LETTERS FROM CALPURNIA,
PLINY'S WIFE

AD 111-113

By

Judith Harrington


For Arjuna,
the most unknown victim
of the 9/11/2001
World Trade Center terrorist attacks


* author's note: Although I have never met anyone named Arjuna, I have come to
believe s/he may be traced to the rolls of those lost in the Twin Towers.

Introduction

       “...During your Fulbright year (1993-94) in Turkey, I discovered these letters while working in the library of the Christian shrine, Meryamana Evi, located in the mountains above the ruins of Ephesus. Written in Latin and Greek on vellum and papyrus, they were apparently composed by a Roman matron named Calpurnia to her husband, Gaius Plinius, whom she also addresses as Caecilius and Lucius. According to tradition, the shrine of Meryamana Evi is the ancient heart of the Johannine Community, whose members composed the Gospel of St. John; it is recognized by Roman Catholics as the location of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven. I found the manuscript among a jumble of archaeological documents, votives left by cured pilgrims, and religious relics donated for decades by Christian and Muslim visitors from all over the world. I traced the manuscript to an ancient papyrus dump discovered by Grenfel and Hunt in the 1890’s near Behneseh at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, 300 kilometers south of Alexandria. During the last decade, I have been trying to authenticate my discovery. My attempts were complicated by tragic circumstances of the 1999 earthquake in northwestern Turkey that resulted in the disappearance of the original manuscript.....

       Apparently, Calpurnia wrote most of the letters I include here to her husband, Pliny the Younger, from Ephesus between A.D.111 and113 A.D. while he was Emperor Trajan’s legatus in Bithynia, a Roman province in what is now northwestern Turkey. It was from there that Pliny wrote his famous letter to Trajan about the behavior and fate of local Christians. Having studied the letters of Calpurnia side by side with her husband’s published letters, I now read Pliny’s epistle to Trajan as a frantic plea, couched in legitimate Roman terms, for the safety of innocent members of the new Christian cult, which included his wife...

       It appears that Gaius, in an effort to distract Calpurnia and to keep her mind occupied, asks his wife to send him mundane information like recipes and remedies (which I would caution against trying), notations and lyrics for the music she composes on the kithara, and her opinions about Roman religion and politics. Gaius also arranges to send her manuscripts from the extensive library of his Uncle Pliny the Elder, together with those he discovers in a network of libraries during his travels throughout the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire…. Included in her letters are prescriptions for anthrax and malaria and other diseases…. She also worries about what to do with the blood-stained Shroud of the Johannines’ crucified Messiah, which they have given her for safe-keeping...

       To the puzzlement of historians, Pliny the Younger and his wife disappeared from history after Pliny’s last extant letter to Trajan, written in A.D. 113, requesting safe passage for Calpurnia to Rome to attend her grandfather’s funeral. Calpurnia’s manuscript, if authentic, solves a significant riddle of history: It explains what happened to one of Imperial Rome’s most influential men; its contents provide evidence of an astonishing fact—early Christians counted Pliny and his wife as their own.

       Nothing remains in the historical record about Calpurnia, except what is extant in three letters about her and three letters to her, written by her famous husband, Gaius Plinius Lucius Filius Caecilius Secundus. These may be found in Books IV, VI, VIII, and X of the Plinius epistolaris.

       In two of his letters to Calpurnia, Pliny mentions their early correspondence, first in Book VI, iv:
       ...You can soothe my worry only by writing to me day and night, though I am tormented by apprehensions between letters...

       And again in Book VI, vii:

       ...You have written, 'My only comfort when you are not with me is to keep your books near at hand; I confess I sleep with your letters in your place next to me….’ I, too, read your letters over and over as though seeing you with each reading—which only rekindles my desire…. Send me as many letters as you can, though your writing is painful in its delight.

       Please publish these letters.
       Arjuna

       New York City
       August 15, 2001

BOOK I

I, i
CALPURNIA PLINIUS TO GAIUS PLINIUS SECUNDUS
       As I write to you from this house in Ephesus, I am looking at the charming fresco newly painted for me by Stephanos. This Eros looks at me from more than the wall. I know you are a practical man and silently consider my visions hysterical, at best, but you also know when to listen with the love and respect your life has always modeled toward women. I think of the story your family has recounted more than once in my presence, and now I have read it again in your letter to Cornelius Tacitus, though you are too modest to acknowledge more than its bare details and veracity: you were seventeen when Vesuvius erupted. You saved your mother’s life, risking your own by showing the way from Misenum through the forests of the coast to safety through settling hot ash floating downward like dark snow. Your family’s story continues--how your mother would go no farther, exhausted with fear and exertion, telling you to go on without her and at least save yourself, how you carried her among dazed refugees escaping Vulcan’s fury. Julia was never the same after that trek through living fire. Julia’s face, replicated on our wall at home from the original mosaic now lost in Herculaneum, bespeaks her beauty. I have always wondered why you returned to Misenum instead of going as far away as you could get. I can imagine you all there, huddled in the dark that was darker than dark, with red edges. I was born during the cataclysm, but it seems I remember the melting of stones, huge boulders flowing, not merely rolling, as cliffs gave way to the wash of gold-black lava. Many believed again in the gods those days.

       Such courage runs in your family. No one alive will forget how your uncle the Elder Pliny died in the firestorm on the sea attempting to reach the family of my own mother, whom I imagine as though through a veil of ruby-studded smoke. His people saved her and a few others, though he perished. I know so little about my mother, except that I lived through her dying. You know these things, have written the required texts; why do I repeat them, except to see my own words taking shape as a living memory, and to tell I remember more than I can possibly know?

       Have we discussed the personal context of what the public knows from reading your published letters? This distance from Rome, here in Ephesus in the province of Bithynia, transforms recollections into places of wonder, somewhere on the other side of the River Styx and back again, transported by dolphins (yes, I realize how much you, as a priestly augur, must know of these unknown ways of knowing). “Stop that!” you would say. “Those pebble thoughts thrown into the river make rings to ripple never-endingly.” Ah, yes, but I do not know how to stop it.

       I do think you adopted me as much as married me. “And now, all for what?” do you ask yourself as month after month for all these years I bleed away another child you want, no, deserve so much. Please do not think me unappreciative. Thank you for bringing me to Ephesus to stay. Here I am close to you whether your responsibilities take you north to the Bosporous or as far south as Miletus or even Halicarnassus. Your letters telling the tales of these cities are as vivid as my own eyes could make them. Someday, please bring me along?

       I have not given up hope for a child. Ephesus brings many new ways to approach the impossible. Artemis herself has chosen the mouth of the Maeander for her Artemisium, ancient shrine of Cybele. Is there any better place to conceive than in the shadow of the greatest, oldest temple to the great virgin goddess? All those breasts, or eggs, or testicles—the meaning is clear. Also, I have learned more of the new mystery cult whose priest you encouraged me to see in Smyrna--a blessing from those imprisoned and soon to be martyred is surely to bring good fortune. This new god answers prayers directly without the dubious benefit of temple and flesh sacrifice. “Temple of the Spirit only,” they say. (I tell your official capacity nothing, as I know secret societies are forbidden by Rome out of reasonable fear of insurrection; you have told me as much. But I speak now to your capacity as husband, whom I tell everything, knowing how adept you are at compartmentalizing your affairs. Janus must protect and inform you--one self looking into the mind of Rome, one self looking into the heart of humanity. Separation of State and Psyche, the ideal simplicity versus the real complexity, rules versus behavior.)

       My Greek slave tells me I understand Plato very well. I wish to free her and my Jewish slave women as well. Perhaps before we leave. They are devoted enough to stay with me regardless. They are deaconesses of this mystery cult I have spoken of and will do well as freedwomen, particularly with my counsel regarding safe practices, as you have instructed me. Amor from Calpurnia

I, ii
Caecilius,
       The water dreams have started again: that you are beside me at dawn, or just before; we both awake from the same dream. We are on the beach watching the tide go out. At first, receding waters do not return, and strange sea creatures writhe in wet sand. You take my hand and draw me away, but one huge wave crashes in to engulf us. We swim in the sea, losing then finding each other, able to breathe saltwater as though it were air, as safe as clams en-closed in bubbles of shell, suddenly learning to walk on the surface away from a flood that destroys what we left behind on the shore. Wait. There is more...

       Creatures like moths, hummingbirds, butterflies all made of sweet human flesh, multicolored, wingless, flutter over us, filling the air of our chamber with the scent of carnations, as though we lie under some aether other than what we normally breathe. More like fish, these iridescent creatures then hover, their movement creating the tinkling sound of tiny bells, then land on our bodies, their touch like kisses, looking with large, though miniature eyes into ours. I think you are asleep again, dreaming out of my dream into your own, missing these amazing creations, flesh like our flesh but totally other, their tiny forms indescribable except by comparison…as though an intact human being had come apart into these jewel-like forms, each remnant of flesh alive again, intelligent, intelligible, and impossible. They seem almost appreciative, but of what? I lie there wondering, afraid to move lest I frighten them away.

       Artemidorus is still very interested in my dreams. I told you I met him at the Aesclepion at Pergamum where Soranus has sent me, with your approval, to try one of his many cures, this time incubation, as he is still trying to discover what to do to make my womb receptive to your seed. I can remember little of the incubation; bits and pieces come back to me. At times I can still smell the incense of Epidaurus--sixteen spices burned to encourage me to have sweet, healing dreams. I have since tried to compound my own version of that scent, but something is missing. Mostly cardamom, balsam, cinnamon, sandalwood, pine. I am not sure I dreamed at all in my underground room. I think I did not sleep for fear of the sucking snakes, the darkness. No food for a day, no wine for three days, sleeping on skins of a sheep sacrificed to Asclepius. The sound of generous musical water running up from an invisible spring was the only dream I remembered (unless the thick golden cords curling through me, tying my body to yours was the dream I have to remember - Soranus says that is the one most likely to cure me). And those in the earliest morning upon waking from a seemingly sleepless night to more darkness. We could have saved money by choosing the lesser rather that the greater incubation chamber for all I dreamed. But the young Artemidorous was pleased when he took me to the temple library to show me the interpretation he had found. I was less than impressed, but Soranus understood and explained the miscarriages through the water dream. I now understand what neither of them could know: The singing water is alive—the water of the womb through which we are born, again and again, resurrection of the body, reincarnation—“Unless we are born again of the living water we cannot enter the Kingdom.…”—the words of the new god. How simple; out of a sleepless night and a barren life—Artemidorus and his analogies and puns to explain sleep’s wisdom clarify for me what I had to learn for myself. His methods are right, though his theories wrong. His Apollo Mystes was the Risen One who shows The Way.

       Would you like to know where it started, this interest of mine in the Jesus? Even I have wondered, searching my own past memories for recollections of some early influence. And now I think I know, thanks to Tacitus, whose drafts of the Annals and Histories you have encouraged me to read. At this distance from those events, I am only making guesses, piecing fragments from my family’s history together with my feelings.

       My grandfather Fabatus, as you know, was one of the Roman Knights to whom the Emperor Claudius entrusted the province of Judea in the 50’s. I see his name mentioned by Tacitus in connection with Lepida, the wife of Cassius and of Silanus. Is our friend, Catius Lepidus, her nephew also? The “ghastly religious ceremonial” which Nero procured informers to charge against her, was in truth the Agape Ekklesia held in her home. Fabatus (as well as the senators Volcatius Tullinus and Marcellus Cornelius) was drawn into the accusations as an accomplice. I had not heard of their specific danger during those times, but I knew of the sacred meetings and the risks encountered through living such secrets. You must know more from Catius Lepidus, though you have never told me.

       What you do not know has to do with my grandfather’s stories of his brief year in Judea, of the wonders he and a small group of other young Roman Knights saw there associated with an odd Jewish sect. I now know the sect to be earliest direction of The Way of the Sacred Child. His stories told of the help he provided to the aged mother and beloved of the crucified, deified Leader in their escape here to Ephesus.

       Now I have found the second generation of The Way, whose Beloved Apostle and Virgin mother my own grandfather and his knighted friends gave a safe escort to Ephesus, to the first Ekklesia! What a risk, what a fortuitous expedition. You and Tacitus, priestly augur and keeper of the Sibylline Books, how would the two of you have interpreted the omen in those prodigious events, repeated apparently to herald the Jewish Temple’s destruction, but first seen immediately preceding my grandfather’s departure with his humble relatives of a God, headed for Diana’s Ephesus? I do not know what he believed; there came a time when I was forbidden to discuss or to ask for a retelling of any of those stories, as though he wanted to forget, wanted me to forget what he had said.

       Tacitus’s description of the “prodigies” that occurred in Jerusalem is the summary account of one of those stories that Grandfather Fabatus told me:

       In the heavens, warriors were seen battling with a clash of flaming weapons, and the temple was illuminated as the skies were split apart by a radiant light. The inner shrine was suddenly opened, and as an immortal voice intoned that their God was departing, a mighty stir confirmed the departure…The ancient records of their priests predicted just so, at this very time, the East was to grow powerful, and a ruler from Judea was to establish universal empire...

       Was that ruler the Risen One and His new dominion moving from Jerusalem to Ephesus, to Rome, from the exterior to an interior empire? My Grandfather did not interpret the sights he had seen as omens, at least not to me. Later I will tell you his other stories. There are many.


I, iii
Caecilius,
       Now from the fantastic to the basic, from dreams to recipes! Please receive them for the recovery of your appetite. I apologize for upsetting you by writing reminders of the past. In the future I will tell you my grandfather’s stories only in person. And I will cease my tearful begging to return from Ephesus to your side in Bithynia….At least in my letters.

       Now, I will remind (or instruct) your foreign chef of our native Roman ingredients. (I am not sure what substitutions you may need to find; tell me if you wish me to send them by post.)
       Caroenum: boiled must (you have to boil the new wine or grape juice until it is only half the amount you started with).

       Defritum: either thick fig syrup, or must that is boiled until you have only a third of the amount with which you started.
       Levisticum officianale: an umbelliferous plant with yellowish flowers; its dried roots are used as a spice.
       Liquamen: a salty fish sauce.
       Passum: very sweet wine sauce, made by boiling the must to thicken it, then adding honey
       Poleiminze: mint that grows in inundated areas.
       Satureia hortensis: violet or white-flowered kind of labiate plant used to spice bean dishes.
       Silphium/ Laser or ferula asa foetida: onion and garlic substitute. Use sparingly.

Gustum De Praecoquis
Wash, cut, and stone apricots. Put them in a little cold water in a pan.
Grind pepper with dried mint,
add liquamen, honey, passum, wine, and vinegar.
Pour into the pan with a little oil. Cook over small heat
until syrup is thick. Thicken and serve.

Mustacei
Pour must over flour, add anise and cumin seeds, some lard
and sheep’s cheese. Work together into a dough. Form rolls,
put one bay leaf under each and bake.

Patina De Pisciculis
Mix dried grapes, pepper, levisticum officinale,
oregano, chopped onion, wine, liquamen and olive oil
together and put in a casserole. Cook until done. Then put small
boiled fish fillets or boiled very small whole fishes into it.
Thicken and serve.

Dulcia Domestica
Take the stones out of dates and fill them with stone-pine kernels.
Sprinkle a bit of salt on them and stew them over small heat
in honey-sweetened red wine until their paring starts to come off
(not long). Fill some dates with pepper and stew the same way,
together with the others.

       These are the recipes you asked for. What others shall I send in future letters? These are so simple. Who does not know how to prepare them?

       Another odd request—that I describe for you the arrangement of couches and positions of diners in my Aunt Calpurnia’s Triclinium. “Do I remember how people were supposed to sit?” you ask. Yes, although you never followed the custom in our home, despite the censure of some guests. You always insisted I sit to your left in the lous consularis, no matter if you reclined in the lectus imus, which you seldom did. No wonder you do not remember the proper order (since there is none in our house): Three couches arranged around the mensa, with a view to the virid a rium for everyone. The lectus medius on the left of the mensa, the lectus medius in the corner behind the mensa, the lectus summus to the right of the mensus, with three people to a couch, supporting themselves on their left elbows, which rest on oval cushions. The innermost position of the lectus imus belongs to the master of the house, to his left at the innermost position of the lectus medius sits the guest of honor. Members of the host’s familia lie on his lectus imus in the places of lower status, to his right. The other guests recline across the mensa on the lectus summus according to the host’s preference, usually according to their rank and status.

       “And what is the point,” you ask, “of the arrangement?” Surely, proximity to the host must be one point. Availability of the food, another, opportunity to summon the servers a third. How am I to answer? Any arrangement can cause trouble and affect the status of the host. Who was it who said everyone should have a separate table to avoid competition? I remember once at a dinner, you disapproved of the “stingy extravagance” that your host called “elegant economy” when he served the best food and wine to himself and his most honored guests, paltry food and drink to the rest. Someone asked you how you managed at home. You replied, “I provide each guest with the same fare, for when I invite a man to my table I have placed him on a footing of equality with me and I will therefore treat him as an equal.” “Even freedmen?” the other man asked. “Even freedmen, because on these occasions I regard them as companions, not as freedmen.” The other dinner guest had one more question: “Does that cost you a lot of money?” What you said then surprised me and made the company laugh. “Not at all, for my freedmen do not drink the same wine as I do, but I drink what they do.” Your point, you explained later to me, was that equality is worth exercising self-restraint. You reminded me that we all drink the same wine at home, the excellent wine made inexpensively at our vineyards and brought home for everyone in the household. Lesser men have difficulty following your line of thought and hope to catch you in some hypocrisy.

       I would like to know why, in Bithynia, you need to know the traditional mealtime arrangement. You must have more in mind than my summary. Are you so lonesome that you wish to duplicate some Roman routine for comfort? A lesson in the value of the structure of even a minor ritual? Or do you want me to occupy myself with the trivial so as to avoid the profound? True enough, the smooth surface of the lake is safer than its depths, but you do know I am a good swimmer, despite so few lakes in my life for practice. Amor

*******

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