Monday, January 03, 2022



Robert A. Kaster, The Appian Way: Ghost Road, Queen of Roads (2012; rpt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), pp. 101-103:
Marcus Tullius Cicero is unavoidable in my line of work, and not the sort of man who provokes mild emotions in those who make his acquaintance. Loathing and affection are the only choices. By now I have spent enough time in his company, through teaching and writing, to work past the first of those feelings and arrive at the second. Certainly, he is everything that those who loathe him say: an egotist who was impossibly high-maintenance as a friend; often blinkered and bloviating as a statesman; moody, inconstant, and self-dramatizing as a man; and—what finally did him in—not nearly as clever a political player as he thought he was, or as his enemies actually were. Yet he was also a loyal friend in his turn, and witty company, a man who (I think) really did try to do what he thought was right, and who along the way wrote some of the best prose ever composed in any language, with the same impact on the future of Latin that Shakespeare and the King James Version of the Bible have had on English. But above all he left himself exposed and accessible, and that is the thing in the end that moves me beyond simple respect.

A chief reason Cicero is so easy to loathe is that he left so much of himself on view. We know him better than we can know any human being in Western history before Saint Augustine, because no one in the West before Augustine left so large a written legacy of such a personal kind. The texts, and the body of commentary that has grown up around them, fill ten feet of shelving in my office, and my collection is not especially large: speeches, rhetorical treatises, philosophical tracts, and above all the correspondence, over twenty years' worth, that he carried on with family, friends, and enemies. Of course most of the writing is carefully calculated, intended to present the writer in the best possible light in whatever circumstance prompted the writing: that is one of the jobs that rhetoric is supposed to do, and Cicero was a master of the craft. But even though the writing may not offer a transparent window on his soul, it does give excellent access to his lively mind. You see the wheels turning, you come to understand the move that's being made and anticipate the move that's coming next, and in so doing you reach across more than twenty centuries in a way that is exhilarating and moving.

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