The Elder Pliny’s Intense Study Habits

From Pliny’s Letters, 3.5:

“Before daybreak, he would go to see the emperor Vespasian, who also liked to work at night, and then he would set about his assigned duty. Once he returned home, he gave the rest of his time up to study. Often, after eating (which, in the ancient way, was always light and sparing) he would lie in the summer sun if he had the leisure, and read a book which he annotated and excerpted from. He never read anything without at least making some notes: he was in the habit of saying that no book was so bad that it was not useful in at least some way. After the sun, he would wash in cold water, then eat and sleep a little bit; soon, as if it were a new day already, he would study again until dinnertime. While eating dinner, he would read and take notes in a cursory fashion. I remember that he was once reading out loud, and was asked by one of his friends to repeat what he had just recited; to this man, my uncle said, ‘Surely, you understood the meaning?’ When the friend said that he had, my uncle responded, ‘Why then did you ask me to repeat it? I have lost the time for reading ten more verses because of your interruption.’ Such was his parsimony of his time. In summer, he would leave the dinner table when it was still light out; in winter, within the first hour of night and as though he were compelled by some law.

He did all this amidst many labors, and the bustle of the city. In his retirement, the only time which he took away from his studies was in the bath-house (and when I say this, I mean the bath itself; when he was being oiled down or dried off, he would listen to or dictate something). When on the road, as though devoid of any other concerns, he had time for this alone: a secretary would be by his side with a book and some note-tablets, and this secretary would wear gloves in winter so that not even foul weather could snatch away any of his time for his studies. For this same reason, he was always carried in a chair when he was in Rome. I remember that one time, he asked me why I was walking. ‘You could have,’ he said, ‘avoided wasting these hours,’ for he thought that all time was wasted which was not spent on study.”

Ante lucem ibat ad Vespasianum imperatorem – nam ille quoque noctibus utebatur -, inde ad delegatum sibi officium. Reversus domum quod reliquum temporis studiis reddebat. Post cibum saepe – quem interdiu levem et facilem veterum more sumebat – aestate si quid otii iacebat in sole, liber legebatur, adnotabat excerpebatque. Nihil enim legit quod non excerperet; dicere etiam solebat nullum esse librum tam malum ut non aliqua parte prodesset. Post solem plerumque frigida lavabatur, deinde gustabat dormiebatque minimum; mox quasi alio die studebat in cenae tempus. Super hanc liber legebatur adnotabatur, et quidem cursim. Memini quendam ex amicis, cum lector quaedam perperam pronuntiasset, revocasse et repeti coegisse; huic avunculum meum dixisse: ‘Intellexeras nempe?’ Cum ille adnuisset, ‘Cur ergo revocabas? decem amplius versus hac tua interpellatione perdidimus.’ Tanta erat parsimonia temporis. Surgebat aestate a cena luce, hieme intra primam noctis et tamquam aliqua lege cogente.

Haec inter medios labores urbisque fremitum. In secessu solum balinei tempus studiis eximebatur – cum dico balinei, de interioribus loquor; nam dum destringitur tergiturque, audiebat aliquid aut dictabat. In itinere quasi solutus ceteris curis, huic uni vacabat: ad latus notarius cum libro et pugillaribus, cuius manus hieme manicis muniebantur, ut ne caeli quidem asperitas ullum studii tempus eriperet; qua ex causa Romae quoque sella vehebatur. Repeto me correptum ab eo, cur ambularem: ‘poteras’ inquit ‘has horas non perdere’; nam perire omne tempus arbitrabatur, quod studiis non impenderetur.

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