Letter from Pliny the Younger to Licinius Sura

Translated by Edward Halley

----

I have recently heard a curious tale that I would like to lay before you. It is the sort of thing that would very much appeal to you, and I should be quite grateful to learn your opinion on the matter. I record the story in as great of detail as I can recall it in case even the smallest item will be crucial for you to draw your conclusions.

At the end of the reign of Vespasian, there lived a young boy[1] in Herculaneum. His father was of the order of knights[2] and the family had long been wealthy. Their house had been relatively undamaged by the earthquake of 62,[3] and so while other houses were redecorated or rebuilt, this one retained in most rooms frescoes of a style which had not been fashionable for several decades---that which Vitruvius praised for its accurate representation of real things, from men and animals to architecture and landscapes. The boy evidently possessed great imagination and when not in his lessons preferred, rather than playing with other young lads, the solitary pursuit of wandering from room to room about the house, wondering what it might be like to climb through the painted windows and explore the fields or cities that lay beyond them.

One day, as the child made his progression through the house from one fantasy to another, his attention was arrested by a figure sittng upon a window sill where a person had never been painted before. The boy cried out in surprise and made toward the wall, but the figure, which had appeared merely a painted man until now, motioned the boy to be quiet and indicated that another person in the room with the boy was the reason for this silence, although all this was done in such a playful manner as to invite the boy to participate in some secret. This the boy did, for when the other person, a servant, asked the boy what the matter was, he replied that there was nothing wrong at all. Though the servant seemed to stand such that he must see both the boy and the fresco with the strange man, he did not appear to notice anything amiss, and departed soon after.[4]

While the boy waited for the servant to leave, he took the opportunity to observe the figure more carefully. He was wearing a tunic made of the Deeds of Ancestors, fastened with a belt of Piety,[5] sandals made of from good Fortune and Wise Decisions and a toga woven of Citizenship. When the servant had departed, this apparition spoke to the boy, saying that they were now free to converse with one another. The boy asked him if he was the household Lar.[6] The figure seemed to consider this for a moment but presently said that he was indeed. The boy then asked if the Lar often walked about in the paintings, and if so, what were they like? The Lar responded that they were magnificent places and he would be immensely happy to show them to the boy if the latter should so desire. Accordingly, he offered his hand, which the boy took and found himself presently standing beside the Lar. Behind him, the room of his house appeared as a painting on a wall, while before him the world of the painting stretched into the distance.

This particular fresco was of an enormous city, much grander than Herculaneum. It did not represent any particular real place, although in magnificence it must have rivaled Carthage of old, or hill-top Troy, or even Rome itself. Together, the boy and the Lar wandered about its streets and many people called out to the Lar either to exchange greetings with him or invite him to dine with them at some time or else to inquire his advice upon some matter. The boy was very much delighted with this, for it was what he understood his father to do when he went to the forum, though young as he was the boy was never permitted to go with him. Here, however, no one seemed to take it amiss that a mere lad accompanied a great man of business. Presently, the boy asked if the Lar lived here. No, the Lar replied, he did not precisely live here, but he did visit the place often. After this, the Lar began to point out some of the men whom they passed, and many of these were shown to be the Lares of other families of Herculaneum, friends of the boy's father. This, the Lar told him, was the City of the Gods[7] where many important people were often to be found and where spectacular celebrations or festivals of some sort were held almost every day of the year.[8] Indeed, upon this day there was to be a splendid procession, rather like a general's Triumph, to welcome the newly deified Vespasian to the city.[9]

The Lar led the boy to a portico from which they would have a good view of the street. Around them, the other Lares in the street moved to either side of the roadway, climbing atop steps if they could. Before long a spectacular procession came into view. Near its head, the newly deified Vespasian rode in a chariot wearing the triumphal purple toga with gold trim. Ordinarily, the boy understood, a slave stood in the chariot whispering 'Remember, though art mortal' to a triumphant general, but here Vespasian rode alone. Behind Vespasian's chariot Lares carried placards of Vespasian's accomplishments in life; not only his military victories, but also his civic achievements---the construction of the Temple of Peace and the names of all the numerous roads he built throughout the empire---and his virtues: modesty, diligence, industry, openhandedness. The procession wound its way up a hill to a temple which, the Lar said, honored Jupiter. Arrayed along the porches of the temple were about two dozen men, most of whom wore white togas with a purple hem over purple tunics---richer garb than any living man was permitted to wear---but several were dressed differently; one wearing a lion's skin must have been the deified hero Hercules.

After the ceremony was finished, the Lar said that it was surely time for the boy to return home, and for his part, he too had other things he must do. When they had returned to the place from which the boy had entered the world, and found again the painting which showed the room in his house, the Lar enjoined the boy most strictly that he must not let go the former's hand until he was once again entirely in his own home or else he would be lost forever between this world and his own.[10] The boy promised to faithfully follow the Lar instructions and was thus returned to his home without incident. Once the boy was safely in the room again, the Lar bade him farewell for the present, but told him to keep an eye out in the future, for, having found the boy to be marvelous company, he would surely return again.

It was several weeks before the boy again saw the Lar. This time he was perched upon a rock in a fresco which showed the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, for there Thisbe fled away to a cave, while the lion tore apart her veil and Pyramus himself was just approaching the dismal scene. The Lar called out to the boy and invited the latter to join him in the painting, stretching out his hand for the boy to take it. The boy hesitated, looking at the lion, not a little frightened, but the Lar bade him be not afraid, for they were all characters in a story and would not harm him. With this, the boy took the Lar's hand and presently found himself also in the night time world. Behind him, the room the boy had just left appeared as a painted wall, but the Lar raised a fist to tap it and it disappeared.

The Lar led the boy away from the impending tragedy of the lovers, where the boy could now hear the lion growling as it rent the fabric and stained it with its bloody teeth and claws. Together, they passed by a shepherd sleeping quietly on a mountain-side, and the Lar said that this was Endymion whom the Moon had fallen in love with and caused to sleep forever where she might see him as she drove her chariot through the sky. The Lar and the boy strolled through a forest where they heard the song of a nightingale, and the Lar told the boy that this was Philomela who was most cruelly treated by her sister's husband and afterwards made into the nightingale. Continuing on, they came to a spring, and the Lar said that this was Arethusa, the young maiden who followed Diana and who, when pursued by the river god Alpheus, cried out to Diana to save her and was thus transformed into a spring.

As boy and Lar walked, they passed not only out of the wood but out of the night and came thus to a seashore in the daytime. Here they saw two birds building a nest upon the waves and the boy, who knew his Ovid, asked if these were Ceyx and Alcyone. The Lar smiled a the boy, pleased with his cleverness, and said that it was so. And so they wandered on, seeing Aeneas shipwrecked upon the shores of Carthage, Hercules leading the cattle of Geryon back to Eurystheus and many other heroes and heroic deeds.

At length, however, the Lar said that he had other things to which he must attend, and the boy himself had best return home, lest he be missed. They returned, therefore, to the moonlit scene of Pyramus and Thisbe, where Thisbe still fled, the lion still shredded her veil, and Pyramus still gradually approached the trysting-place. Here, the Lar raised his fist as if to knock upon the empty air, but struck instead the wall which showed the painted room of the boy's house, and the Lar again enjoined the boy that he not release the Lar's hand until he was wholly back in his own house, or else the boy would be lost forever between the two worlds. This the boy again promised to do, and he returned safely to his home. The Lar again bade him farewell for the time, but told the boy to keep an eye out, for he would surely return eventually.

Several weeks again passed before the boy next saw the Lar. The summer was well advanced and though the day was early yet, it would surely grow quite hot. This morning the boy was sitting upon the floor of the dining room which was painted to resemble an orchard full of fruit trees and little shrubs, with numerous birds hopping or flying about and a couple of fountains, which surely spouted cool water. The Lar found him here and offered his hand, inviting the boy to come into the orchard. This the boy readily accepted and presently he stood upon the cool grass and heard the splashing of the fountains. The Lar, as he had the previous time, rapped upon the wall which showed the painted room and it disappeared.

Together the two of them climbed trees and chased little lizard in the grass, for the Lar was disposed today to act like a child himself, and so they played throughout the day. By the evening, the boy had grown rather hungry but was reluctant to leave his friend if there was no business calling the Lar away. Perceiving this, the Lar offered the boy an orange from one of the trees. The boy was wary and asked if he would have to stay there forever if he ate it. The Lar laughed and answered that he need have no fear---this was not the underworld and eating would bring him no harm. Reassured, the boy took the fruit and found it to be of excellent flavour, and thereafter the two wandered further afield, gathering olives from trees, grapes from vines and milk fresh from a goat. There was no bread or cheese to be had, nor yet any relish,[11] but they made a pleasant repast nonetheless.

As evening drew on, the stars emerged. These were arranged in very different patterns than any the boy had ever seen, but the Lar pointed out the different constellations and named them and told their stories. Now the boy grew sleepy, but as the Lar did not press him to leave, he determined to remain still in the world of the painting. Since the birds continued to sing despite the darkness, the Lar offered to fetch the dragon of Lepidus,[12] but the boy had fallen asleep before he had finished speaking.

When the boy awoke in the morning, he and the Lar again ate the food of the orchard world. The boy, however, had now become anxious to return home and even asked the Lar that he might do so. The Lar endeavoured to dissuade him, but the boy persisted and so he at last acquiesced. They returned to the place where the boy had entered the world, and as before the Lar raised his hand as if to knock upon the empty air but struck instead the wall which appeared, bearing the painted room. For the third time,[13] he warned the boy not to let go his hand until he had crossed entirely into his own house, lest he be lost forever between the two worlds. This the boy promised to do and began to enter the wall. But when he had passed only partway through, enough to see the room itself, he let out a cry of horror at the sight. For the day was 25th of August of the year 79,[14] the second day of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The boy, half-way between the orchard world and his home, dropped the hand of the Lar and vanished. Whatever became of him, it is certain that he neither lives in the world of the painting nor died in our own.[15]

This is the story as it was told to me. I am particularly anxious to know whether you find it at all plausible. Would it be possible, by some perhaps magical means, to enter a scene depicted in a painting? If one were to do so, would one then encounter a world of Lares? Supposing both of these, and further that some sort of interaction, at least, was once a common practice, would it be feasible to posit that the much declined state of our modern time is due in no small part to the degradation of our domestic art, which, consisting as it now does of architectural impossibilities on the rare occasions it even depicts entire scenes, could not be inhabited by any person and therefore no longer allows communication between a patriarch and his Lar? Farewell.


[1] Halley: 'The hero and all other characters are nameless; they are referred to solely by epithets, in this case ones describing what they are (though other stories describe qualities such as virtues or vices).'

[2] Latin equites, the lesser of the two orders of Roman nobility, the greater being the Senatorial order.

[3] Pliny, of course, would not have identified the year by Anno Domini, but the names of that year's consuls.

[4] Halley: 'Fairy can only be seen by a child; adult is explicitly unable to do so. Common motif in European lore.'

[5] The Latin pietas conveys not only religious reverence but also familial and patriotic duty.

[6] A lar was a minor god associated with a family. All families, rich and poor, had a lar to whom offerings were left at a small shrine that also honored the family's ancestors. The word lar is sometimes also understood to apply to the various localized gods of the Romans, such as the god of the River Tiber or the goddess of some tree. In modern practice, of course, Lar (usually capitalized) is the accepted translation from English to Latin of 'fairy'.

[7] From what follows, it is clear that this city is not some variation of Olympus, which might be inferred from Urbs Deorum, but rather an Urbs Divorum---a city of lesser gods and of deified men, notably the deceased emperors.

[8] Halley: 'Ancient Roman Lares display as much fondness for ceremony as more recent English fairies. The single event described here is not conclusive, however the parallel to the ceremonies of English fairies is apparent in its similarity to human celebrations which are carried out by the fairies on a grander, more elaborate scale.'

[9] Vespasian was Roman Emperor from October 69 to June 79. Shortly before he died, Vespasian is reported to have said Vae, puto deus fio, 'Alas, I believe I am becoming a god.'

[10] Halley: 'Rule given to hero concerning travel in Faerie. Simple, as in other stories with imposed rules, but is inevitably broken.'

[11] This is probably garum, a seasoned paste made predominately from fish intestine, which was the staple condiment of the Roman world.

[12] Pliny the Elder, uncle and adoptive father to Pliny the Younger, offers a brief anecdote in his Natural History in which Lepidus (who, with Octavian and Mark Antony, was a member of the second triumvirate in the latter 40s and early 30s BC), while visiting the house of a magistrate, complained that he was unable to sleep because of the chirping of the birds. Thereupon, an enormous dragon was painted upon several sheets of parchment which so frightened the birds that they fell silent.

[13] Halley: 'Adventure in three parts with significant event in the last---extremely common motif. Three stages here represent progression away from human (Roman) civilization:

1. City of the Gods: fairy rendition of Roman city life

2. Mythological painting: sojourn through major stories of Roman culture

3. Orchard: accoutrements of civilization absent. Manufactured foods explicitly not available: bread (in which grain must be milled, combined with other ingredients, allowed to rise, and baked), cheese (for which whey must be separated out, curds repeatedly drained and pressed) and relish (product manufactured from several ingredients); raw foods (fruit, olives, milk) are still available.

Third stage lasts longest time; fairy does not insist upon boy's return, as previously.'

[14] Again, Pliny would have named the year by its consuls rather than a number.

[15] Halley: 'Exact consequence of broken rule is unclear. Fairy's warning implies that boy might become somehow lodged in the wall but story's conclusion suggests that boy entirely vanished. Regardless, story source perhaps questionable; possibly (as some modern cases attest) originates from someone under some form of fairy curse.'