Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Chicken (Pliny, Ep. 7.21)

(Note: a general bibliography for this and my other Pliniana will soon be uploaded and linked, and this note removed.)

    Pliny’s Epistle 7.21 seems trivial at first. It is short enough to quote in full:(1)

C. Plinius Cornuto suo s.

1 Pareo, collega carissime, et infirmitati oculorum ut iubes consulo. Nam et huc tecto vehiculo undique inclusus quasi in cubiculo perveni et hic non stilo modo verum etiam lectionibus difficulter sed abstineo, solisque auribus studeo. 2 Cubicula obductis velis opaca nec tamen obscura facio. Cryptoporticus quoque adopertis inferioribus fenestris tantum umbrae quantum luminis habet. Sic paulatim lucem ferre condisco. 3 Balineum assumo quia prodest, vinum quia non nocet, parcissime tamen. Ita assuevi, et nunc custos adest.

4 Gallinam ut a te missam libenter accepi; quam satis acribus oculis, quamquam adhuc lippus, pinguissimam vidi. Vale.

There are two tiny puzzles in § 3-4:

    1. Who is the guardian (custos) of § 3? “One of his private doctors”, says Sherwin-White ad loc., and refers to 8.1.3, where Pliny mentions the medici diligentes who are treating his tubercular lector Encolpius. The only commentator I have found who says more is Kingery: “physician or nurse, wife or some friend, who saw to it that the patient was more careful than he had been.” That covers all the bases, but doesn’t tell us (or Cornutus) anything we couldn’t have guessed ourselves, and gives no help in deciding which is meant. I will suggest a fifth possibility below.

    2. What kind of bird is the gallina in the next sentence? A “pullet”, says Radice, and that is the usual meaning of the unadjectived word. All but one of the half-dozen other translators on my Pliny shelf agree.(2) The one exception is Walsh, who makes it a “guinea hen” with no explanation. He may have been thinking, as I do, that an ordinary chicken would hardly be special enough to send any distance at all, so this must have been some more valuable bird. (And so it was: cf. T. J. Leary on Martial 13.45.) With no postal service or refrigerators, it must have been delivered by private messenger, alive, and in a cage.(3) Is ut a te missam a bit ironic? One chicken, or even one guinea hen, isn’t much of a gift, but if it comes from a friend, thanks are still owed. Note that Pliny offers no return gift, and unlike 5.2, where he is unable to offer a counter-gift for some thrushes, does not apologize for his failure, either. Perhaps gifts sent to the sick to improve their mental and physical health did not call for repayment.

    It seems to me that these two questions are related. Taking the second one first: there is more than one kind of fowl that was valuable enough to make a present for a rich man, tasty enough to cheer up a sick man, and still describable as a gallina. Rather than a guinea hen, is it not more likely that this bird was an altilis, a chicken fattened in the dark?(4) Martial refers to them as gallinae altiles in the title of 13.62, gallina in the text, and Pliny’s pinguissimam (§ 4) would naturally refer to something much larger than a guinea hen – so fat that even his bleary eyes are sufficiently sharp to see it (satis acribus oculis, § 4). Not only was an altilis a delicacy, much more valuable than an ordinary chicken and (I would guess) even more valuable than a guinea hen, it is a much more appropriate present for Pliny in his current condition, living in the dark as he is, than any hen, guinea or plain. Would it have been shipped in a darkened container, like Pliny’s curtained carriage? Presumably. Is Cornutus teasing Pliny by sending him a fellow sufferer, a galline member of the turba lucifugarum, a fattened one that will help fatten him? Pliny mentions bathing and drinking, but he must be eating, and can hardly be getting much in the way of vigorous exercise. Though unprovable, all this seems very likely to me. I rather like Cornutus’ brand of humor – if it is in fact his, and not my fantasy.

    This brings us back to the first question. Who is Pliny’s just-arrived collega, mentioned just before the gallina? I think the collega is the gallina. Pliny was a member of the College of Augurs, whose duties included predicting the future. One of their tools was a flock of sacred chickens. Is the fact that Pliny works with chickens in his day job enough to call this one a colleague? (Not literally, of course, if my first hypothesis is correct: the College of Augurs surely did not use altiles, or allow anyone to eat their sacred chickens.) Other than Pliny and Cornutus, the mysterious colleague and the chicken are the only living creatures in this sparsely populated letter. If I am right, they are the only living creature, singular.

    There is one further twist that must remain unturned. T. H. Huxley once spoke of “the great tragedy of Science – the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact”,(5) and this applies to more than just the hard sciences. I would have liked to argue that Cornutus, the addressee of this letter, was himself an augur. That would give more point to the salutation of the letter (collega carissime), which bothers Sherwin-White, and make a teasing chicken joke even more appropriate. Unfortunately, Cornutus’ tombstone survives (ILS 1024), with no mention of an augurship and no room in the missing bits to supply one. Is it possible that this letter is addressed to a different Cornutus, who was an augur? Perhaps a prosopographer can help answer that question, but it seems unlikely: Whitton’s note on Ep. 2.11.19 points to the many connections between Pliny and C. Iulius Cornutus Tertullus, which make it difficult to see how the Cornutus addressed as collega carissime here could be anyone else.

    Two questions remain: 1. Should we remove the paragraph at § 4? If the chicken is the guardian, there is no strong break here, so I plan to combine the two paragraphs when I put up my web-text of this letter. 2. If I am right that this letter describes a multilayered joke on the part of Cornutus, how much of the joke did Pliny ‘get’? He doesn’t ‘let on’, does he? Is that a problem for either or both of my hypotheses?


(1) My text is from Mynors. There are no pertinent variants. All references are ad loc. if not further specified.

(2) Trisoglio: “la tua gallina”, Rusca in Lenaz-Rusca: “la gallina”, Krenkel and Philips-Giebel: “das Huhn”, Méthy in Zehnacker-Méthy: “la poule”.

(3) The abundance of information on what Pliny is up to seems incompatible with the idea that Cornutus lived in the same neighborhood and just sent a bird over.

(4) Altiles are attested in the generations before and after Pliny’s, not only in his uncle’s works but in Seneca (Prov. 2.6, Ben. 4.13.1, E.M. 122.4), Petronius (65.2), Martial (13.62), and Juvenal (5.115, 168). As Leary notes on the Martial, “Unlike the ordinary chicken . . ., fattened hens were a great luxury, and that they were served at Petr. 65.2 as matteae (i.e. tid-bits served late in the meal) is an indication of just how vulgar Trimalchio is.”

(5) Thomas Henry Huxley, “Biogenesis and Abiogenesis”, Presidential Address at the British Association (1870), reprinted in Collected Essays VIII.

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