A virus has left me stuck at home, and I am therefore in need of the less taxing kind of literature to pass the time. I have fallen back on Cicero’s Letters to his friends, in the two volume Penguin edition from 1978, translated by D. R. Shackleton Bailey.
Letters are a strange form of literature to peruse, and require a certain state of mind to read with enjoyment. They are usually short, which makes them slip down easily. At the same time they are inevitably very “bitty”. Each is a short piece of this, a short piece of that. There is a correspondent whom we will not know and who needs to be identified by a brief well-considered footnote. This may not be an end-note, under any circumstances, for the reader will die of flipping to and fro very quickly. But it may be supplemented by a longer end-note for important personages now known only to specialists.
Cicero’s letters were collected in antiquity, probably by Tiro his secretary. He kept copies of his letters — I have just read one where a correspondent had torn up a letter and then apologised for doing so, and Cicero replies that he need not worry, “I have it here”, and that a fresh copy can be sent. Books of letters addressed to particular recipients circulated. These included great men of the late Republic, like Cato and Julius Caesar, which have not come down to us. But sixteen books of letters have reached us, so it makes for a lengthy correspondence even so. Thankfully the Penguin translation reordered the letters into roughly chronological sequence.
In a separate volume are the great mass of letters to Cicero’s friend and publisher, Atticus. I confess that I have always found this very hard to read, partly because Penguin issued it in a single monster volume, rather than splitting it into two. I could wish that some publisher took the obvious step and combined the two sets of letters, producing a set of four volumes in chronological order.
For the “story” of the book is the story of Cicero’s life. That is what unites the letters, and makes it possible for the reader to read such a mass of short pieces. In two separate series it is quite difficult to do.
The Roman attitudes expressed in these volumes can sometimes be quite alien. In one case Cicero writes to ask a friend to hunt down an escaped library slave of his own named Dionysius and return him, evidently for punishment. In a later letter Vatinius, then on campaign in Dalmatia, writes to say he has heard that the slave is hiding among a local tribe, and states his intention of ferretting him out, wherever he goes, in order to please Cicero. The idea that Dionysius should be left alone occurs to neither. Their own advantage is all.
Likewise there is a casual indifference to marriage and divorce. The noble Romans of this period dumped their wives at their pleasure, while the abuse of their slaves in every household was taken for granted. Meanwhile their cradles were empty and their lineages perished. Their society was morally bankrupt. Tyranny followed.