Pliny the Younger (c. 61/62-113), during his life as a lawyer and statesman in ancient Rome, once delivered a speech before the Centumviral Court that allegedly lasted for around seven hours in length. The speech must have been written for a particularly interesting case, because the courthouse was said to have been packed full with a rowdy audience. Pliny, after weaving with some difficulty through the crowd, finally took his place and began his intentionally-lengthy speech.
As he delivered his oratory, Pliny the Younger could not help but scan the crowd and store mental notes in his head about curious individuals in the audience. During this particular speech, he was especially struck by the sight of a young man of patrician status who was watching the speech with close attention. The young man, to find a good spot where he could observe the oration, had apparently jostled and jarred his way through the crowd. During that pushing and shoving, the man’s garments had been pulled violently out of shape, resulting in rips and tears to the fabric. This young Roman, however, was not deterred by his disarrayed wardrobe. Instead, he shrugged any embarrassment aside and channeled his full attention into listening to the speech.
Pliny, although he was amused by the man’s tattered clothing, soon became far more intrigued by this attendee for another reason. To the orator’s great gratitude, the youthful ragged-clothed attendee remained in the crowd for the full duration of the Pliny’s speech—all seven hours of it. The youth’s multi-hour interest in the speech left a powerful impression on Pliny, and the orator later wrote about the incident in letters that he sent to his friends. In one brief note to a certain Valerius Paulinus, Pliny the Younger commented, “When I was on my way the other day to plead before the Centumviral Court, there was no room left for me to take my place except by way of the magistrates’ bench, through their assembled ranks, as the rest of the floor was crowded. And then a young patrician who had his clothing torn, as often happens in a crowd, stayed on clad in nothing but his toga to listen for seven hours—which was the length of the speech I made…” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 4.16).
Pliny the Younger found the ragged-clothed youth and his seven hours of rapt attention to be inspiring and encouraging. Due to the audience member’s interest, Pliny felt that all of the time and effort he had expended during the process of writing and reciting the speech was justified and worthwhile. He concluded that people like the tattered-toga audience member were the types of people he wanted to continue producing content for. Channeling this inspiration, Pliny ended his letter to Valerius Paulinus with the line, “There is no lack of readers and listeners; it is for us to produce something worth being written and heard” (Letters, 4.16). Unfortunately, Pliny never discovered or revealed the identity of the disheveled young patrician who had made such an impression that day in the crowded court.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Hannibal Before the Senate in Carthage, by Etienne Pierre Adrien Gois (c. 1731–1823), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).
- The Letters of Pliny the Younger, translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Classics, 1963, 1969.