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Pliny the Younger: Selected Letters

By author: Jo-Ann Shelton
Product Code: 8407
ISBN: 978-0-86516-840-4
Availability: In stock.
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The letters of Pliny the Younger contained in this volume provide intermediate and advanced Latin students insight into the political and social life of the early imperial period of Rome. Pliny portrays himself as a generous benefactor to his hometown, a supporter of education, and a patron who promotes the political and literary careers of younger men. His correspondence with Trajan, including the emperor’s responses, documents Pliny’s governorship of the province of Bithynia-Pontus. The letters also reveal more personal aspects of his life, including his relationship with his wife, his views on slavery, and his experiences during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius that killed his uncle, Pliny the Elder.

Same- and facing-page commentary helps students to understand both the Latin text and the political, social, and historical context of the letters. Introductions for each letter guide students in understanding and interpreting the text.

Special Features

  • Introduction to Pliny’s life and letters
  • Unadapted Latin texts of thirty letters with same- and facing-page commentary
  • Introductions for each letter
  • Genealogical charts
  • Three maps
  • black-and-white illustrations
  • Glossary of proper names
  • Index
  • Latin to English glossary

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Review by: Mark Wright, Hope College - September 1, 2017

Writing a good student commentary is a more daunting task than one might think. To begin with, it can be difficult for the expert Latinist to understand where his or her students might struggle in the Latin and even when they overcome this difficulty they must then decide how much help is too much or too little. Some seem to eschew helping students at all to pursue their own philological interests, despite the ambit of the publisher or book series. I think in particular here of Andrew Dyck's commentary on Cicero's Catilinarian orations in the Cambridge "Green and Yellow" series: it has been invaluable resource to me in my own research, while proving to be much more technical than even the students of an advanced undergraduate Latin seminar ca n handle. Other texts have an arrangement of text and aid to the reader that are, to put it mildly, not user-friendly. Such texts require the instructor to explain how to use the book properly before proceeding, or, by separating the commentary from the text itself, they often discourage the student from checking the notes at all.

In her new student commentary covering a total of 30 letters of Pliny the Younger, Jo-Ann Shelton has provided a valuable vade mecum to inter mediate Latin students everywhere. More importantly Shelton has confronted the difficulties I outlined above with aplomb. It is a volume with much to offer the student and teacher alike with individual comments perceptively attuned to the needs of the fledgling Latinist, and countless opportunities for the instructor to not just run spot drills of syntactical and grammatical concepts, but to expand the class's perspective out from pure philology to consider questions of Roman social life explored by Pliny.

Shelton begins with an excellent introduction that concisely and cogently sets out Pliny's life and times and his literary output. Important terms about Roman culture (e.g., magistracies) are put in bold and definitions follow in parentheses. She suggests further reading and possible thematic groupings of the letters to plan a syllabus around and excellent maps. The appendices are also rich, with texts and translations of important inscriptions mentioning Pliny, family trees, a glossary of proper names and a full vocabulary for the text. The last is particularly helpful as it saves much time in flipping through entries in a separate volume. However, Shelton does recommend that the student purchase a grammar book like Allen and Greenough's to help them along. Some guidance is provided in the text itself: one of the indices is for grammatical concepts, which can allow the teacher to better focus on those elements of syntax that students may be particularly struggling with. For example, should one's students be struggling with indirect questions, Shelton indexes the 22 instances of this construction in the notes (the index is keyed to page numbers of the commentary, not the textual loci of the Latin text itself).

The selection of letters covers many old favorites of Pliny: his introductory letter (1.1); his apologia about his activities under Domitian (3.11); letters to the historian Tacitus, including those about the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 C.E. (1.6, 4. 13, 6. 16 and 6.20); a letter praising his third wife, Calpurnia (4.19); the grief over Fundanus' daughter (5.16); and of course his letters to Trajan concerning imperial policy towards Christians (10.96 and 10.97). Other letters provide entrees into topics like slavery, marriage, education, fatherhood, and death. Each letter has an accompanying introductory passage and nine images over the course of the commentary enliven the text.

The mise-en-page of the commentary and text is particularly laudable. The Latin itself is printed in larger font size, with the commentary beginning below the Latin and continuing on the facing page. The guiding principle for the amount of Latin on each page is that the Latin and the commentary should be on the same two-page spread to eliminate excessive thumbing back and forth between Latin and commentary. In general, one can feel comfortable assigning a nightly pace of a single page spread (i.e., Latin and commentary on the facing page), slowly building up the pace as the students get a better handle on both the Latin itself and the peculiarities of Pliny's style. The majority of the comments treat issues of grammar and syntax, with historical issues treated primarily in the introductions before each letter and in the notes as necessary.

Letter 6.16 is a representative example, as well as the longest text in the collection, followed closely by its sequel, letter 6.20. The introduction treats in a capsule form the life and career of Pliny the Elder, the maternal uncle of our epistolary writer. The comments themselves are kept brief and are written in an easy-going style. While many commentaries fall into the trap of giving too little help, or sometimes all too much, Shelton has found the a happy medium here: identifying grammatical constructions, especially when the Latin may be unclear due to the word order or rhetorical devices like hyperbaton; elsewhere helping make sense of the passage where the resources of expression in the Latin language diverge from familiar English usage there. My one criticism about this particular section is that Shelton postpones discussion of the eruption itself until the notes on 6.20, only explaining in 6.16 why Pliny the Elder was stationed at Misenum as prefect of the naval fleet from about 76 C.E. onward. While this is perhaps understandable for reasons of space, since the introduction to Pliny the Elder takes up much of the introduction to letter 6.16, it seems strange to save such an important matter of con text to both letters for the second of the two.

Ultimately, Shelton has produced what I believe is an excellent student commentary for Pliny's letters. A standby of Latin instruction for many years (letter 6.16, for example, is a major unit in Ecce Romani), Pliny not only provides practice in the language itself, but myriad opportunities to discuss elements of Roma n culture and Shelton's commentary is responsive to both elements of the study of Pliny in lower level Latin courses. While the selection is not as wide ranging as Jacqueline Carlon's recent edition of fifty letters of Pliny (Oxford, 2016), Shelton includes 15 letters that are not in Carlon's selection.1tis an excellent text for teachers of intermediate Latin courses at the high school and college level and a monumenrum aere perennius of Shelton's work on ancient Roman culture and society and Pliny himself.

NECJ 44.2
Mark Wright, Hope College

Review by: Tom Garvey, The Meadows School - May 5, 2017

Anyone who has studied the social history of Rome even cursorily in the last two decades will no doubt have encountered and enjoyed Shelton's excellent and indispensable sourcebook on that subject, As the Romans Did (Oxford, 1998). Her most recent volume, a compilation of several of Pliny the Younger's more memorable and interesting letters designed as an intermediate­to-advanced level Latin reader, succeeds just as brilliantly as her earlier work.

Everything in this book is thoughtfully proportional and apposite. There always seems to be the perfect amount of discussion and explanation; no more, and no less. Not only does the slender introduction provide all the background necessary to situate the historical and literary contexts in which Pliny wrote; Shelton is also especially vigilant and consistent about reminding readers as they progress through the book where else in the volume to turn for an expanded discussion of any given topic. An incredible amount of work must have gone into all this cross-referencing, and it results in perhaps the single most user-friendly student edition this reviewer has ever encountered. And while the letters proceed in the volume according to the traditional numbering system and arrangement dating back to antiquity, both at the beginning of the work and as needed throughout, Shelton recommends thematic groupings of letters that speak to similar themes (such as slavery, women and marriage, and politics).

Every letter is well-chosen and inherently interesting, and Shelton is to be lauded for her inclusion of references to letters even outside the current edition (as well as a wealth of other primary and secondary readings relating to them). But what make this book so very excellent are, first and foremost, its comprehensiveness and user-friendliness. Knowing that many teachers will either excerpt from the book and/or take the letters out of the traditional ordering scheme, Shelton keeps her grammatical notes deliberately thorough from the first letter in the volume right through until the very last. Given the amount of repetition and overlap, one might expect to find no small amount of cut-and-pasting, yet somehow each note reads like it has been written anew with equal attention.

While epistolography is not a discipline that in and of itself requires an in­depth knowledge of vowel quantities (as would, say, poetry), the decision to include macrons in the comprehensive Vocabulary section at the back was a wise and welcome one (as was the one not include them in text of the letters themselves). Three simple but elegant maps, an appendix of inscriptions, two genealogy charts, a glossary of proper names found in the text of the letters, and two indexes—one on grammar and syntax, and the other subject-based—round out the ancillary materials that contribute to the overall usd1.tlness of the book. The thoughtful balance struck by these and countless other almost imperceptible decisions of formatting throughout helps to achieve a nearly flawless intermediate reader.

If, in the end, the biggest flaw I could find was the incredibly minor disinclusion in the notes to Letter 1.1 of num in the listing of conjunctions after which the ali- in indefinite pronouns tends to "fall away" (along with si, nisi, and ne), then that in and of itself says a great deal about the superlative editing that went into this book - especially considering that another note on that same grammatical tidbit in the notes for Letter 4.13 does include num in the canonical list of four! In sum, I not only recommend this volume wholeheartedly and without reserve, but plan to start using it myself in both grammar-based and literature-based Latin courses at the earliest possible juncture. Students and teachers alike will value this edition for years to come.

Tom Carvey
The Meadows School

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