Letters

A world of letters.

1. BL Kings MS 23, f. 1., 14th c. manuscript containing Cicero’s Epistulae ad Familiares. Image: British Library.

2. Peter White, Cicero in Letters (2010), p15:

‘Traces of missing letters in the published correspondence seem too numerous and too widely distributed to be explained by postal failure, deficient archives, or other impersonal causes. Whoever published Cicero’s letters must first have sorted through them, selecting and discarding in light of guidelines nowhere made explicit. But once we accept that editorial choice was being exercised, we can begin to perceive types of letters that were passed over.’

3. Catherine Edwards, “Epistolography,” A Companion to Latin Literature (2005), p273:

‘The letters chart shifts in Cicero’s self-perception, at the same time working to present a more fluid, intimate picture of their author to external readers, a picture that many have found significantly more attractive than those discernible from Cicero’s public speeches or philosophical writings. Cicero’s letters were apparently composed without the anticipation that they would be published. They are full of allusions and references that need explication if they are to be understood by later readers. Indeed the letters to Atticus occasionally seem to assume that no one besides the addressee will read them; Cicero comments, for instance, in 1.16, ‘I don’t feel that I am bragging when I talk about myself in your hearing, especially in a letter that I don’t wish to be read to other people’ (61 BC). The letters of Cicero are often contrasted, in this – and other – respects with Pliny’s letters, which, as we shall see below, were, it seems, written specifically with a view to publication.’

4. Peter White, Cicero in Letters (2010), p106:

‘Still, Cicero is more attuned to his correspondents as individuals than as members of a class. Although almost all would have received the usual literary and rhetorical education, he does not presume that all cherished literary interests. In letters to only about a third of them does he touch even lightly on literature, mentioning particular books, for example, or quoting verse or talking of culture (studia, doctrina, litterae) in the abstract. One manifestation of reserve in this regard can be seen in his deployment of quotations from Greek poetry. More than a hundred are found in his letters to Atticus (where they are twice as frequent as quotes in Latin). The long stays in Greece that had earned Atticus his name had made him as conversant with Greek as with Roman culture. Not quite a dozen citations of Greek verse occur in Cicero’s letters to his brother, who as a young man had accompanied Cicero on his study tour of Greece and Asia in the early 70s. A dozen more quotations are sprinkled through letters to just five other persons. This distribution suggests that Cicero’s quotations are neither decorative nor random elements but are carefully calculated, and I would argue that that is true of most of his other evocations of literature. Cicero considered not only the background and interests of the person to whom he was writing but also the particular effects he wanted to achieve when he brought the subject up.’

5. Catherine Edwards, “Epistolography,” A Companion to Latin Literature (2005), p272:  

‘The first kind is that which conveys important information to those who are far away. But when there is no such information to be sent, letters may be classed as ‘intimate and humorous’ (familiare et iocosum) or else as ‘austere and serious’ (severum et grave). Cicero’s addressees include those with whom Cicero was evidently on close terms, such as Curio and Caelius, but also others, such as the powerful aristocrats Lentulus Spinther and Appius Pulcher, whom he knew much less well. Letters to those in the second category tend to be couched in an elaborate and formal style that differs little from that of Cicero’s published works of other kinds. Letters to close friends, above all those to Atticus, are by contrast full of the vulgar terms, neologisms and diminutives that have come to be seen as the distinctive features of Cicero’s informal letter-writing. This latter style is of course no less self-conscious and carefully worked.’

6. Peter White, Cicero in Letters (2010), p61:

‘Some idea of the subject matter that the editor favored can be gained by comparing extant letters with letters that are missing. The most obvious bias is, as just noted, toward political content, dramatic political content above all, for which the editor was willing to stretch the parameters of his project. He included some letters he discovered in the files that were not only not written by Cicero, but not written to him either. He was also fond of letters in which a writer spread himself in the “O tempora, o mores!” vein, and less interested in detail about parliamentary discussions or public trials. The editor discarded many letters covering Cicero’s life out of the public spotlight: letters about family relations, business affairs, literary and other cultural pursuits, and purely social interactions. He was also leery of including isolated letters that could not be integrated into a context of some sort.’

7. Peter White, Cicero in Letters (2010), p41-42:

‘There are four places, however, in which it is difficult to resist the conclusion that text has been deliberately abridged. One occurs in a letter that Cicero wrote to Appius Claudius Pulcher (Fam. 3.10 = 73 SB), the man he succeeded as (p.42) governor of Cilicia. At this point in their exchange, each was accusing the other of actions that slighted and undermined him. Cicero insists that he has acted only from the most generous motives, which he enunciates at length. At the very end of the letter, he turns to steps he has taken to ensure that no discreditable evidence reaches Rome during Appius’s trial for official misconduct. The transition is as follows: “But so much for all that; perhaps I have even gone on at greater length than was necessary. Now let me inform you what initiatives and arrangements have been forthcoming on my side.” The next sentence in the manuscripts reads, “And these things we have done and will continue to do, more in furtherance of your dignity than in aid of your trial” (sed haec hactenus; pluribus enim etiam fortasse verbis quam necesse fuit scripta sunt. nunc ea quae a me profecta quaeque instituta sunt cognosce * * * atque haec agimus et agemus magis pro dignitate quam pro periculo tuo, Fam. 3.10.11 = 73 SB). A passage recounting helpful interventions in Cilicia has evidently disappeared.’

8. Ruth Morello, “Writer and addressee in Cicero’s letters,” Cambridge Companion to Cicero (2013), p210.

‘In Fam. 15.4, Cicero constructs an ‘epistolary code’ which figures Cato as synecdochically representative of the senate as a whole, makes him first recipient (before even the senate) of official news from a proconsul in the field, and highlights the distinctively ‘Catonian’ mandate for Cicero’s campaign. Thus Cicero turns to flattering use the persona he depicts in more critical terms in Att. 2.1.8 where he makes his famous joke that Cato speaks as if he were in Plato’s Republic rather than Romulus’ cesspit, and then again more positively in Att. 6.1.13 where he measures contemporary governors (including himself) against what he calls Cato’s ‘blueprint’ (‘politeuma’).’

9. Peter White, “The Editing of the Collection,” Cicero in Letters: Epistolary Relations of the Late Republic (2010) p59.

‘The point just made about letters from correspondents was also true of enclosures and letters of recommendation: the editor has selected material that privileges the topmost stratum of Roman society… Élisabeth Déniaux’s table of correspondents in the extant books lists ninety-seven named persons, of whom seventy-four are senators. Thirty-six books or more that are lost once contained a correspondence with Pompey, Brutus, Caesar, Octavian, Pansa, Hirtius, Axius, Licinius Calvus, Marcus junior, and Cornelius Nepos, of whom all but the last two are senators.

This concentration on Cicero’s relations with fellow members of the governing class may seem unremarkable, since it undoubtedly suits the tastes of most readers ancient and modern. But let us nevertheless take a moment to inventory some of the available correspondents whom the editor passed over. The published collection preserves almost none of Cicero’s letters to magnates in the towns of Italy or in the provinces. It contains no letters to persons in his hometown of Arpinum, for example, or to regional clients he accumulated as quaestor in Sicily and afterward, and almost none to some three dozen people whom he identifies as hospites. And while the editor made a point of including letters of recommendation, he retained little of the background communication with the persons on whose behalf the recommendations were written. The collection also contains none of Cicero’s exchanges with Greek intellectuals whom he cultivated, such as the philosophers Aristus, Diodotus, Cratippus, and Posidonius and the grammatici Nicias and Tyrannio. The only member of his domestic staff represented in the edition is Tiro, though Cicero often wrote to Philotimus and the tutor Dionysius as well, and nothing survives of an active correspondence with the businessmen Vestorius and Vettienus.’ 

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