Monday, March 30, 2015

C.L. Whitton, Pliny, Epistles 8.14: Senate, Slavery and the Agricola

Statue of Tacitus outside of the Vienna Parliament Building
I read this article together with Myles Lavan's "Slavishness in Britain and Rome in Tacitus's Agricola," CQ 61.1 (2011), 294-305.  Together, they do an excellent job of highlighting the rhetoric of slavery in the formulation of the senate-emperor relationship--or, more precisely, the nature of the senate's relationship to Domitian.  This language of slavishness permeates Tacitus's Agricola, not just the opening sections, as Lavan demonstrates (more on this in a separate post).  In Ep. 8.14, Pliny raises the issue of Domitian's dysfunctional relationship with the senate when he seeks advice from the accomplished jurist Titius Aristo.  Pliny laments that his generation knows nothing about senatorial law because of the repressive atmosphere cultivated by Domitian.  Under Domitian, the senate fell out of practice and lost their knowledge of senatorial law, so that now--under Trajan--they are in need of the expert help of Aristo.

Pliny devotes considerable space (sections 2-10, the first third of the letter) to a digression on his lack of expertise thanks to Domitian's tyranny.  Whitton makes an overwhelmingly persuasive case for Pliny's engagement with Tacitus's Agricola in this section; but also, somewhat less predictably, makes a strong case for seeing Pliny's letter engaging intertextually with the exile works of Cicero, Ovid, and Seneca. 

In the good old says, says Pliny, learning happened by observation and imitatio, what Whitton characterizes as a "chain of exemplarity."  By the time of Pliny's youth, however, the chain had been broken by Caesar and Augustus.  "There was no bravery or obedience in the camps, no freedom to speak in the Senate" (122).  Trajan's reign may restore this chain of exemplarity once again, but it will take time to recover from the "slavery" imposed on the Senate by Domitian.  Interestingly, for Pliny and Tacitus, the principate is perfectly compatible with libertas--a point that, I suspect, would have been a hard sell to Cicero or even to someone living under the Julio-Claudians (124).  If Augustus "restored" the republic, Nerva/Trajan brought back liberty (libertas reducta).

A topos of particular interest to me, from the Agricola, is that of silence.  Supposedly, silence was the only way to survive the tyranny of Domitian [sidenote: it might be productive to think about the relationship between speaking and silence in these two texts, especially with regard to the Tacitean "it was dangerous to say what you wanted, wretched to say what you did not").  To this, Pliny adds forgetfulness (oblivio)--something Tacitus says the senators tried to do but were unable to accomplish.  In Domitian's regime, everything was upside down: virtus was suspect, inertia was valued (and even counted as wisdom).  The entire senate was complicit in this,  They bore witness to Domitian's tyranny but also tolerated it (though the question remains, what else could they have done within reason?).  In the Agricola, notes Whitton, the shared guilt is a crucial rhetorical element.  It is one that is picked up by Pliny, a striking feature of 8.14 since Pliny often distances himself from Domitian's reign (126).  Oddly, both Pliny and Tacitus never name Domitian explicitly in their discussions of his relationship with the senate.

Whereas Tacitus is specifically talking about literary talent, Pliny is more broadly interested in the exercise of ingenium--and especially in the application of knowledge (127): "Whether he is importing this different sense, or exposing a subtle reference already in Tacitus's text to a specifically senatorial freedom of speech, he firmly appropriates the rhetoric for his purpose: the practical restoration of governance under Trajan" (127).

Whitton then explores the role of Pliny's intertextual engagement with the exile literature of Cicero, Ovid and Seneca.  This is an especially insightful and rich analysis, and illuminates much about Ep. 8.14.  Pliny's use of the exceedingly rare word elinguis ("tongue-tied"), for instance, is almost certainly an allusion to Cicero's speech to the senate after his return from exile (Post reditum in senatu). Cicero accuses the consuls of suppressing free speech and debate, reducing the senate to "mute slavery."  Pliny's appropriation of the term recalls Tacitus's silence and establishes it "as the ultimate index of tyranny" (129).  Whitton identifies and explicates similar allusions to Ovid and Seneca, especially the motif that exile dulls the intellect and leaves one unable to speak.  It is not surprising to see Seneca make an appearance in Pliny's letter, given that Senca was writing under Nero.  More interesting is the appearance of Ovid.  His inclusion is a reminder that even Augustus had his tyrannical side, as when he sent Ovid into exile supposedly for a carmen et error.  Augustus, it turns out, was no great supporter of libertas.  Put another way, for all the useful things that Augustus did, there are still plenty of ways that Trajan can improve on his example.

The next section of the article looks at the positioning of the letter in Book 8.  One of the more interesting points: Ariosto is the perfect addressee for 8.14's complex and allusory text both because he is an expert in senatorial law but also because he is a man of literature (131).  It is not accident that the preceding letter, 8.13, takes paternal exemplarity as its topic.  Pliny himself has already, in Book 7, characterized himself as following in Tacitus's footsteps, as emulating the master.  Whitton concludes that the "ghost of Tacitus" in the letter to Genialis (8.13) is a reminder to the attentive reader of Tacitus's "paternity" of Pliny's Ep. 8.14 (133)

Pliny's Ep. 8.14 diverges from Tacitus Agricola in one especially significant way: order is now restored under Trajan.  "The now liberated and re-empowered senate take their paternal role as [preferably humane] dispensers of justice to the literal servile class" (136).  Indeed, slavery--both literal and metaphorical--is a central theme of Epistles 8.  Inter alia, it is a way of representing the relationship of Rome and the provinces (a relationship that, under Trajan, will be deliberately refigured as paternal).  In another instance, Pliny discusses Claudius's regime, noting that he is glad not to live "in those times."  Interestingly, of course, Claudius is famous for employing freedmen in his imperial court in place of senators.

This article offers a rich and compelling reading of Ep. 8.14, in particular, the nexus of allusions to Tacitus's Agricola as well as to Latin exile literature.  Whitton's primary interest is explicating the language of slavery that permeates Tacitus's letter and connects 8.14 to several other letters in the collection.  As he notes, Tacitus is every bit as present as Pliny in the letter--a kind of reminder of senatorial cooperation in this new, Trajanic age of revived libertas.

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