On Reading Cicero’s Letters

I am currently engaged in the task of reading D R Shackleton Bailey’s Penguin Classics translation of Cicero’s Letters (now out of print, but you can get his most recent translation in Loebs!). I have begun with those to Atticus, shall take a break and read some other ancient literature next, then move on toAd Familiares. This for both ‘professional’ and personal interest. If my speed at Latin were higher, I’d read them in Latin. But it’s not, so I’m reading them in English.

I have previously read various of Cicero’s letters in the original Latin, both for my MA at the University of Toronto and in a Latin Text Seminar I audited here in Edinburgh this past autumn. Reading a very large block of them all in a row is a different matter, however. Today I finished off the letters of 59 BC and read all of his letters from exile.

What strikes me most immediately is that, even with Shackleton Bailey’s useful notes, is that Cicero’s letters are simply not an entry level piece of Latin literature. For someone not versed in Roman history, especially of the Late Republic, or of the Republican political system, or in some of the characters alluded to, or the poets and philosophers quoted, Cicero’s letters would be almost completely impenetrable, I fear.

This is why, I imagine, Penguin allowed these to go out of print and, instead, prints a slim volume of Select Letters. Nevertheless, for those of who are acquainted with Roman history, whether through university courses such as Richard Burgess’s wildly popular ‘Introduction to Roman Civilization’ at the University of Ottawa or through books such as H H Scullard’s From the Gracchi to Nero, Cicero’s letters are fascinating.

Here we see the scuttlebutt as it was transmitted from leading man to leading man! This is private correspondence, never intended for publication. So, unlike Pliny’s letters of over a century later, these dance about from topic to topic, they talk in veiled terms about people in case they fall into the wrong hands, they are about friends and enemies, politics and the economy, war and child-rearing, literature and art, architecture and exile.

Cicero’s letters give us a vision of an ancient man as himself. There is not the consciously employed wit of an Ovid or the almost invisible narrator of Virgil. Nor do we have here his public face, found in his many oratorical remains. He may be trying to put his best foot forward at all times, but these letters are a safe environment. He can be himself.

Not everyone likes what is found, to be sure. But we cannot deny that Cicero’s letters are invaluable as sources for his life, his character, Late Republican politics, and Latin literature. We would be worse off without them, indeed.

Next post: Thoughts on exile….

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