Pliny the Governor and Pliny the Writer

Ian Dehlsen, Dickson College 2009

The writer and statesman Pliny the Younger (C. Plinius Caecilius Secundus) is an eminent source on Roman society and politics during the first century C.E. In his ten books of collected letters, he displays an astounding knowledge and understanding of a vast array of subjects. His writings leave us with a most flattering view of Pliny as a man and as a dutiful Senator, a perspective that continues into the final of his ten books; the correspondence between Pliny, the freshly appointed governor of Bithynia et Pontus, and the Emperor Trajan. From these correspondences, we receive glimpses at the nature of Roman Imperial government. They reveal the importance of Pliny’s mission in the corruption prone province and indicate the importance of maintaining Roman control through efficient governance. The letters, however, reveal Pliny’s character as a ceaseless self-promoter; the information we can glean from his letters is twisted by Pliny to create an image for his own posterity. Nevertheless, the insights provided by Pliny’s letters, despite their obvious bias, cannot be dismissed as a valuable source on the nature of Roman provincialism.

One of the principal labours of Pliny’s governorship was the implementation of a sense of Roman efficiency in the province (Levik 1979, p.125). In Pliny’s first letter upon reaching Bithynia, he requests Trajan to despatch a surveyor to inquire into the misappropriation of funds allocated for public works in the province (eps. 17 b). Pliny, throughout his letters, appears intent upon reforming the provincials by instilling the Roman virtues of moderation and frugality: as Trajan states: "You [Pliny] will remember you were sent into Bithynia, for the particular purpose of correcting those many abuses which appeared necessary to be reformed” (eps. 32).[1] Scholars often identify Pliny as Trajan’s “super-governor”, sent to root out corruption in a province that was beginning to develop a reputation for vice (ibid).[2] Pliny devotes a great amount of effort to addressing corruption across the province’s cities. Six previous Roman governors had failed to govern the province prudently and had faced prosecution on their return. Trajan would not look kindly upon another failure (Noreña 2007, p. 243). Trajan and Pliny both knew that squandered public funds and half finished infrastructure projects would breed resentment of Roman rule, even if greedy provincials were at fault. Pliny devotes many letters to Trajan describing the results of his investigations into the books of the provincial cities. Bithynia et Pontus may have been a quiet backwater of the Empire, but keeping the citizenry loyal was still crucial. The Parthian Empire in the east was a continual threat to Roman control and the grain and taxes from northern Asia Minor were essential for the Roman economy (Levik 1979, p.125).

Trajan hints at the importance of maintaining Roman efficiency when replying to Pliny’s report of another failed provincial project, that being an aqueduct in Nicodemia. The Emperor writes:

Care must be taken to supply the city of Nicomedia with water; and that business, I am well persuaded, you will perform with all the diligence you ought. But it is most certainly no less incumbent upon you to examine by whose misconduct it has happened, that such large sums have been thrown away upon this attempt, lest they apply the money to private purposes, and the aqueduct in question, like the preceding, should be begun and afterwards left unfinished. You will let me know the result of your inquiry. (eps. 38)

The response shows both sides of the Imperial system. Trajan is willing to throw good money after bad in order to get the provincials on side, yet you can sense that corruption of this sort flies in the face of his ideal of a prudently run government (Noreña 2007, p. 251). We never read of the results of Pliny’s investigation on this particular occasion, yet we can see that the primary interest of Trajan is to ensure good Roman governance continues; placating the Nicodemians is simply an unfortunate necessity. As proconsul, Pliny had to show the benefits of Roman administration were not only a boon to the province but, to ensure loyalty, that the administrator was bigger than the corruption that beleaguered the province; he was required to show that Rome was better than what came before (Woolf, 2006).

The relationship of Pliny and Trajan tell us much about the power structure of the Principate. Pliny the governor defers to Trajan the emperor’s judgement on almost any point of arbitration, which shows an important facet of the principate; governors were more imperial deputies than free thinking leaders (Noreña 2007). The emperor expressed his will through his governors, who micromanaged their provinces as part of a grand vision (ibid). However, despite this relationship, Pliny seems to defer to the Emperor on curiously trivial matters. A long and protracted discussion, for example, ensues over whether a philosopher, one Flavius Archippus, should be excused from serving on juries (eps. 58 ff.). In Trajan’s responses he, on occasion, seems almost annoyed by Pliny’s lack of initiative. Many of his responses are terse and frigid, single line statements either thanking Pliny or answering his often inane requests. Yet, the emperor is always cordial and polite. It would certainly not be in keeping with his wise and noble image for the Princeps to rebuke his legates for showing excessive devotion. Trajan did not wish to appear as a military dictator, in the image of Domitian, but as a munificent patron, another Augustus (ibid). The correspondence between the two men must therefore be viewed, at least in part, in terms of a self-branding exercise (Bell 1989, p. 465).

For all the conclusions we can draw from Pliny’s letters about the character of the empire, their validity as a source is questionable. Pliny’s nine earlier books of letters were certainly written with publication in mind, and were designed to create a particular persona for the author (ibid). His discussions of literature and culture cast himself as the intellectual, his statements on morality and moderation portray his humility and his humour and gentle words his humanity. In his own words, Pliny appears the upholder of Roman virtue, a modern Cicero perhaps (Riggsby 1995, p.123).[3] Pliny’s persona is not tarnished even in the cut and thrust of provincial politics. This, in the eyes of some scholars, is evidence of selective editing, so as not to damage Pliny’s continuity of character (Bell p. 466). It is generally believed that book 10 was published posthumously, after Pliny’s death in the province in 112.[4] Nothing in Pliny’s correspondence to Trajan would ever prompt a reader to challenge the appearance given earlier in his letters. As Greg Woolf writes in his commentary on Pliny:

The difference [between book 10 and earlier letters] is that Pliny has worked a new variation on what was an apparently successful epistolary formula, adapting it so that it no longer models a set of idealised moral, literary and political transactions within the Roman elite, but instead models the proper relationship between “the ideal emperor and the ideal senator”. It is an idealised relationship of course.

To say Pliny’s letters are purely an act of self-aggrandisement is however, too vast a generalisation. The events reported by Pliny are almost certainly real. Pliny has not created fictitious prose, and the events that Pliny does discuss give useful historical insights, especially with respect to the Roman Imperial outlook (ibid).

After crusading against corruption, Pliny the proconsul had another important role in Bithynia, to defend the Roman hegemony (Woolf p.103). He runs the province like an extension of the senate, complete with senatorial assistants. He controls the government of the province so that its aims coincide with those of the emperor. He makes little mention of individual provincials and is quick to question the integrity and ability of local officials (ibid). All the decisions of the local council went through the governor and any person who could pose a challenge to Roman authority is quickly dealt with so as not to disturb the Roman domination of the province. A notable example of this Roman modus operandi is Trajan’s rejection of Pliny’s request to form a fire brigade in Nicodemia, on the pretext that: “Whatever name we give them, and for whatever purpose they may be instituted, they [the provincials] will not fail to form themselves soon into political clubs” (eps. 34).

The other notable example of the Roman way, as recorded by Pliny, was the treatment of Christians. The Christians, in their incompatibility to Roman religion, seem to be little more than a nuisance to Pliny and the Roman regime. Yet, anyone who opposed the Roman hegemony was unacceptable. Pliny treats the Christians with cool disdain; they were not blasphemers or heretics but criminals and were given ample chance to repent or deny their offence. As long as the provincials’ gods left the Roman administration in peace, they could worship as they pleased. (eps. 97 f.) The Christian religion was dangerous because it rejected Roman gods and thus Roman control, not because it was considered heretical. Pliny’s respect for a local cult temple in eps. 49 shows the Roman administration were not opposed to foreign gods, only foreign influence. The ultimate doctrine Pliny brought to the province was that of the benevolent imperialist. If the provincials are willing to except the authority of Rome they could see the rewards of Roman efficiency and monetary capital. Any challenge was unacceptable (Woolf).

Book 10 of Pliny the Younger’s letters is a unique historical source. It is a record of how Roman bureaucracy operated at the provincial level. Pliny shows himself an author of great art and ability and his letters capture the empire in all its glory. His letters show the benefits of Roman provincial government, the efficiency, the discipline and humanity. Yet, Pliny’s artful self-presentation highlights the inadequacy of his letters as an historical source. Pliny’s editing omits the essential conflict, struggles and problems that he would have encountered as a provincial administrator; he removes the events that would help us to comprehend the vera rerum natura in respect to his experience of provincial governance. What is left is a sanitised version of history. His letters are really his memoirs, rather than a record of his governorship. Pliny’s intentions do not completely negate the historical usefulness of his correspondence, though we should not assume that we are given the whole picture. The letters do, however, show how the Romans viewed provincials and they provide insight into the power structures of the Roman imperial hegemony. The writings of Pliny give us a unique perspective on the work of the Roman governor, yet in terms of understanding the day to day administration of the province they fall well short.


Bell, A. A. 1989, 'A Note on Revision and Authenticity in Pliny's Letters', American Journal of Philology, Vol. 110 No. 3

Levik, B. 1979, Pliny in Bithynia, Greece & Rome, vol. 26, No. 2 p.125

Noreña, C. F. 2007, 'The Social Economy of Pliny's Correspondence with Trajan', American Journal of Philology, vol. 128 No. 2 p. 243

Riggsby, A.M. 1995 Pliny on Cicero and Oratory: Self-Fashioning in the Public Eye, American Journal of Philology, Vol. 116

Woolf, Greg. 2006, 'Pliny’s Province' in Black Sea Studies 5, Aarhus University Press, Denmark

Pliny the Younger, Complete Works. Retrieved 31/10/2011 from .
Where Pliny’s Book 10 is sourced, the particular letter referred to is noted in the text. The translation used is the William Melmoth 1805 version.


  1. ^ Judging from Trajan’s response to Pliny’s letter (esp. 18) and the swiftness of Pliny’s investigations it is likely that one of the primary charges of Pliny’s gubernatorial expedition was to investigate the corruption rife in the province. Trajan’s description of the mismanagement of the provincial treasury as “all too evident” indicates he was already convinced of the need to clean up the province in dispatching Pliny. Indeed several cities in the province are only referred to in relation to corruption Pliny “uncovers” there.
  2. ^ Noreña, as a counter to the super-govenor argument, uses the fact that Pliny did not receive consular power, which would have made him more powerful than the previous six failed governors of the province.
  3. ^ Pliny was very much an admirer of Cicero; his style of letter writing is based strongly on that of his idol. Pliny includes sections of Cicero’s speeches in his earlier letters.
  4. ^ Pliny’s protégé, the great biographer Suetonius, who receives a glowing reference from his benefactor in epistle 94, may have edited the letters. A. A. Bell however, argues that Pliny would have edited the letters himself out of a desire to create his own image for posterity.