In 1968 my wife, Diana, bestowed on me a handsome dowry of books in classics, the finest of which was Shackleton Bailey’s not quite finished edition of Cicero’s Letters to Atticus. When the two volumes of his Epistulae ad Familiares turned up on the shelves of Powell’s a few years later, a line was drawn that I felt impelled to follow.
But the aims of Cicero’s correspondence for a long time baffled me. He wrote letters differently than I did, and not just better and more often. He practiced different exordial moves, rarely engaging his addressees by way of an anecdote or a description of something, for example. He could take more about their identity for granted, he tended to be more solicitous both of their dignity and his own, and he operated with more abstract notions of what motivates people. He was more leery of revealing himself, though he seemed to give away a great deal unwittingly. What he wrote did not always correspond to what he really thought or, at any rate, not to things he said elsewhere.
At the same time, Cicero’s letters bore little resemblance to the letters of his compatriot Pliny, which I had first read in a seminar with Glen Bowersock and enjoyed without especially liking them. Pliny’s correspondence was like a smooth train ride over a route punctuated by intermittent vistas and by scheduled stops which the conductor passed back and forth announcing. The Ciceronian letter corpus offered another sort of ride. The route was not picturesque, and it passed over stretches of bad track that occasioned halts and slowdowns. The station signs were difficult to make out, and any announcements from the cab were drowned in static. On the next seat in a second-class coach sat a well-dressed passenger who meant to talk all the way to the last stop and who, despite the urbanity of his conversation, was nervous about something.