Pliny the Younger (c. 61/62-113) was a successful lawyer, bureaucrat, politician, and financial advisor. Judged in the currency of denarii and sesterces of his day, Pliny was a wealthy multimillionaire, yet he also had a reputation for being more frugal than the average well-to-do Roman aristocrat. Due to his prudent mindset, he was often hired as a treasurer and an assessor. Despite his reputation as a careful and unwasteful investor, he understandably did splurge every now and then. Sometimes, these were personal purchases (like commissioning the creation of statues depicting emperors), but at many other times his costly projects were for the benefit of the public—such as the creation of a library or a temple. Yet, Pliny the Younger also gave gifts to individuals. In particular, he doled out small fortunes on a few occasions to friends and acquaintances in need.
One such altruistic gift was given by Pliny the Younger to an old nurse who served his family. Pliny set this woman up on a modest farm estate that was estimated to be worth around 100,000 sesterces (or 25,000 denarii). In addition to donation of the land, Pliny the Younger also encouraged an able-bodied man named Verus to help the nurse manage the property and its farmlands, which were apparently being used as vineyards at the time. One message sent to this Verus figure was preserved in the collection of letters that Pliny the Younger compiled and published during his life. The letter read:
“Thank you for taking over the working of the small farm I gave my nurse. At the time I gave it to her it was worth 100,000 sesterces, but since then it has done badly and depreciated in value. It will recover now that it is in your Hands, but do remember that I have entrusted to you more than vines and land, though these of course are included. I am thinking of my little gift, for it means as much to me, as it does to my nurse that the farm shall prove as profitable as you can make it” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 6.3).
Of course, Pliny the Younger did not release the full terms and conditions about the deal he made with his old nurse. It remains vague just how much autonomy and control the nurse had over the property she was given and the produce that the farms generated. Nevertheless, one can imagine that the aging nurse was content living on the picturesque estate, regardless of if it was given as a present or a loan.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (cropped Italian Landscape with two Roman Soldiers, painted in 1687 by Gerard de Lairesse and Johannes Glauber [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Rijksmuseum).
- The Letters of Pliny the Younger, translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Classics, 1963, 1969.