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

A Roman Undergraduate

In the last chapter we had no particular "Roman Boy" in view; but our "Roman Undergraduate" will be a real person, Cicero's son. It will be interesting to trace the notices which we find of him in his father's letters and books. "You will be glad to hear," he writes in one of his earliest letters to Atticus, "that a little son has been born to me, and that Terentia is doing well." From time to time we hear of him, and always spoken of in terms of the tenderest affection. He is his "honey-sweet Cicero," his "little philosopher." When the father is in exile the son's name is put on the address of his letters along with those of his mother and sister. His prospects are the subject of most anxious thought. Terentia, who had a considerable fortune of her own, proposes to sell an estate. "Pray think," he writes, "what will happen to us. If the same ill fortune shall continue to pursue us, what will happen to our unhappy boy? I cannot write any more. My tears fairly overpower me; I should be sorry to make you as sad as myself. I will say so much. If my friends do their duty by me, I shall not want for money; if they do not, your means will not save me. I do implore you, by all our troubles, do not ruin the poor lad. Indeed he is ruined enough already. If he has only something to keep him from want, then modest merit and moderate good fortune will give him all he wants."

Appointed to the government of Cilicia, Cicero takes his son with him into the province. When he starts on his campaign against the mountain tribes, the boy and his cousin, young Quintus, are sent to the court of Deiotarus, one of the native princes of Galatia. "The young Ciceros," he writes to Atticus, "are with Deiotarus. If need be, they will be taken to Rhodes." Atticus, it may be mentioned, was uncle to Quintus, and might be anxious about him. The need was probably the case of the old prince himself marching to Cicero's help. This he had promised to do, but the campaign was finished without him. This was in the year 51 B.C., and Marcus was nearly fourteen years old, his cousin being his senior by about two years. "They are very fond of each other," writes Cicero; "they learn, they amuse themselves together, but one wants the rein, the other the spur." (Doubtless the latter is the writer's son.) "I am very fond of Dionysius their teacher: the lads say that he is apt to get furiously angry. But a more learned and more blameless man there does not live." A year or so afterwards he seems to have thought less favourably of him. "I let him go reluctantly when I thought of him as the tutor of the two lads, but quite willingly as an ungrateful fellow." In B.C. 49, when the lad was about half through his sixteenth year, Cicero "gave him his toga." To take the toga, that is to exchange the gown of the boy with its stripe of purple for the plain white gown of the citizen; marked the beginning of independence (though indeed a Roman's son was even in mature manhood under his father's control). The ceremony took place at Arpinum, much to the delight of the inhabitants, who felt of course the greatest pride and interest in their famous fellow-townsman. But it was a sad time. "There and everywhere as I journeyed I saw sorrow and dismay. The prospect of this vast trouble is sad indeed." The "vast trouble" was the civil war between Cæsar and Pompey. This indeed had already broken out. While Cicero was entertaining his kinsfolk and friends at Arpinum, Pompey was preparing to fly from Italy. The war was probably not an unmixed evil to a lad who was just beginning to think himself a man. He hastened across the Adriatic to join his father's friend, and was appointed to the command of a squadron of auxiliary cavalry. His manúuvres were probably assisted by some veteran subordinate; but his seat on horseback, his skill with the javelin, and his general soldierly qualities were highly praised both by his chief and by his comrades. After the defeat at Pharsalia he waited with his father at Brundisium till a kind letter from Cæsar assured him of pardon. In B.C. 46 he was made ædile at Arpinum, his cousin being appointed at the same time. The next year he would have gladly resumed his military career. Fighting was going on in Spain, where the sons of Pompey were holding out against the forces of Cæsar; and the young Cicero, who was probably not very particular on which side he drew his sword, was ready to take service against the son of his old general. Neither the cause nor the career pleased the father, and the son's wish was overruled, just as an English lad has sometimes to give up the unremunerative profession of arms, when there is a living in the family, or an opening in a bank, or a promising connection with a firm of solicitors. It was settled that he should take up his residence at Athens, which was then the university of Rome, not indeed exactly in the sense in which Oxford and Cambridge are the universities of England, but still a place of liberal culture, where the sons of wealthy Roman families were accustomed to complete their education. Four-and-twenty years before the father had paid a long visit to the city, partly for study's sake. "In those days," he writes, "I was emaciated and feeble to a degree; my neck was long and thin; a habit of body and a figure that are thought to indicate much danger to life, if aggravated by a laborious profession and constant straining of the voice. My friends thought the more of this, because in those days I was accustomed to deliver all my speeches without any relaxation of effort, without any variety, at the very top of my voice, and with most abundant gesticulation. At first, when friends and physicians advised me to abandon advocacy for a while, I felt that I would sooner run any risk than relinquish the hope of oratorical distinction. Afterwards I reflected that by learning to moderate and regulate my voice, and changing my style of speaking, I might both avert the danger that threatened my health and also acquire a more self-controlled manner. It was a resolve to break through the habits I had formed that induced me to travel to the East. I had practised for two years, and my name had become well known when I left Rome. Coming to Athens I spent six months with Antiochus, the most distinguished and learned philosopher of the Old Academy, than whom there was no wiser or more famous teacher. At the same time I practised myself diligently under the care of Demetrius Syrus, an old and not undistinguished master of eloquence." To Athens, then, Cicero always looked back with affection. He hears, for instance, that Appius is going to build a portico at Eleusis. "Will you think me a fool," he writes to Atticus, "if I do the same at the Academy? 'I think so,' you will say. But I love Athens, the very place, much; and I shall be glad to have some memorial of me there."

The new undergraduate, as we should call him, was to have a liberal allowance. "He shall have as much as Publilius, as much as Lentulus the Flamen, allow their sons." It would be interesting to know the amount, but unhappily this cannot be recovered. All that we know is that the richest young men in Rome were not to have more. "I will guarantee," writes this liberal father, "that none of the three young men [whom he names] who, I hear, will be at Athens at the same time shall live at more expense than he will be able to do on those rents." These "rents" were the incomings from certain properties at Rome. "Only," he adds, "I do not think he will want a horse."

We know something of the university buildings, so to speak, which the young Cicero found at Athens. "To seek for truth among the groves of Academus" is the phrase by which a more famous contemporary, the poet Horace, describes his studies at Athens. He probably uses it generally to express philosophical pursuits; taken strictly it would mean that he attached himself to the sage whose pride it was to be the successor of Plato. Academus was a local hero, connected with the legend of Theseus and Helen. Near his grove, or sacred enclosure, which adjoined the road to Eleusis, Plato had bought a garden. It was but a small spot, purchased for a sum which may be represented by about three or four hundred pounds of our money, but it had been enlarged by the liberality of successive benefactors. This then was one famous lecture-room. Another was the Lyceum. Here Aristotle had taught, and after Aristotle. Theophrastus, and after him, a long succession of thinkers of the same school. A third institution of the same kind was the garden in which Epicurus had assembled his disciples, and which he bequeathed to trustees for their benefit and the benefit of their successors for all time.

To a Roman of the nobler sort these gardens and buildings must have been as holy places. It was with these rather than with the temples of gods that he connected what there was of goodness and purity in his life. To worship Jupiter or Romulus did not make him a better man, though it might be his necessary duty as a citizen; his real religion, as we understand it, was his reverence for Plato or Zeno. Athens to him was not only what Athens, but what the Holy Land is to us. Cicero describes something of this feeling in the following passage: "We had been listening to Antiochus (a teacher of the Academics) in the school called the Ptolemæus, where he was wont to lecture. Marcus Piso was with me, and my brother Quintus, and Atticus, and Lucius Cicero, by relationship a cousin, in affection a brother. We agreed among ourselves to finish our afternoon walk in the Academy, chiefly because that place was sure not to be crowded at that hour. At the proper time we met at Piso's house; thence, occupied with varied talk, we traversed the six furlongs that lie between the Double Gate and the Academy; and entering the walls which can give such good reason for their fame, found there the solitude which we sought. 'Is it,' said Piso, 'by some natural instinct or through some delusion that when we see the very spots where famous men have lived we are far more touched than when we hear of the things that they have done, or read something that they have written? It is thus that I am affected at this moment. I think of Plato, who was, we are told, the first who lectured in this place; his little garden which lies there close at hand seems not only to remind me of him, but actually to bring him up before my eyes. Here spake Speusippus, here Xenocrates, here his disciple Polemo—to Polemo indeed belonged this seat which we have before us." This was the Polemo who had been converted, as we should say, when, bursting in after a night of revel upon a lecture in which Xenocrates was discoursing of temperance, he listened to such purpose that from that moment he became a changed man. Then Atticus describes how he found the same charms of association in the garden which had belonged to his own master, Epicurus; while Quintus Cicero supplies what we should call the classical element by speaking of Sophocles and the grove of Colonus, still musical, it seems, with the same song of the nightingale which had charmed the ear of the poet more than three centuries before.

One or other, perhaps more than one, of these famous places the young Cicero frequented. He probably witnessed, he possibly took part (for strangers were admitted to membership) in, the celebrations with which the college of Athenian youths (Ephebi) commemorated the glories of their city, the procession to the tombs of those who died at Marathon, and the boat-races in the Bay of Salamis. That he gave his father some trouble is only too certain. His private tutor in rhetoric, as we should call him, was a certain Gorgias, a man of ability, and a writer of some note, but a worthless and profligate fellow. Cicero peremptorily ordered his son to dismiss him; and the young man seems to have obeyed and reformed. We may hope at least that the repentance which he expresses for his misdoings in a letter to Tiro, his father's freed-man, was genuine. This is his picture of his life in the days of repentance and soberness: "I am on terms of the closest intimacy with Cratippus, living with him more as a son than as a pupil. Not only do I hear his lectures with delight, but I am greatly taken with the geniality which is peculiar to the man. I spend whole days with him, and often no small part of the night; for I beg him to dine with me as often as he can. This has become so habitual with him that he often looks in upon us at dinner when we are not expecting him; he lays aside the sternness of the philosopher and jokes with us in the pleasantest fashion. As for Bruttius, he never leaves me; frugal and strict as is his life, he is yet a most delightful companion. For we do not entirely banish mirth from our daily studies in philology. I have hired a lodging for him close by; and do my best to help his poverty out of my own narrow means, I have begun to practise Greek declamation with Cassius, and wish to have a Latin course with Bruttius. My friends and daily companions are the pupils whom Cratippus brought with him from Mitylene, well-read men, of whom he highly approves. I also see much of Epicrates, who is the first man at Athens." After some pleasant words to Tiro, who had bought a farm, and whom he expects to find turned into a farmer, bringing stores, holding consultations with his bailiff, and putting by fruit-seeds in his pocket from dessert, he says, "I should be glad if you would send me as quickly as possible a copyist, a Greek by preference. I have to spend much pains on writing out my notes."

A short time before one of Cicero's friends had sent a satisfactory report of the young man's behaviour to his father. "I found your son devoted to the most laudable studies and enjoying an excellent reputation for steadiness. Don't fancy, my dear Cicero, that I say this to please you; there is not in Athens a more loveable young man than your son, nor one more devoted to those high pursuits in which you would have him interested."

Among the contemporaries of the young Cicero was, as has been said, the poet Horace. His had been a more studious boyhood. He had not been taken away from his books to serve as a cavalry officer under Pompey. In him accordingly we see the regular course of the studies of a Roman lad. "It was my lot," he says, "to be bred up at Rome, and to be taught how much the wrath of Achilles harmed the Greeks." In other words, he had read his Homer, just as an English boy reads him at Eton or Harrow. "Kind Athens," he goes on, "added a little more learning, to the end that I might be able to distinguish right from wrong, and to seek for truth amongst the groves of Academus." And just in the same way the English youth goes on to read philosophy at Oxford.

The studies of the two young men were interrupted by the same cause, the civil war which followed the death of Cæsar. They took service with Brutus, both having the same rank, that of military tribune, a command answering more or less nearly to that of colonel in our own army. It was, however, mainly an ornamental rank, being bestowed sometimes by favour of the general in command, sometimes by a popular vote. The young Cicero indeed had already served, and he now distinguished himself greatly, winning some considerable successes in the command of the cavalry which Brutus afterwards gave him. When the hopes of the party were crushed at Philippi, he joined the younger Pompey in Sicily; but took an opportunity of an amnesty which was offered four years afterwards to return to Rome. Here he must have found his old fellow-student, who had also reconciled himself to the victorious party. He was made one of the college of augurs, and also a commissioner of the mint, and in B.C. 30 he had the honour of sharing the consulship with Augustus himself. It was to him that the despatch announcing the final defeat and death of Antony was delivered; and it fell to him to execute the decree which ordered the destruction of all the statues of the fallen chief. "Then," says Plutarch, "by the ordering of heaven the punishment of Antony was inflicted at last by the house of Cicero." His time of office ended, he went as Governor to Asia, or, according to some accounts, to Syria; and thus disappears from our view.

Pliny the Elder tells us that he was a drunkard, sarcastically observing that he sought to avenge himself on Antony by robbing him of the reputation which he had before enjoyed of being the hardest drinker of his time. As the story which he tells of the younger Cicero being able to swallow twelve pints of wine at a draught is clearly incredible, perhaps we may disbelieve the whole, and with it the other anecdote, that he threw a cup at the head of Marcus Agrippa, son-in-law to the Emperor, and after him the greatest man in Rome.