Academic journal article Acta Classica

Cornelius Fronto: A 'Libyan Nomad' at Rome

Academic journal article Acta Classica

Cornelius Fronto: A 'Libyan Nomad' at Rome

Article excerpt


This article considers the Roman orator, Marcus Cornelius Fronto, teacher of the young Marcus Aurelius, in his guise as African expatriate at Rome. Its title is based on a claim that Fronto makes in a letter to Marcus Aurelius's mother, written in Greek, that his Greek is bad, for he, like the Scythian barbarian-philosopher Anacharsis, is merely a 'Libyan of the Libyan nomads' (1)--that is, an African barbarian, (2) whose Greek lacks polish. Fronto poses as a foreigner, a perpetual outsider, the quintessential Other of modern sociological discourse.

Rome, during the 2nd century AD, both allowed and apparently encouraged assimilation of provincials. A Spanish origin seems not to have affected the career of a man like Seneca, nor did it prevent Vespasian's accession to the imperial throne. Neither seemed ever to emphasise his non-Roman origins as heavily as Fronto does here. His fellow-African, Apuleius, sometimes seems as strongly conscious of his origins, but he was living and writing in his home country. (3) We need to examine Fronto's self-designation in the light of his position within Roman society to come to some conclusion about whether he consistently felt like an outsider at Rome.

Fronto was intimately involved in the political life of his day, the result of his career as orator and his position as tutor to the prince. (4) Fronto's assertion of barbarity may simply be meant as a joke, as his letters often indicate a humorous bent. An accompanying letter to Marcus asks him to correct the Greek of the letter to his mother, ... tu, qui a Graecis litteris recentior es ... Nolo enim me mater tua ut Opicum (5) contemnet (' ... because you have more recently been studying Greek. For I don't want your mother to despise me as a country bumpkin', Ad M. Caes. 1.8.7 [VdH 1.9.8]). Is Fronto serious here, or is this merely a playful game, a gentle gibe at Marcus's preference for Greek? (6) Marcus, when himself on holiday at Naples, complains about local Greek panegyrists: Igitur paene me Opicum animantem ad Graecam scripturam perpulerunt 'homines', ut Caecilius ait, 'incolumi inscientia' ('Hence "these men", as Caecilius says, "with their untouched ignorance" drove me, almost a breathing bumpkin, to Greek literature', Ad M. Caes. 2.6 [VdH 2.8]). This most surely is a joke.

Brief biography

Edward Champlin's concise biography of Fronto (1980) gives the salient aspects of Fronto's career. (7) Born somewhere between AD 95 and 100 in the Roman colony of Cirta (8) in North Africa (famous for Sallust's description of its siege during the Jugurthine war), the young Fronto probably first studied in Alexandria and came to Rome at about the age of eighteen. (9) True to Juvenal's designation (Sat. 7.148) of Africa as the nutricula causidicorum, Fronto soon excelled at forensic oratory.

Fronto apparently never returned, even for a visit, but kept close ties with his patria. The young African made his serious way along the various steps of the normal cursus honorum, with a tour of duty as triumvir capitalis, later quaestor of Sicily, aedile plebis and finally, praetor. Simultaneously he was making a forensic name for himself and was soon considered one of the most prominent orators at Rome. His career naturally culminated in the consulship, AD 142, (10) but this was a brief two-month stint as consul suffectus over the summer. (11) Such a man was eminently suitable to be tutor to the adoptive sons of the emperor Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. Hence, from about AD 138 or 139 Fronto took on this task. He received no official salary, but references to his Roman mansion in part of the gardens of Maecenas may indicate a certain tangible reward (Ad M. Caes. 1.8 [VdH 1.9]). (12) The friendship he and his family enjoyed with the imperial household must also have appeared an adequate compensation.

Fronto, apparently, was from an indigenous (Nubian, or Black African) family that had been granted citizenship under the favour of a member of the gens Cornelia. …

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