05 - Suffering with Sickness under Domitian in Pliny’s Letters

This paper examines Pliny's epistolary accounts of the health struggles of family, friends, and slaves in his Letters in light of the imperial ideology of thaumaturgical healing that started to take shape during the civil war of 69 and extended at least as late as the reign of Hadrian (SHA Hadrian 25). As part of its program of imperial renewal, the Flavian dynasty laid claim to a capacity to heal that was unprecedentedly thaumaturgical in nature (Luke 2010). At least by the reign of Domitian, if not earlier, the Flavian regime promoted the story of Vespasian's miraculous healings at Alexandria during his bid for empire (Tac. Hist. 2.81; Suet. Vesp. 7).

In keeping with Flavian precedents, Pliny the Younger's Panegyricus bears witness to a popular belief in Trajan's healing power (22.3). There Pliny depicts patients leaving their sickbeds against doctors' orders to seek out the emperor because they believed that merely falling under his gaze would bring them healing. Although quite different in tone and emphasis, Pliny's epistolary treatments of health did not unfold in isolation of this healing ideology, and thus they can be fruitfully read as occurring in conversation with that ideology (Hoffer 1999).

When the exemplary figure Corellius Rufus willfully clings to life through a debilitatingly painful case of gout to outlive Domitian (Ep. 1.12.8; Gibson and Morello 2012), his choice to do so not only becomes a comment on the emperor's (in)ability to heal but it also implies that the voluntary suffering of a sick senator can serve as a quite but no less potent act of defiance against a tyrant who spuriously claims the power to heal. Pliny and his peers relate to their bodies in good health and bad partly as a performance of the dignity of their rank.

Pliny also uses his concern for the health of his slaves as an opportunity to opine, albeit indirectly, on the characteristics of a good prince (8.16). His humanitas induces him to grant testamentary privileges to his slaves that, though not legally binding, are nevertheless salutary for his domus, which he assimilates to a res publica and civitas in a manner that is reminiscent of his panegyrical reflections on the humanitas of Trajan (Pan. 2; Braund 1998). Despite the fact that ill health will carry off some of his slaves, Pliny finds consolation that they are not too soon dead who were freed before their passing. Without mentioning any names, Pliny adumbrates gently a path between tyranny and philosophical opposition that is grounded in a human care for the health and freedom of others and worthy, in his eyes, of the name republic.


Trevor Luke, Florida State University