Nonfiction > Harvard Classics > Pliny the Younger > Letters
Pliny the Younger (A.D. 62?–c.A.D. 113).  Letters.
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.
XLIII. To Cornelius Minicianus
HAVE you heard—I suppose, not yet, for the news has but just arrived—that Valerius Licinianus has become a professor in Sicily? This unfortunate person, who lately enjoyed the dignity of prætor, and was esteemed the most eloquent of our advocates, is now fallen from a senator to an exile, from an orator to a teacher of rhetoric. Accordingly in his inaugural speech he uttered, sorrowfully and solemnly, the following words: “O Fortune, how capriciously dost thou sport with mankind! Thou makest rhetoricians of senators, and senators of rhetoricians!” A sarcasm so poignant and full of gall that one might almost imagine he fixed upon this profession merely for the sake of an opportunity of applying it. And having made his first appearance in school, clad in the Greek cloak (for exiles have no right to wear the toga), after arranging himself and looking down upon his attire, “I am, however,” he said, “going to declaim in Latin.” You will think, perhaps, this situation, wretched and deplorable as it is, is what he well deserves for having stained the honourable profession of an orator with the crime of incest. It is true, indeed, he pleaded guilty to the charge; but whether from a consciousness of his guilt, or from an apprehension of worse consequences if he denied it, is not clear; for Domitian generally raged most furiously where his evidence failed him most hopelessly. That emperor had determined that Cornelia, chief of the Vestal Virgins, 1 should be buried alive, from an extravagant notion that exemplary severities of this kind conferred lustre upon his reign.  1
  Accordingly, by virtue of his office as supreme pontiff, or, rather, in the exercise of a tyrant’s cruelty, a despot’s lawlessness, he convened the sacred college, not in the pontifical court where they usually assemble, but at his villa near Alba; and there, with a guilt no less heinous than that which he professed to be punishing, he condemned her, when she was not present to defend herself, on the charge of incest, while he himself had been guilty, not only of debauching his own brother’s daughter, but was also accessory to her death: for that lady, being a widow, in order to conceal her shame, endeavoured to procure an abortion, and by that means lost her life. However, the priests were directed to see the sentence immediately executed upon Cornelia. As they were leading her to the place of execution, she called upon Vesta, and the rest of the gods, to attest her innocence; and, amongst other exclamations, frequently cried out, “Is it possible that Cæsar can think me polluted, under the influence of whose sacred functions he has conquered and triumphed?” 2 Whether she said this in flattery or derision; whether it proceeded from a consciousness of her innocence, or contempt of the emperor, is uncertain; but she continued exclaiming in this manner, til she came to the place of execution, to which she was led, whether innocent or guilty I cannot say, at all events with every appearance and demonstration of innocence. As she was being lowered down into the subterranean vault, her robe happening to catch upon something in the descent, she turned round and disengaged it, when, the executioner offering his assistance, she drew herself back with horror, refusing to be so much as touched by him, as though it were a defilement to her pure and unspotted chastity: still preserving the appearance of sanctity up to the last moment; and, among all the other instances of her modesty,
        “She took great care to fall with decency.” 3
Celer likewise, a Roman knight, who was accused of an intrigue with her, while they were scourging him with rods 4 in the Forum, persisted in exclaiming, “What have I done?—I have done nothing.” These declarations of innocence had exasperated Domitian exceedingly, as imputing to him acts of cruelty and injustice; accordingly Licinianus, being seized by the emperor’s orders for having concealed a freedwoman of Cornelia’s in one of his estates, was advised, by those who took him in charge, to confess the fact, if he hoped to obtain a remission of his punishment, and he complied with their advice. Herennius Senecio spoke for him in his absence, in some such words as Homer’s
        “Patroclus lies in death.”
“Instead of an advocate,” said he, “I must turn informer: Licinianus has fled.” This news was so agreeable to Domitian that he could not help betraying his satisfaction: “Then,” he exclaimed, “has Licinianus acquitted us of injustice”; adding that he would not press too hard upon him in his disgrace. He accordingly allowed him to carry off such of his effects as he could secure before they were seized for the public use, and in other respects softened the sentence of banishment by way of reward for his voluntary confession. Licinianus was afterwards, through the clemency of the emperor Nerva, permitted to settle in Sicily, where he now professes rhetoric, and avenges himself upon Fortune in his declamations.—You see how obedient I am to your commands, in sending you a circumstantial detail of foreign as well as domestic news. I imagined indeed, as you were absent when this transaction occurred, that you had only heard just in a general way that Licinianus was banished for incest, as Fame usually makes her report in general terms, without going into particulars. I think I deserve in return a full account of all that is going on in your town and neighbourhood, where something worth telling about is usually happening; however, write what you please, provided you send me as long a letter as my own. I give you notice, I shall count not only the pages, but even the very lines and syllables. Farewell.
Note 1. “Their office was to attend upon the rites of Vesta, the chief part of which was the preservation of the holy fire. If this fire happened to go out, it was considered impiety to light it at any common flame, but they made use of the pure and unpolluted rays of the sun for that purpose. There were various other duties besides connected with their office. The chief rules prescribed them were, to vow the strictest chastity for the space of thirty years. After this term was completed, they had liberty to leave the order. If they broke their vow of virginity; they were buried alive in a place allotted to that peculiar use.” Kennet’s Antiq. Their reputation for sanctity was so high that Livy mentions the fact of two of those virgins having violated their vows, as a prodigy that threatened destruction to the Roman state. Lib. xxii., c. 57. And Suetonius informs us that Augustus had so high an opinion of this religious order that he consigned the care of his will to the Vestal Virgins. Suet. in Vit. Aug. c. 101. M. [back]
Note 2. It was usual with Domitian to triumph, not only without a victory, but even after a defeat. M. [back]
Note 3. Euripides’ Hecuba. [back]
Note 4. The punishment inflicted upon the violators of Vestal chastity was to be scourged to death. M. [back]


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