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Latin Book Club — Pliny the Younger | The Tale of the Dolphin Rider

This article has been reviewed in accordance with our editorial policy.

Introduction

The intel­li­gence and kind­ness of dol­phins have amazed and bemused peo­ple through­out the ages. Today, in our Latin video book club, we are read­ing a let­ter from Pliny the Younger with a spe­cial dol­phin story.

Pliny the Younger’s original name

In 61 or 62 A.D., a boy called Gaius Cae­cil­ius Clio was born in north­ern Italy. The boy’s father, Lucius Cae­cil­ius Clio, died young, and the boy was raised by his moth­er, Plinia Mar­cel­la, with the help of her broth­er, Pliny the Elder. In his will, Pliny adopt­ed the now teenage boy and left him his entire estate. 

This boy, Gaius Cae­cil­ius Clio, is known to most as Pliny the Younger or Plin­ius Minor; he changed his name and added his uncle’s name result­ing in Gaius Plin­ius Cae­cil­ius Secundus. 

Pliny the Younger’s career is well doc­u­ment­ed: He stud­ied in Rome, entered the legal pro­fes­sion, joined the mil­i­tary, and then entered the sen­ate. He became a quaestor, then a tri­bune, a prae­tor, a pre­fect, con­sul, pro-prae­tor, augur, super­in­ten­dent, and last but not least, an impe­r­i­al gov­er­nor of Bithy­nia and Pontus.

Prac­tice your Latin with week­ly Latin videos

In our com­mu­ni­ty, you get access to:

  • Video lessons in Latin every week
  • Easy Latin sto­ries with translations
  • Q & A pod­cast about learn­ing Latin we pub­lish new video lessons every week

It is, how­ev­er, not his illus­tri­ous career that has secured him a place in his­to­ry; it is rather his writ­ing. Pliny the Younger wrote poet­ry, speech­es, and, last­ly, letters. 

And, it is the let­ters that have made him famous. We have 247 of Pliny’s let­ters, writ­ten to friends, acquain­tances, and asso­ciates. Among his cor­re­spon­dents, we find the emper­or Tra­jan and the his­to­ri­ans Tac­i­tus and Sue­to­nius. How­ev­er, and it is impor­tant to remem­ber this: the let­ters were pub­lished. This means that before they were pub­lished, they were revised and edit­ed. So, even though they pro­vide unique insight into Roman life, keep in mind that they were meant to be read wide­ly. Pliny writes for an audi­ence, not for the sole eyes of a con­fi­dant or a pen pal. 

The Letter

Today we will read a let­ter addressed to his friend Caninius Rufus (Plin. Ep IX.33). 

In this let­ter, Pliny tells a dol­phin sto­ry that he seems to sug­gest that Caninius use as inspi­ra­tion for a poem. Caninius wrote poet­ry in Greek, though noth­ing of his has sur­vived his­to­ry. So, we will nev­er know if he ever used Pliny’s dol­phin story. 

Pliny admits that the dol­phin sto­ry is not “his”, how­ev­er, but that he heard it over din­ner when sto­ries were told. 

Two versions of the Story of the Dolphin

Inter­est­ing to say is that Pliny doesn’t men­tion that his uncle, Pliny the Elder, wrote about the same dol­phin sto­ry in his Nat­ur­al His­to­ry (Nat. 9.8.26)  

(There is an inter­est­ing arti­cle dis­cussing Pliny the Younger’s more art­ful ver­sion of the sto­ry than his uncle’s if you are inter­est­ed: Stevens, Ben­jamin, “Pliny and the Dol­phin – or a Sto­ry About Storytelling.”

Video in Latin

Watch and lis­ten to Daniel Pet­ters­son read­ing the let­ter in Latin.

You can down­load a PDF and the Audio here: Get a down­load­able audiofile of this episode and a print-friend­ly PDF of the text and trans­la­tion: Latin Book Club: the Dol­phin, Pliny the Younger ep. 9.33.

Audio only

Latin text (Pl. Ep IX. 33)

C. PLĪNIUS CANĪNIŌ SUŌ S.

1 Incidī in māte­ri­am vēram sed simil­li­mam fic­tae, dig­namque istō laetis­simō altissimō plānēque poēticō ingeniō; incidī autem, dum super cēnam varia mīrācu­la hinc inde refer­un­tur. Magna auc­tōrī fidēs: tamet­sī quid poē­tae cum fide? Is tamen auc­tor, cui bene vel his­to­ri­am scrīp­tūrus crēdidissēs.

2 Est in Āfricā Hip­pōnēn­sis colō­nia marī prox­i­ma. Adi­acet nāvigā­bile stāgnum; ex hōc in mod­um flūmin­is aes­tuāri­um ēmer­git, quod vice alternā, prout aes­tus aut repres­sit aut impulit, nunc īnfer­tur marī, nunc red­di­tur stāgnō. 3 Omnis hīc aetās pis­can­dī nāvi­gandī atque eti­am natandī studiō tenē­tur, max­imē puerī, quōs ōtium lūsusque sol­lic­i­tat. Hīs glōria et virtūs altissimē prōve­hī: vic­tor ille, quī longis­simē ut lītus ita simul natan­tēs relīquit.

4 Hōc certāmine puer quī­dam auden­tior cēterīs in ulter­iōra tendē­bat. Delphīnus occur­rit, et nunc praecēdere puerum nunc sequī nunc cir­cum­īre, postrēmō sub­īre dēpōnere iterum sub­īre, trep­i­dan­temque per­ferre prī­mum in altum, mox flec­tit ad lītus, red­ditque ter­rae et aequālibus. 5 Ser­pit per colō­ni­am fāma; con­cur­rere omnēs, ipsum puerum tamquam mīrācu­lum aspicere, inter­rogāre audīre nār­rāre. Posterō diē obsi­dent lītus, prōspec­tant mare et sī quid est marī sim­i­le. Natant puerī, inter hōs ille, sed cau­tius. Delphīnus rūr­sus ad tem­pus, rūr­sus ad puerum. Fugit ille cum cēterīs. Delphīnus, qua­si invītet et revo­cet, exsilit mer­gi­tur, var­iōsque orbēs impli­cat expeditque.

6 Hoc alterō diē, hoc ter­tiō, hoc plūribus, dōnec hom­inēs innūtrītōs marī sub­īret timendī pudor. Accē­dunt et allū­dunt et appel­lant, tan­gunt eti­am pertrec­tan­tque praeben­tem. Crēsc­it audā­cia experī­men­tō. Max­imē puer, quī prī­mus exper­tus est, adnatat nan­tī, īnsilit tergō, fer­tur refer­turque, agnōscī sē amārī putat, amat ipse; neuter timet, neuter timē­tur; huius fīdū­cia, mān­suētūdō illīus augē­tur. 7 Nec nōn aliī puerī dex­trā laevāque simul eunt hor­tan­tēs mon­en­tēsque. Ībat ūnā — id quoque mīrum — delphīnus alius, tan­tum spec­tā­tor et comes. Nihil enim sim­i­le aut faciē­bat aut patiēbā­tur, sed alterum illum dūcē­bat redūcē­bat, ut puerum cēterī puerī. 8 Incrēdi­bile, tam vērum tamen quam priōra, delphīnum gestātōrem col­lūsōremque puerōrum in ter­ram quoque extrahī soli­tum, harēnīsque sic­cā­tum, ubi incaluis­set in mare revolvī.

9 Cōn­stat Octāvi­um Avī­tum, lēgā­tum prōcōn­sulis, in lītus ēduc­tō religiōne prāvā super­fūdisse unguen­tum, cuius illum novitātem odōremque in altum refūgisse, nec nisi post multōs diēs vīsum lan­guidum et maes­tum, mox red­ditīs vīribus priōrem lascīvi­am et soli­ta min­is­te­ria repetīsse. 

10 Cōn­fluēbant omnēs ad spec­tācu­lum mag­istrātūs, quōrum adven­tū et morā mod­i­ca rēs pūbli­ca novīs sūmptibus atterēbā­tur. Postrēmō locus ipse quiētem suam sēcrē­tumque perdē­bat: placuit occultē inter­ficī, ad quod coībā­tur. 11 Haec tū quā mis­erātiōne, quā cōpiā dēflēbis ōrnābis attol­lēs! Quamquam nōn est opus affin­gās aliq­uid aut astruās; suf­ficit nē ea quae sunt vēra min­u­an­tur. Valē.Join our Newslet­ter because we send out tips, updates and learn­ing material.

English Translation

To Caninius.

I have come upon a true sto­ry — though it sounds very like a fable — which is quite wor­thy of engag­ing the atten­tion of a mind so hap­py, so lofty, and so poet­i­cal as yours, and I came across it at the din­ner-table, while the guests were telling var­i­ous mar­vel­lous tales. The author is a man you can implic­it­ly cred­it, though what has a poet to do with fact? Yet I can assure you that the nar­ra­tor was one whom you would have trust­ed, even if you were going to write history. 

There is in Africa a colony called Hip­po, quite close to the sea, while hard by is a nav­i­ga­ble expanse of water, out of which flows a chan­nel like a riv­er, which, accord­ing ns the tide is either ebbing or flow­ing, is car­ried into the sea or borne back into the stag­nant sheet of water. In this place the peo­ple of all ages are devot­ed to fish­ing, sail­ing, and swim­ming, espe­cial­ly the boys, who are tempt­ed there­to by hav­ing noth­ing to do, and by their love of play. They think it a fine thing to show their pluck by swim­ming out as far as pos­si­ble, and he is looked upon as the cham­pi­on who swims the longest way out and leaves the shore and those who are swim­ming with him far­thest behind. While engaged in one of these con­tests a cer­tain boy, more dar­ing than the rest, kept swim­ming on and on. A dol­phin met him, and first swam in front of the boy, then behind him, then round him, then came up beneath to car­ry him, put him off, and again came under him, and car­ried the lad, who was much afraid, first to the open sea, and then, turn­ing to the shore, restored him to dry land and to his play­mates. The sto­ry spread through the colony, and every one flocked to the spot to gaze upon the lad, as though he were a mar­vel, to ask him ques­tions, hear the tale, and tell it over again. 

On the fol­low­ing day they crowd­ed to the shore, and scanned the sea and the sheet of water. The boys began to swim, and among them was the hero of the adven­ture, but he showed less dar­ing than before. Again the dol­phin returned at the same time and approached the boy, but he fled with the rest. As though invit­ing him to approach, and call­ing him to return, the dol­phin leaped out of the sea, then dived and twist­ed and turned itself into var­i­ous shapes. This was repeat­ed on the next day, and the day after, and on sub­se­quent days, until the men, who had been bred to the sea, began to be ashamed of being afraid. They approached the dol­phin, played with him, and gave him a name, and, when he offered him­self to their touch, they stroked and han­dled him. Their bold­ness grew as they got to know him. In par­tic­u­lar, the boy who was the hero of the first adven­ture with him, leaped on his back as he swam about, and was car­ried out to sea and brought back again, the boy think­ing that the dol­phin recog­nised and was fond of him, while he too grew attached to the dol­phin. Nei­ther showed fear of the oth­er, and there­by the boy grew bold­er, and the dol­phin still more tame. More­over, oth­er boys swam with them on the right hand and on the left, urg­ing and encour­ag­ing them on, and, curi­ous­ly enough, anoth­er dol­phin accom­pa­nied the first one, but only as a spec­ta­tor of the fun, and for com­pa­ny’s sake, for he did not fol­low the oth­er dol­phin’s exam­ple, and would not allow any­one to touch him, but mere­ly led the way for its com­pan­ion out to sea, and back again, as the boy’s play­mates did for him. 

It is almost incred­i­ble, but yet every bit as true as the details just giv­en, that the dol­phin which thus car­ried the lad on his back and played with the boys, used to make his way up from the sea on to dry land, and, after dry­ing him­self on the sand and get­ting warm with the heat of the sun, would roll back again into the sea. It is well known too that Octavius Avi­tus, the pro­con­sular legate, moved by some absurd super­sti­tion, poured a quan­ti­ty of per­fume upon the dol­phin as he lay on the shore, and that the fish lied fur refuge from this nov­el treat­ment and the smell of the per­fume out to the deep sea, and only appeared again at the end of sev­er­al days, in a limp and melan­choly con­di­tion. After­wards, how­ev­er, it recov­ered its strength, and resumed its for­mer play­ful­ness and atten­dance upon the boy. All the mag­is­trates flocked to see the sight, and, as they came and stayed, the finances of the lit­tle state were seri­ous­ly embar­rassed by its new expens­es, while the place itself began to lose its peace­ful and tran­quil char­ac­ter. So it was decid­ed to put to death secret­ly the object which drew the peo­ple thither. 

Prac­tice your Latin with week­ly Latin videos

In our com­mu­ni­ty, you get access to:

  • Video lessons in Latin every week
  • Easy Latin sto­ries with translations
  • Q & A pod­cast about learn­ing Latin we pub­lish new video lessons every week

I can imag­ine how you will regret this sad end­ing, how elo­quent­ly you will bewail it, and adorn and mag­ni­fy the tale. Yet there is no need to add a sin­gle fic­ti­tious inci­dent, or work it up ; all it requires is that none of the true details shall be omit­ted.   Farewell.

Trans­lat­ed by J.B.Firth (1900).

Amelie Rosengren

Amelie Rosengren

Amelie Rosengren, M.A. and co-founder of Latinitium, is a published author, illustrator and historian. She specializes in daily life, has a soft spot for historic curiosities, and works as a museum educator at the world’s oldest open air museum, Skansen.
Written by Amelie Rosengren

Written by Amelie Rosengren

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