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An Ideal Wife:Introducing Calpurnia

Pliny tells us the qualities of an ideal husband, but what about an ideal wife?

Pliny often uses the first letter of a book to introduce a theme. In book 4, he introduces his new wife.

Ep. 4.1. To Calpurnius Fabatus, his wife’s grandfather

Your granddaughter and I are touched to hear that you are anxious to see us both after so long an interval and we share your feelings. I can’t tell you how much we are looking forward to paying you both a visit, and it shall not be put off any longer – indeed, we are already packing so that we can travel as fast as the route we must follow permits. One thing will delay us, but not for long; we shall have to turn off to my place in Tuscany, not to look over the land and the house I have there – this can be put off to another time – but to perform what we feel is a necessary duty. Close to my property is the town of Tifernum on Tiber which adopted me as its patron when I was scarcely more than a child – its enthusiasm outrunning its discretion. The people always celebrate my arrivals, regret my departures, and rejoice in my official titles, and so to express my gratitude (one always feels disgraced at being outdone in friendly feeling) I defrayed the cost of building a temple in the town. As this is now completed, it would be sacrilegious to postpone its dedication any longer. So we shall be there for the day of the dedication, which I have decided to cerebrate with a public feast, end we may have to stay on for the day following, but if so we will hurry over the journey the faster.

 I only hope that we shall have the pleasure of finding you and your daughter well. It will certainly be a pleasure to see your happiness if we arrive safely.

We need to place ourselves in Pliny’s position deciding what to put in the first letter of this book. He chooses a letter that relates to a personal matter, his recent marriage. The marriage is clearly on considerable and his relationship with his wife features in several letters that follow.

Pliny’s letters show him in an idealised light. It is not that his letters are boastful, but it shows a life lived properly among, mostly, good people. Pliny’s society is comfortable and mostly in consensus. It lacks drama. But that helps us understand what is being presented. We should not assume that the picture presented is untrue, it is just ‘curated’ to present Pliny and his friends in the best possible light and as ideal Romans.

The curation of the letters means that his marriage is of great importance and needs to be displayed. He will be an ideal husband and his wife an ideal wife. It was the duty of a Roman to marry and to produce children and although Pliny and his wife never had children (that was beyond the capacity of Pliny to curate all aspects of his life), he shows himself the devoted husband, thus fulfilling that aspect of his duty.

When he introduces his wife (Calpurnia), he has various options. He could write about the arrangement of the marriage. He could write to a friend as to how wonderful she is. He could even write to her. But he writes to her grandfather.

We come to know from other letters that Calpurnia’s father had died and that Calpurnia was brought up in her grandfather’s household under the supervision of her paternal aunt. The grandfather was her leading male relative and, one presumes, the person who held her in potestas

So, Pliny and Calpurnia have just got married and they go away for some time.  They are now setting out to visit her family who seem to live in or near Comum (Como). It is the letter to announce that they are on their way that Pliny chooses as her introduction to the volume and his announcement of his marriage.

What does the letter emphasise?

  1. Calpurnius Fabatus has been missing his granddaughter and wants her and Pliny to visit. Pliny will oblige.
  2. They have been away from her family for a long time.
  3. They are coming, but will be delayed. Pliny has to stop at Tifernum.

Piny’s estate near the town of Tifernum, the villa has been identified by archaeologists.

4. Pliny was selected as patron to Tifernum.

5. They like him.

6. He has built a temple there which needs to be dedicated and he intends to perform his duty.

7. Then, they will come.

Pliny’s letter introducing his wife is overwhelmingly about Pliny.

  • It is a letter which shows Pliny being respectful to us grandfather-in-law and responding to his requests.
  • It shows that Pliny has a close relationship to the people of Tifernum and that he acts as patron to them. Given that prior to the marriage there was a close relationship between Pliny’s family and the Calpurnii, it is unlikely that this was news to the old man.
  • Pliny is dutiful to the gods.

The letter is about duty: to family, to community, to the divine.

Calpurnia is introduced in context of duty.

It might be easy to miss, but she says nothing. Pliny voices her in agreement with Pliny, but she send no greetings or messages. Pliny’s new wife is silent. It is the men who talk.


House, Families, Men and Women                     An Ideal Husband                 Calpurnia’s Education





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