Jacqueline M. Carlon: Pliny's Women. Constructing Virtue and Creating Identity in the Roman World, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2009, IX + 270 S., ISBN 978-0-5217-6132-1, GBP 45,00
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In Pliny's Women: Constructing Virtue and Creating Identity in the Roman World, Jacqueline M. Carlon examines the role of women in Pliny's letters with particular focus on "the ways in which they serve Pliny's primary goals - preserving his gloria and securing his aeternitas" (4). As this aim suggests, Carlon seeks in her work not to reconstruct the actual social or economic experiences of Roman women from evidence gleaned throughout the letters, but rather to situate Pliny's representation of various women pointedly within the broader set of discursive strategies by which he constructs himself as a masculine subject, one operating with immaculate virtue in a setting characterized by "no argumentative wives, no disagreeable children, no battles, no calamities" (214). Although the epistolary genre often presents a writer's observations as closely attached to the "real" experiences of everyday life, Pliny's relentless idealism marks the selective nature of his letters; as Carlon notes, at times "it is hard to imagine that he and Tacitus inhabited the same Roman world" (214).
Carlon underlines the difficulty in determining the precise manner in which Pliny's letters were published, but agrees with other scholars that their order, despite Pliny's own claims to the contrary, was nonetheless carefully arranged, with the exception of the tenth book published after his death (6-7). Significantly, Pliny's corpus records only his voice; no letters or replies from his correspondents are included. In his work, Pliny addresses letters to six different women, and women appear in some capacity in fifteen percent of all the letters distributed across the nine books (7). In demonstrating the ways women in the letters contribute to Pliny's self-construction, Carlon utilizes five main categories, each of which she examines in a separate chapter: "those associated with the so-called Stoic opposition to the principates of Nero, Vespasian, and Domitian; those connected to Corellius Rufus, long recognized as Pliny's patron; those who receive Pliny's loyalty or benefaction; those who contribute to his portrayal of the ideal wife; and women whose behavior Pliny judges to be unseemly" (15). Taken together, Carlon asserts, such disparate women allow "Pliny to set forth elements of his character and episodes of his past actions in particular social and political settings: the turmoil in the last years of Domitian's reign; the patron-client relationship and amicitia; legal and financial dealings with family members and the vulnerable; the inner sanctum of married life; and even the personal lives of dishonorable women, whom he views always, of course, from an appropriate distance" (17).
In every chapter, Carlon begins with a general introduction to the women and events most salient to that category, as well as defining their relationships to Pliny himself. She then provides a closer reading of individual letters, noting helpfully the ways in which certain themes or characterizations build across books or can be read in light of surrounding letters, including ways representations of individual women compare and contrast with complementary discussions of male figures.
Of particular interest to Carlon is the way in which Pliny uses women like Clodia Fannia to reframe the past in his account of the trials of 93 CE and the earlier Stoic opposition. In establishing his close connection with Fannia, who provides "the linchpin in Pliny's efforts to connect himself with the Stoics before and after Domitian's death" (48), Pliny discusses Fannia's grandmother, Arria, at length, presenting her as a model of extreme feminine virtue and praising her decision to commit suicide alongside her husband (43-48); as Carlon suggests, Arria's significance to Pliny's narrative is stylistically underlined by his use of direct quotation eight times in recounting her story, a level of quotation no other figure in the letters receives (46-47). Even more, Pliny credits his connections to the women of Fannia's family with his public speech attacking Publicus Certus, who had been involved in the prosecution of Fannia's stepson Helvidius in 93 (60-63). As Carlon insists, however, the letters' persistent emphasis on Pliny's obligations to Fannia and subsequent public stance against Certus - a form of revenge Pliny notably pursues only after Domitian is safely in the grave - serve well to obscure what was presumably his own previous inaction, for "there is every indication that Pliny, like Tacitus, was present and watching when the prosecutions and executions of 93 occurred" (64).
In a less sustained swipe at Domitian, Carlon shows that Pliny reiterates the emperor's extreme cruelty elsewhere in the letters by addressing the fate of the Vestal virgin, Cornelia, who was buried alive because of a presumed violation of her vows. Although most ancient commentators considered Cornelia's guilt indisputable, Pliny's willingness to leave her culpability an open question allows the brutal punishment - rather than any danger her violation might have presented to the city - to take center stage (196-201).
The remainder of Carlon's analysis demonstrates less dramatic claims on Pliny's part, drawing a picture of him as the patron or protector of various upper-class women (especially in disputes related to wills and property) or as a loving husband to his wife. All of these dimensions are carefully outlined by Carlon, and present, in aggregate, a man concerned with showing himself to his contemporaries in the best possible light. Although Carlon insightfully points out the potential gap between reality and Pliny's self-image when it comes to the trials of 93, she remains primarily focused on Pliny's own self-representation in this part rather than evaluating individual scenarios on their own terms, asking whether, for example, the elderly women allegedly conned by legacy seekers would be as vulnerable in Roman society as they seem in Pliny's account of his noble interventions. Carlon is judicious, however, in weighing our ability to ascertain the validity of more intimate assertions, such as Pliny's expression of what might seem genuine passion for his wife in the so-called "love letters" (165ff.). As Carlon suggests, such letters frequently evoke specific literary models (including Roman elegy), highlighting the uncertain gap between "genuine" feeling and the discursive conventions by which such emotion finds expression. As complement to Pliny's ideal views of his marital state, readers might find revealing his potentially troubling account of his young wife's miscarriage (171-175) or the brief account of the adulterous wife of a military tribune Pliny presents as a negative example to his reader (201-203).
In her conclusion, Carlon helpfully draws broader conclusions about women's lives outside the letters, suggesting, in particular, that Pliny's letters cumulatively present upper-class women as "self-reliant" and "independent", which, if true (Carlon deems it too consistent a trope to be mere invention on Pliny's part), would necessitate a reassessment of the conventional assumption that women's lives had become more restricted in this era following "the perceived excesses of Julio-Claudian women" (219).
In all, the scope of Carlon's work is well-defined, and her execution of the argument is thorough and persuasive. The centrality it places on Pliny's own stilted self-aggrandizement, however, does leave the reader by the end feeling hungry for a different perspective, a respite, however brief, from such relentless self-satisfaction. If only Ummidia Quadratilla and her pantomime actors could have turned the mirror back on Pliny. What view might we have then of the letter writer and his perfectly contrived world?
Denise E. McCoskey