Pliny the Younger (c. 61/62-113)—a prolific letter-writing lawyer, statesman, and advisor in all things dealing with finance and inheritance—was one day yachting about Lake Como when an accompanying friend began regaling the party on the ship with a local legend about a couple who met a most peculiar end. Pliny, as the eager pen pal that he was, made sure to record the legend and sent a copy of the tale in a letter to at least one friend, Calpurnius Macer. The letter was a short and compact piece, but it contained a full accounting of the leaping lovers tale of Lake Como, which no doubt intrigued Calpurnius Macer or any other friend to which the story was sent.
As the story goes, an anonymous married man and woman (the protagonists of the tale) lived in a lakeside house on the shores of Lake Como. The residence was so close to the water’s edge that the bedroom of the home was said to have been built over the water. In that abode, the unnamed man and woman lived in presumed happiness or contentment for many years. Yet, things began to change when the man later acquired a most unfortunate ailment—he developed suspicious “ulcers” all over his manhood. His wife, of course, found out about the ulcers, and this discovery caused a drastic change in the woman’s behavior. Pliny did not speculate if the suspicious private ulcers that afflicted the man, but not his wife, might have originated from unfaithful conduct on the part of the man. Whatever the case, when the wife learned of her husband’s condition, it put her in a morbidly dark mood. In that state of mind, the woman began speaking in words of doom and hopelessness about the ulcers, calling them uncurable and saying it would be better for the man to take his own life than continue living with the condition. As the story goes, the effect of the woman’s depressing speeches were inconsistent on her husband, with the man sometimes being swayed and other times remaining hesitant. In the end, however, the woman got her way and dragged her husband to a watery grave. Unfortunately, the dragging was quite literal. Pliny the Younger’s account of the story was as follows:
“I was sailing on our Lake Como with an elderly friend when he pointed out a house with a bedroom built out over the lake. ‘From there,’ he said, ‘a woman of our own town once threw herself with her husband.’ I asked why. The husband had long been suffering from ulcers in the private parts, and his wife insisted on seeing them, promising that no one would give him a more candid opinion whether the disease was curable. She saw that there was no hope and urged him to take his life; she went with him, even led him to his death herself, and forced him to follow her example by roping herself to him and jumping into the lake” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 6.24).
Such was the bizarre tale that Pliny heard during his leisurely sailing trip around Lake Como. After discovering her husband’s condition, the wife dramatically tied herself to her husband and threw herself off their lake-overhanging home. Neither the woman, nor the man tied to her with rope, survived the plunge into the unforgiving water. Pliny and his source did not say if there had been witnesses at the time of the incident, but, whether from witnesses, a note, or from the tied-up state of the bodies, the locals were able to piece together the story of what happened. Due to the man’s suspicious ulcers and the wife’s ultimate action of tying up her husband and dragging him to his death, one might suspect the unfortunate incident was a revenge killing, and it is a convincing theory. Pliny the Younger, however, took the stance in his own letter that it was a heroic case of a wife wanting to selflessly follow her husband into a willing death. Either way, it is a legend, and legends have room for interpretation.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Algae And Boniface, By Alexandre Cabanel (c. 1823–1889), [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.