Letters for Eternity

Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, Letters and the Panegyricus.

New edition of the critical work by Marcus Zuerius van Boxhorn. Printed in Lyon by the Anisson brothers in 1693.

A German proverb says: he who writes, remains. And considering the vast number of blogs, tweets and other social media posts these days, it seems that everyone wants to remain. In the past, one had to be an actual author in order to set out on this path to eternal glory. Otherwise, there was just one alternative for remaining in the collective memory: letters. (An almost extinct form of communication, which might still be remembered by the older ones among us.)

Besides “actual” letters, which were usually published after the author’s death, a special genre was highly appreciated time and again: the letters written for publication. At least in our culture, this genre can be traced back to one particular person: to Gaius Plinius Secundus, called Pliny the Younger (to prevent confusing him with his uncle, who had the same name). The questions of why his work was extremely popular in the 17th century and what makes our edition by Marcus Zuerius van Boxhorn so special are worth a closer look.

The Dutch linguist and philologist Marcus Zuerius van Boxhorn in a contemporary portrait by Marcus Dubordieu and J. Suijderhoef, signed by Adrianus Hofferus.

Boxhorn: a Critical Mind and a Linguist

Our edition was created by Marcus Zuerius van Boxhorn (1612 or 1602–1653), a Dutch scholar who stood out thanks to two characteristics: his critical spirit towards traditions and the incredible volume of his publications, which ate up so much of his time that it hindered his own career. In view of the list of his works, it appears that Boxhorn must have written continuously. He published almost all classics of ancient Latin literature, which is quite weird, because he was a linguist and created his life’s work within that field. As an educated humanist, Boxhorn did not appreciate the traditional ways of thinking that were solely based on the Christian tradition. Therefore, he rejected the idea that all languages originated in Hebrew and laid out a theory that was to be recognised and developed by the linguists of later times: Boxhorn realised that there was a relatedness of Indo-European languages and understood that there wasn’t a single original language.

The philological precision of his editions, however, was already the subject of controversy in his time. He published his edition of Pliny’s work for the first time in Amsterdam in 1640, our edition is a reprint from 1693 that was made in Lyon when Boxhorn had already been dead for forty years. The reason why this edition became so popular is an essay that turned out to be an incredible success. However, before we talk about it we have to clarify what kind of work Boxhorn’s edition of Pliny’s work was.

Pliny: Living for the Purpose of Fulfilling One’s Duty

Gaius Plinius Secundus was born in AD 61 or AD 62 and died probably around AD 113. We cannot be sure about these dates because Pliny wasn’t of much significance in ancient times. He was one of many unimportant aristocrats, without a special mindset or great ambitions. A decent speaker, an industrious man, who fulfilled his duties at administrative authorities as diligently as one could expect him to. And yet, – as he wrote himself – there was one thing Pliny desired more than anything: eternal glory. But how could he achieve that? He tried it with poems and speeches – almost all of them are lost today. Then he had an idea. Pliny wrote letters, actually, he wrote letter collections. The addressees aren’t of any importance, the letters were intended to be published from the very beginning. Thus, of course Boxhorn meant well when he listed all the addressees, however, that index is rather superfluous. Thanks to Pliny’s rather simple language, Latin students all over the world still start practicing their language skills with these letters today. In nine of such letter collections, Pliny describes the everyday life of a Roman eques, conversations, cultural events, villas and much more. Boxhorn enabled readers to find whatever they are looking for by means of an extensive index of subjects. A tenth book of letters – actual letters – was only added after Pliny’s death. The illustrious correspondent was no other than Emperor Trajan (the great conqueror), under whom Pliny administered a governorship in Asia Minor and whom he regularly annoyed with questions about every tiny issue of the administrative business, which he did not want to decide on his own responsibility.

Furthermore, Pliny effusively thanked this ruler, Trajan, for the honour of being appointed as consul, which was the highest political office. This speech of praise, the Panegyricus, described Trajan as the ideal ruler and, on the other hand, the work is a mirror for princes par excellence. Also in this regard the rather uncreative administrative expert had provided a model for a genre of late antiquity, during which new consuls frequently honoured their rulers with such effusive hymns of praise.

Two of Pliny’s letters became famous all over the world. In these letters, Pliny addressed Trajan with regard to the question of how to deal with Christians. The ruler made a pragmatic decision following the motto: do not persecute them actively but punish them if they do something wrong. For his moderate attitude, Christian hacks didn’t hesitate to claim that Pliny himself had been a Christian. And this is where our edition comes into play. Boxhorn includes an essay in his edition, in which he tries to prove that Pliny certainly wasn’t a Christian. The text culminates in the polemical sting: even Pontius Pilate ultimately rendered a service to Christ with his judgement because it made the sacrificial death of the Messiah possible in the first place – however, that doesn’t make him a Christian. Touché! And this sharp text by Boxhorn became an evergreen. Editors continued to add the essay to new editions well into the 18th century. Boxhorn’s description of Pliny’s life based on indications from ancient written sources, which are also part of this edition, achieved a similar popularity.

Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, had his residence “Monticello” (which is a World Heritage Site today) built from 1768 onwards in the style of the Italian scholar Palladio. And Palladio’s studies had been inspired by Pliny’s description of villas, which also left their mark in numerous Renaissance gardens. Photo: Martin Falbisoner / CC BY-SA 3.0

The Letter Collection’s Renaissance in the Renaissance Period

Pliny and the humanists – what an ideal combination. For one thing, Pliny always appeared to be “humane” in his texts, someone who demanded that slaves be treated well and like human beings, who held women in high esteem, in some regards he could be described as the precursor of the “gentleman” of modern times and did not really step on anyone’s toes with radical opinions. His (so-called post-classical) Latin was much more comprehensible than Cicero’s Latin and was a suitable stylistic model.

And then, of course, there were the letters as a genre. Instead of using all their time for writing their works, Renaissance scholars spent much of their time writing letters. If this seems strange to you, take a look at your email inbox and you’ll see all the things you might want to reply to at some point… Yes, the letters of scholars usually were actual letters, used to exchange ideas and for networking. However, they mostly did so in Latin and Pliny’s language could well serve as a model. And there’s more to it, men like Petrarch also took up the Plinian genre of the letters intended for publication and developed it further.

If you would like to see one of the physical effects of this text on the Renaissance period, you should take a stroll through a large Renaissance garden. Their design was heavily inspired by Pliny’s descriptions of villas. Indirectly, the effect of these descriptions continued to impact the society well into the 18th century and into the New World, an example is “Monticello”, the residence of Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States.


Other Things You Might Be Interested In

Unfortunately, this edition isn’t available online, however, you can find a complete edition of Pliny’s works from 1720 including Boxhorn’s essay.

One of the letters contains the legendary description of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, during which Pliny’s uncle, who had the same name, died. Although Pliny “the Older” didn’t create a new genre, he wrote a reference work thanks to his unprecedented diligence: a one-man encyclopaedia.