In my peace and quiet on Saturday, I finished my ten-month journey through D R Shackleton Bailey’s translation of Cicero’s letters to Atticus, published by Penguin Classics (now out of print). Now, it’s not as though the letters to Atticus were all I read in those ten months. I did things like re-read Beowulf and The Hobbit and The Great Gatsby. I read Catullus. I read The Prose Edda and The Saga of the Volsungs.
But Cicero’s letters I dipped in and out of. My copy is from when Penguin still thought pocket books were a good idea, but the era when they were that matte black for spine and back cover — you know, the ones that turn 1/4 white or more by the time you’re done reading the book. Having been carted around about Britain and overseas in my backpack, suitcase, leather shoulder bag, hands, having been read in cafés, parks, libraries, in bed, in my living room, on airplanes, on the bus, this book is not in the greatest shape.
It was inevitable.
Two factors were against the book’s pristine condition, besides the fact that it wasn’t pristine when I got it: 1. The era of Penguin it is; 2. the nature of the collection; I was bound to take a long time reading Cicero.
Cicero’s letters to Atticus are not always the most rivetting material around. I mean, neither are Leo’s letters. So that is as it is. So sometimes the reader just needs a break. Sometimes it’s the sameness of them — ‘I have nothing to write, but I’m writing anyway. Whether you have something to write or not, write anyway.’ That is the most common of them.
Or, because a letter is one half of a conversation carried out over several days and great distances, it can take a very long time for Cicero and Atticus to deal with certain matters. And you never get Atticus’ half.
Nevertheless, I am glad to have read them. It is no exaggeration that Cicero is one of the two people we know best before the modern era (the other is Francesco Di Marco Datini [1335-1410], the merchant of Prato). The letters to Atticus, unlike some of Cicero’s other missives, are Cicero laid bare. When he writes to Antony, he may say, ‘You are my best friend; to do what you want is not a duty but an honour,’ but when he says that sort of thing to Atticus he means it.
A lot of people find Cicero stuffy. Or they poo-poo him because of his pride over how he dealt with Catiline. Be that as it may, when you read the letters, especially from his exile in 58-57 BC to the end of the Atticus correspondence, you start to see him more fully, more rounded. He’s not simply stuffy. He is a real man, with real emotions and a love for his country. This is visible in the Civil War between Caesar and Pompey, and then in the aftermath of the Ides of March that covers the last period of the book.
I am always struck by Caesar; at a certain level, I kind of like the guy. And sometimes I’ve even believed the lie that the Principate (aka Empire) was inevitable. Cicero’s letters pull the rug out from under these after-the-fact readings of history. He may not have the solution. You may not agree with all of Cicero’s ideals, but that doesn’t mean that Augustus (the first emperor) was a natural, unavoidable phenomenon. Reading Cicero’s letters I found myself siding for the first time with Brutus and Cassius.
You see him early in the collection mentioning letters of consolation. And then, years and years later, his daughter Tullia dies. And he grieves as deeply as I believe many a father has throughout history. He goes into seclusion for a period. He reads all of the philosophers on death and consolation. He plans building Tullia a shrine. He goes through real grief.
Cicero is a real man. Like him or not, how can you not be moved by grief such as his?
If you are a Classicist or a great enthusiast for Cicero/the Late Republic, I recommend you read the whole of the collection of letters to Atticus. You will find reflections not only on the politics of the era but also on art and literature and philosophy and how to lead the best life. It is worth reading.
If not, I still recommend Cicero’s letters. Penguin subsequently released a Selected Letters, that draws not only from those to Atticus but to others as well, and which is smaller than the collection to Atticus, anyway. Check it out. You may just learn something and come to appreciate one of the great men of history.