Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Bustle of an Ancient City

The city which I call home is small when compared to New York or Los Angeles, but at 1,000,000 it is one of the largest cities I have lived in during my short life. I grew up in very small towns of a few hundred and a few thousand. As an adult I love having the convenience of the city, the stores, the public services, the events and festivities close at hand. But there are days when I long to be rid of the city and its bustle of activity.
A model of Pliny's Villa at Laurentum
Much has not changed in hundreds of years, the city has always been a center of activity and events. The Roman statesman known today as The Younger Pliny (61 AD – ca. 112 AD) revealed his own desire to be rid of the city and embrace the quiet of his country villa. In a letter to a friend in Rome, Minucius Fundanus, Pliny wrote;
It is astonishing how good an account can be given, or seem to be given, of each separate day spent in Rome, yet that this is not the case with regard to a number of days taken in conjunction. If you ask anyone, "What have you been doing today?" he would reply, "I have attended at the ceremony of a youth's coming of age. I have helped to celebrate a betrothal or a wedding. One has invited me to the signing of his will, another to attend a trial on his behalf, another to a consultation." These things seem indispensable at the time when they are done, but when you come to reflect that you have been doing them day after day, they strike you as mere frivolities; and much more is this the case when one has retired into the country. For, then, the recollection steals over you, "How many days have I wasted, and in what dreary pursuits!" This is what happens to me as soon as I am in my house at Laurentum, and am reading or writing, or even merely looking after my bodily health, that stay on which the mind reposes. I hear nothing, I say nothing, which one need be ashamed of hearing or saying. No one about me gossips ill-naturedly of anyone else, and I for my part censure no one, except myself, however, when my writings are not up to mark. I am troubled by no hopes and no fears, disquieted by no rumours: I converse with myself only and with my books. What a true and genuine life, what a sweet and honest repose, one might almost say, more attractive than occupation of any kind. Oh, sea and shore, veritable secret haunt of the Muses, how many thoughts do you suggest to the imagination and dictate to the pen! In the same way do you too, my friend, at first opportunity, turn your back upon all that bustle, and idle hurry-scurry, and utterly inane drudgery, and give yourself up to study or even to repose. It is better--as friend Atillius says, with as much wisdom as wit--to have nothing to do than to do nothing. (Pliny, Letters, 1.9, translation from Lewis, 12-13)

Plan of Pliny's Laurentum Villa ( Radice, 305)
I find myself agreeing very much with this wisdom of Pliny. During the course of a busy day at work, I spend many hours perusing maintenance manuals, fixing problems on helicopters, signing my name and filling out the endless stream of paperwork which flows from aircraft maintenance.  But sitting down, reading this letter, pondering the days work, I find myself thinking similar things as Pliny did 1,900 years ago; "How many days have I wasted, and in what dreary pursuits!" Pliny wrote this while he was at his villa in Laurentum, an area between the coastal city of Ostia and Rome. In another famous letter to a friend named Gallus, Pliny described in lengthy detail his villa from which he wrote the above letter to his friend in Rome. His description is so detailed that plans and models have been made using the information he provided (see pictures). I can relate very much with Pliny in his love of pen and book, but unfortunately I cannot relate with the vast comforts of his Laurentine accommodations! One of my favorite areas of the house; "Round the corner is a room built round in an apse to let in the sun as it moves round and shines in each window in turn, and with one wall fitted with shelves like a library to hold the books which I read again and again" (this is area "H" on the map at left) (Pliny, Letters, 2.17, translation from Radice, 76). Reading these thoughts from Pliny reminds me to not waste the valuable time which has been given me on this earth. I may not have a lush country villa like Pliny, or have the luxury of doing nothing but reading and writing (which I love), but I cannot get lost in the bustle of life and let "life" pass me by. I think now upon the admonition of Paul, "Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil" ( Ephesians 5:15-16, ESV)!

Lewis, John Delaware, trans. The Letters of the Younger Pliny. London, England: Kegan Paul, Trench, Troubner, & Co. LTD, 1890.

Radice, Betty, trans. The Letters of the Younger Pliny. London, England: Penguin Books, 1969.

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