Cicero’s letters

Trying to get caught up on reading, as usual… but I get sidetracked so easily. I read an entire collection of Cicero’s letters yesterday and sent a half-ton of emails, but I still don’t feel at full speed yet.

I picked up a few books while I was at the Central library the other day, looking for a decent translation of Cicero’s Brutus and Orator. I didn’t find that (still haven’t) but I did see a nice collection of his letters, and per being reminded of Grandin in a previous post, I picked up her latest book.

The letters confirmed a few opinions of mine on Cicero.

One, he was an egomaniac. The virtue of humility is mostly lost on him. His legacy, what people think of him, is paramount on his mind.

Two, he was addicted to politics. He had numerous occasions to avoid near-certain death, but he kept jumping back into the pool with the sharks. He might have lived a lot longer and we’d have more books to examine if he’d stayed in Rome after Caesar returned, declared himself neutral, avoided entangling himself with the eventual assassins, retired and contributed to the state through literature and advice. But he never makes the move to elder statesman.

Three, he is as much an aristocrat as the Greek rhetoricians before him, maybe even more so. He likes to talk of freedom and tyranny, sure, like Brutus does, but this is the talk of princes to other princes about a game of thrones, as George R.R. Martin might say. He sides with Pompey in order to not violate his principles, but those principles are pretty pitiful by modern standards, and as smart as he is, he never grows in that regard, never serously questions if the republic he holds so dear is worth defending.

Four, as silly as the HBO series was, they did get one thing right. Cicero was an idiot to trust Octavian. He got played by a smart kid who understood point two.

Five, there was not nearly as much back-room dealing in the letters as I’d expect. What I read was a selection, but flipping through some online collections produces the same result. Cicero was one of the most important politicans in Rome for several decades. There should be way more dirt in there than there is. Cicero must have been holding quite a bit back. He might not have intended most for publication, but he knew copies could get into the wrong hands, which he alludes to from time to time. So we cannot pretend this is a completely naked Cicero.

Six, Atticus is a fascinating fellow in his own right, fulfulling the roles of publisher, agent, and personal confidente to Cicero. The egotism is even toned down a notch for him. Atticus was certainly wiser than his often indebted friend, surviving all the intrigues and living 11 years longer.

Lastly, the letter that struck me the most was not Cicero’s, but one from Servius Sulpicius to Cicero on the account of the death of Tullia, Cicero’s daughter. It’s an very touching and wise condolence, a model, really, and Cicero obviously appreciates it in his reply.

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