The Younger Pliny’s fantastic reply to a friend who stood him up for dinner

Pliny the Younger was a prominent statesman in Rome in the early days of the Roman Empire (during the so-called “Silver Age” of the Empire). Today, he’s probably best known for his published correspondence. They are literary in style, and organised according to the order “they came to hand” (I.1).

Pliny was definitely a kindred spirit to those of us who value literature and art. In his letters he praises Rome for allowing the arts to flourish, while at the same time chastising people from not adequately taking note of the genius of the writers living in their city.

The best letter, however, is one he wrote to a man named Septicius Clarus, a prefect of the Praetorian Guard, and friend to Suetonius. Clarus, evidently, accepted a dinner invitation and then didn’t show up:

Who are you, to accept my invitation to dinner and never come? Here’s your sentence and you shall pay my costs in full, no small sum either. It was all laid out, one lettuce each, three snails, two eggs, barley-cake, and wine with honey chilled with snow (you will reckon this too please, and as an expensive item, seeing that it disappears in the dish), besides olives, beetroots, gherkins, onions, and any number of similar delicacies. You would have heard a comic play, a reader or singer, or all three if I felt generous. Instead you chose to go where you could have oysters, sow’s innards, sea-urchins, and Spanish dancing-girls. You will suffer for this – I won’t say how. It was a cruel trick done to spite one of us – yourself or most likely me, and possibly both of us, if you think what a feast of fun, laughter and learning we were going to have. You can eat richer food at many houses, but nowhere with such free and easy enjoyment. All I can say is, try me; and then, if you don’t prefer to decline invitations elsewhere, you can always make excuses to me. (I.15)

Is he overreacting? Perhaps slightly. But who of us hasn’t felt those same sentiments when dealing with a thoughtless friend?

The extract is taken from the 1969 edition of The Letters of the Younger Pliny, trans. Betty Radice. Penguin Books, London.

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