A number of Cicero’s speeches, and also philosophical works, in which field he established a tradition of Roman writing, survive from the hand of this master of style and rhetoric. To the student of Roman life, however, the four collections of his letters, edited shortly after his murder in 43 BC, are of even greater and more immediate interest: To his Brother Quintus, soldier and provincial governor who also died in the proscriptions, To his Friends, To Brutus, the conspirator, and To Atticus, who was Cicero’s closest friend and confidant.
Aureus of Brutus, c. 43 BC, depicts his head surrounded by a laurel wreath, with the inscription: BRVTVS IMP[ERATOR], “Brutus, victorious commander”. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)
Some of Cicero’s letters were undoubtedly intended for ultimate publication, but, taken as a whole, they are refreshingly revealing about himself and his day-to-day existence during the last twenty-five years of his life.
A Roman takes down a roll from its place in a library. (From Sir John Edwin Sandys (ed.), A Companion to Latin Studies, Cambridge University Press 1913)
Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus (AD 61 - c. 113), known as Pliny the Younger to distinguish him from his eminent uncle and adoptive father, certainly did intend his correspondence for publication, and in his lifetime too. He showed early literary promise, and became a distinguished orator, public servant, and philanthropist. He endowed a library at Como, a school for children of free-born parents, and a public baths, while the interest on an even larger sum was left in his will for the benefit of a hundred freedmen and for an annual public banquet.
View of the ruins of Herculaneum, 60 feet below the modern town of Ercolano, with Vesuvius behind. (VRoma: Barbara McManus)
Pliny’s letters range over many private and public topics: of especial interest is his first-hand account of the eruption of Vesuvius (VI. 16 and 20), the description of his villa (II. 17), news of a haunted house in Athens (VII. 27) and of a tame dolphin (IX.33), and his official report to Trajan (X. 97), in his capacity as governor of Bithynia, on the Christians and his request for a policy decision on how to deal with them.
Cicero's letters are a unique insight into the world of the late republic and into the mind of one its most important figures. Pliny's letters are lacking in the personal as well as the political - and are instead a fascinating collection of essays on a huge variety of topics.
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