Pliny The Younger On Live Readings

Pliny the Younger (61-113AD) wrote this letter to Titius Aristo. It is in his published letters: Book 5. 3.


While I gratefully acknowledge your many acts of kindness to me, I must especially thank you for not concealing from me the fact that my verses have formed the subject of many long discussions at your house, that such discussions have been lengthened owing to the different views expressed, and that some people, while finding no fault with the writings themselves, blamed me in a perfectly friendly and candid way for having written on such themes and for having read them in public. Well, in order to aggravate my misdeeds, here is my reply to them: “Yes, I do occasionally compose verses which are far from being couched in a serious vein. I don’t deny it. I also listen to comedies, and attend the performances of mimes. I read lyrics, and I understand the poems of Sotades. Moreover, I now and then laugh, jest, and amuse myself; in short, to sum up in a word every kind of harmless recreation, I may say ‘I am a man.'” (a quote from Terence -TW)

Nor does it annoy me that people should form such opinions about my character, when it is plain that those who are surprised that I should compose such poems are unaware that the most learned of men and the gravest and purest livers have regularly done the same thing. But I feel sure that I shall easily obtain permission from those who know the character and calibre of the authors in whose footsteps I am treading, to stray in company with men whom it is an honour to follow, not only in their serious but in their lightest moods. I will not mention the names of those still living for fear of seeming to flatter, but is a person like myself to be afraid that it will be unbecoming for him to do what well became Marcus Tullius, Caius Calvus, Asinius Pollio, Marcus Messalla, Quintus Hortensius, M. Brutus, Lucius Sulla, Quintus Catulus, Quintus Scaevola, Servius Sulpicius, Varro, Torquatus–or rather the Torquati,–Caius Memmius, Lentulus, Gaetulicus, Annaeus Seneca, Lucan, and, last of all, Verginius Rufus? If the names of these private individuals are not enough, I may add those of the divine Julius, Augustus and Nerva, and that of Tiberius Caesar. I pass by the name of Nero, though I am aware that a practice does not become any the worse because it is sometimes followed by men of bad character, while a practice usually followed by men of good character retains its honesty. Among the latter class of men one must give a pre-eminent place to Publius Vergilius, Cornelius Nepos, and to Attius and Ennius, who should perhaps come first. These men were not senators, but purity of character is the same in all ranks.

But, you say, I recite my compositions and I cannot be sure that they did. Granted, but they may have been content with their own judgment, whereas I am too modest to think that any composition of mine is sufficiently perfect when it has no other approbation but my own.

Consequently, these are the reasons why I recite in public, first, because a man who recites becomes a keener critic of his own writings out of deference to his audience, and, secondly, because, where he is in doubt, he can decide by referring the point to his auditors. Moreover, he constantly meets with criticism from many quarters, and even if it is not openly expressed, he can tell what each person thinks by watching the expression and eyes of his hearers, or by a nod, a motion of the hand, a murmur, or dead silence. All these things are tolerably clear indications which enable one to distinguish judgment from complaisance. And so, if any one who was present at my reading takes the trouble to look through the same compositions, he will find that I have either altered or omitted certain passages, in compliance perhaps with his judgment, though he never uttered a word to me. But I am arguing on this point as though I invited the whole populace to my reading room and not merely a few friends to my private chamber, while the possession of a large circle of friends has been a source of pride to many men and a reproach to none. Farewell.



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