A man named Vettenius Severus was elected as a consul of Rome around the time that Emperor Trajan (r. 98-117) completed his campaign against Dacia in the year 106. As Vettenius Severus was expected to give a victory speech after becoming consul-elect, he decided to reach out to the prominent lawyer and statesman, Pliny the Younger (c. 61/62-113), who had previously served as consul back in the year 100. Vettenius Severus, in particular, wanted advice on how emperor-centered his election victory speech should be, specifically on the question of how much, or little, praise to Emperor Trajan would be proper in such a speech.
Pliny the Younger, for his part, seemed to advise against hollow flattery. In his return letter to Vettenius Severus, Pliny wrote that Trajan was not the kind of man who expected or would appreciate flattery in a consul’s election speech. Quite the opposite, gratuitous adulation seemed to be out of fashion due to the recent memory of imperial tyrants—such as Caligula, Nero and Domitian—who had been overly-flattered in their lifetime, only to have their reputations demolished after their deaths. Less was more, according to Pliny, and although Emperor Trajan was an impressive and virtuous figure on his own, his character could be left to speak for itself, without flattery. On this speech advice, Pliny wrote:
“You ask me to consider what tribute you should pay the Emperor in your speech as consul-elect. His virtues provide abundant material, so that it is easy enough to think of subjects but not so easy to choose between them. However, I will write and send you my opinion…I am wondering whether I ought to advise you to do as I did when I was consul-elect. I made a point of avoiding anything which looked like flattery, even if not intended as such, acting not on any principle of independence but on my knowledge of our Emperor. I realized the highest praise I could offer him was to show that I said nothing because it was expected of me. I also had in my mind the many tributes paid to the worst of his predecessors, and I felt that nothing could distinguish our noble Emperor from them so well as a different type of speech” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 6.27).
Such were the words of wisdom that Pliny the Younger sent to his colleague. After giving that advice, Pliny did concede that years had passed since he, personally, had given his own consul-elect speech to the emperor, and times and the emperor’s mentality had changed since then. Therefore, in conclusion, Pliny advised it would not harm Vettenius Severus to praise the virtue and recent military achievements of Emperor Trajan in the upcoming speech, as long as the comments were not gratuitous in their flattery.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (The Catilinarian conspirators before the Senate, illustrated by Ferdinand Max Bredt (c. 1860-1921), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the NYPL).
- The Letters of Pliny the Younger, translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Classics, 1963, 1969.