Cicero in Letters: Epistolary Relations of the Late Republic

By Peter White | Go to book overview

1
Constraints and Biases in
Roman Letter Writing

Of all the literary forms that were current in the Roman period, the familiar letter appears to have altered least in the course of its descent to us. Histories are no longer written on the Roman model, with invented orations and a profound aversion for the documentary. Verse satire, epic, and political oratory, if they are not now extinct, have at least gone into hibernation, and the literary dialogue has sunk to the status of a quaint exercise. Modern novels, love poetry, and tragedies bear little resemblance to their Roman forerunners. The only Roman form to have held its own as successfully as the letter is slapstick comedy, as adaptations of Plautus’s plays on Broadway have demonstrated. But personal letters remain the main exception to the general impression of unfamiliarity that Roman literature makes. Reading a letter by Cicero or one of his correspondents, one can still imagine that it communicates in an idiom which our own literary and social competence prepares us to understand.

Take, for example, a note that Cicero wrote to his friend Atticus in the spring of 59 B.C., while he was enjoying a holiday at a home he had on the coast south of Rome:

Cicero to Atticus, greetings:

I promised you in an earlier letter that I would produce
something in the course of this jaunt, but I’m not sticking by that
claim very firmly now. I am so caught up in relaxation that I cannot
be pried loose. So I luxuriate in books, of which I have a fine supply
here at Antium, or I count the waves (the weather is not right for
fishing).

I am completely down on the idea of writing. The geographical
piece I had in mind to do is a huge project. Eratosthenes, my

-3-

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Cicero in Letters: Epistolary Relations of the Late Republic
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • D · M · D · R · S · B v
  • Preface vii
  • Contents xiii
  • I - Reading the Letters from the outside in 1
  • 1 - Constraints and Biases in Roman Letter Writing 3
  • 2 - The Editing of the Collection 31
  • 3 - Frames of the Letter 63
  • II - Epistolary Preoccupations 87
  • 4 - The Letters and Literature 89
  • 5 - Giving and Getting Advice by Letter 117
  • 6 - Letter Writing and Leadership 137
  • Afterword - The Collection in Hindsight 167
  • Appendix 1- quantifying the Letter Corpus 171
  • Appendix 2- Contemporary Works Mentioned in the Letters 177
  • Notes 181
  • Bibliography 223
  • Index of Persons 231
  • Index of Passages 233
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