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The Life and Times of Pliny and Marcus

Pliny the Younger was governor of Pontus/Bithynia from 111-113 AD. We have a whole set of exchanges of his letters with the emperor Trojan on a variety of administrative political matters.

Pliny was considered an honest and moderate man and rose through a series of Imperial civil and military offices, the cursus honorum (see below). He was a friend of the historian Tacitus and employed the biographer Suetonius in his staff. Pliny also came into contact with many other well-known men of the period, including the philosophers Artemidorus and Euphrates during his time in Syria.
He married three times, firstly when he was very young, about eighteen, to a stepdaughter of Veccius Proculus, of whom he became a widow at age 37, secondly to the daughter of Pompeia Celerina, at an unknown date and thirdly to Calpurnia, daughter of Calpurnius and granddaughter of Calpurnus Fabatus of Comum. Letters survive in which Pliny records this latter marriage taking place, as well as his attachment to Calpurnia and his sadness when they were unable to have children.

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Pliny was active in the Roman legal system, especially in the sphere of the Roman centumviral court, which dealt with inheritance cases. Later, he was well-known for prosecuting (and defending) at the trials of a series of provincial governors, including Baebius Massa, governor of Baetica, Marius Priscus, the governor of Africa, Gaius Caecilius Classicus, governor of Baetica and most ironically in light of his later appointment to this province, Gaius Julius Bassus and Varenus Rufus, both governors of Bithynia-Pontus.

Pliny's career is commonly considered as a summary of the main Roman public charges and is the best-documented example from this period, offering proof for many aspects of imperial culture. Effectively, Pliny crossed all the principal fields of the organization of the early Roman Empire. It is no mean achievement for a man to have not only survived the reigns of several disparate emperors, especially the much-detested Domitian, but also to have risen in rank throughout.

As a litterateur, Pliny started writing at the age of fourteen, penning a tragedy in Greek. In the course of his life he wrote a quantity of poetry, most of which was lost despite the great affection he had for it. Also known as a notable orator, he professed himself a follower of Cicero, but his prose was certainly more magniloquent and less direct than Cicero's. The only oration that now survives is the Panegyricus Trajani. This was pronounced in the Senate in 100 and is a description of Trajan's figure and actions in an adulatory and emphatic form, especially contrasting him with the Emperor Domitian. It is, however, a relevant document that allows us to know many details about the Emperor's actions in several fields of his administrative power such as taxes, justice, military discipline, and commerce. Pliny defined it as an essay about the optimus princes.

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Ancient texts are often regarded as dry and stuffy. However, the letters of Pliny the Younger are anything but. They are a series of letters written by Pliny (a Roman gentleman of some repute) to various people - friends, relatives and colleagues. They were written around 100AD, and are quite often personal, touching moments which present us with a snapshot into Roman life. Pliny talks of his friends (including the famous ancient biographer Suetonius), about death, and about slavery (on the death of slaves, he writes 'some people look upon misfortunes of this kind as ... a monetary loss, and think themselves fine men and philosophers for doing so. Whether they are in fact fine and philosophic I can't say, but they are certainly not men'). He also recounts anecdotes and gossip which serve to remind us that the Romans were just as human as we are.

Of particular interest are the (groveling) letters to his friend, the Emperor Trajan. Trajan's replies are also included, giving us a fascinating insight into the rule (and ruler) of the Empire. In these letters, Trajan advises Pliny on the treatment of Christians (Christianity is described by Pliny as 'a degenerate sort of cult, carried to extravagant lengths'), and other more mundane matters. Fortunately, Trajan's replies to Pliny's queries and requests were also collected for publication, making the anthology even more valuable as well as increasing its readability. The letters thus allow us a wonderful glimpse of the personalities of both Pliny and Trajan.

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Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was born in Rome. He came from an aristocratic family long established in Spain. His father was Annius Verus. When only a small child, he caught the attention of the Emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138) - a pedophile and his fellow countryman. He was appointed by the Emperor to priesthood in the year 129, and Hadrian also supervised his education, which was entrusted to the best professors of literature, rhetoric and philosophy of the time. His letters to one of the teachers, Marcus Cornelius Fonto, were found in 1814.

Marcus Aurelius discovered Stoicism by the time he was 11 and from his early twenties he deserted his other studies for philosophy. The Emperor Antoninus Pius, who succeeded Hadrian, adopted Marcus Aurelius as his son in 138. "He never bathed at odd hours," Marcus Aurelius said of him in Meditations, "or took a passion for building; never set up for a table connoisseur, and expert on textures and tints, or an authority on good looks... One might fairly apply to him what is recorded of Socrates, that he could either enjoy or leave things which most people find themselves too weak to abstain from, and too self-indulgent to enjoy." Antoninus Pius treated Aurelius as a confidant and helper throughout his reign; Marcus Aurelius also married his daughter, Faustina, in 139. He was admitted to the Senate, and then twice the consulship. In 147 he shared tribunician power with Antoninus. During this time he began composition of his Meditations, which he wrote in Greek in army camps. Thus Book I is headed 'This among the Quadi on the Gran', and Book II 'Written at Carnuntum'.

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At the age of 40, in 161 Marcus Aurelius ascended the throne and shared his imperial power with his adopted brother Lucius Aurelius Verus. Useless and lazy, Verus was regarded as a kind of junior emperor; he died in 169. After Verus's death he ruled alone, until he admitted his own son, Commodus, to full participation in the government in 177.

As an emperor Marcus Aurelius was conservative and just by Roman standards. He was beset by internal disturbances - famine, earthquakes, fires, and plague - and by the external threat posed by the Germans in the north and the Parthians in the east. However, Sir Edward Gobbon has praised the period of 'Five Good Emperors'- Narva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius-of which Marcus' own life spanned almost three-quarters: "If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus."

Toward the end of his reign, in 175, Marcus Aurelius was faced with a revolt by Avidius Cassius, the governor of Syria, who perhaps believed rumors that the Emperor had died. His head was sent to Marcus Aurelius. According to some sources, Faustina, Marcus' wife, may have been involved in this conspiracy. An epidemic of plague followed Cassius's army from the East. Year after year Aurelius tried to push barbarians back but witnessed the gradual crumbling of the Roman frontiers. In these times of disasters, he turned more and more to the study of Stoic philosophy.

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The Latin writings of Marcus Aurelius, letters to a teacher, Fronto, are not interesting, but the "Writings to Himself", called Meditations, are remarkable. They are personal reflections and aphorisms, written for his own edification during a long career of public service, after marching or battle in the remote Danube. Meditations are valuable primarily as a personal document, what it is to be a Stoic. His opinions in central philosophical questions are very much similar to Epictetus's (c. 55-135 AD) teachings. Epictetus's two basic principles were: Endure and Abstain. He stressed that inner freedom is to be attained through submission to providence, and rigorous detachment from everything not in our power.

Marcus Aurelius's melancholic writings reveal that the public duties depressed him and he wanted to retire to live a simple country life. After his death in Vindobona (now Vienna, Austria) on March 17, 180 the emperor's only son Commodus became Emperor and turned out to be one of the worst rulers. Marcus Aurelius's reputation is shadowed by his persecution of Christians. A devout adherent of the Roman religion, Marcus Aurelius considered the Christians fanatics, who don't die with stoic dignity. "How lovely the soul that is prepared-when its hour comes to slough off this flesh-for extinctions, dispersion, or survival! But this readiness should result from a personal decision, not from sheer contrariness like the Christians..." Probably Marcus Aurelius knew very little about Christian beliefs. The fierce cruelty, with which the persecution was carried out in Gaul, was not consistent with his writings. However, Stoics had a profound influence upon both Neoplatonism and Christianity. Besides Meditations Aurelius left behind among others two Roman monuments, the column which commemorates his victories in the Marcomannic Wars and the equestrian statue on the Capitol.

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Works Cited

Pliny the Younger and Betty Radice, 1963, “The Letters of the Younger Pliny (Penguin Classics)”

Albert A. Bell Jr. and William Martin Johnson, (2002), "All Roads Lead to Murder: A Case From the Notebooks of Pliny the Younger"

Pliny the Younger and P. G. Walsh, (2006), "Complete Letters (Oxford World's Classics)"

Marcus Aurelius and Martin Hammond, (2006), "Meditations (Penguin Classics)"

Marcus Aurelius, David Hicks, and C. Scot Hicks, (2002), "The Emperor's Handbook: A New Translation of The Meditations"

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