Breaking the Waves: Trajan's Seamanship in Pliny's Panegyricus

Eleni Manolaraki

Washington University, St. Louis

This paper examines Pliny's negotiation of maritime iconography in his laudatory speech addressed to Trajan. Encumbered with the stressful senatorial task of imperial eulogy, Pliny manipulates and innovates on common nautical metaphors to achieve an impression of originality and sincerity. His varied marine language provides valuable insight into his literary and political aspirations.

Pliny employs three distinct sets of metaphors to praise Trajan's unprecedented leadership, and, consequently, his own original and truthful rhapsodizing about it. In the first set, most evidently influenced by the "ship of state" topos, Trajan is cast as the seasoned and composed captain, navigating the common welfare [publicae salutis gubernaculis, 6.2]. Pliny revitalizes this traditional image of political theory by elaborating on the emperor's appropriately relevant hobby, sailing. Trajan is presented as a weathered seaman, navigating his own boat in rough waters [in mariagubernaculis adsidet, 81.4]. This image is contrasted to Domitian: his nautical inexperience forces him to depend shamefully on others to haul his boat up and down the placid Tiber [velut capta nave sequeretur, 82.3]. In the second set of marine images, the emperor is cast as the sea itself. This is an interesting reversal of another political metaphor, which parallels the body politic to a calm or turbulent sea, depending on its societal order [cf. Aen. 1. 148-53]. Pliny fashions Trajan himself as the safe harbor, protecting those deceived and shipwrecked by the treacherous waters of Domitian's ocean [naufragia multorum…insidiosa tranquilitate, 66.3]. Additionally, the emperor physically lowers himself to see or listen to his subjects better [aequatus plebis ac principis locus, 51.4; princeps aequatus candidatis, 71.3], practically leveling the ground, or ocean floor [<aequor], of Rome's social landscape. In the third set, Trajan's leniency and retaliatory strictness are praised through two opposing but complementary images of the emperor standing on the shore, bidding adieu to a ship preparing for a long voyage [34-5; 86]. In one instance, he sends out Domitian's delatores to drawn in the open water, in a ship without sails or captain [ultionem hominum…maris commendasset, 35.1]. In another, he prays for the safe voyage and quick return of an upstanding senator who has relinquished his office [in litore amplexusprecatusque…prona mariaceleremque…recursum, 86.3-4].

The Panegyricus is an obsessively self-aware reflection on its own rhetorical originality and sincerity. Pliny's anxiety is evidenced in multiple authorial asides [2.1, 3.4, 53.3-6, 68.6-7, 72.5-7], which have been recently discussed at length [Bartsch 1994, 148-93]. I submit that, despite his avowed frustration that "there are no more untainted words to praise a good emperor" [2.1], his aquatic iconography tells a different story. It provides a balanced picture of Trajan as a self-possessed but modest and affable leader, easily accessible to his friends and subjects, but unrelenting with enemies of the state. It also suggests Pliny's own rhetorical originality in painting such a realistic portrait, regardless of its elusive historical authenticity.

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