The origins of marking written work in red ink – Cicero and Atticus

While reading Tiziano Dorandi’s fascinating work, Le stylet et la tablette, on how ancient authors composed their works, I find on p.113 a little snippet.

Cicero sent his works to Atticus for correction and publication.  It seems that Atticus would ‘mark’ the work in red ink, just like a modern school-teacher.

We learn from Cicero’s letter to Atticus (book 16, 11, 1) that the former pretended to have just the same feelings, as a modern pupil would:

Nostrum opus tibi probari laetur … cerulas enim tuas miniatulas illas extimescebam!

I am glad that my work pleases you … for I was afraid of your little red crayon!

How little some things change down the centuries.  Red and black have been the standard colours for inks for centuries, probably because they were easiest to prepare.  I wonder whether Roman schoolboys did homework?  There are certainly schoolboy exercises among the papyri from Egypt.

From my diary

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.[1]

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.

  1. [1] Pleasingly this is currently available from Oxford University Press repackaged into a single volume, here, ISBN13: 9781555402648, for a mere $32.  The translation is also in the current Loeb edition.

Some sayings by Cicero from the ‘Saturnalia’ of Macrobius

I have been reading the Saturnalia of Macrobius, that curious store of Latin learning from the very end of the empire.  Book 2 contains a collection of witticisms.  Here are a few.

[ 1] But I am surprised, continued Symmachus, that none of you have said anything of Cicero’s jests, for here, as in everything else, he had the readiest of tongues. If it is your pleasure, then, I shall play the part of the mouthpiece of an oracle and repeat as many of his sayings as I can remember. All were eager to hear him and he began as follows.

[2] When he was dining at the house of Damasippus, his host produced a very ordinary wine, saying, “Try this Falernian; it is forty years old. ” “Young for its age,” replied Cicero.

[3] Seeing his son-in-law Lentulus (who was a very short man) wearing a long sword, he said: “Who has buckled my son-in-law to that sword?”…

[ 11] There was another occasion on which Cicero openly jeered at the readiness with which Caesar admitted new members to the Senate; for, asked by his host Publius Mallius to procure the office of decurion for his stepson, he said in the presence of a large company: “Senatorial rank? Well, at Rome he shall certainly have it, if you so wish; but at Pompeii it isn’t easy.”

[ 12] And indeed his biting wit went even further; for, greeted by a certain Andron from Laodicea, he asked what had brought him to Rome and, hearing that the man had come as an envoy to Caesar to beg freedom for his city, he made open reference to the servile state of Rome by saying, in Greek, “If you are successful, put in a word for us too.”

Cicero at Oxyrhynchus

I wonder how many people know that 10 papyrus fragments of Cicero exist from Oxyrhynchus, etc, the earliest dating from the start of the 1st century AD and the latest from the 6th? I certainly didn’t!

I owe this knowledge to CEDOPAL, the online database of 7,000 papyri.  A look at the drop-down list of authors is interesting by itself.  Julius Africanus is represented.  Three fragments of the lost works of the 2nd century jurist  Ulpian are there.  A few bits of Galen; surprisingly few, really, considering that his works amount of 10% of the now-surviving Greek literature before AD 300.  A fragment of Juvenal Satire 7 from ca. 500 AD from Arsinoe is a poignant relic, considering that he ended his days in exile in Egypt.

Only two snippets of Libanius were found, one from his Monody for Julian the Apostate.  A fragment of an epitome by Manetho exists from the 5th century.  Another 2nd century fragment is from the Chronicle of Phlegon of Tralles; and Hippolytus gives us a fragment of his own Chronicle, 6-7th century.  Polybius is present in a 1st century AD fragment.  And so the list goes on.

I was glad to see that links are starting in CEDOPAL to appear to online images of some of the papyri.  This must come, I think, and will put an end to the absurd concealment of these things behind barriers of money and privilege.  But much remains to be done.