You are a model of family affection, and loved your excellent and devoted brother as dearly as he loved you; you love his daughter as if she was your own, and, by filling the place of the father she lost, you are more than an aunt to her. I know then how glad you will be to hear that she has proved herself worthy of her father, her grandfather and you. She is highly intelligent and a careful housewife, and her devotion to me is a sure indication of her virtue. 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.) If I am giving a reading, she sits behind a curtain near by and greedily drinks in every word of appreciation. 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.
All this gives me the highest reason to hope that our mutual happiness will last for ever and go on increasing day by day, for she does not love me for my present age nor my person, which will gradually grow old and decay, but for my aspirations to fame; nor would any other feelings be suitable for one brought up by your hands and trained in your precepts, who has seen only what was pure and moral in your company and learned to love me on your recommendation. For you respected my mother like a daughter, and have given me guidance and encouragement since my boyhood; you always foretold that I should become the man I am now in the eyes of my wife. Please accept our united thanks for having given her to me and me to her as if chosen for each other.
Pliny is writing to his wife’s aunt. We can break down the letter into two themes
- The Families
- Calpurnia Hispulla is an ideal member of the family which she shows by loving her father, her late brother, and her niece.
- She brought up little Calpurnia to be moral and good
- Calpurnia Hispulla respected Pliny’s mother as if she were her mother.
- Calpurnia Hispulla and Pliny were friends since his boyhood
- Calpurnia’s behaviour
- Calpurnia is worthy of her family: careful and diligent in the household.
- She is learning about literature and particularly about Pliny’s own literary output, some of which she is setting to music.
- She follows his career closely.
- She loves Pliny, not for his body, but for his reputation.
- She loves Pliny because she has been told to do so by her aunt.
The families are linked over generations through ties of affection, particularly among the women. The friendships which bring this marriage into being are between Calpurnia Hispulla and Pliny’s mother (Plinia) and between Hispulla and Pliny. In terms of age, one understands Pliny’s mother to have been older than Hispulla and Hispulla to be older than Pliny, but perhaps not by very much.
How old is Pliny? The letters in Book 4 were written about 104. So Pliny would be 41-42.
How old is Calpurnia? A letter detailing (8.11) a miscarriage from about c. 107 describes Calpurnia as too young to have an awareness of her pregnancy. If she were 17 in 107, then at marriage, she’d be 14.
- It is clear that the alliance was between two families. It reinforced a prior and long-lasting social link between them. Calpurnia was the gift that passed between the families to reinforce that bond.
- The key players in that familial relationship are female (Pliny’s mother and Hispulla). The women are not passive, but active in building social relations.
- Is there a difference between the roles the women play here in reinforcing social and familial bonds to the roles played by the imperial women (Messalina, Agrippina, Livia)?
Calpurnia and Pliny had clearly been married for some time when this letter was written. It reads as if Pliny was supporting her education. That development of an interest in literature reads as an education and that makes sense if we think of her as teenage girl possibly from a sheltered environment.
There is a faintly comic element to the account of the devoted wife setting her husband’s poetry to music. It is meant to demonstrate her virtue. For us, it demonstrates that she is secondary to Pliny. She lives through him, his literary achievements, his poetry, his career.
We may note that Calpurnia never speaks in her own voice in this letter. She might sing Pliny’s words, but never speaks her own.
But the theme of the letter is love. Love is a powerful emotion in Roman literature. It was capable of upsetting order and challenging convention. It made powerful Roman men weak before the object of their affections. Love is valued, but is also dangerous.
But look at this love:
- Calpurnia Hispulla loves her family.
- Calpurnia is devoted to Pliny, because she is virtuous [that is she ought to be].
- Calpurnia’s love for Pliny leads her to engage with literature.
- Calpurnia is taught music by love. A note on this image. It seems to refer to a tradition in love poetry, most obviously connected with Ovid’s Ars Amatoria, in which the Teacher (of Love) or sometimes Love itself teaches men and girls to act in ways which are very obviously lacking in virtue.
- Calpurnia loves Pliny not for his body, which is mortal, but for his fame, which is, it is implied immortal.
- Calpurnia loves Pliny because her aunt told her to love him.
An absence here is very notable. Does Pliny love Calpurnia? If he does love her, it is a love under control. It does not stop him working, writing, speaking in the law courts. If Pliny is in love, it is very much on his terms.
A Relationship of Equals?
Calpurnia is defined in this letter by her devotion to Pliny. It is what she is for. It is what makes her virtuous. Pliny has his friends, his work, his literature, his politics, his connections. Perhaps somewhere on that list is Calpurnia. This letter about a young wife turns out to be about her brilliant husband.