have been enough for those who chose this set text. It certainly was not good enough for Pliny, for he continues and offers two more movements: i) a third example, and ii) an overall interpretation to unlock his narrative. We will need to cover both aspects.

Before that, however, one must point out that, once again, the translation does not actually do the text justice. The translator glosses over the expression an scholastica lege tertiam poscis, when the translation reads ‘do you want another according to the rule of three’. It is even more mistaken in translating est unde fiat (‘there is [material] whence this could happen’) as ‘[t]here are plenty more I could tell you’: it just is not in the Latin.

Be that as it may, this sentence – which I just had to use as the title for my presentation – requires further elucidation. It has been explained by means of comparison to a comment made by the Roman rhetorician Quintilian, who, in a chapter on the appropriate division and design of speeches, writes (Quint. inst. 4.5.3):

Quapropter ne illos quidem probauerim qui partitionem uetant ultra tris propositiones extendere: quae sine dubio, si nimium sit multiplex, fugiet memoriam iudicis et turbabit intentionem, hoc tamen numero uelut lege non est alliganda, cum possit causa pluris desiderare.

I cannot therefore approve either of those who insist that a partition must not include more than three propositions. No doubt, if it contains too many items, it will escape the judge’s memory and disturb his attention; but it should not be tied down by law, as it were, to this number, since a cause may well need more.

Quintilian was a great mind – Rome’s first professor of Latin – and he naturally challenges the idea that you always must give three examples, not more, not less, of anything. Pliny’s qualification of this rule as scholastica – headmaster-ish – appears to be derogatory as well, implying lack of vision and flexibility for the sake of it. Yet, this comment does not prevent him from adducing a third example – an example that those who set the GCSE text felt should be omitted.

Which is a shame, because the stories so far lack an essential turn. Let’s remind ourselves: what have we encountered so far?

  1. A story in which Regulus urges a female to change their testament. This is successful, the person dies, and Regulus inherits something.
  2. A story in which Regulus urges a male to change their testament. This is unsuccessful (which Regulus may not have known at first), the person dies, and Regulus inherits nothing.

What else do we need? Well, there are two options, realistically:

  1. A story in which Regulus urges someone to change their testament. This is unsuccessful, the person does not die, and Regulus inherits nothing.
  2. A story in which Regulus urges someone to change their testament. This is successful, the person does not die, however, and Regulus inherits nothing for the time being (which, if revealed, would be rather embarrassing).

VI.

The first option would be fantastically boring (even by Pliny’s standards), so naturally the third example that we get from Pliny embraces that latter scenario – here it is in translation (Plin. epist. 2.20.10–11):

The noble lady Aurelia had dressed in her best for the ceremony of signing her will. When Regulus arrived to witness her signature, he asked her to leave these clothes to him. Aurelia thought he was joking, but he pressed the point in all seriousness, and to cut a long story short, he forced her to open the will and leave him what she was wearing: he watched her writing and looked to see if she had done so. Aurelia is in fact alive today, but he forced this on her as if she were on the point of death. And this is the man who accepts estates and legacies as if they were his due.

When compared to the previous two, this one is somewhat of a satyr play – providing comic relief after the two rather dramatic fabulae that came first. Yes, Aurelia’s dress may have been fancy and expensive – yet it is funny to hear that this is what Regulus is asking for, causing disbelief in the ancient audience (Aurelia herself cannot believe it, either) as well as in a modern one. Yet, it is comic entertainment that has gone sour, as Regulus succeeds with his request – except that Aurelia now refuses to die, prolonging Regulus’ wait.

Aurelia’s disbelief again resorts to festival language – Aurelia ludere hominem putabat, ille serio instabat, ‘Aurelia thought he was joking, but he pressed the point in all seriousness: Aurelia thinks this was a comedy performed at her, without realising that she was, in fact, in the middle of a rather serious act (if still in the middle of a dramatic performance, too).

 VII.

I hope it has become clear by now that Pliny, in the twentieth letter of his second book, has quite carefully assembled three stories around Regulus fashioned to represent, or at least to resemble, different takes on staged performances. They revolve around the same issues, but they offer different nuances, different outcomes, different views on the recurring character’s nature. This could easily be a TV mini-series thus far, a somewhat irritating soap opera involving a legacy hunter and professional denouncer – except, there is no happy ending, only poetic justice: a family curse, failure, and coming across as effeminate and somewhat of a pervert.

Pliny, however, goes beyond what a playwright could do: he offers, openly, now more like a third-rate fabulist, an interpretative reading of all of this (Plin. epist. 2.20.12 ff.):

But why do I rouse myself over this, when I live in a country which has long offered the same (or even greater) reward to dishonesty and wickedness as it does to honour and merit? Look at Regulus, who has risen by his evil ways from poverty and obscurity to such great wealth that he told me himself when he was trying to divine how soon he would be worth sixty million sesterces he had found a double set of entrails which were a sign that he would have twice that sum. So he will, too, if he goes on in the way he has begun, dictating will which are not their own to the very people who are wanting to make them: the most immoral kind of fraud there is.

This may seem like a huge disappointment – the whole letter nothing but a complaint about the rotten morals of the times of present, utilising but the evil deeds of one (admittedly rather outrageous) example. Yet, this may be too simplistic a take on this matter. ‘But why do I rouse myself’, in the original, is a Greek quote, borrowed from Demosthenes’ speech On the crown, where it features in the context of a very similar complaint.

Alla ti diateinomai, ‘but why do I work up such a tension in me’ (the imagery is related to the tension in a bow, in archery)  – yes, why?

Considering the overall presentation of this letter, it would seem fair to suggest that, whatever Pliny says on other occasions, it is not so much a general complaint about the immoral, dire situation of the Roman Empire and its politics, not pessimism about the impact of the reign of Domitian, and the slow restoration of the state under Nerva and Trajan. Much rather, one might argue, it feels as though that it is the overwhelming lack of justice done to those who manoeuvre in the bilge waters of this vessel that is the Roman state:

in ea ciuitate, in qua iam pridem non minora praemia, immo maiora nequitia et improbitas quam pudor et uirtus habent

in a country which has long offered the same (or even greater) reward to dishonesty and wickedness as it does to honour and merit

Pudor and uirtus, those central values of Rome’s old aristocracy – the code to live by for true aristocratic, epic heroes, to prevent tragic events from taking place. Why, why, Pliny asks, can they be undermined – and still those who circumvent them, do appear to get away with this, making a mockery out of a material that otherwise perfectly well qualifies for the subject matter of a fabula: Regulus needs to get his comeuppance.

VIII.

At the beginning of my presentation, I raised the question what Pliny meant when he talked about his collection, the value of writing letters (history as opposed to anti-history), and his notion of writing some of them curatius, with greater attention to detail or with greater care, if you will.

If historical chronology does not matter, if this is not history, if Pliny introduces his letter using the term fabula, something that he is willing to sell at a steal, considering its quality (fabula aurea): should we perhaps prepared to listen to Pliny more carefully after all?

What if what Pliny has to offer here, in this letter, is a miniature tragic trilogy, a triple Roman praetexta (as plays in Roman dress were called), whose actual tragic dimensions do not lie so much in the failures and evil deeds of the main character (who is despicable, for sure)? What if the actual tragic dimensions lie in the society at large, a society that does not only create such types and lets them prevail, but that does not even notice its own flaws – resulting in a scenario for which katharsis, cleansing, is out of reach?

A tragedy is a fantasy, to be sure, a fantasy from which we can escape.

A tragedy, a fantasy, that has become reality – there is a word for that as well.

We call it a nightmare.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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