Giving and Getting Advice by Letter
Consultation—the asking, giving, and taking of advice—ranks along with discussions of politics, the imparting of mandata, and the commendation of friends and dependents as a major staple of the epistolary exchange between Cicero and his peers.1 As with those other concerns, its importance in letters is an extension of its importance in life. Often a passage of consultation in the letters will wind up with the words, “but more on this when we meet” (sed haec coram), which is a good reminder that it was a regular element of the discourse carried on during receptions, dinners, and other face-to-face encounters among the elite.2 Consultation was also institutionalized in the form of those advisory panels which we discern at the elbow of magistrates, governors, generals, and even of a Roman paterfamilias who sits in judgment upon wayward members of his family. “The Romans had an immemorial tradition that men in positions of responsibility should not take decisions alone.”3 There is no way to determine whether they actually consulted one another more often than Greeks did, but they certainly seem to talk about it more often.
With rare exceptions, we have no direct account of how Romans interacted when they conferred face-to-face.4 But if it is true that effective advice giving has to satisfy the same basic conditions whether the advice is dispensed in person or at a distance, the social and rhetorical strategies evident in letters of advice presumably resemble strategies that Romans practiced when both parties were present. The letters of Cicero should thus provide the fullest information we have about an emblematic form of interaction among members of the Roman elite.
Given the frequency of consultation in the letters, it is odd that Cicero never treats it as forming one of the letter types that he regards as standard.5 But it seems even more odd that the Romans were so persistent about giving