Roman Life in the Days of Cicero - Alfred J. Church

Country Life

A Roman of even moderate wealth—for Cicero was far from being one of the richest men of his time—commonly possessed more country-houses than belong even to the wealthiest of English nobles. One such house at least Cicero inherited from his father. It was about three miles from Arpinum, a little town in that hill country of the Sabines which was the proverbial seat of a temperate and frugal race, and which Cicero describes in Homeric phrase as

'Rough but a kindly nurse of men.'

In his grandfather's time it had been a plain farmhouse, of the kind that had satisfied the simpler manners of former days—the days when Consuls and Dictators were content, their time of office ended, to plough their own fields and reap their own harvests. Cicero was born within its walls, for the primitive fashion of family life still prevailed, and the married son continued to live in his father's house. After the old man's death, when the old-fashioned frugality gave way to a more sumptuous manner of life, the house was greatly enlarged, one of the additions being a library, a room of which the grandfather, who thought that his contemporaries were like Syrian slaves, "the more Greek they knew the greater knaves they were," had never felt the want; but in which his son, especially in his later days, spent most of his time. The garden and grounds were especially delightful, the most charming spot of all being an island formed by the little stream Fibrenus. A description put into the mouth of Quintus, the younger son of the house, thus depicts it: "I have never seen a more pleasant spot. Fibrenus here divides his stream into two of equal size, and so washes either side. Flowing rapidly by he joins his waters again, having compassed just as much ground as makes a convenient place for our literary discussions. This done he hurries on, just as if the providing of such a spot had been his only office and function, to fall into the Liris. Then, like one adopted into a noble family, he loses his own obscurer name. The Liris indeed he makes much colder. A colder stream than this indeed I never touched, though I have seen many. I can scarce bear to dip my foot in it. You remember how Plato makes Socrates dip his foot in Ilissus." Atticus too is loud in his praises. "This, you know, is my first time of coming here, and I feel that I cannot admire it enough. As to the splendid villas which one often sees, with their marble pavements and gilded ceilings, I despise them. And their water-courses, to which they give the fine names of Nile or Euripus, who would not laugh at them when he sees your streams? When we want rest and delight for the mind it is to nature that we must come. Once I used to wonder—for I never thought that there was anything but rocks and hills in the place—that you took such pleasure in the spot. But now I marvel that when you are away from Rome you care to be anywhere but here." "Well," replied Cicero, "when I get away from town for several days at a time, I do prefer this place; but this I can seldom do. And indeed I love it, not only because it is so pleasant, so healthy a resort, but also because it is my native land, mine and my father's too, and because I live here among the associations of those that have gone before me."

Other homes he purchased at various times of his life, as his means permitted. The situation of one of them, at Formica near Cape Caista, was particularly agreeable to him, for he loved the sea; it amused him as it had amused, he tells us, the noble friends, Scipio and Lælius, before him, to pick up pebbles on the shore. But this part of the coast was a fashionable resort. Chance visitors were common; and there were many neighbours, some of whom were far too liberal of their visits. He writes to Atticus on one occasion from his Formian villa: "As to composition, to which you are always urging me, it is absolutely impossible. It is a public-hall that I have here, not a country-house, such a crowd of people is there at Formiæ. As to most of them nothing need be said. After ten o'clock they cease to trouble me. But my nearest neighbour is Arrius. The man absolutely lives with me, says that he has given up the idea of going to Rome because he wants to talk philosophy with me. And then, on the other side, there is Sebosus, Catulus' friend, as you will remember. Now what am I to do? I would certainly be off to Arpinum if I did not expect to see you here." In the next letter he repeats the complaints: "Just as I am sitting down to write in comes our friend Sebosus. I had not time to give an inward groan, when Arrius says, 'Good morning.' And this is going away from Rome! I will certainly be off to

'My native hills, the cradle of my race.'

Still, doubtless, there was a sweetness, the sweetness of being famous and sought after, even in these annoyances. He never ceased to pay occasional visits to Formiæ. It was a favourite resort of his family; and it was there that he spent the last days of his life.

But the country-house which he loved best of all was his villa at Tusculum, a Latin town lying on the slope of Mount Algidus, at such a height above the sea as would make a notable hill in England. Here had lived in an earlier generation Crassus, the orator after whose model the young Cicero had formed his own eloquence; and Catulus, who shared with Marius the glory of saving Rome from the barbarians; and Cæsar, an elder kinsman of the Dictator. Cicero's own house had belonged to Sulla, and its walls were adorned with frescoes of that great soldier's victories. For neighbours he had the wealthy Lucullus, and the still more wealthy Crassus, one of the three who ruled Rome when it could no longer rule itself, and, for a time at least, Quintus, his brother. "This," he writes to his friend Atticus, "is the one spot in which I can get some rest from all my toils and troubles."

Though Cicero often speaks of this house of his, he nowhere describes its general arrangements. We shall probably be not far wrong if we borrow our idea of this from the letter in which the younger Pliny tells a friend about one of his own country seats.

"The courtyard in front is plain without being mean. From this you pass into a small but cheerful space enclosed by colonnades in the shape of the letter D. Between these there is a passage into an inner covered court, and out of this again into a handsome hall, which has on every side folding doors or windows equally large. On the left hand of this hall lies a large drawing-room, and beyond that a second of a smaller size, which has one window to the rising and another to the setting sun. Adjoining this is another room of a semicircular shape, the windows of which are so arranged as to get the sun all through the day: in the walls are bookcases containing a collection of authors who cannot be read too often. Out of this is a bedroom which can be warmed with hot air. The rest of this side of the house is appropriated to the use of the slaves and freedmen; yet most of the rooms are good enough to put my guests into. In the opposite wing is a most elegant bedroom, another which can be used both as bedroom and sitting-room, and a third which has an ante-room of its own, and is so high as to be cool in summer, and with walls so thick that it is warm in winter. Then comes the bath with its cooling room, its hot room, and its dressing chamber. And not far from this again the tennis court, which gets the warmth of the afternoon sun, and a tower which commands an extensive view of the country round. Then there is a granary and a store-room."

This was probably a larger villa than Cicero's, though it was itself smaller than another which Pliny describes. We must make an allowance for the increase in wealth and luxury which a century and a half had brought. Still we may get some idea from it of Cicero's country-house, one point of resemblance certainly being that there was but one floor.

What Cicero says about his "Tusculanum" chiefly refers to its furnishing and decoration, and is to be found for the most part in his letters to Atticus. Atticus lived for many years in Athens and had therefore opportunities of buying works of art and books which did not fall in the way of the busy lawyer and statesman of Rome. But the room which in Cicero's eyes was specially important was one which we may call the lecture-room, and he is delighted when his friend was able to procure some appropriate ornaments for it. "Your Hermathena," he writes (the Hermathena  was a composite statue, or rather a double bust upon a pedestal, with the heads of Hermes and Athene, the Roman Mercury and Minerva) "pleases me greatly. It stands so prettily that the whole lecture-room looks like a votive chapel of the deity. I am greatly obliged to you." He returns to the subject in another letter. Atticus had probably purchased for him another bust of the same kind. "What you write about the Hermathena  pleases me greatly. It is a most appropriate ornament for my own little 'seat of learning.' Hermes is suitable everywhere, and Minerva is the special emblem of a lecture-room. I should be glad if you would, as you suggest, find as many more ornaments of the same kind for the place. As for the statues that you sent me before, I have not seen them. They are at my house at Formica, whither I am just now thinking of going. I shall remove them all to my place at Tusculum. If ever I shall find myself with more than enough for this I shall begin to ornament the other. Pray keep your books. Don't give up the hope that I may be able to make them mine. If I can only do this I shall be richer than Crassus." And, again, "If you can find any lecture-room ornaments do not neglect to secure them. My Tusculum house is so delightful to me that it is only when I get there that I seem to be satisfied with myself." In another letter we hear something about the prices. He has paid about one hundred and eighty pounds for some statues from Megara which his friend had purchased for him. At the same time he thanks him by anticipation for some busts of Hermes, in which the pedestals were of marble from Pentelicus, and the heads of bronze. They had not come to hand when he next writes: "I am looking for them," he says, "most anxiously;" and he again urges diligence in looking for such things. "You may trust the length of my purse. This is my special fancy." Shortly after Atticus has found another kind of statue, double busts of Hermes and Hercules, the god of strength; and Cicero is urgent to have them for his lecture-room. All the same he does not forget the books, for which he is keeping his odds and ends of income, his "little vintages," as he calls them—possibly the money received from a small vineyard attached to his pleasure-grounds. Of books, however, he had an ample supply close at home, of which he could make as much use as he pleased, the splendid library which Lucullus had collected. "When I was at my house in Tusculum," he writes in one of his treatises, "happening to want to make use of some books in the library of the young Lucullus, I went to his villa, to take them out myself, as my custom was. Coming there I found Cato (Cato was the lad's uncle and guardian), of whom, however, then I knew nothing, sitting in the library absolutely surrounded with books of the Stoic writers on philosophy."

When Cicero was banished, the house at Tusculum shared the fate of the rest of his property. The building was destroyed. The furniture, and with it the books and works of art so diligently collected, were stolen or sold. Cicero thought, and was probably right in thinking, that the Senate dealt very meanly with him when they voted him something between four and five thousand pounds as compensation for his loss in this respect. For his house at Formiæ they gave him half as much. We hear of his rebuilding the house. He had advertised the contract, he tells us in the same letter in which he complains of the insufficient compensation. Some of his valuables he recovered, but we hear no more of collecting. He had lost heart for it, as men will when such a disaster has happened to them. He was growing older too, and the times were growing more and more troublous. Possibly money was not so plentiful with him as it had been in earlier days. But we have one noble monument of the man connected with the second of his two Tusculum houses. He makes it the scene of the "Discussions of Tusculum," one of the last of the treatises in the writing of which he found consolation for private and public sorrows. He describes himself as resorting in the afternoon to his "Academy," and there discussing how the wise man may rise superior to the fear of death, to pain and to sorrow, how he may rule his passions, and find contentment in virtue alone. "If it seems," he says, summing up the first of these discussions, "if it seems the clear bidding of God that we should quit this life [he seems to be speaking of suicide, which appeared to a Roman to be, under certain circumstances, a laudable act], let us obey gladly and thankfully. Let us consider that we are being loosed from prison, and released from chains, that we may either find our way back to a home that is at once everlasting and manifestly our own, or at least be quit for ever of all sensation and trouble. If no such bidding come to us, let us at least cherish such a temper that we may look on that day so dreadful to others as full of blessing to us; and let us look on nothing that is ordered for us either by the everlasting gods or by nature, our common mother, as an evil. It is not by some random chance that we have been created. There is beyond all doubt some mighty Power which watches over the race of man, which does not produce a creature whose doom it is, after having exhausted all other woes, to fall at last into the unending woe of death. Rather let us believe that we have in death a haven and refuge prepared for us. I would that we might sail thither with wide-spread sails; if not, if contrary winds shall blow us back, still we must needs reach, though it may be somewhat late, the haven where we would be. And as for the fate which is the fate of all, how can it be the unhappiness of one?"