Pliny does publish a love letter to his wife.

Ep. 7.5

To Calpurnia.

You would scarcely credit how much I miss you and long to see you again. My love for you is the primary cause of this longing, and the fact that we have not been used to be away from each other is the second. Hence it is that I spend a great part of my nights awake and thinking of you, and regularly at the hours when I used to visit you I find my feet carrying me – in the literal sense of the term towards your room, and then, sick and sad at heart, and feeling as though I had been refused admittance, I turn to quit the empty threshold. At one time only am I free from these tormenting pangs, and that is when I am in court and busy pleading for my friends. Imagine, I pray you, how wretched is my life, when I find my rest in hard work, and my solace in being harassed and anxious.   Farewell.

Is this a letter straight from the heart? is this real and romantic emotion from Pliny?

It looks like it. But there are issues here.

We are offered some insight into their domestic arrangements. Pliny and Calpurnia keep separate rooms (which was probably more normal historically among the wealthy than it is among modern marriages). So, he has regular times when he goes to visit her. Notably, he goes to her. he has and takes the initiative. Can she go to him?

His body carries him: he is controlled by his emotions, it seems.

When he remembers that she is away, it is as if he was a lover excluded from his mistress’s rooms. That’s a very odd sentence. But it plays into literary convention. For the Romans, the make lover was supposed to be weak and pale, consumed by his love. There is something adolescent about this: the game of love is for the young: they are to be burnt up their love, young Romeos to their young Juliets. But the Roman lovers did not marry the objects of their affections: they seduced them. For she was always married, and not to him.

There are implications in girls marrying so young and men marrying so late. If an elite girl married at 15 to a man perhaps twice her age, there was no time for premarital experimentation and courtship. For a man in his late teens or his early twenties (and perhaps a decade off marrying), all the girls and women of his generation were whisked off to the households of older men.

But there was a culture of love. How would Romans fall in love? They might fall in lover dutifully with their spouses, as Calpurnia is meant to do. But the logic and poetry of love focus on adulterous relationships in which the young poet seduces the young wife of the old man. Such relations were illegal and caused moral panic among the Romans of the Augustan age and later, and we cannot know how common such relationships were, but in an age in which sexual relations were not in themselves sinful (the issue was not sexual acts, but the status of those performing them). But at a psychological level, such relationships are comprehensible.

The adulterous nature of love made good drama.


‘Ask me no more’ (1906): Lawrence Alma Tadema’s take on the Roman games of seduction. Note the very pale Northern model for the Roman girl. 

The (adulterous) girl who was the object of affection suddenly had power. She could decide on whom she bestowed her favours. She could extract presents. She could, if she get round her husband, persuade the doorman of the house, manage the secrecy, let her lover in, or exclude him. The normal power relations of Roman society were reversed. The girl had power, though a power which was centred on her sexual availability.

There was a standard Roman love poem in which the poet-lover sat outside his intended’s house and sang to the door. He was the locked-out lover.

So if we want to read this as sincere, alarm bells are now ringing. It is all looking like a literary contrivance. And as we start to compare, more bells start to ring and lights flash.

  • How overwhelmed by love is our Pliny?
    • Completely, it seems, until he has to work. When duty calls, he can put aside his love.
  • How excluded is Pliny?
    • Completely, it seems, until we remember that he approaches the door of this house not as a lover begging admittance, but as a master. He owns the door.
  • How much power does Calpurnis have?
    • None, it would seem.

This letter is in some ways a literary joke. He can present himself as the locked-lover, overwhelmed by love, but he is always the master of literature and the master of the house, completely in control.

It is with this in mind that we turn back to the previous letter in the collection, in which Pliny writes about a lover.


Households, Families, Men and Women                  An Ideal Wife                     Calpurnia’s Education                      Losing the Baby                     Pliny’s Lover




%d bloggers like this: