Pliny the Younger to his wife, Calpurnia
In the nine books of personal letters that
Pliny the Younger published during his lifetime, he made his bid for immorality. The letters reveal
both the public man he wanted remembered--a successful lawyer, a keen observer of human nature, and
an efficient administrator--and in letters such as the one printed here, the private man: the devoted
husband of a young and loving wife.
Pliny the Younger was born in Comum (present-day Como), beside the beautiful
lakes of northern Italy, in A.D. 61 or 62 and educated in Rome. In A.D. 79 his uncle, the writer Pliny
the Elder, was killed in the eruption of Vesuvius that destroyed the city of Pompeii. He left a will
formerlly adopting his nephew as his heir. The following year Pliny began to practice law. He gained
a reputation for skill and honesty in handling civil cases concerning disputed inheritances; success
in civic and state administration followed, and he became a consul, the highest office of state, at
the exceptionally early age of 39.
By that time he had already been married twice. To his great grief, both his
wives died childless, the second in A.D. 97. Having lived through the cruel reign of the emperor
Domitian, he ws acutely aware of the uncertainty of life and longed for a child to continue his name.
The emperor Trajan, who had a good working relationship with Pliny, granted him in A.D. 98 the
privileges of extra land reserved for parents of three children. He wrote in reply:
"Still more now do I long for children of my own, though I wanted them even during those
dark evil days now past, as you may know from my having married twice...Now is the time I would
wish to be a father when my happiness need know no fear!
Then he married Calpurnia. He was 39; she was probably not much more than 14, not unusual for
new wives in a society where childbearing was of key importance to marriage. Calpurnia was an orphan,
the granddaughter of Calpurnius Fabatus, a prosperous citizen in comum, who looked after Pliny's
estates there. Pliny loved "our darling Comum" and wrote affectionately of the honesty and simplicity
of its people. It is understandable that he chose to take as his bride a girl from a family he knew
and trusted rather than a girl from Rome.
Calpurnia was everything Pliny had hoped for in a young wife. He praised
her intelligence, her devotion, and her skill at looking after their home. In a letter to his wife's
aunt, Calpurnia Hispulla, who had brought her up, he added:
"In addition, this love has given her an interest in literature; she keeps copies of my
works to read again and again and even learn by heart. She is so anxious when she knows that I am
going to plead in court, and so happy when all is over! (She arranges to be kept informed of the
sort of reception and applause I receive and what verdict I win in the case.)...She has even set my
verses to music and sings them, to the accompaniment of her lyre, with no musician to teach her
but the best of masters, love."
It pleased him, he wrote in closing the letter, that Calpurnia did not love his for his looks,
which in the course of time would decay, but for his "aspirations to fame". He was also moved by the
fact that she seemed to understand his longing to be remembered, to gain immortality through his
professional reputation and writings.
He also hoped for children, who would continue the family line and could pass on their memories of
their parents to others. When Calpurnia miscarried, Pliny wrote sadly to her grandfather:
"Being young and inexperienced, she did not realize she was pregnant...and did several
things which were better left undone. She has had a severe lesson, and paid for her mistake by
seriously endangering her life...Your desire for great-grandchildren cannot be keener than mine
for children. Their descent from both of us should make their road to office easier; I can leave
them a well-known name and an established ancestry, if only they may be born and turn our
present grief to joy."
To Calpurnia's aunt he wrote:
"we build our hopes on her, and she has been spared."
Their hopes for children were not fulfilled. Yet the relationship between Pliny and Calpurnia
deepened. The letters he wrote to her when they were separated were not formal communications; they
used the language of lovers. In the one printed here, Pliny responded to Calpurnia's pain at
separation, not only because he knew how intensely she felt it, but because he felt it too. In another
letter he wrote,
"You cannot believe how much I miss you. I love you so much, and we are not used to
separation. So I stay awake most of the night thinking of you, and by day I find my feet carrying
me...to your room...then finding it empty I depart, at sick and sorrowful as a lover locked out."
When Pliny published his letters to Calpurnia, he told the world that
their marrige was no formal exchange of contracts based on property, but something central to his
life. To feel a lover's romatic passion was for him, a Roman dignitary, a cause for pride, not shame;
Calpurnia was rightfully a partner in his bid for immortality.
Famous Love Letters
Messages of Intimacy and Passion
Edited by Ronald Tamplin