Pliny and Galen respond to love elegy

At the beginning of the second century, Pliny the Younger, a lawyer, statesman, and author, worked in Rome.  Calpurnia, his wife, recovering from an illness, resided in the countryside.  He wrote to her:

You write that you are feeling my absence very much and that your only consolation when you don’t have me is to hold my books and frequently even place them in my imprint beside you on the bed. [1]

This is the ultimate authorial fantasy: book love.  The translator describes this letter as “decorously erotic.”[2] However, even before the printing press, books could be made into many copies circulating promiscuously.  In a worldly view with some imagination, book love is much different from a pair bond.

Apparently lacking imagination, Pliny wrote of love by the book.  He set out conventional images from love elegy in another letter to Calpurnia:

My obsession with longing for you is beyond belief.  The reasons are first, my love for you, and second, my being unaccustomed to living apart.  Hence I spend a great part of the night awake, just picturing you, and likewise during the day, at the times when I used to visit you, my feet lead me (this is absolute truth) to your suite, and eventually I leave it, feeling unwell and depressed, like a locked-out lover on a deserted threshold.  The one time when I am free of this torture is when I exhaust myself in court with friends’ lawsuits.  Just imagine, then, the kind of life I am living, when my relaxation lies in hard work, and my consolation is in troubles and worries! [3]

An interjection such as “this is absolute truth” is always a good indicator of implausibility.  Pliny’s obsessive longing is interrupted by formally organized reasons of greatly differing emotional tenor: “first, my love for you, and second, my being unaccustomed to living apart.”  Obsessive longing, inability to sleep, feeling unwell, and being depressed are all elegiac conventions.  Such experiences do not necessarily indicate reification of love elegy.  But feeling “like a locked-out lover on a deserted threshold” is a sure symptom of love elegy colonizing Pliny’s life-world.[4]

Post-von-Neumann-Morgenstern applied game theorists would classify Pliny as a beta player.  A beta thinks that completely devoting himself to a woman will transform her into the ideal woman of his imagination.  Pliny’s elegiac example of desperate longing seems meant to give his wife a model of behavior toward him.[5]  But that’s not the literary game of elegy and not a propitious real-life play.  External options and constraints on defection play a crucial role in structuring a strategic equilibrium.  Pliny’s self-construction cannot overcome human nature in the darkness of night.

Galen viewed book love more critically.  He described book lovers approaching death, thin and pale in mourning, like the lover in elegy:

when his books perished in the fire, Philides the grammarian – wasting away from discouragement and distress – actually died. And, for a long time, one after another went out in black garments, thin and pale like mourners. [6]

Galen described slaves of sexual pleasure who, like elegy’s servitium amoris, need riches to realize their desires:

If they are not rich, first they lament and moan day and night. Then they are compelled to lie awake every night considering by what means they will not be at a loss as to how to fulfill their desires.  Not obtaining them (i. e., their desires), they complain; upon obtaining (them) they are not satisfied.  They, therefore, fall into a most wretched life among their insatiable desires. [7]

The love of love elegy harms the lover’s health.  In Galen view, such love thus contradicts biological purpose.  Galen was not distressed with the loss of his library.  Galen favored moderation in bodily desires.  At the same time, Galen lived an extraordinarily passionate life.  Galen’s passion, much bigger than that of love elegy, was for the biological truth of human nature.

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[1] Pliny the Younger, Epistle 6.7, trans. Trapp (2003) p. 75. The translation of this sentence in Walsh (2006) is:

You write that my being absent from you causes you no little sadness, and that your one consolation is to grasp my writings as a substitute for my person, and that you often place them where I lie next to you.

Trapp’s translation seems to me more sensitive than Walsh’s, e.g. the choice of “hold” rather than “grasp”.  The scholarly literature has awarded Pliny the distinction of being “the first to write affectionate letters to his wife”:

Because of his letters to Calpurnia, Pliny has been credited as the inventor of a new, albeit derivative genre – the love letter between husband and wife.  These letters also mark the rise of the love relationship in Roman marital alliances.

Carlon (2009) p. 169, p. 165, ft. 41.  These claims are absurd.  Men have surely written affectionate letters to their wives since the beginning of written letters.  Perhaps none earlier than Pliny’s have survived, but I suspect that some exist in surviving Neo-Assyrian cuneiform tablets.

[2] Trapp (2003) p. 221.

[3] Pliny the Younger, Epistle 7.5, trans. Walsh (2006) p. 165.

[4] The locked-out lover (exclusus amator) is a signature figure of Roman love elegy.  In Epistle 6.7, Pliny, urging Calpurnia to write, describes himself as both delighted and tortured by her letters.  This highly contrasting emotional mix is typical of love elegy, but also occurs in other, earlier literature.  Carlon (2009), p. 169, ft. 48, insightfully observes: “It is clear that Pliny is attempting what he suspected Saturninus of doing, rendering the poetry of literary forebears in prose form.”

[5] Carlon (2009), p. 157, states:

What is striking about Pliny’s presentation of Calpurnia is not her meritorious qualities but rather how closely they parallel ones that Pliny assigns to himself and, furthermore, how Pliny defines his wife by the alignment of their mutual ambition – his gloria.

Id., p. 185, also notes that Pliny’s tripartite exempla for an ideal wife emphasize gravitas, sanctitas, and constantia.  These were Roman masculine virtues.  Pliny’s exempla crossed sex in both directions.

[6] Galen, “On the Avoidance of Grief,” para. 7, trans Rothschild & Thompson (2011) p. 113.

[7] Id., para 79b, 80, trans. Rothschild & Thompson (2011) p. 127.  Nutton (2009), p. 30, observes that Galen scarcely mentions Hellenistic poetry in his work. Galen’s explicit references tend to be to classical Greek authors, especially Euripides and Aristophanes.  Nonetheless, Galen was a highly learned, broadly cultured scholar.  He may well have known the conventions of Hellenistic love poetry.  That he would be contemptuous of them is quite probable.


Carlon, Jacqueline M. 2009. Pliny’s women: constructing virtue and creating identity in the Roman world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nutton, Vivian. 2009.  “Galen’s Library.”  Ch. 1 in Gill, C., Wilkins, J. and Whitmarsh, T. (eds) Galen and the World of Knowledge. Cambridge University Press.

Rothschild, Clare K, and Trevor W. Thompson. 2011. “Galen: ‘On the Avoidance of Grief.’” Early Christianity, vol. 2, pp. 110–129.

Trapp, Michael B. 2003. Greek and Latin letters: an anthology, with translation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Walsh, Patrick G. 2006. Complete letters. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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