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Cicero's Letters, A Selection (I)
Bill Long 12/1/07
From the 1901 Student Reader
What caused me to return to Cicero after many years of ignoring him was a 1901 school edition of 50 of Cicero's letters which I picked up while I was in KS last month. I truly cherish these old editions--about 6" X 4", with copious notes, translations of difficult passages and a helpful dictionary at the end. They came out of the time when Latin (and even ancient Greek) was a staple of the American high school/prep school experience; I think, in fact, that both of those languages will return with great force in the next decade or so. In any case, my reading of the first 10 letters in Cicero: Fifty Letters, ed. by J.H. Dillard (Ginn and Co, 1901), made me want to plunge not only into epistolary conventions but also the history of the Roman Republic and Cicero's life development at the time. The previous seven essays are the result of that effort. This and the next two essays, however, focus on the letters themselves, and especially on Cicero's Latin. Sooner or later you should meet Cicero. He is probably one of the 20 or 30 most well-documented, and interesting, people in Western Civilization. Let this be your protreptic, your exhortation, to make Cicero your own.
Introduction to the Select Letters
The first 10 (of 50) letters are drawn from Book XIV of the Epistulae ad Familiares, 426 letters sent either from Cicero to his friends, or vice-versa, and written between 62 and 43 BCE. While a good number are addressed to Cicero's friends, many of them, some of which are in this little volume, are addressed to his wife Terentia and slave/former slave Tiro. The letters are collected in sixteen books but are not arranged chronologically. Generally, however, letters to or from one correspondent are grouped together. Some of these letters are immensely helpful in giving us an insight into the private thoughts of a significant Roman citizen in a most tumultuous time. Some, on the other hand, are perfunctory and of little value. In this and the next two essay I will examine some interpersonal dynamics of these first 10 epistles. First, let's begin, however, with some understanding of letter-writing conventions at Cicero's time.
Literary Conventions/The Greeting
The first letter (Fam. XIV.21) was written from Cicero to his wife Terentia in June 47 BCE, from Brundisium. This was during the one year period (Sept 48-Sept 47) after the Battle of Pharsalus when he was confined at Brundisium while waiting for a determination from Caesar as to his political and personal status. Cicero had, after all, sided with Pompey in that battle. The letter says almost nothing; it just encourages his wife to care for her health and forward letters that come to Cicero at his (Roman or Tusculan) home. They "forwarded" letters in those days through the offices of private messengers. It may seem strange that Cicero wrote many letters to his wife during this year. Why didn't she just come down from Rome to visit him at Brundisium (a few hundred miles)? Was she sick? Was their relationship "on the rocks"? Both are true. I don't think most school teachers in the 1900s-1940s, when these editions were used, spent much time speculating on the marital troubles of Cicero and Terentia, but it is an interesting subject to consider.
But let's just look at formal features of these letters. First is the address: "Tullius Terentiae Suae S.D." is all it says. Tullius is Cicero himself: Marcus Tullius Cicero. "Terentiae Suae" is in the dative case--"to his Terentia." "S.D." is shorthand for "salutem dicit," or "sends greedings." It is the Latin equivalent of our "Dear X." The Loeb Classical Library edition has a somewhat longer greeting. "M.T.C.S.P.D Terentiae Suae." The "P" stands for "plurimam" or "many." It is a literary convention of Latin as much as our convention is to say, "Very nice to meet you," when, in fact, we usually could care less if we just met the person.
Then, we have the first words of greeting, often abbreviated, "S.v.b.e.v." Just as it is good to know what "SPQR" stands for in Roman inscriptions and texts, so it is nice to know that this greeting stands for "Si vales, bene est; valeo." A translation: "If you are well, it is good; I am well." Though we have a customary address in our epistolary communication ("Dear X") which is gradually being eroded through email, especially because of mass mailings and mailings to people we don't know, we have no real equivalent to S.v.b.e.v. The closest we have is something like, "I hope this letter finds you well," or "I trust that you are doing well at this time..." or something like that. I propose that we try to bring back to our letter-writing conventions the Roman address and greeting. It surely would confuse people at first, but then a goodly number would want to learn what it means and, out of that number, a few would become stimulated to learn Latin and Roman civilization. Every little bit helps..
Literary Conventions/The Calendar
Unpacking the Roman calendar is a little challenging, but a few things can help. Cicero almost always dates his letters, which is quite nice for us, but the Romans dated things completely differently from us. First, there was major calendar reform under Julius Caesar, which went into effect in 45 BCE. Cicero writes, therefore, from the "pre-Julian" calendar. It is difficult to coordinate pre-Julian and Julian calendars; at times they are identical (that is, if you projected the Julian calendar "backwards" to pre-Julian times) and at times the dates differ by up to four months. Thus, for a pre-Julian date I think it is best to use the pre-Julian calendar. There were several pre-Julian calendars but the one in use during Cicero's lifetime began the year on March 1 (that is why a month like October, the "8th" month is really the 10th month of our calendar), and was arranged in months of 29 or 30 or 31 days.
The three dates you need to know from each month were the "Kalends" (the first), the "Ides," (date differs according to the month) and the "Nones" (nine days before the Ides, counting inclusively, which means that this day wasn't always the same in each month).
A little rhyming ditty helps us on our months and days:
"In March, July, October, May
The Ides fall on the fifteenth day
The Nones the seventh; all besides
Have two days less for Nones and Ides."
Very nice. So in June, for example, the Ides falls on the 13th and the Nones on the 5th. As just mentioned, you need to count the Ides as the first of the nine days in calculating the "Nones." One other convention. Often a writer such as Cicero will mention the "day before" the Ides, which is "pridie" or simply "pr. Idus XXX (month)." Now with this in mind, let's look at a few of Caesar's dates from his letters:
1. Fam. XIV. 11 tells us that Tullia came to visit Cicero "pr. Idus Jun." [Note: "Ides" means "half division" (of a month)]. Since the Ides of June is the 13th, this means that she visited him on the 12th of June. He then dates the letter at the end: "XVII K. Quinctilis." Quinctilis was the name of the "fifth" month (July) before Caesar got into the act and named the month after himself. The date is one where you "count backwards" from the "Kalends of Quinctilis," so he wrote this letter 17 days before the first of July. Since you include the first of July in these calculations and since June had 30 days, you quickly determine that Cicero wrote this letter on June 15.
2. Fam XIV. 24 says it was written "III Idus Sextilis." This means three days before the Ides of the sixth month (August). Since the Ides of August would fall on August 13, the letter was written on August 11.
3. Finally, Fam. XVI. 3, a letter to Tiro, shows how the calender can work with both Nones and Ides together in the same letter. Cicero writes:
"Is dies fuit Nonae Novembres. Inde ante lucem profisciscentes, ante diem VIII. Idus Nov. has litteras dedimus."
A translation is:
This day was the Nones of November (Nov. 5). Then setting out before dawn on the 8th day before the Ides of November (i.e., Nov. 6), we sent this letter.."
By such tricks of the trade, reading Cicero can become almost fun. Let's now move to the content of a few letters.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long