Everything New is Old Again

By Albert Bell

This is my first appearance on Perseverance Press’ blog, so I hope I’m doing it right. I’ve read many of the earlier posts on this site and been impressed by the variety and quality. In this post I want to say something about writing and ancient Rome, the topics I’m most comfortable with. In coming months, I plan to range more widely.

Before anything else, I want to thank Perseverance for picking up my mystery series when my previous publisher decided not to continue it. (They wanted to concentrate on being a regional publisher and ancient Rome wasn’t their region.) My first Perseverance publication, Death in the Ashes: A Fourth Case from the Notebooks of Pliny the Younger, will come out in September, just as I’ll be turning in the completed manuscript for the fifth book in the series.

I am, by profession, a historian of the ancient world, which sounds better than being an ancient historian (at my age, that’s what I look like to my students). As I have studied the Romans over the years, I have enjoyed noting the similarities between us and them. There are differences, of course, and they’re more profound than just wearing togas and watching people die in the arena. Being aware of those differences makes the similarities all the more striking.

The Romans wrote a lot, though only a small fraction of their output survives. What will surprise you is that they followed much of the advice that is given to writers today. On my Pliny website (http://www.pliny-mysteries.com) you’ll find a piece I wrote on this topic. Today I’d like to expand and reflect on it.

Although we might think of the Romans as florid and overblown—especially if we’ve read any of Cicero’s speeches—Cicero himself advises that “brevity is a great charm of eloquence.” The emperor Augustus, in a letter to his granddaughter Agrippina the Elder, admonished her to “strive, in speech as in writing, for simplicity and lack of affectation.”

Toward the end of the first century A. D., an orator named Quintilian wrote a handbook on education. Every chance he gets, he emphasizes clarity and conciseness: “Clearness is the first essential, then brevity . . . . Correct repeatedly and stoically. Erasure is as important as writing . . . . The best method of correction is to put aside for a time what we have written, so that when we come to it again it may have an aspect of novelty, as though it were someone else’s work; in this way we may preserve ourselves from regarding our writings with the affection that we lavish upon a newborn child.” (Sadly, both of Quintilian’s sons died when they were children; his wife died giving birth, at age 19, to their second son.) In another spot he says, “We should not write so that it is possible for someone to understand us, but so that it is impossible for anyone to misunderstand us” (italics mine).

Pliny the Younger, also from the late first century A. D., is known for his collection of letters (not just for the beer which bears his name today). In those letters he frequently mentions how he writes. He and his friends exchange their works for critique. He asks one friend to “apply your usual critical eye to the details as well as to the work as a whole.” Pliny gathers a group of his friends for a critique session and provides writing materials for them to offer comments—a writers’ group! After reading one friend’s book, he says, “I approve of the effort you put into revising your work, but there has to be a limit to this. Too much polishing blurs the outline instead of improving the details and it prevents us from finishing one project and starting on something new.”

When I see that people who lived so ago worked on the same principles we use today, it suggests to me that there are some universal truths in the process of writing.

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9 Responses

  1. Hopefully Cato didn’t cry out Cartagena delenda est! in *his* writing group. 🙂

  2. He got his wish in the third Punic War (146 BCE). In 1985 the mayor of Rome and the mayor of Carthage, a suburb of modern Tunis, signed a treaty ending hostilities between their two cities.

  3. I can’t engage you in scholarly discourse as Lev has, Albert, but I do want to welcome you to Get it Write!

  4. It’s wonderful to know that the best advice seems also timeless–great post Albert and congratulations on signing with PP!

  5. Nice to see you here, Albert. Your ALL ROADS LEAD TO MURDER is one of the few “historicals” I ever read and enjoyed. Thanks for the blog,and these words to live by:
    (Quoting Pliny the Younger) “I approve of the effort you put into revising your work,but there has to be alimit to this. Too much polishing blurs the outline instead ofimproving the details and it prevents us from finishing one project and starting on something new.”
    Pat Browning

  6. Hello Albert. I’m just getting interested in ancient Rome and look forward to reading your series.

    Best of luck with your new book!

  7. And the Greek Aristotle is still our primary teacher on persuasion. Your quotes from ancient Rome are persuasive and clear, Albert. Why do we (communicators) keep trying to develop strategies when it’s all been said and practiced over centuries?

  8. How heartening, Albert, to realize our universality. I’ve read Cicero’s comments before: such as “Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents and everyone is writing a book!” that was in 43 BC!
    And now we have Pliny, reinforcing out basic tenets of writing. Hurrah!

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