The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Valerie Hope
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
Pliny the Younger’s Letters.
When did you first come across Pliny?
I first met Pliny when studying for my O-level in Latin. Extracts from a handful of his letters were among the set texts. The latter also included Tacitus’ Agricola – another of my go-to favourites.
Can you tell me a bit about Pliny’s letters and their context?
Pliny lived 61 to c.113 CE. He was a senator, lawyer and author, best known now for his surviving letters. These letters were no doubt heavily edited before publication, and are thus carefully crafted to put Pliny in a good light as the perfect Roman gent. Or, at least, that’s what he intended. In the process, the letters provide lots of insights into life in the city of Rome – the daily round, family, slavery, dining and so forth. For a Roman social historian, the letters are essential reading, and for someone interested in death customs and mourning practices, they provide glimpses into the emotive world of Roman grief and loss.
What is it about the letters that appeals to you most?
Well, not Pliny’s Letters to the emperor Trajan……which are not his best or him at his best! Indeed, Pliny is not always easy to like – he’s vain, pompous, petty and obsequious. I don’t think the two of us would have got on. But Pliny’s faults (and sometimes obsessive self-interest) make him human. I particularly enjoy the letters where he makes snide comments about his rival, Regulus, and the often moving obituary letters he wrote at the deaths of his friends. The letters also remind me of my school days, and how my Classical Studies journey began. Attending a small, rural comprehensive, it was very unusual (but fortuitous for me) to have the opportunity to study the ancient world, and we were the last year that took Latin in the school. In my own touch of 16-year-old pompousness, in an old autograph book I have my Latin classes’ signatures, under a quotation from Pliny (8.16). Clearly Pliny and I have a long term love-hate relationship, which is often exasperating, but also makes me chuckle.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
Home life involves four children, four hens and two rabbits, so that keeps me pretty busy. I enjoy reading and I am (an often reluctant) 5k runner, currently missing Parkruns on Saturdays.
Valerie Hope is a senior lecturer in Classical Studies at the Open University, with research interests in Roman death, funerals, commemoration, and mourning. Her books include: Death in Ancient Rome: A Sourcebook; Roman Death; and Memory and Mourning: Studies on Roman Death. She is currently working on a book about Roman mourners.