Don’t Knock While Sloshed at Pliny’s Door!

Fresco of young man holding a scroll, 1st century A.D., Herculaneum

I am taking a break from the eloquence of Cicero to read Pliny’s relatively undramatic letters. Cicero’s court cases are almost too exciting. I am impressed and yet terrified by his bold prosecution of Verres, a gangster-governor of Sicily who stole both public and private art and  bribed the jury of the court in Rome.  I’d never had the slightest interest in Verres before.

Yet there’s something to be said for simplicity.   Pliny (61 A.D.- 113 A.D.) favors  a plain, minimalist style.  This wealthy Roman lawyer and successful politician was best-known as a writer of polished letters composed for publication. 

Among Pliny’s most famous letters are a brilliant account of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D.;  a trio of ghost stories ; a charming story of a boy who swam with a dolphin; and a letter asking the emperor Trajan for advice on how to deal with Christians while Pliny was governor in Bithynia.

But I’ve especially enjoyed a witty poem by Martial quoted in a letter written on the occasion of the poet’s death.  Pliny writes that he has a whole volume of poems Martial wrote for him.  (He was one of Martial’s patrons.)

Below is my prose translation of Martial’s playful Latin poem. Here, he advises the Muse not to knock on Pliny’s “clever” or “eloquent door” while drunk (literally in an “inebriated time”). I would love to preserve  the fun of Martial’s  “transferred epithets,” i.e., adjectives transferred from persons to inanimate objects, but it doesn’t quite work in English.   Instead of changing the “eloquent door”to “eloquent Pliny,” I prefer a magical talking door. When you’re drunk, mightn’t you hear a talking door?  But it is too wordy in English.

Here is Martial’s advice to the Muse.

Don’t knock while sloshed at Pliny’s door.  He devotes whole days to harsh Minerva, while he prepares a case for the ears of 100 men (the centumviral court where wills and property cases are heard).  Posterity and the ages will compare this to the writings of Cicero.  But it’s better to visit when the evening lanterns are lit:  this is your hour, when Bacchus (god of wine) maddens, when the rose rules, when the hair drips with unguents.  Then let even the severe Catos* read me.

*Cato was a stern moralist