The correspondence was exquisite; but as Marcus grew older and grew apart from Fronto (or, rather, grew into his duties as Emperor), the letters between the two men became less frequent, and less revealing. In a sense, I think, Marcus outgrew his old teacher; meanwhile, Fronto seemed plagued by a succession of health issues. Marcus developed away from oratory, toward philosophy, and had affairs of state to preoccupy him, whereas Fronto—except when propounding his griefs (most memorably the account of his grandson’s death)—constrained himself within the realm of rhetoric.
His rhapsodies on oratory (or "eloquence") are not without merit: he suggests that, the decline in the emperors between Augustus and the Antonines was due in part to the fact that those emperors did not compose their own speeches, which made them, to a degree, the tools of other men. (It has been suggested that in the US our politicians should be forced to compose their own speeches—we have Jefferson and Lincoln to look at, but even Washington was ghosted from time to time). His argument seems plausible. Under the Antonines you have the impression of a broad-based nexus of men, or a common culture, which placed great value on doing the right thing and expressing the right thing in the right way.
The collection belongs to Fronto, and so, as it wears on, you have more of his letters to and from other persons. Aside from one or two exceptional ones, those with Lucius Verus as recipient or author lack the same dynamism. Obviously Fronto’s relationship with Marcus was unique. Plus one increasingly encounters less personal letters of recommendation and the like. One long extract contains partial synopsis of a history Fronto intended to write (or may have written) about the campaigns of Lucius Verus against the Parthians. However gaps and lacunae in the later correspondence become so prevalent that many letters cannot be enjoyed simply for the many ellipses.
Having said that, now that I’ve finished, I feel an emptiness longing to be filled. The letters gave a glimpse into relationships and into a world long dead. Marcus is an attractive character; but Fronto undoubtedly deserved the love and affection of his master; was an intelligent and kind-hearted, in all senses a good man, in his own right, apart from the relationship with Marcus. But just there, his recommendations, his opinions on obscure points of Latin vocabulary, do not always retain their interest to a reader at this far remove, though his general discussion of language and expression remains sound and relevant.
In order to get a little more Marcus—to satisfy my present craving as though it were an addict’s “fix”, I’ve ordered from Amazon the Loeb edition of Aurelius which contains not only speeches but further correspondence. The speeches especially intrigue me, but a separate volume does not seem to exist for them—Loeb must suffice, also translated by C.R. Haines presumably a hundred years ago. But that suits me well, because, although you would think it should have been superseded by something since, I find it respectable. (This, unfortunately, makes me have to obtain yet another version of Meditations which I don’t need—and means that the extant “other material” must be slim—but at least I may hope for some insightful commentary by the translator; the Greek text will be of no use to me.)
Volume II of the Fronto contains a couple of appendices: one titled “Other Miscellaneous Remains of Fronto” which consists of anecdotes remembered or recounted of things he said, and so forth; and another, “Miscellaneous Letters of Marcus Aurelius” (not excluding some spurious ones). The last of these relate to Avidius Cassius who rebelled, which are very interesting.
It may well be that by the time the Loeb makes its way to me, the craving will have passed. While I have enjoyed the Fronto, I’m a little tired also: it is so much fun to be doing other things. But then weather has turned cold in Chicago—the wind has been like the Petersburg wind that Gogol described, seeming to blow from four directions at once. Autumn and winter make good time for sitting down with books.
In anticipation of a week or a fortnight’s lag until the book comes, I’ve had to think about choosing something else to read to keep me in the reading mode. (If I slip out I might be done for.) I considered various options. I might continue with A Sorrow Beyond Dreams by Peter Handke which I left mid-stream before I switched over to Meditations. (The Penguin edition was a chance acquisition.) But no, best remain with history. Then, I have many titles that have been begging for attention for a long time—I have weighed the options, and made my final choice.
I considered something Greek, or something about Augustus. Nah—too far removed from the Antonines. Then I said: time to read something on Nero. recently I’ve acquired a new copy of a short biography by David Shotter. Less than a hundred pages: should be a piece of cake. Then I second guessed myself. I’ve had B.H. Warmington’s book waiting in the wings for at least a decade. It is edited by Finley—though that is no guarantee (I’ve learnt from experience)—but I’ve read some other title by the man profitably (though I can’t recollect what—or if I retained anything). So I considered a little competition.
Here are the first two paragraphs to the introduction by Shotter:
Through the years, the reign of Nero Caesar Augustus as emperor of Rome has been seen as the very embodiment of the extravagance, debauchery and corruption that for many years have come to symbolize ancient Rome.
Whilst it cannot be denied that Nero’s reign saw many excesses and contained many actions for which there can be no justification, yet his was a government that was not lacking in achievement. For one thing, Nero may have been an inadequate ruler, but for a time, at least, he allowed himself to be guided and assisted by men of considerable ability. This was especially true of many of those to whom he committed key provincial appointments; under the guidance of these, imperial security and prosperity advanced in most parts of the empire.
History, it has been said, is the propaganda of the victors, and few better examples could be found to support this view than the history of the Roman Republic and its rise to imperial domination. THe Romans’ own account of their success is redolent throughout of self-justification; as Gibbon put it, when describing the views of a leading Roman historian, “according to Livy, the Romans conquered the world in self-defense”. Such history naturally also reflected the interests and prejudices of those under whom Rome had achieved supremacy, namely the senators. These men either wrote the history themselves, or inspired the tradition reproduced by others.
Historical writing remained in the hands of a restricted class even after the establishment of imperial government by Augustus, but the situation was now different because the authority of the Senate diminished rapidly under the emperors. It was more than a century before the senatorial class as a whole became reconciled to loss of power, and in the process there were bitter struggles between it and the emperors, in which the Senate generally lost. Consequently, the history of the emperors from Augustus to Nero (and even later) is rather the propaganda of the victims than the victors.
Though the Warmington appears the lengthier, his is the kind of overview that I am yearning for now. So I intend to take a stab at it, if not the plunge—but I hope for the plunge.
Reading about Nero should help me put a little (historical) perspective to Seneca—it will give me a sense of the antecedents to the Antonines. I had hoped to find something from Fronto’s paean to eloquence to heighten the contrast, but I lack the key to hunting it; needless to say, the culmination of Nero should serve instructive precursor to the Antonines, as I struggle with trying to understand the sweep of Rome. As Warmington mentions, those that wrote histories, tended to focus on events in Rome itself to the exclusion of the rest of the empire. Shotter almost assuredly takes the broader view—and I may get to it. Marcus died in a campaign, but I’m not so sure how far I need to delve into biography to satisfy my curiosity.
As a boy, I was averse to reading; as a man, I continue so, but have learnt the value of discipline, and also how to extract a kind of cultivated pleasure from it. “All things can tempt me,” however—so I do what I can to make sure that the train of my attention does not derail.
On the horizon—I hope—is the poem by Seneca’s nephew, but that may be beyond my capacity. The reviews speak highly of Civil War by Lucan. As yet, I fear, any of the monumental histories lie beyond my compass.
[Postscript: a search, by no means exhaustive, reveals no title by Warmington that I might have read--Carthage will be worthwhile I predict—but possibly I have something in my possession that fails to come up in Amazon's idiosyncratic search. In setting up my links, I noted a negative review of the Loeb which ironically takes my point about the "Whilst" and hammers it in: ironic, I say, in that Haines's broader (and somewhat old-fashioned) vocabulary troubles me not a whit, as I found his style in the Fronto to be amenible. A commenter on that review, Jonathan Miller, writes:
Your criticism is silly. C.R. Haines has gone to extraordinary lengths to capture the _style_ of the prose, as well as its content. If you read the (very many) informative notes/references at the bottom of every page, you will frequently come across such notations as "the play on words can not be kept" or "the flourish is lost"; this should be a clear indication of the meticulousness with which this translation has been rendered.
Is this book the simplest, most readable form of the Meditations for a general audience? No. But that's not what Loeb books are about. You have here a great translation which adheres as closely as possible to what Marcus Aurelius really wrote. Considering that the advice he's offering has the gravitas of life and death, I think you shouldn't hesitate to grab a dictionary and get to work!