Tag Archives: letters to atticus


Turner: Ovid Banished from Rome

On Saturday, before writing my last post, I read Cicero’s letters to Atticus for the years 58 up to mid-57 BC. At this time, Cicero was in exile; he claims through the envy of friends, although I reckon the machinations of enemies would be more apt. Yet perhaps my view of Clodius is tainted by later events. Nonetheless, he was in exile on the grounds that he had put Roman citizens to death without trial when he was consul (two consuls ruled Rome in the Republic) in the events of the Catalinarian Conspiracy (for which, besides Cicero’s Speeches Against Catiline, I recommend Sallust) — events in which Cicero viewed himself as the Saviour of the Nation.

Going into exile, then, was a bit of a blow. This, he felt, was undeserved! It spelt ruin for him, his family, his property! Throughout his letters, he declares to Atticus that he wishes his friend had not convinced him to live. He wishes he’d committed suicide instead of this. If he had killed himself before the law of exile was passed, his family would have inherited his property and lived comfortably. As it was, all of his things had been confiscated and his wife and children were in a dangerous state of affairs. Not only did his exile bring his ruin, it brought them ruin. Cicero’s thinking, then, is that if he’d committed suicide first, he alone would have suffered.

For a Platonist, death is only the start of the next round anyway. Once the lots were cast, Cicero would have expected to drink from the River Lethe and be reincarnated anyway. Death, for Cicero or for any other Roman, was not so bad an option. It kept honour intact. It maintained one’s gravitas. But exile … well, exile was something different.

But this episode, unlike his clash with Antony over a decade later, ended happily for Cicero. He was recalled from exile and was able to resume his life as a leading man in Rome, as an orator, as an advocate in the law courts, as a philosophiser, as a (bad) poet.

Cicero is not the only, nor the most famous, exile of Roman history. We have also P. Ovidius Naso (on whom I’ve blogged here and here). Augustus exiled him to Tomis on the Black Sea for his ars and something else, the nature of which was so delicate no clues exist that are sufficient for us to work it out, try as Ronald Syme might. Unlike Cicero, Ovid died in exile; but he left us literary remains, the Tristia, as well as Ex Ponto (epistolary poems), and the finishing touches on his great works the Fasti and Metamorphoses.

Less well-known in certain circles is John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople, who was also exiled to the Black Sea region, in 404. Like Cicero and Ovid, he left letters. Unlike Cicero, he does not wish to be dead. He encourages his supporters in the city to promote his cause, and he engages, both in the letters and in his work On Providence, in philosophising and theologising his situation. Why, he asks, does God allow bad things to happen to good people? (Similar to Boethius’s philosophising in prison, only explicitly Christian.)

Dante Wrote Masterworks from Exile

Exile has been a force in world history for generations. Today, the Queen of Iran is in exile. James VII (II) died in exile, but his descendants still live on abroad. In the Anglo-Saxon world, exile was often a punishment for crimes, and the exile found himself in a world cut off from the assistance and benefaction of a lord and of kin ties. So also in the Viking world, which gives us the exile Eric the Red who went off to find Greenland, making good use of his time away from home.

What a person does with exile is up to him. Cicero moved around, wrote letters not only to Atticus but to his family as well, fretted about his brother, and wished he were dead. He did, however, seek not to change, writing to Atticus:

I am the same man. My enemies have robbed me of what I have, but not of what I am. (Ad Atticum 3.5, 6 April 58 BC)

Ovid and Chrysostom spent their exiles trying to get reinstated back home (but to no avail). Ovid also employed his wit to compose and revise his poetry; Chrysostom used his to produce theology. Eric the Red discovered Greenland. These men all demonstrated that their circumstances do not define them. It was not Rome or Constantinople or Iceland that made them who they were. That was something inside, something that could operate at any place and under any circumstances.

Still, I’m glad not to be an exile, myself!

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….