Pliny the Younger (c. 61/62-113) began his law career when he was eighteen years old and he made a name for himself in the Centumviral Court (Rome’s court that oversaw common/private/civil law cases). In particular, Pliny specialized in inheritance law and also gained a reputation as an expert in financial matters. Although Pliny’s career as a lawyer began in the reign of Emperor Titus (r. 79-81), it was not until the early reign of Titus’ brother and successor, Domitian (r. 81-96), that Pliny finally had his breakthrough case. It was a case involving a certain Junius Pastor, who was clashing in the Centumviral Court against acquaintances of the emperor. Pliny the Younger took the case, defending Pastor against the emperor’s friends. As he later revealed in his published letters, Pliny was unnerved at the prospect of confronting the powerful people who were targeting Junius Pastor. He was uncomfortable to the extent that he had serious thoughts of removing himself from the case. His worries even affected his sleep, as he reportedly had unnerving dreams concerning the case. Pliny the Younger wrote:
“I had undertaken to act of behalf of Junius Pastor when I dreamed that my mother-in-law came and begged me on her knees to give up the case. I was very young at the time, and I was about to plead in the Centumviral Court against men of great political influence, some of them also friends of the Emperor; any one of these considerations could have shaken my resolve after such a depressing dream…” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 1.18).
Despite his worries and his negative dream (which was thought by many ancient peoples to be something worth heeding), Pliny gathered his courage and decided to continue championing Junius Pastor’s cause. He took on the powerful people in court and, fortunately for Pastor and his lawyer, no imperial leverage was applied to the outcome of the case. The fears of Pliny’s dreamland mother-in-law were unfounded. In the above letter, Pliny continued his story, writing, “I carried on, believing that ‘The best and only omen is to fight for your country’—or in my case for my pledge to Pastor, if anything can come before one’s country. I won my case, and it was that speech which drew attention to me and set me on the threshold of a successful career” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 1.18). Curiously, Pliny mailed this story to his friend, the scholar Suetonius (c. 70-130+), who apparently was also suffering similar unnerving dreams relating to events and decisions in his own life.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (The Death of Sophonisba, attributed to Pierre Guérin (c. 1774-1833), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Cleveland Museum of Art).
- The Letters of Pliny the Younger, translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Classics, 1963, 1969.