Selected Letters Of Cicero, translated by Frank F. Abbott
Once upon a time, schoolkids were intimately familiar with the writings of Cicero, a late Roman politician and onetime consul of great reputation. These letters, in translation, are certainly useful in making a contemporary reader familiar with him, although few seem greatly interested in that at present . This book, indeed, may make the reader too familiar with Cicero to the extent where he ceases to be someone who the reader holds in great respect by reputation and instead has to come to grips with his writing, which is immensely whiny and at best charmingly gossipy. Given the fact that Cicero’s times are not so different from our own in terms of political violence and the threat of demagoguery, this book is immensely practical for those readers who want to become familiar with the late Roman Republic. Even so, this book demonstrates that Cicero himself was not a man of great bravery and he could whine with the best in history, including our own contemporary generation of ‘statesmen.’ A reader who looks at the fall of the Roman Republic can ponder the fact that if such men as Cicero were the best that age had to offer, it is little wonder that the Republic fell the way that it did.
This book consists of 175 pages or so of Cicero’s letters in translation. Some of these letters are short notes jotted down to some politician/crony encouraging some sort of action in support of Cicero and his interests, or apologies on behalf of someone else. Some of the letters show Cicero engaged in some sort of plan to improve his political career and that of his allies or clients. Some of the letters are chummy notes that brag about how much of a friend Pompey is to Cicero. Many of the letters, though, show Cicero in some sort of despondence over some sort of reversal related to politics. At one point Cicero admits fleeing the Senate because two rival groups of thugs were fighting each other. At other points Cicero shows despondency about and to his brother about the way that touchy people were quick to take offense. At other times, though, Cicero shows a great deal of tact in trying to appeal to people for their sense of virtue and being honest about his considerable ambition and the troubles it involved him in.
Ultimately, these letters are worthwhile because they tell us of corrupt times not very unlike our own. Decent men, and Cicero was at least a decent man, feared death and exile and dishonor for seeking to serve both themselves as well as their country in the face of wild swings of political favor. Cicero seems to be a political figure like that of Hilary Clinton, for better or worse, frequently going down in defeat, of the tendency to blame other people for problems and failure, and with a Taylor Swift-like tendency of claiming to be the victim and eliciting the sympathy of those he wrote letters to while using his canniness and considerable intellect and rhetorical skills to try to manipulate the situation to his advantage. In reading Cicero, we see our own times and the fact that we cannot have any more safety in political position than he did in his own time, even if we are people with more bravery and more consistency than he had. Still, he was among the greatest figures of his time, and was on a close personal basis with all kinds of people we still know of, like Julius Caesar, Pompey, Cato, as well as Brutus and Cassius. If Cicero is not as great a man as one would have thought before reading his letters, perhaps we might do well to think of how we and our reputations would fare if people became familiar with our own personal letters and notes.
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