Monday, 5 February 2018

Pliny: fire-brigades.

Pliny (61-113) spent his final years as imperial governor of Bithynia and Pontus, a Roman province located in Anatolia on the Black Sea. Pliny was, as we know, a prolific writer of letters and, more important, being convinced of his qualities as an author, he published these letters. Book x of his collection of letters consists of the correspondence between him and Trajan and it gives a unique insight into the daily problems of running a province. With his collection of letters Pliny has done historians a great favour and readers Latin in general.
In letter 10.33 he describes a fire at Nicomedia and the inertia of the population to do anything to curb that fire. Fires were not uncommon in cities and as wood was often used as building material, a fire could easily spread. Pliny noticed that the population did nothing to curb the fire and he blames this on the fact that no equipment was available. However, there were often social tensions between the rich and the poor and the latter were unlikely to help when a rich part of the city was on fire. Pliny asked Trajan if he approves the institution of a fire-brigade, made up of volunteers. Trajan thinks this not a good idea, as such a brigade could well be a cover-up for illegal actions against the Romans. Better a city on fire than riots!

Pliny, Letters, 10, 33

C. Plinius Traiano Imperatori
Cum diversam partem provinciae circumirem, Nicomediae vastissimum incendium multas privatorum domos et duo publica opera, quamquam via interiacente, Gerusian et Iseon absumpsit. [2] Est autem latius sparsum, primum violentia venti, deinde inertia hominum quos satis constat otiosos et immobiles tanti mali spectatores perstitisse; et alioqui nullus usquam in publico sipo, nulla hama, nullum denique instrumentum ad incendia compescenda. Et haec quidem, ut iam praecepi, parabuntur; [3] tu, domine, dispice an instituendum putes collegium fabrorum dumtaxat hominum CL. Ego attendam, ne quis nisi faber recipiatur neve iure concesso in aliud utantur; nec erit difficile custodire tam paucos.

Traianus Plinio
Tibi quidem secundum exempla complurium in mentem venit posse collegium fabrorum apud Nicomedenses constitui. Sed meminerimus provinciam istam et praecipue eas civitates eius modi factionibus esse vexatas. Quodcumque nomen ex quacumque causa dederimus iis, qui in idem contracti fuerint, hetaeriae eaeque brevi fient. [2] Satius itaque est comparari ea, quae ad coercendos ignes auxilio esse possint, admonerique dominos praediorum, ut et ipsi inhibeant ac, si res poposcerit, accursu populi ad hoc uti.

diversus: distant
provinciae: Bithynia
circumeo: to travel around
Nicomediae: locative! At Nicomedia (modern Ismit)
incendium: fire
privatus: individual
via interiacente: streets were often not wide enough to stop a fire
Gerusian: a building where the gerusia –a body of elders – had is meetings
Iseon: temple of Isis
absumo absumsi absumptum: to destroy
(incendium) est
spargo sparsi sparsum: to spread
violentia, inertia: ablatives
quos satis constat: of who it is sufficient to say that
otiosus: idle, doing nothing
presto perstiti: to stand firm, remain on one’s place
alioqui: besides
sipo (sipho) siponis (m.): a kind of fire engine
hama: fire bucket
compesco compescui: to repress, curb
praecipio praecepi praeceptum: to instruct
paro: to provide
dispicio dispexi dispectum: to consider
collegium fabrorum: a guild of craftsmen (= firemen. In Italy and the Western provinces there were associations of craftsmen, which were also used as fire-brigades. Such collegia were unknown in the Greek provinces.)
dumtaxat: at least
nisi faber: collegia could also be a cover-up for a secret society with anti-Roman purposes
neve iure concesso in aliud utantur: or that they don’t use the granted right (of being a collegium) for something else

secundum exempla complurium (civitatum): As other cities had such fire-brigades too
constituo constitui constitutum: to establish (constitui: pass inf!)
praecipue: especially
factio factionis (f.): faction, party
vexo: to harass
contractus: assembled
hetaeria: brotherhood, fraternity
brevi (tempore)
comparo: to provide
ea (instumenta)
auxilio: dative of purpose: for aid/ as aid
praedium: real estate
inhibeo inhibui inhibitum: to hold back, keep in storage (the instruments for fire-fighting are meant. Indeed, it would be more effective to have these placed around the city, than at a central store, which would hamper a quick transport to the place of fire.)
posco poposci (-ere): to demand
accursus –us (m.): onrush

Translated by J.B.Firth (1900)

[33] L   To Trajan.

While I was visiting a distant part of the province a most desolating fire broke out at Nicomedia and destroyed a number of private houses and two public buildings, the almshouse and temple of Isis, although a road ran between them. The fire was allowed to spread farther than it need have done, first, owing to the violence of the wind, and, secondly, to the laziness of the inhabitants, it being generally agreed that they stood idly by without moving and merely watched the catastrophe. Moreover, there is not a single public fire-engine or bucket in the place, and not one solitary appliance for mastering an outbreak of fire. However, these will be provided in accordance with the orders I have already given. But, Sir, I would have you consider whether you think a guild of firemen, of about 150 men, should be instituted. I will take care that no one who is not a genuine fireman should be admitted, and that the guild should not misapply the charter granted to it, and there would be no difficulty in keeping an eye on so small a body.

[34] L   Trajan to Pliny.

You have conceived the idea that a guild of firemen might be formed in Nicomedia on the model of various others already existing. But it is to be remembered that your province of Bithynia, and especially city states like Nicomedia, are the prey of factions. Whatever name we may give to those who form an association, and whatever the reason of the association may be, they will soon degenerate into secret societies. It is better policy to provide appliances for mastering conflagrations and encourage property owners to make use of them, and, if occasion demands, press the crowd which collects into the same service.