Pliny the Elder (c. 23-79)—a Roman military man, government official and scholar—was said to have been a voracious reader, especially in his later life. As described by his peers, Pliny had a talent for multitasking, and he could pair reading (or, more likely, listening to attendants read to him) while he went about his many other daily tasks, such as bathing, eating, and traveling. Due to Pliny the Elder’s known appetite for written works, guests who paid him a visit would likely not be too shocked if multitasking Pliny chose to bring a book-wielding assistant with him to such social gatherings. Curiously, if Pliny the Elder’s assistant was reading aloud a particularly interesting book, it could become dangerous for a guest at the house to interrupt or make a quip. Pliny, who was often taking notes about what he read (or instructed a secretary to take the notations), did not take kindly to his concentration being interrupted, or for his time to be wasted. Pliny the Elder’s nephew—who was also named Pliny (Pliny the Younger, c. 61/62-113)—reminisced in a letter to a certain Baebius Macer about an incident when the elder Pliny became frustrated with a guest who interrupted an aid that was narrating a book. Pliny the Younger’s letter stated:
“I remember that one of his friends told a reader to go back and repeat a word he had mispronounced. ‘Couldn’t you understand him?’ said my uncle. His friend admitted that he could. ‘Then why make him go back? Your interruption has lost us at least ten lines.’ To such lengths did he carry his passion for saving time” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 3.5).
Pronunciation critics, therefore, were not given free rein in Pliny the Elder’s household, at least not when the books were immersive and the time was precious. It is not the case, however, that Pliny the Elder did not care about pronunciation and grammar. In fact, one of the seven texts that the elder Pliny published in his life was an eight-volume work called Problems in Grammar. Instead, Pliny the Elder seemed to just believe that scolding the pronunciation of readers was not a tasteful or worthwhile use of time.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Limestone funerary stele with banquet scene, dated c. mid-1st century A.D., [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Met.jpg).
- The Letters of Pliny the Younger, translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Classics, 1963, 1969.