Cicero in Letters: Epistolary Relations of the Late Republic 
by Peter White.
Oxford, 235 pp., £40, August 2010, 978 0 19 538851 0
Show More
Show More

In June 1345, in the Chapter Library at Verona, Petrarch discovered a manuscript containing the letters written by Cicero to his friend Atticus (‘Ad Atticum’), his brother Quintus (‘Ad Quintum Fratrem’) and Caesar’s assassin, Marcus Brutus (‘Ad M. Brutum’). Lost for centuries, the letters enraptured Petrarch, providing him with a moment of first contact not unlike that of Howard Carter peering through the hole into Tutankhamun’s tomb and murmuring that he could see ‘wonderful things’. Petrarch reacted passionately to the Cicero he met in these letters, writing a letter to his long-dead hero in which he recorded his impression of having suddenly been given access to his actual voice: ‘I heard you saying many things, lamenting many things.’ Yet the ‘many things’ Petrarch heard were also a shock to him and to the received view of Cicero. Instead of the high-minded sage that Petrarch thought he knew, occupied in transcribing Greek philosophy during his last years of retirement, he discovered in this mass of diverse correspondence a desperately engaged politician, trimming and adjusting under the pressure of rapidly shifting circumstances.

Petrarch died in 1374: the rest of Cicero’s correspondence, the Letters to his Friends (‘Ad Familiares’), were found in 1392 in the cathedral library at Vercelli. Together, the two discoveries yielded around 900 letters. They were a mesmerising resource for humanists, bringing them into direct contact with the person they revered more than any other in classical antiquity. Modern readers too, encountering these letters for the first time, almost invariably feel something of that attraction, even if they are unlikely to be predisposed to admire the writer in the way the humanists were. As you turn the pages and find Cicero grumbling about his son-in-law or telling a friend that he hasn’t missed much by not seeing the shows put on by Pompey the Great, it is almost impossible not to succumb to the illusion that you are eavesdropping on a contemporary. It’s often said that the quality and quantity of circumstantial evidence in these letters make Cicero the only personality from classical antiquity of whom anything like a proper biography can be written. Certainly there is no other figure from the ancient world about whom we can know so much.

As Peter White demonstrates, however, in his characteristically incisive and learned book, Cicero’s letters do not provide a window into his soul, any more than the numerous letters from his many correspondents provide a window into theirs (some of them seem to have lacked souls altogether). The letters are more unfamiliar than they appear at first, and less like the unguardedly candid outpourings that Petrarch thought they were. We don’t ‘hear’ Cicero speaking as we read; the letters require patient interpretation before we can understand the kind of artefact they are and the kind of environment from which they arose.

For a start, as White shows, building on work by Mary Beard, these 900 letters are not the flotsam of chance survival they seem to be. Someone has edited and organised the collections that have survived, and that someone, according to White’s compelling argument, had a definite plan in mind when he set about examining the archive of the great man’s correspondence and shaping what he found into a certain order. White allows for the possibility that Cicero himself arranged the letters for publication, but his arguments make it far more likely that someone else was responsible. This has been disputed terrain since 1947, when Jérôme Carcopino argued that the letters were published by Caesar’s heir, the future Augustus, in order to discredit the earlier governing class, since they show Cicero and his correspondents, Cicero in particular, to have been utter cads. White makes short work of Carcopino’s bizarre book, characterising it as ‘prolix, florid, bullying and intemperate’, before getting onto his own more circumspect arguments. Meticulously reconstructing exchanges from which portions are clearly missing, and plotting out the sequences and clusters of addressees, White shows that the editor had his eye on dramatic public events rather than the minutiae of domestic interchange, aiming to construct ‘an epistolary portrait of a great princeps civitatis (leading statesman) who over a long period dominated discourse in his milieu even if he was unable to control events’.

The letters as we have them may well have been arranged in order to shape our sense of Cicero’s persona and significance, but we also have to allow systematically for what White calls ‘the letter-writing habits of a particular Roman milieu’. Those represented in the collection are almost exclusively the great beasts of the Roman political jungle, men for whom every aspect of every interaction had potential political resonance. These people lived in a goldfish bowl, always on view, always being assessed, and our partitions between the public and the private worlds are not ones that mean very much in this environment. White deploys his encyclopedic knowledge of the collection and its personnel to re-create a world in which letters had a crucial role to play in keeping the gears of political interaction oiled and smoothly connecting. What look like confiding moments regularly turn out to be quasi-formulaic techniques for mutual status grooming; the references to contemporary literature, for example, are not the random leavings of a well-stocked literary mind but part of a system of relationship management.

Without anything like a professional bureaucracy, and with no elected official holding office for more than a year, an empire of 50 million people was overseen by the personal relations of about a hundred men and their hangers-on; the constant exchanges of letters, with their reaffirmations of devotion and loyalty, their imparting of information and their manoeuvring for position, were an indispensable element in keeping the show, such as it was, on the road. When one considers in addition the lack of any official postal service and the resulting uncertainties of delivery – all lucidly evoked by White – the fact that the Roman Republic succeeded in running the known world for as long as it did comes to seem almost miraculous.

White has succeeded wonderfully well in answering his fundamental question: ‘What makes these letters the way they are?’ In the process, he has made it possible for us to read them as human documents firmly grounded in the intricacies and mores of a certain time and place. Two of Cicero’s relationships still look like outliers: his relationship with Atticus, his friend since boyhood, and his relationship with his brother Quintus. Cicero explicitly tells Atticus that his other friendships feel like ‘barren things’ in comparison: ‘That is why I am waiting and longing for you, why I now fairly summon you home.’ White acutely remarks that the transactional idiom of a ‘bond’ or ‘chain’ (vinculum) is used in the letters to describe the links that tie friends together, but is completely absent from Cicero’s more idealising philosophical portrait of the institution of friendship in his dialogue on the subject, ‘On Friendship’. This observation makes it all the more striking that Cicero does not use the metaphor of the vinculum in connection with his relationship with Quintus or Atticus, except in one letter to Atticus, where he is referring with some embarrassment to the chafing bond between them formed by the long and miserable marriage of Cicero’s brother to Atticus’ sister, Pomponia.

Again, White points out that it was usual for Cicero and other correspondents to dictate letters to a slave, but normal for Cicero to write ‘in his own hand to his friend Atticus and to his brother Quintus’. It is quite a shock to read through the letters to Atticus and to arrive at the opening of the 43rd letter, written almost nine years after the earliest dateable letter: ‘I believe you have never before read a letter of mine not in my own handwriting. You may gather from that how desperately busy I am. Not having a minute to spare and being obliged to take a walk to refresh my poor voice, I am dictating this while walking.’ In this connection, and in light of the fact that Roman letters appear normally not to have had signatures at the end, it would have been interesting to see what White made of the charming ‘signatures’ to two consecutive letters to Atticus from April 59 BC. These are written in Greek, and read ‘Little Cicero greets Titus the Athenian,’ ‘Cicero the philosopher greets Titus the politician.’ It is hard to resist the old suggestion that they were originally written by the uncertain hand of Cicero’s son, who would have been almost six years old, and just about proficient enough in Greek to copy out these words from his father’s exemplar.

A moment such as this, evoking the boy’s pudgy hand, with the too pushy father encouraging him, reminds us how tempting the Petrarchan air of immediacy continues to be. Even if we resist the temptation, the appeal of the correspondence remains something to be accounted for. Cicero’s letters have always been popular, but it is intriguing that the last decade and a half in particular has seen such a revival of scholarly interest, going back to G.O. Hutchinson’s Cicero’s Correspondence: A Literary Study (1998). It is as if our own scurrying e-communications have created a nostalgia for a time when busy people could write pages of well-turned prose as part of their regular intercourse.

And the prose you read in the correspondence is on the whole well turned, no matter who is writing. Some of the people who write to Cicero are conspicuous for their verve and ability on the page, with Marcus Caelius Rufus heading most readers’ lists, but it is Cicero himself whose stylistic power stands out as the most impressive. A letter may begin in a humdrum enough manner, but then Cicero’s astonishing skill will suddenly show, and you see him shift into a different gear from one sentence to the next as something fully engages his attention. It may be a description of a riot in the Forum, it may be an account of a painfully embarrassing afternoon with his estranged brother and sister-in-law, a tiny narrative which anyone writing a novel about the Romans would be well advised to read very carefully. Cicero was the wittiest man who ever spoke Latin, no more able, so he said, to keep a witticism in his mouth than a hot coal, and his letters are studded with wonderful moments of repartee. When he bumps into his enemy Clodius on the way to the Forum, Clodius starts grumbling about his sister Clodia, who has plenty of complimentary seating at the gladiatorial games to hand out since her husband is the consul for the year, but ‘with all that consular space at her disposal [she] gives me one wretched foot.’ Seizing on the chance to play on the rumours of incest between the two, Cicero shoots back: ‘Oh, don’t grumble about one foot in your sister’s case. You can always hoist the other.’

No one who loves Latin can resist Cicero indefinitely. Even Julius Caesar succumbed, according to Plutarch’s Life of Cicero. When Cicero was going to defend one Quintus Ligarius, an enemy of Caesar’s, in court, the dictator told his friends that they might as well enjoy listening to him since Ligarius was done for anyway; but when Cicero’s speech got underway, Caesar’s face changed colour, and when he touched on the events leading up to Caesar’s victory over Pompey at Pharsalus, Caesar’s body shook and he dropped some of the documents he was holding. Ligarius got off – he was one of the assassins on the Ides of March.

Petrarch’s revulsion against the hypocritical and changeable Cicero he thought he saw revealed in the letters has been felt by many readers. The negative view which was dominant for so long has never been better expressed than in the broodings of Kingsley Amis’s schoolteacher Patrick Standish, as he reacts to ‘taking, or rather hauling, the Junior Sixth through not nearly enough of In Marcum Antonium II. For a man so long and so thoroughly dead it was remarkable how much boredom, and also how precise an image of nasty silliness Cicero could generate. “Antony was worth ten of you, you bastard,” Patrick said.’ Yet these were nightmarishly tangled times, and virtually no one had a clean record. Those who survived tended to be the blandly pliable and the opportunistic, and if Cicero’s moments of trimming and panic are on plain view, we should not overlook the fact that he could intermittently summon up considerable moral and physical courage in his opposition to autocracy.

Cicero mattered. As a senior ex-consul with unparalleled powers of rhetoric at his command, he was someone whose opinion and allegiance counted. This was still a society where events could on occasion be steered by direct address to a few hundred men in the Senate and a few thousand in the Forum, and no one in Roman history could move those audiences like Cicero. White is absolutely right to point out that apart from his most bitter personal enemy, Publius Clodius, ‘no major politician of the 50s and 40s is unrepresented in the published corpus by a letter either sent or received.’ We can imagine White’s anonymous editor smiling as he recognises the success of his strategy, but the fact remains that anyone who was anyone had Cicero somewhere within his web.

The great majority of the surviving letters are from the last few years of Cicero’s life, as he strove with increasing desperation to defend and then retrieve the republican government that he believed it was Rome’s destiny to live under. Reading these last letters from Cicero and some 20 other prominent actors in the dénouement of the Republic, we can see fortune gathering the threads together. Virtually everybody represented in the correspondence was going to be dead within a year and a half of Cicero’s own murder in December 43 BC. There had already been a massive cull, with the aristocracy losing great numbers in Julius Caesar’s wars, in the battles and massacres and suicides in Italy, Greece, Africa and Spain. Caelius, Cato, Pompey, the Cornelii Lentuli, the Claudii and many, many others disappeared. To read the list of Cicero’s correspondents from the years 45 to 43 BC is to see a roll-call of future casualties that was to prove fatal to the cause of the Republic, beginning with Marcus Brutus, Cassius and Decimus Brutus, the chief conspirators against Caesar.

The last four months of Cicero’s life yield no surviving letters. Perhaps we see here the hand of the editor, withholding the last unedifying twists and turns from posterity. Perhaps Cicero had simply given up. He remained a dangerous man to his enemies, as well as one bitterly resented by Mark Antony for the Philippics’ passionate attacks on him. When Antony met with Lepidus and young Caesar on their little island in a river in northern Italy to cement the ‘Triumvirate’ and to draw up a list of enemies to be proscribed, Cicero’s name was near the top, together with that of his brother Quintus, and of Quintus’ son. Patrick Standish may have found Cicero’s speech against Mark Antony boring, but Mark Antony did not, and his rage for vengeance gave Cicero no way out. Hunted down as he was being carried in a litter to the seaside in a bumbling attempt to escape from Italy by sea, Cicero met his murderers with dignity. His head and hands were cut off and taken to Antony. What happened next was outrageous, though how outrageous depends on which ancient source we follow. The averagely outrageous version tells us that Antony had Cicero’s head and hands nailed to the rostra, the speaker’s platform in the Forum from which Cicero had so often spoken, most recently in denunciation of Antony. The historian Cassius Dio, writing more than 250 years after Cicero’s death, is probably embellishing when he adds the detail that before the head was taken to the rostra it was claimed by Antony’s wife, Fulvia, who had been attacked by Cicero with as much vigour as her husband; she put the head on her lap, pulled out the tongue, and jabbed at it with her hairpins. Fulvia and Antony didn’t share the modern view that Cicero’s rhetoric was so much windbaggery.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences