157. Selected letters by Cicero (68 to 43 BC)

Plot:  A collection of some of Cicero’s private letters to family and friends, starting from before his exile to a few months before his death.  My version is again the Penguin Classic edition (ISBN 0140444580) translated by D. R. Shackleton Bailey.

My thoughts:  The first collection of letters I’ve read in this project –  and I was always told never to read other peoples’ mail, too! 😊

About half of Cicero’s letters are addressed to his good friend Atticus, a school friend who was also related by marriage (Cicero’s brother Quintus married Atticus’ sister Pomponia).

The most interesting letters are those which report or reflect on the tumultuous events happening in Rome during Cicero’s later years. Firstly Cicero is exiled according to a new law introduced by his enemies, for executing Roman citizens without trial (with regard to the Catiline conspirators discussed in an earlier post). He is eventually allowed to return to Rome but shortly after, civil war breaks out between the supporters of Pompey and Caesar. Cicero realises that his beloved Republic is doomed  – Caesar’s forces are stronger and Pompey is failing to plan or act effectively. However, Cicero feels he must honour his obligation to Pompey who helped in his return from exile (although he did little to prevent the exile in the first place)

After the dust settles, Cicero is pardoned by a victorious Caesar; but despite this, and although he was not involved in the conspiracy, Cicero gives his wholehearted praise to Brutus and Cassius (Caesar’s assassins). A year later, the long standing animosity between Cicero and Marc Antony leads to Cicero’s death as he sides with Brutus and Cassius in a further civil war against Marc Antony, the turncoat Lepidus and Caesar’s son, Octavian.

The more intimate family letters are also revealing, particularly as a inconsolable Cicero mourns the death of his  beloved daughter Tullia.

More about Cicero and the events of these years to come in future writings from Caesar himself (The Civil War), Plutarch (Parallel Lives) and Suetonius (Lives of the Twelve Caesars)

Favourite lines/passages:

“Spend time in honest, pleasant and friendly company. Nothing becomes life better, or is more in harmony with its happy living. I am not thinking of physical pleasure, but of community of life and habit and of mental recreation, of which familiar conversation is the most effective agent; and conversation is at its most agreeable at dinner-parties …. because at dinner parties more than anywhere else, life is lived in company.”    Cicero to Papirius Paetus, Jan 43 BC (page 214)

Diversions and digressions:

Without the benefits of a postal service, the Romans relied on travelling friends or slaves to deliver letters to their correspondents. Even some of Cicero’s letters admit he didn’t know where the intended recipient was actually living at the moment the letter was dispatched.

Personal rating:  Taken as a whole, probably a 5.

Next :  On the Nature of Things by Lucretius, one of the books read by Cicero. Very easy to play Six Degrees of Separation in the Ancient World.

 

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