THE letters of Cicero are of a very varied character. They range from the most informal communications with members of his family to serious and elaborate compositions which are practically treatises in epistolary form. A very large proportion of them were obviously written out of the mood of the moment, with no thought of the possibility of publication; and in these the style is comparatively relaxed and colloquial. Others, addressed to public characters, are practically of the same nature as his speeches, discussions of political questions intended to influence public opinion, and performing a function in the Roman life of the time closely analogous to that fulfilled at the present day by articles is the great reviews, or editorials in prominent journals.
In the case of both of these two main groups the interest is twofold: personal and historical, though it is naturally in the private letters that we find most light thrown on the character of the writer. In spite of the spontaneity of these epistles there exists a great difference of opinion among scholars as to the personality revealed by them, and both in the extent of the divergence of view and in the heat of the controversy we are reminded of modern discussions of the characters of men such as Gladstone or Roosevelt. It has been fairly said that there is on the whole more chance of justice to Cicero from the man of the world who understands how the stress and change of politics lead a statesman into apparently inconsistent utterances than from the professional scholar who subjects these utterances to the severest logica1 scrutiny, without the illumination of practical experience.
Many sides of Cicero's life other than the political are reflected in the letters. From them we can gather a picture of how an ambitious Roman gentleman of some inherited wealth took to the legal profession as the regular means of becoming a public figure; of how his fortune might be increased by fees, by legacies from friends, clients, and even complete strangers who thus sought to confer distinction on themselves; of how the governor of a province could become rich in a year; of how the sons of Roman men of wealth gave trouble to their tutors, were sent to Athens, as to a university in our day, and found an allowance of over $4,000 a year insufficient for their extravagances. Again, we see the greatest orator of Rome divorce his wife after thirty years, apparently because she had been indiscreet or unscrupulous in money matters, and marry at the age of sixty-three his own ward, a young girl whose fortune he admitted was the main attraction. The coldness of temper suggested by these transactions is contradicted in turn by Cicero's romantic affection for his daughter Tullia, whom he is never tired of praising for her cleverness and charm, and whose death almost broke his heart.
Most of Cicero's letters were written in ink on paper or parchment with a reed pen; a few on tablets of wood or ivory covered with wax, the marks being cut with a stylus. The earlier letters he wrote with his own hand, the later were, except in rare cases, dictated to a secretary. There was, of course, no postal service, so the epistles were carried by private messengers or by the couriers who were constantly traveling between the provincial officials and the capital.
Apart from the letters to Atticus, the collection, arrangement, and publication of Cicero's correspondence seems to have been due to Tiro, the learned freedman who served him as secretary, and to whom some of the letters are addressed. Titus Pormponius Atticus, who edited the large collection of the letters written to himself, was a cultivated Roman who lived more than twenty years in Athens for purposes of study. His zeal for cultivation was combined with the successful pursuit of wealth; and though Cicero relied on him for aid and advice in public as well as private matters, their friendship did not prevent Atticus from being on good terms with men of the opposite party.
Generous, amiable, and cultured, Atticus was not remarkable for the intensity of his devotion either to principles or persons. "That he was the lifelong friend of Cicero," says Professor Tyrrell, "is the best title which Atticus has to remembrance. As a man he was kindly, careful, and shrewd, but nothing more: there was never anything grand or noble in his character. He was the quintessence of prudent mediocrity."
The period covered by the letters of Cicero is one of the most interesting and momentous in the history of the world, and these letters afford a picture of the chief personages and most important events of that age from the pen of a man who was not only himself in the midst of the conflict, but who was a consummate literary artist.
THE state of things in regard to my candidature, in which I know that you are supremely interested, is this, as far as can be as yet conjectured. The only person actually canvassing is P. Sulpicius Galba. He meets with a good old-fashioned refusal without reserve or disguise. In the general opinion this premature canvass of his is not unfavourable to my interests; for the voters generally give as a reason for their refusal that they are under obligations to me. So I hope my prospects are to a certain degree improved by the report getting about that my friends are found to be numerous. My intention was to begin my own canvass just at the very time that Cincius tells me that your servant starts with this letter, namely, in the campus at the time of the tribunician elections on the 17th of July. My fellow candidates, to mention only those who seem certain, are Galba and Antonius and Q. Cornificius. At this I imagine you smiling or sighing. Well, to make you positively smite your forehead, there are people who actually think that Caesonius will stand. I don't think Aquilius will, for he openly disclaims it and has alleged as an excuse his health and his leading position at the bar. Catiline will certainly be a candidate, if you can imagine a jury finding that the sun does not shine at noon. As for Aufidius and Palicanus, I don't think you will expect to hear from me about them. Of the candidates for this year's election Caesar is considered certain. Thermus is looked upon as the rival of Silanus. These latter are so weak both in friends and reputation that it seems pas impossible to bring in Curius over their heads. But no one else thinks so. What seems most to my interests is that Thermus should get in with Caesar. For there is none of those at present canvassing who, if left over to my year, seems likely to be a stronger candidate, from the fact that he is commissioner of the via Flaininia, and when that has been finished, I shall be greatly relieved to have seen him elected consul this election. Such in outline is the position of affairs in regard to candidates up to date. For myself I shall take the greatest pains to carry out all the duties of a candidate, and perhaps, as Gaul seems to have a considerable voting power, as soon as business at Rome has come to a standstill I shall obtain a libera legatio and make an excursion in the course of September to visit Piso, but so as not to be back later than January. When I have ascertained the feelings of the nobility I will write you word. Everything else I hope will go smoothly, at any rate while my competitors are such as are now in town. You must undertake to secure for me the entourage of our friend Pompey, since you are nearer than I. Tell him I shall not be annoyed if he doesn't come to my election. So much for that business. But there is a matter for which I am very anxious that you should forgive me. Your uncle Caecilius having been defrauded of a large sum of money by P. Varius, began an action against his cousin A. Caninius Satyrus for the property which (as he alleged) the latter had received from Varius by a collusive sale. He was joined in this action by the other creditors, among whom were Lucullus and P. Scipio, and the man whom they thought would be official receiver if the property was put up for sale, Lucius Pontius; though it is ridiculous to be talking about a receiver at this stage in the proceedings. Caecilius asked me to appear for him against Satyrus. Now, scarcely a day passes that Satyrus does not call at my house. The chief object of his attentions is L. Domitius, but I am next in his regard. He has been of great service both to myself and to my brother Quintus in our elections. I was very much embarrassed by my intimacy with Satyrus as well as that with Domitius, on whom the success of my election depends more than on anyone else. I pointed out these facts to Caecilius; at the same time I assured him that if the case had been one exclusively between himself and Satyrus, I would have done what he wished. As the matter actually stood, all the creditors being concerned--and that two men of the highest rank, who, without the aid of anyone specially retained by Caecilius, would have no difficulty in maintaining their common cause--it was only fair that he should have consideration both for my private friendship and my present situation. He seemed to take this somewhat less courteously than I could have wished, or than is usual among gentlemen; and from that time forth he has entirely withdrawn from the intimacy with me which was only of a few days standing. Pray forgive me, and believe that I was prevented by nothing but natural kindness from assailing the reputation of a friend in so vital a point at a time of such very great distress, considering that he had shewn me every sort of kindness and attention, But if you incline to the harsher view of my conduct, take it that the interests of my canvass prevented me. Yet, even granting that to be so, I think you should pardon me, "since not for sacred beast or oxhide shield." You see in fact the position I am in, and how necessary I regard it, not only to retain but even to acquire all possible sources of popularity. I hope I have justified myself in your eyes, I am at any rate anxious to have done so. The Hermathena you sent I am delighted with: it has been placed with such charming effect that the whole gymnasium seems arranged specially for it. I am exceedingly obliged to you.