A young aspiring poet named Calpurnius tried his hand at composing and performing poetry around the late 1st century or early 2nd century. After writing some verses in which he had confidence, Calpurnius decided to organize a public reading in Rome. There was evidently some buzz arising in Rome’s literary scene about the young poet, for Calpurnius drew a decent crowd to his reading event. Among others, the public reading drew the attention of the poetry enthusiast and avid letter writer, Pliny the Younger (c. 61/62-113), who made sure to attend the young poet’s oration. When he showed up and began observing the event, Pliny’s attention curiously drifted away from the young poet, Calpurnius, and instead became fixated on the poet’s family. Pliny spotted Calpurnius’ mother and brother, who were both exhibiting a great deal of visible anxiety as they watched their loved one recite poetry for the crowd. Although Pliny kept his ears attuned to Calpurnius’ oration, his eyes were observing the rollercoaster of emotions that the poet’s family was enduring as the recital took its course. Pliny made sure to take mental notes of the sights and sounds of that day and he later described the event in a letter to one of his pen pals. Pliny, a lawyer and public speaker in his own right, applauded Calpurnius’ dynamic performance with appraising compliments, such as, “he showed an appropriate versatility in raising or lowering his tone, and the same talent whether he descended from the heights to a lower level, rose to complexity from simplicity or moved between a lighter and more serious approach to his subject” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 5.17). Pliny added further compliments, saying that the general sound of Calpurnius’ voice suited public readings and that the poet’s mannerisms and gestures while speaking where spot-on to emphasize the poetry. Pliny also described the heartwarming amusement he felt while watching Calpurnius’ family react to the oration. Pliny wrote, “his excellent mother and brother who, as a member of the audience, won as much credit…for the concern he [the brother] showed during the recital and his delight afterwards were most striking” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 5.17). After the poetry performance was over, Pliny went to Calpurnius and his relieved family members and gave them these compliments in person.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Top of a marble funerary relief with portrait busts of a young man and an elderly woman, dated c. 138–141, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).
The Letters of Pliny the Younger, translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Classics, 1963, 1969.