The Collection in Hindsight
Although a letter writer manqué hardly qualifies to be the ideal reader, much less writer, of a book about letter writing, I was the reader I had in mind from the outset of this project. I wanted to sort out things that it would have helped me to understand at the time when I first read Cicero’s letters. The preceding chapters gather the results. Their focus has ranged from brute particulars regarding aleatory postal arrangements and the absence of signatures, for example, through social and political pressures that encouraged Cicero and his peers to stay in touch, to implications of some of the topics that recur in their letters. But the aim was always to try to answer one question: What makes these letters the way they are?
Thinking about that question gradually brought home to me the uniqueness of the letters, though such an epiphany might not seem to necessitate a lot of thought. Personal letters from the Roman world are uncommon enough that almost any instance is apt to be unique in some respect, and to have a run of them is always extraordinary. Even if we count the Moral Epistles of Seneca along with the letters of Pliny, Fronto, Symmachus, and Sidonius Apollinaris, fewer than half a dozen such collections apart from Cicero’s are extant. The next correspondence that genuinely resembles Cicero’s—voluminous, articulate but uncosmetized, by turns reflective and impassioned, written from a vantage near the center of events, and deeply involved in them—does not come to light for another six and a half centuries, in the archive of Pope Gregory I. And Gregory’s letters were preserved not as a personal correspondence, but as the correspondence of a bishop of Rome.
If for no other reason, then, the Ciceronian corpus would be exceptional by virtue of being a rare example of its kind to have survived from classical antiquity. But to judge by the few collections that can be set beside it, it would