A review of Cicero‘s Letters to Atticus, translated and edited by D.R. Shackleton Bailey
Marcus Tullius Cicero, the great statesman and orator of the Roman Republic, left behind him a remarkable collection of letters, philosophical treatises, and orations. His works run to many volumes, an output that is the more astonishing when one reflects how much has been lost. Cicero is remembered today chiefly for his philosophical works, but philosophy was always a secondary occupation for Cicero: his philosophical works were written late in his life, when his political career was over. Cicero himself thought his most important contribution was and would remain his political career in the Roman Republic. That career is disclosed to us through his speeches, and through his letters to Atticus and others. The letters to Atticus-his best friend-reveal Cicero himself in a way that no public document or speech could. The Cicero of these letters is not always the thoughtful statesman; he could be, and often was, petty, vain, and selfish. Yet the private Cicero and the public Cicero are not all that dissimilar, for both are shown to be concerned above all with the public good.
The letters to Atticus-over four hundred of them-cover roughly the last quarter-century of the Roman Republic, the years 68-44 B.C. [All dates are B.C., unless otherwise noted.] Those years saw the rise and progress of the crisis of the Republic, and saw Cicero preeminent at the Roman bar and prominent in the Senate. There are unfortunately no letters from the year of Cicero’s consulship, 63; the bulk of the letters was written during and after his exile in 58, i.e., in the twilight and eclipse of his career. By the time the Republic’s political crisis came to a head in 49, and civil war broke out between Caesar and Pompey, Cicero’s public career was over. He joined Pompey’s army, though he never saw action, and after Pompey’s defeat he was well treated by Caesar. Cicero did not venture into politics again until after Caesar’s assassination; but he ran afoul of Antony and was murdered on his order in 43. Even after his retirement from politics, Cicero retained a keen interest in political affairs at Rome. Throughout his career Cicero depended on Atticus to supply him with political intelligence and gossip of Rome, and also to give him the advice, encouragement, inspiration, and sometimes the scolding he needed.
Titus Pomponius, later called Atticus, and Cicero met when they were students together in Rome. Both were members of the equestrian class, the class of knights which stood between the patricians and the plebeians. Pomponius was from Rome itself, while Cicero was from a country town, Arpinum, which had been granted the Roman franchise. There was some suspicion of this “foreign” origin in Rome. (It was often thrown in Cicero’s face by his political enemies.) Atticus’ friendship and connections were often useful to Cicero, because Atticus could open doors which were closed to Cicero. While Cicero aimed at primacy at the Roman bar and in politics, and devoted all of his considerable energies to that end, Pomponius led a life of refined leisure. Shortly after his father’s death, around 86, Pomponius left Rome for Athens, where he lived and studied philosophy for twenty years and acquired the cognomen “Atticus.” No letters written before 68 survive, although it is likely they corresponded. Atticus would often have traveled to Rome on business, and Cicero visited Athens for six months in 79. Further evidence of their cordial relations is the marriage of Atticus’ sister, Pomponia, to Cicero’s brother, Quintus, about 70. Although the marriage itself was unhappy, it did nothing to undermine the friendship between Cicero and Atticus. The mature years of their friendship begin with Atticus’ return to Rome in 65, and correspond to the height of Cicero’s political career and to his subsequent fall.
Atticus was one of the richest men in Rome (he sometimes kept Cicero out of the financial soup), sophisticated and charming. The two words most characteristically used to describe him are “discreet” and “urbane.” In short, he was an ideal confidant for a politician, for his money and his connections made him welcome in every house in Rome. He was in a position to see and hear everything that went on in the city. When Cicero was away from Rome he begged and pleaded with Atticus to send him the news of the city; and when Atticus was away Cicero complained because he was not there. Although a friend of Cicero’s, Atticus never publicly took a side among the factions of the day, and remained friends with everyone. By keeping to himself and acting behind the scenes, Atticus managed to survive the civil war and its aftermath and lived on into the reign of Augustus. His granddaughter married the Emperor Tiberius.
It is a misfortune that we do not possess any letters from Atticus to Cicero. They would surely be informative about the Roman political climate, and might even be more interesting than Cicero’s. But Cicero’s letters by themselves are invaluable historical documents. They are among the few firsthand accounts which we have of the political situation, and of the way men lived and thought in Rome. By far the most interesting series of letters covers the years from 51, when Cicero was governor of Cilicia, to 47, when Caesar finally defeated Pompey in the civil war. The year 49, when Caesar crossed the Rubicon and the war began, is particularly interesting, because Cicero was courted by both sides. His deliberations are recorded in his letters: they show both his great hope that the Republic might be reborn, and his great fear that either Caesar or Pompey would destroy it. Cicero was concerned, because in his youth he had seen the dictatorship and the constitutional settlement of Sulla. The crisis of 49 had been prefigured in the crisis of the 80’s: it is there we must seek the origins of Cicero’s attitude in 49.
The main institutions of the Roman constitution remained the same for some two centuries; but the constitution which was in operation at the outbreak of the civil war was primarily the work of the dictator Sulla. Sulla’s project had been to restore the authority of the Senate, and of the aristocracy in general. That authority had been weakened by the plebeian reforms effected by Tiberius and Caius Gracchus between 133 and 123. Sulla restricted the powers of the tribunes and revised the court system, in an attempt to restore the ancient Roman constitution. He sought to perpetuate this settlement by forging a political alliance between the equestrian class and the patrician class. By attaching the interests of the moneyed class and the businessmen to those of the old aristocracy, Sulla hoped to create a solid ruling coalition which would put an end to the factional strife which had plagued Rome for a generation.
One of Sulla’s young lieutenants was Cnaeus Pompeius Magnus, known to history as Pompey the Great. Pompey had a truly spectacular career. He won many battles as a young man, was consul fully seventeen years before he was legally eligible, and was Rome’s first citizen for a generation. Whenever the Republic was in trouble or in danger, Pompey got the call. He was given an extraordinary command to rid the Mediterranean of pirates. He was given the task of ridding Asia of Mithridates. He was given the job of regulating the corn supply. More than anyone else, Pompey kept Sulla’s constitutional settlement alive (although he revised or even repealed some of Sulla’s legislation). But great general though he was, Pompey was not a very good politician. Gradually public confidence in him eroded, and he began to make enemies. Finally, by 49, another man’s power-a power which Pompey had helped him acquire-had grown so great that he could challenge the great man. That man was, of course, Julius Caesar. Pompey, having brought Caesar into the informal arrangement known as the “First Triumvirate,” had brought this crisis on himself. The trial would be a trial by battle.
Cicero was a rare man in the history of the Roman Republic, for he had built a solid political base without the aid of an army. Although the machinations of the triumvirate had kept him on the political sidelines for several years, in 49 Cicero was still a force to be reckoned with. As a respected Senator, an ex-consul, and a forceful orator, Cicero would have lent respectability to either side. His letters show Cicero very much divided in his mind. Both sides promised him that they would take his advice; and he weighed Caesar’s likelihood of success against his own loyalty to and friendship for Pompey. Cicero did not think much of Pompey as a politician: Pompey exasperated him with his inconsistency and vagueness. Cicero respected Caesar, but he could not stand Caesar’s henchmen and adherents. Cicero’s decision could not be merely or simply a private decision, for he was committed to the survival of the Republic. He was determined to do the right thing, and that meant being able to influence the conqueror.
Cicero is often assailed by historians and critics for being either wishy-washy or unprincipled-or both-for failing to take an immediate stand in the civil war. They want him to have committed himself wholeheartedly either to “reaction” or to “reform.” But those kinds of moral absolutes were not and could not have been part of Cicero’s deliberation. Cicero deliberated at great length precisely because he was able to see farther than the parties-or their modern partisans. The Republic must be saved, he thought, and although neither Caesar nor Pompey would save it, Cicero was compelled to judge which one would leave it in a condition to be saved. But in 49 his choice for the near future had to be a choice of tyrants. When Atticus thought of leaving Italy for Greece, Cicero replied:
Why certainly I approve of . . . this fence-sitting of yours, and I look upon your position as different from mine. Not that right is not right for both of us as citizens of the Republic, but the Republic is not at issue. This is a fight for a throne. The expelled monarch [Pompey] is the more moderate, upright, and clean-handed, and unless he wins the name of the Roman people must inevitably be blotted out; but if he does win his victory will be after the Sullan fashion and example. Therefore in such a conflict you should support neither side openly and trim your sails to the wind. My case is different because I am bound by an obligation and cannot be ungrateful [to Pompey]. (Letter 198, pp. 395-6)
Although he thought many times of reneging on his obligation, Cicero finally embraced Pompey and went to join him in Greece. Later he was pardoned, and even well-treated, by the conqueror.
The war between Caesar and Pompey was a peculiarly Roman struggle, not because it was a war but because of the character of the Romans. The characteristic virtue of the Roman was courage, courage in battle: virtus meant courage. But courageous men do not always seek the most moderate course: courage and recklessness are closely related. Once the Romans had conquered the world their courage and their fighting spirit had to seek other outlets. From the time that Carthage was destroyed, the political crisis in Rome was almost continuous. The struggle between Caesar and Pompey was the final chapter of that crisis. Nothing within the institutional structure of Rome allowed for its resolution, and so the only appeal was to arms.
It is now commonplace for historians to view the political conflict in the late Republic as a struggle between “left” and “right,” between the optimates and the populares. Cicero’s letters show this to be a simplistic interpretation. Pompey and Caesar were very little concerned with ideology, or even rhetoric: they were bent on power. Not only did they not care how that power was acquired, but they did not care whether their constitutional settlement might persist after them: one could win as good a reputation as a tyrant as one could as a leader of free men. “This is a fight for a throne,” Cicero said: it was not a fight for principles, but for power. Cicero, who did have principles, stayed out of the civil war for many months, not because it posed for him a question of principle, but because he wanted to know how best to moderate the victory of whichever one conquered. He had seen Sulla’s conquest, and remembered the bloody proscriptions, the confiscations of property, and the condemnations of innocent men. Cicero knew what to expect, no matter who won.
Cicero has been accused of opportunism, of “trimming his sails” to the slightest political breeze in an attempt to save his own skin. The fact that he could advise Atticus to trim his sails shows that he could have done so, that he knew how to do it if he so desired. But he did eventually join Pompey. Cicero knew in advance that he would not be responsible for the constitutional settlement after the issue between Caesar and Pompey had been settled. The great vice of the Roman regime, one which Cicero tried to circumvent but which finally defeated him, was that it depended not on its institutions, but on men for its perpetuation. Men were not loyal to the Republic, but to Caesar or Sulla or Pompey, or whichever leader they chose to follow. The factions-Caesarian, Sullan, Pompeian-ran their course, slugging it out with one another until one was the winner; and then things went along constitutionally until another became more powerful. The civil war, far from being a war between ideologies, or between different ideas about good government, was a war between two ambitious party leaders, one desiring to capture, the other to maintain, control of the existing institutions. A man who, like Cicero, was loyal to the Republic was forced to act very circumspectly if he was to influence the conqueror, and thus the behavior of his party after the victory.
Cicero attempted throughout his career to moderate the violence of Roman politics; but he was compelled to play the political game at the same time. In the absence of a moderating principle in Roman politics, one which would channel the ambitions of a Caesar or a Pompey into service to the Republic, Cicero was forced to shift one way and then another in an effort to make up the lack. His letters chronicle this attempt, and also give testimony to the consistent vision of the Republic which lay at the center of his apparently inconsistent actions. We cannot expect from political action the smooth periods and perfect logic of theory. Cicero, in letter 21, condemns Cato for trying to act strictly according to theory: “He speaks in the Senate as though he were living in Plato’s Republic instead of Romulus’ cesspool.” These are not the letters of an idle visionary, a philosopher out of his depths in the world of politics. Nor are they the letters of an unscrupulous politician, a manipulator in a corrupt age. These are the letters of a thoughtful politician and a philosopher in action, who saw things for what they were and tried to move them in the direction of good government. He failed. But we cannot condemn him for his failure, for Cicero’s failure was more noble than Caesar’s success.
These are the private letters of one of history’s greatest public men. Atticus was Cicero’s best friend, and knew both his understanding of Roman politics and his concern for Rome’s well-being, and these letters help us understand Cicero as well. Of course, we also see petty jealousies, frivolous quarrels, and personal ambitions. Cicero was ambitious and vain; he never tires of blowing his own horn. But he was also capable of laughing at his ambition and his vanity. Cicero complains bitterly to Atticus about his misfortunes: his exile, his exclusion from public life, his governship of a remote province, his failure to get a triumph. He more than once reports to Atticus that he is so overwhelmed by his misfortunes that he is dissolved in tears. However overwhelmed he was by his misfortunes or his private grievances, Cicero always tried to act for the public good; and if these letters reveal the intensity of his ambition they also reveal the depth of his love of his country.
A word about the translation. D.R. Shackleton Bailey has spent many years studying, correcting, and translating the texts of Cicero’s letters. He has done a truly splendid job of all of these, and particularly of the difficult task of translating Cicero’s informal style into English. Professor Shackleton Bailey has avoided both excessive formality and an overly colloquial style, the two great temptations of the translator. Above all, he resists the modern conceit that he knows better than Cicero himself what Cicero meant to say or should have said. When Cicero says “boni,” Shackleton Bailey translates “good men,” and not-as some have done- “aristocratic party.” The one problem which neither he nor any other translator has successfully solved is what to do about the frequent Greek phrases and quotations which Cicero uses. Shackleton Bailey has adopted the procedure of translating quotations into English-which is fine-and single words or phrases into English or French or sometimes Latin-which is not. A more sensible approach might be to leave them in Greek, and supply translations in footnotes (which are copious, scholarly, and informative). Professor Shackleton Bailey has none the less done an admirable job of capturing the informal tone of the letters. If we are to understand Cicero’s thought it is critical that we be able to confront it directly. That means that a translator must be unobtrusive, and let the subject speak for himself. This translation is an excellent exercise in doing just that.
Everyone who is concerned about modern politics, about the problems facing us today, should read these letters. Modern politics confronts us with a situation no less complex and dangerous than the situation of Rome in 49 B.C. Tyranny in its most powerful and frightening form is today a threat from the left: it is Caesarism reborn with the addition of that modern weapon, ideology. Moderate or decent regimes must learn how would-be tyrants mask their intentions, and ask how much benevolent declarations are to be trusted. The rise of extremism here at home is no less our concern than the rise of extremism abroad. We must, as citizens of a Republic, beware of the Caesar or the
Pompey beneath the gentle rhetoric of compassion. We cannot afford to forget that a tyrant never looks like a tyrant until it is too late. More than two thousand years ago Cicero tried to preserve moderate government in Rome from tyranny, and he failed. We must either learn from his failure, or prepare for his fate.