You say you have read my hendecasyllabic verses, and you ask how it was that I began to write poetry – I, who seem to you such a staid person, and I am bound to say I do not consider myself a trifler. Well, to go back to the very start, I have always been partial to poetry, for, when I was only fourteen years old, I composed a Greek tragedy. If you ask me what kind of a tragedy it was, I cannot tell you – at any rate I called it one. Subsequently, when on my return from military service, I was detained by contrary winds in the island of Icaria, I wrote some Latin elegiacs, with the sea and the island for my theme. I have also occasionally tried my hand at heroics, but this was my first essay at hendecasyllables, and the occasion of my doing so was as follows.
The volumes of Asinius Gallus, in which he institutes a comparison between his father and Cicero, were being read to me at my Laurentine villa, and in them occurs an epigram written by Cicero upon his friend Tiro. Then, when I retired at mid-day – for it was summer-time – for my usual nap and sleep refused to come to me, I began to turn over in my mind the fact that the greatest orators had not only amused themselves with jeux d’esprit of this kind, but had also set great store on their achievements therein. I applied myself to the task, and, much to my surprise – inasmuch as I had not dabbled in verse for a long time – I dashed off in a very few minutes these verses on the subject which had tempted me to write: – “While I was reading the books of Gallus, in which he dared to take the palm of glory from Cicero and give it to his father, I discovered a sportive trifle from Cicero’s pen, which is worth regard for the genius with which he has dropped serious subjects and shown that the minds of even great men take delight in the wit and playful sallies which please mankind. For he complains that Tiro cheated his lover by a base deceit, and failed to pay the few kisses that he owed him after dinner. On reading this, I ask: ‘Why should I conceal my love, why should I be nervous at proclaiming my feelings or confessing that I too am aware of the deceits of my Tiro, and his treacherous endearments, and his thefts, which add new fuel to my flame ?’ ” I then tried my hand at elegiacs, and rattled them off just as quickly; then I added to their number, for the facility with which I wrote them lured me on.
Subsequently, when I returned to Rome, I read them to my friends, and they expressed approval of them. Whenever I had any leisure, especially when I was travelling, I essayed a variety of metres. Finally I made up my mind, as many others have done before me, to finish off a volume of hendecasyllables separately, and I do not regret having done so. The verses are read, copied, and even set to music, and the Greeks who have been induced to learn Latin by their admiration of this volume are now adapting them to the harp and the lyre. But why do I go on in this boastful strain ? Still, after all, poets have a licence to be furiously vain, and I am not quoting my own opinion of the value of my verses but that of others. Their criticism, whether right or wrong, certainly pleases me. I only hope that posterity may show the same excellent judgment, or the same want of it. Farewell.
Pliny, Ep. 7.4
The letter begins on literary topics. Pliny is playing games with his reputation. He has received a fan letter. How does he write such poetry? His reply is simultaneously boastful and defensive.
He was having poetry read to him (a lot of Roman poetry was consumer aurally, when slaves read it to their masters). He was then sleepless and he dashed off some verses. It was a casual thing, but look how good they are!
You can imagine struggling poets grinding their teeth when they read this. Writing Latin verse was anything but easy.
It is, of course, an assertion of modesty. This contrasts somewhat with the final line in which he imagines people of the future reading his verse. In fact, it is lost. We cannot read it.
But in asserting the lack of effort, he also asserts the poetry’s lack of seriousness. Here, we hit the point of defensiveness. Is writing light poetry the proper act for a serious Roman?
Pliny’s answer is twofold.
- Such poetry is a light matter and needs to be taken lightly: it is a bit fun and everyone is allowed fun.
- The greats of the past wrote such poetry: Asinius Gallus, his father, Asinius Pollio, and Cicero.
Then, the letter gives us an example. At this point, many of the older translations become coy. The internet translation above writes round what is happening, obscuring the very obvious meanings.
Cicero had written a poem about Tiro. In the translation Tiro is Cicero’s friend. In the Latin, he is ‘his Tiro’. Tiro was a slave and then freedman of Cicero. They might have be ‘friends’ but this was a relationship in which there was a marked inequality of power.
And then the poem:
- Pliny was reading the poems of Gallus.
- Gallus thought his father’s poems were better than those of Cicero.
- Cicero wrote a poem about Tiro. This poem is described as a ‘lustful joke’ (‘sportive trifle’ above).
- The poem is a work of a great talent in which he showed he showed humane tastes such as please the minds of great men.
- The poem tells of how Tiro plays tricks to frustrate his lover (Cicero) of the kisses he owed for a little dinner and thus wastes away the night.
- Pliny is thus inspired to tell of his love for his Tiro, who flees kisses and with tricks add flames to Pliny’s desire.
The structure of this is enormously complicated. Pliny’s desire for Tiro is locked in a poem about reading a poem in a letter about being inspired to write poetry by reading a poem about poetry in which another poem appears.
So, what we have looks like literature, but what if we actually read it as being about sex?
For modern audience, I hope, much of the content of this poem should shock.
- Tiro owes Cicero kisses for Cicero having given dinner. Nobody can read this and think that they are only talking about kisses. The price of dinner is sex. Tiro tries to avoid paying that price.
- Pliny’s Tiro similarly rejects the seduction. Pliny interprets this as trick to add flames to his passion.
For Pliny and Cicero sex with their slaves is a game. Their objects of desire can resist, but cannot ultimately say no.
The master gets what he wants. Those under his power have to give in. Remember that Pliny published this letter. He is not ashamed. He is showing off his talent.
The very next letter is a love letter to his wife.
This looks like a letter about literature. If you look more carefully it seems to be about sex. If you look more carefully again, it is horror story.