Sunday, 17 June 2018

Pliny 6, 24: a drastic measure.

Romans had another view of suicide than we do: it was seen as a heroic act in case no other possibility remained. This letter by Pliny is for two reasons interesting: first he notices that the fame of a deed depends on the person who commits it. The same deed done by an unknown person will be unheard of. Secondly, the mentioning of a venereal disease. Given the fact that prostitution was considered normal and that hardly or no effective protecting measures were available, venereal diseases must have been quite common. Syphilis however came probably from pre-Columbian America, so this disease was something else. The measure the wife took is rather drastic and it again underlines how much we differ from the Romans, though we tend to think that they were like us.
I came to this letter by a severely reworked text in a book for use at schools: no mention of the spot of the disease…

Pliny, Book 6, 24              


1 Quam multum interest quid a quoque fiat! Eadem enim facta claritate vel obscuritate facientium aut tolluntur altissime aut humillime deprimuntur. 2 Navigabam per Larium nostrum, cum senior amicus ostendit mihi villam, atque etiam cubiculum quod in lacum prominet: 'Ex hoc' inquit 'aliquando municeps nostra cum marito se praecipitavit.' 3 Causam requisivi. Maritus ex diutino morbo circa velanda corporis ulceribus putrescebat; uxor ut inspiceret exegit; neque enim quemquam fidelius indicaturum, possetne sanari. 4 Vidit desperavit hortata est  ut moreretur, comesque ipsa mortis, dux immo et exemplum et necessitas fuit; nam se cum marito ligavit abiecitque in lacum. 5 Quod factum ne mihi quidem, qui municeps, nisi proxime auditum est, non quia minus illo clarissimo Arriae facto, sed quia minor ipsa. Vale.

quam multum interest: how much it makes a difference
tollo sustuli sublatum: to lift up, raise
Larius: a lake in Gallia Cisalpina, on which Comum lay, now Lago di Como. Pliny lived there.
cubiculum: bedroom
promineo prominui: to overhang (apparently the bedroom was hanging over a cliff above the lake.)
aliquando: once
municeps municepis (m. and f.): citizen
maritus: husband
praecipito: to throw down
diutinus: of long duration
morbus: disease
circa velanda corporis: around the private parts (lit. the things to be hidden) of his body
ulcus ulceris (n.): sore, ulcer
putresco: tp putrify, rot
uxor ut inspiceret exegit = uxor exiget ut inspiceret
exigo exegi exactum: to ask, demand
neque enim quemquam fidelius indicaturum, possetne sanari: a verb endorsing her question must be supplied: (she said) that there was in fact not a person who could more trustworthy tell (indicarurum, supply esse), if he could not be cured
vidit desperavit hortata est: asyndeton to give more effect to the situation
comes, comitis (m. and f.): companion, partaker
dux, exemplum et necessitas: referring to the wife
ligo: to bind
ne quidem…nisi: not even...but
proxime: recently

Translation by J.B. Firth (1900)

To Macer.

How much our estimation of any deed depends upon the doer ! For the self-same actions may be lauded to the skies or looked down upon with contempt according to whether those who perform thorn are famous or obscure. I was sailing across our Larian Lake, *   when a friend, who is well on in years, pointed out to me a villa, and more especially a bedchamber which was built out over the lake. "From that window," he said, "a townswoman of ours some years ago threw herself into the lake with her husband." I asked the cause. It appears that the husband had been suffering for a long time from festering ulcers in the private parts. His wife begged him to let her see the sore, and promised that she would tell him faithfully whether or not a cure was possible. After an examination she saw there was no hope, and advised him to die, not only sharing death with him but taking the lead, inspiring him by her example, and leaving him no loophole for escape ; for she tied herself to her husband, and then they hurled themselves into the lake. Yet I never heard of this incident until just recently, although I was born in the same town; not because her deed was less heroic than the famous deed of Arria,  but because she herself was a person of less distinction.   Farewell.