Narnian Servants are Better

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A letter from Pliny the Younger to Pompeia Celerina:

What treasures you have in your villas at Ocriculum, at Narnia, at Carsola and Perusia! Even a bathing place at Narnia! My letters — for now there is no need for you to write — will have shown you how pleased I am, or rather the short letter will which I wrote long ago. The fact is, that some of my own property is scarcely so completely mine as is some of yours; the only difference being that I get more thoroughly and attentively looked after by your servants than I do by my own. You will very likely find the same thing yourself when you come to stay in one of my villas. I hope you will, in the first place that you may get as much pleasure out of what belongs to me as I have from what belongs to you, and in the second that my people may be roused a little to a sense of their duties. I find them rather remiss in their behaviour and almost careless. But that is their way; if they have a considerate master, their fear of him grows less and less as they get to know him, while a new face sharpens their attention and they study to gain their master’s good opinion, not by looking after his wants but those of his guests. Farewell.[1. Letters of Pliny the Younger,]

The town that Pliny references- Narnia (Narni)- was originally named Nequinum, which is related to the Latin nequitia which means worthlessness. (The Romans didn’t fancy this sort of characterization of a recently conquered area, and thus renamed the town after the nearby river Nar.) I’m curious if Pliny is being altogether straightforward in this letter, or if he is aware of the etymology of the town’s name and is playing on it in regards to his recent visit to Pompeia. Reading between the lines, there might have been some social slight that he felt while visiting and is using this correspondence to return the favor. After all, it was not uncommon for authors and writers to use such play-ons; in the New Testament, St. Paul employs a similar device in Philemon:

Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.[2. Philemon 1:8-11 NIV]

Onesimus means useful, and so St. Paul uses this in a sense of irony (that which is supposed to be useful was useless) as well as in a sense of redemption (that which was useless is now useful as it should be).

Of course, in Pliny’s case it could be (and probably is) just a random historical coincidence.

Pliny’s letter follows fairly closely the model of ‘Letters of Friendship’ as was common in Greco-Roman antiquity. Known as philikai, this type of letter was not simply spontaneous communication (as implements for writing and means for delivery were not inexpensive) but had a specific function, as any other type of correspondence would. As rhetoric was highly valued in Roman society, letters (which were generally written by well educated people) usually reflected the author’s classical education and thus followed a certain pattern, for the most part, depending on the intent. For the Romans, rhetoric was not merely aesthetics, but was believed to have the ability to influence others, inculcate virtue, avoid vice, and so on. Thus, rhetoric was one of the chief subjects taught in the Roman educational system.

The philikai served chiefly as a means to maintain friendships, and could even be considered a surrogate for person-to-person encounters if such was not feasible.[3. Stanley K. Stowers, Letter Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity, p. 58] However, ‘friendship’ letters did not necessarily imply that the author and recipient were of equal social (or even moral) standing; rather, sometimes the friendship letter was employed by a person in a prominent position to a subordinate. Demetrius, an epistolary theorist, describes why this was the case:

The friendly type, then, is one that seems to be written by a friend to a friend. But it is by no means (only) friends who write (in this manner.) For frequently men in prominent positions are expected by some to write in a friendly manner to their inferiors and to others who are their equals… There are times, indeed, when they write to them without knowing them (personally). They do so, not because they are close friends and have (only) one choice (of how to write), but because they think that nobody will refuse them when they write in a friendly manner, but will rather submit and heed what they are writing.[4. Stanley K. Stowers, Letter Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity, p. 58]

Demetrius then goes on to give a stock example of a friendship letter:

Even though I have been separated from you for a long time, I suffer this in body only. For I can never forget you or the impeccable way we were reared together from childhood up. Knowing that I myself am genuinely concerned about your affairs, and that I have worked unhesitatingly for what is most advantageous to you, I have assumed that you, too, have the same opinion of me, and will refuse me nothing. You will do well, therefore, to give close attention to the members of my household lest they need anything, to assist them in whatever they might need, and to write us about whatever you should choose.[5. Stanley K. Stowers, Letter Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity, p. 58-59]

One important aspect of the philikai (which, although not absolutely necessary, is nevertheless common) is the idea of request- the author will generally ask for something from the recipient. This did not necessarily reflect a streak of selfishness- in Roman society the notion of reciprocity was foundational for friendship. Thus, the letter generally begins with a reminder of the friendship and the bond that exists between the parties. Often, past events, services or favors rendered or outstanding ‘debts’ will be recounted, as way of underscoring the author’s keeping his end of the friendship bargain, so to speak.

In Pliny’s letter, he somewhat inverts this. His recollections are of what Pompeia has done for him- his recent visit and enjoying himself there and availing himself of her property, villas, servants, etc. In a sense, he is describing the ‘debt’ he owes, and is requesting that she visit to avail herself of his possessions as he has done of hers. Of course, in Roman society Pliny and Pompeia were not exactly on the same social plane, so in this letter he is clearly speaking as one who is in a prominent position to a subordinate, at least in social standing. As such, his request is not that he has a debt to repay but that he is being magnanimous and generous as befits someone of his class and standing. Veiling all this in such humble language while clearly communicating what could not help but be understood is of course a demonstration of the power of rhetoric.