The letters of Pliny give a unique insight into domestic life, small talk and gossip at Rome around the turn of the first century. In this letter Pliny informs his friend Attius Clemens about the death of the son of Regulus. Regulus must have been a brilliant lawyer, but also a hated character, using his juridical skills without moral scruples. Indeed, a persistent kind of lawyer not yet extinct. He was a delator, i.e. a prosecutor in cases of lèse-majesté, insulting the emperor. People accused of such a delict were deprived of all their possessions. Especially Domitian (81-96) used this law for increasing the funding of the state - which conveniently was his private property -, but of course a delator got his share too. No need to say that most of these allegations were unfounded, but the people accused had no fair trail and at the end were left bereft and were even lucky when they were not forced into exile.
Apparently Regulus was divorced from the mother of his son, so there was no way to get het money after she would have been dead. But there was a solution: if he would allow his son to be free from the patria potestas – paternal authority, his son would be able to act as an heir for his mother. Once his son was released, Regulus treated him with unusual affection - of course with the hope his son would give him a share of the inheritance of his mother once dead. But alas! His beloved son dies while the mother is still alive. What a waste of money on the son…
With irony Pliny describes the character and behaviour of this man.
Pliny the Younger, letter 4,2
C. PLINIUS ATTIO CLEMENTI SUO S.
1 Regulus filium amisit, hoc uno malo indignus, quod nescio an malum putet. Erat puer acris ingenii sed ambigui, qui tamen posset recta sectari, si patrem non referret. 2 Hunc Regulus emancipavit, ut heres matris exsisteret; mancipatum - ita vulgo ex moribus hominis loquebantur - foeda et insolita parentibus indulgentiae simulatione captabat. Incredibile, sed Regulum cogita. 3 Amissum tamen luget insane. Habebat puer mannulos multos et iunctos et solutos, habebat canes maiores minoresque, habebat luscinias psittacos merulas: omnes Regulus circa rogum trucidavit. 4 Nec dolor erat ille, sed ostentatio doloris. Convenitur ad eum mira celebritate. Cuncti detestantur oderunt, et quasi probent quasi diligant, cursant frequentant, utque breviter quod sentio enuntiem, in Regulo demerendo Regulum imitantur. 5 Tenet se trans Tiberim in hortis, in quibus latissimum solum porticibus immensis, ripam statuis suis occupavit, ut est in summa avaritia sumptuosus, in summa infamia gloriosus. 6 Vexat ergo civitatem insaluberrimo tempore et, quod vexat, solacium putat. Dicit se velle ducere uxorem, hoc quoque sicut alia perverse. 7 Audies brevi nuptias lugentis, nuptias senis; quorum alterum immaturum, alterum serum est. Unde hoc augurer quaeris? 8 Non quia affirmat ipse, quo mendacius nihil est, sed quia certum est Regulum esse facturum, quidquid fieri non oportet. Vale.
amitto: to lose
quod…putet: because I am not sure whether he considers it as an evil
acris ingenii: of sharp/brilliant nature
ambiguus: uncertain, untrustworthy
recta sectari: follow the right track
refero ailquem: to resemble someone
emancipo: to put out of the paternal authority (in this way the son of Regulus was able to get inheritance of his mother)
heres heredis (m. and f.): heir
exsisto: to act as
mancipatum: wordplay on emancipatum. mancipo `to sell’. When a father emancipated a son, this son was formally sold to a third person. It was clear for Regulus’ contemporaries that he in fact has sold his son to himself (ita vulgo ex moribus hominis loquebantur: so they talked openly (vulgo) (about the son) on ground of the character of the man.)
capto: to strive after, hunt
lugeo luxi luctum: to mourn
et iunctos et solutos: both for yoking to a car and for riding
merula: blackbird, merle
rogus: funeral pyre
trucido: to slaughter
ostentatio –ionis (f.): display
convenitur: impersonal use of the passive `people came to him’
celebritas –atis (f.): multitude
probo: to approve
dilego dilexi dilectum: to esteem, love
curso: to run constantly
frequento: to visit frequently
breviter sentio enuntiem: `to put it in a single word’
demereor aliquem: to try to get someone’s favour
imitantur: namely in order to become the heir of the now childless Regulus
tenet se: he keeps himself, he stays
trans Tiberim: the left side of the Tiber
latissimum solum porticibus immensis: a vast area with immense collonades
statuis suis: with statues of himself
occupavit `he has occupied’ , humorously used expression
ut est in summa avaritia sumptuosus, in summa infamia gloriosus: like he is sumptuous in his high avarice, he is full of glory in his high infamy.
vexo: to harass (namely by living so far away)
insaluberrimo tempore: in this most unhealthy time of the year (namely summer)
quod vexat, solacium putat: the fact that he is harassing, he considers as a solace.
duco uxorem: to marry a wife
perverse: namely as he wants to marry a wife for her money and hoping she will die soon afterwards.
nuptiae –arum: marriage
immaturus: to early (as he ought to be still mourning)
serus: too late (as he is a senis, an old man, who is likely to die before his wife does)
auguror: to predict
mendacius: more given to lying
quidquid fieri non oportet: what not ought to happen
More details about emancipatio: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/secondary/SMIGRA*/Emancipatio.html
Translation by John B. Firth (1909)
4.II. -- To Attius Clemens.
Regulus has lost his son -- the only misfortune he did not deserve, because I doubt whether he considers it as such. He was a sharp-witted youth, whatever use he might have made of his talents, though he might have followed honourable courses if he did not take after his father. Regulus freed him from his parental control in order that he might succeed to his mother's property, but after freeing him -- and those who knew the character of the man spoke of it as a release from slavery -- he endeavoured to win his affections by treating him with a pretended indulgence which was as disgraceful as it was unusual in a father. It seems incredible, but remember that it was Regulus. Yet now that his son is dead, he is mad with grief at his loss. The boy had a number of ponies, some in harness and others not broken in, dogs both great and small, nightingales, parrots and blackbirds -- all these Regulus slaughtered at his pyre. Yet an act like that was no token of grief; it was but a mere parade of it. It is strange how people are flocking to call upon him. Every one detests and hates him, yet they run to visit him in shoals as though they both admired and loved him. To put in a nutshell what I mean, people in paying court to Regulus are copying the example he set. He does not move from his gardens across the Tiber, where he has covered an immense quantity of ground with colossal porticos and littered the river bank with his statues, for, though he is the meanest of misers, he flings his money broadcast, and though his name is a byword, he is for ever vaunting his glories. Consequently, in this the most sickly season of the year, he is upsetting every one's arrangements, and thinks it soothes his grief to inconvenience everybody. He says he is desirous of taking a wife, and here again, as in other matters, he shows the perversity of his nature. You will hear soon that the mourner is married, that the old man has taken a wife, displaying unseemly haste as the former and undue delay as the latter. If you ask what makes me think he will take this step, I reply that it is not because he says he will -- for there is no greater liar than he -- but because it is quite certain that Regulus will do what he ought not to do. Farewell.