Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, known as Pliny the Younger to differentiate him from his uncle Gaius Plinius Secundus, Pliny the Elder (23–79) [q.v.], had a successful career in the Roman Senate. He was a consul and governor of Bithynia and Pontica in the years just before his death; his comments on the treatment of Christians in these provinces are among the earliest historical references to Christianity. Pliny’s work is preserved in 10 volumes of letters (some 368 in all) that constitute an important source of first-hand documentation and social commentary concerning life in the Roman Empire at the turn of the 1st century.
Pliny’s Letters include accounts of deliberations about suicide by two friends, one, Corellius Rufus, who killed himself to avoid further suffering from incurable illness, and another, Titius Aristo, who decided not to do so if there were any chance of recovery. In both cases, the prospect of suicide is made known to or discussed with family members, friends, and a physician. There is the famous Arria, who consulted with no one at all, as well as the less famous woman of Lake Como who forces her husband into suicide to avoid a lethal condition by tying herself to him and jumping into the lake. Pliny’s particular interest is in the role of reason in such deliberations about suicide. Nevertheless, for Pliny, understanding a suicide or contemplated suicide does not diminish his grief or anxiety over it.
The Letters of the Younger Pliny, With An Introductory Essay by John B. Firth. New York and Felling-on-Tyne, [date?], Book I, Letter XII, “To Calestrius Tiro”; Book I, Letter XXII, “To Catilius Severus”; Book III, Letter 16, “To Marcilius Nepos,” following the Teubner text, edited by Keil, Available at Project Gutenberg, text #3234. “To Calpurnius Macer,” Book VI, Letter 24. Pliny: Letters and Panegyricus, tr. Betty Radice, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969, p. 455. Online at www.gutenberg.org.
To Calestrius Tiro
I have suffered a most grievous loss, if loss is a word that can be applied to my being bereft of so distinguished a man. Corellius Rufus is dead, and what makes my grief the more poignant is that he died by his own act. Such a death is always most lamentable, since neither natural causes nor Fate can be held responsible for it. When people die of disease there is a great consolation in the thought that no one could have prevented it; when they lay violent hands on themselves we feel a pang which nothing can assuage in the thought that they might have lived longer. Corellius, it is true, felt driven to take his own life by Reason–and Reason is always tantamount to Necessity with philosophers– and yet there were abundant inducements for him to live. His conscience was stainless, his reputation beyond reproach; he stood high in men’s esteem. Moreover, he had a daughter, a wife, a grandson, and sisters, and, besides all these relations, many genuine friends. But his battle against ill-health had been so long and hopeless that all these splendid rewards of living were outweighed by the reasons that urged him to die.
I have heard him say that he was first attacked by gout in the feet when he was thirty-three years of age. He had inherited the complaint, for it often happens that a tendency to disease is handed down like other qualities in a sort of succession. While he was in the prime of life he overcame his malady and kept it well in check by abstemious and pure living, and when it became sharper in its attacks as he grew old he bore up against it with great fortitude of mind. Even when he suffered incredible torture and the most horrible agony–for the pain was no longer confined, as before, to the feet, but had begun to spread over all his limbs–I went to see him in the time of Domitian when he was staying at his country house. His attendants withdrew from his chamber, as they always did whenever one of his more intimate friends entered the room. Even his wife, a lady who might have been trusted to keep any secret, also used to retire. Looking round the room, he said: “Why do you think I endure pain like this so long? It is that I may outlive that tyrant, even if only by a single day.” Could you but have given him a frame fit to support his resolution, he would have achieved the object of his desire. However, some god heard his prayer and granted it, and then feeling that he could die without anxiety and as a free man ought, he snapped the bonds that bound him to life. Though they were many, he preferred death.
His malady had become worse, though he tried to moderate it by his careful diet, and then, as it still continued to grow, he escaped from it by a fixed resolve. Two, three, four days passed and he refused all food. Then his wife Hispulla sent our mutual friend Caius Geminius to tell me the sad news that Corellius had determined to die, that he was not moved by the entreaties of his wife and daughter, and that I was the only one left who might possibly recall him to life. I flew to see him, and had almost reached the house when Hispulla sent me another message by Julius Atticus, saying that now even I could do nothing, for his resolve had become more and more fixed. When the doctor offered him nourishment he said, “My mind is made up,” and the word has awakened within me not only a sense of loss, but of admiration. I keep thinking what a friend, what a manly friend is now lost to me. He was at the end of his seventy-sixth year, an age long enough even for the stoutest of us. True. He has escaped a lifelong illness; he has died leaving children to survive him, and knowing that the State, which was dearer to him than everything else beside, was prospering well. Yes, yes, I know all this. And yet I grieve at his death as I should at the death of a young man in the full vigour of life; I grieve–you may think me weak for so doing–on my own account too. For I have lost, lost for ever, the guide, philosopher, and friend of my life. In short, I will say again what I said to my friend Calvisius, when my grief was fresh: “I am afraid I shall not live so well ordered a life now.” Send me a word of sympathy, but do not say, “He was an old man, or he was infirm.” These are hackneyed words; send me some that are new, that are potent to ease my trouble, that I cannot find in books or hear from my friends. For all that I have heard and read occur to me naturally, but they are powerless in the presence of my excessive sorrow. Farewell.
To Catilius Severus
Here am I still in Rome, and a good deal surprised to find myself here. But I am troubled at the long illness of Titus Aristo, which he cannot shake off. He is a man for whom I feel an extraordinary admiration and affection: search where you will, he is second to none in character, uprightness, and learning–so much so that I hardly look upon his illness as that of a mere individual being in danger. It is rather as if literature and all good arts were personified in him, and through him were in grievous peril. What a knowledge he has of private and public rights and the laws relating to them! What a mastery he has of things in general, what experience, what an acquaintance with the past! There is nothing you may wish to learn that he cannot teach you; to me, certainly, he is a perfect mine of learning whenever I am requiring any out-of-the-way information.
Then again, how convincing his conversation is, how strongly it impresses you, how modest and becoming is his hesitation! What is there that he does not know straight away? And yet, often enough, he shows hesitation and doubt, from the very diversity of the reasons that come crowding into his mind, and upon these he brings to bear his keen and mighty intellect, and, going back to their fountain-head, reviews them, tests them, and weighs them in the balance. Again, how sparing he is in his manner of life, how unassuming in his dress! I often look at his bedroom and the bed itself, as though they were models of old-fashioned economy. However, they are adorned by his splendid mind, which has not a thought for ostentation, but refers everything to his conscience. He seeks his reward for a good deed not in the praise of the world, but in the deed itself. In short, you will not find it easy to discover any one, even among those who prefer to study wisdom rather than take heed to their bodily pleasures, worthy to be compared with him. He does not haunt the training grounds and the public porticos, nor does he charm the idle moments of others and his own by indulging in long talks; no, he is always in his toga and always at work; his services are at the disposal of many in the Courts, and he helps numbers more by his advice. Yet in chastity of life, in piety, in justice, in courage even, there is no one of all his acquaintance to whom he need give place.
You would marvel, if you were by his side, at the patience with which he endures his illness, how he fights against his suffering, how he resists his thirst, how, without moving and without throwing off his bed- clothes, he endures the dreadful burning heats of his fever. Just recently he sent for me and a few others of his especial friends with me, and begged us to consult his doctors and ask them about the termination of his illness, so that if there were no hope for him he might voluntarily give up his life, but might fight against it and hold out if the illness only threatened to be difficult and long. He owed it, he said, to the prayers of his wife, the tears of his daughter, and the regard of us who were his friends, not to cheat our hopes by a voluntary death, providing those hopes were not altogether futile. I think that such an acknowledgment as that must be especially difficult to make, and worthy of the highest praise; for many people are quite capable of hastening to death under the impulse of a sudden instinct, but only a truly noble mind can weigh up the pros and cons of the matter, and resolve to live or die according to the dictates of Reason.
However, the doctors give us reassuring promises, and it now remains for the Deity to confirm and fulfil them, and so at length release me from my anxiety. The moment my mind is easy, I shall be off to my Laurentine Villa–that is to say, to my books and tablets, and to my studious ease. For now as I sit by my friend’s bedside I can neither read nor write, and I am so anxious that I have no inclination for such study.
Well, I have told you my fears, my hopes, and my future plans; it is your turn now to write and tell me what you have been doing, what you are doing now, and what your plans are, and I hope your letter will be a more cheerful one than mine. If you have nothing to complain about, it will be no small consolation to me in my general upset. Farewell.
To Marcilius Nepos
I have often observed that the greatest words and deeds, both of men and women, are not always the most famous, and my opinion has been confirmed by a talk I had with Fannia yesterday. She is a granddaughter of the Arria who comforted her husband in his dying moments and showed him how to die. She told me many stories of her grandmother, just as heroic but not so well known as the manner of her death, and I think they will seem to you as you read them quite as remarkable as they did to me as I listened to them.
Her husband, Caecina Paetus, was lying ill, and so too was their son, both, it was thought, without chance of recovery. The son died. He was a strikingly handsome lad, modest as he was handsome, and endeared to his parents for his other virtues quite as much as because he was their son. Arria made all the arrangements for the funeral and attended it in person, without her husband knowing anything of it.
When she entered his room she pretended that the boy was still alive and even much better, and when her husband constantly asked how the lad was getting on, she replied: “He has had a good sleep, and has taken food with a good appetite.” Then when the tears, which she had long forced back, overcame her and burst their way out, she would leave the room, and not till then give grief its course, returning when the flood of tears was over, with dry eyes and composed look, as though she had left her bereavement at the door of the chamber. It was indeed a splendid deed of hers to unsheath the sword, to plunge it into her breast, then to draw it out and offer it to her husband, with the words which will live for ever and seem to have been more than mortal, “Paetus, it does not hurt.” But at that moment, while speaking and acting thus, there was fame and immortality before her eyes, and I think it an even nobler deed for her without looking for any reward of glory or immortality to force back her tears, to hide her grief, and, even when her son was lost to her, to continue to act a mother’s part.
When Scribonianus had started a rebellion in Illyricum against Claudius, Paetus joined his party, and, on the death of Scribonianus, he was brought prisoner to Rome. As he was about to embark, Arria implored the soldiers to take her on board with him. “For,” she pleaded, “as he is of consular rank, you will assign him some servants to serve his meals, to valet him and put on his shoes. I will perform all these offices for him.” When they refused her, she hired a fishing-boat and in that tiny vessel followed the big ship. Again, in the presence of Claudius she said to the wife of Scribonianus, when that woman was voluntarily giving evidence of the rebellion, “What, shall I listen to you in whose bosom Scribonianus was killed and yet you still live?” Those words showed that her resolve to die gloriously was due to no sudden impulse.
Moreover, when her son-in-law Thrasea sought to dissuade her from carrying out her purpose, and urged among his other entreaties the following argument: “If I had to die, would you wish your daughter to die with me?” she replied, “If she had lived as long and as happily with you as I have lived with Paetus, yes.” This answer increased the anxiety of her friends, and she was watched with greater care. Noticing this, she said, “Your endeavours are vain. You can make me die hard, but you cannot prevent me from dying.” As she spoke she jumped from her chair and dashed her head with great force against the wall of the chamber, and fell to the ground. When she came to herself again, she said, “I told you that I should find a difficult way of dying if you denied me an easy one.”
Do not sentences like these seem to you more noble than the “Paetus, it does not hurt,” to which they gradually led up? Yet, while that saying is famous all over the world, the others are unknown. But they confirm what I said at the outset, that the noblest words and deeds are not always the most famous. Farewell.
To Calpurnius Macer
How often we judge actions by the people who perform them! The selfsame deeds are lauded to the skies or allowed to sink into oblivion simply because the persons concerned are well known or not.
I was sailing on our Lake Como with an elderly friend when he pointed out a house with a bedroom built out over the lake. “From there,” he said, “a woman of our town once threw herself with her husband.” I asked why. The husband had long been suffering from ulcers in the private parts, and his wife insisted on seeing them, promising that no one would give him a more candid opinion whether the disease was curable. She saw that there was no hope and urged him to take his life; she went with him, even led him to his death herself, and forced him to follow her example by roping herself to him and jumping into the lake. Yet even I, who come from the same town, never heard of this until the other day—not because it was less heroic that Arria’s famous deed, but because the woman was less well known.