Patterns of Constructing the Self and the Construction of a Genre in Younger Pliny: A Reading Grid

Valentina Popescu

University of Cincinnati

The problem of Pliny's display of the self has been addressed by scholars earlier (e.g. E. Leach, 1990, A. M. Riggsby, 1995, 1998), but this paper takes a textual approach to analyze the inner mechanism of both constructing the self and, more important, of constructing a new epistolary genre, thus to identify the authorial intention enclosed in a few letters, all addressed to Calpurnius Fabatus (5.11, 6.12, 7.11, 7.16, 7.23, 7.32). A reading grid is applied to Pliny's text for this purpose, by using the term foil (previously used, with all the differences involved, by E. L. Bundy, 1986, in reading Pindar).          

Human characters and their relationships are used as foils for the Pliny-image; they each add, explicitly or implicitly, reflectively or transitively, light, color, and depth to the self-portrait that Pliny shapes for the lector. For example Calpurnius Fabatus' donations to the city of Comum, slave manumission, interventions on behalf of amici, etc. are foils for Pliny's involvement in similar activities mentioned throughout the collection. Fabatus' reputation is channeled, by association, into the Pliny-image (tua gloria cuius ad me pars aliqua pro necessitudine nostra redundat, 5.11).

Letters, both individually and in sequel, are also used as foils for the whole epistolary corpus; they reflect the growing process of the collection, with one letter mirroring and answering another (e.g. recepi litteras tuas ex quibus cognovi speciosissimam…, 5.11), with miniseries developing around the same topic (e.g. 7.16, 23, 32), reflecting microcosmically the macrocosm they are part of, with constant implicit references to the intended lector and the ideal reception which the author envisaged for his work. They actually show how Pliny's epistolary system functions as a genre. The letters reveal themselves as self-evoking, as a metatext, retaining, encoded, the mechanisms of their composition, the intentions of their author, and his expectations from the lector.   


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