How Gift-Giving is Like Getting Drunk: Fronto with Seasonal Advice

Cornelius Fronto, To Appian from Fronto 7

“The person who sends rather weighty gifts causes no less grief than the one who throws the ball too hard to his teammate or offers a big cup to his fellow drinker in toast. For the latter seems to toast not for pleasure but for getting drunk. Just as in wise drinking parties we see that the wine is mixed with a little pure alcohol and a lot of water, so too are gifts mixed best with a lot of thought and a little expenditure.

For who should we say gets the benefit from expensive gifts? Is it the poor? They are not capable of giving them. The rich? They don’t need to get them. In addition, it is not possible to constantly give expensive gifts—there will be a failure of resources if someone should often send out immense gifts. It is possible, however, to give small gifts endlessly and without regret—since someone owes only small thanks to the one who gave a small gift.”

  1. Ὁ δὲ τὰ βαρύτερα δῶρα πέμπων οὐχ ἧττον λυπεῖ τοῦ βαρεῖαν πέμποντος ἐπὶ τὸν συσφαιρίζοντα ἢ μεγάλην κύλην προπίνοντος τῷ συμπότῃ・ εἰς γὰρ μέθην οὐκ εἰς ἡδονὴν προπίνειν ἔοικεν. ὥσπερ δὲ τὸν οἶνον ἐν τοῖς σώφροσιν συμποσίοις ὁρῶμεν κιρνάμενον ἀκράτῳ μὲν πάνυ ὀλίγῳ, πλείστῳ δὲ τῷ ὕδατι, οὕτω δὴ καὶ τὰ δῶρα κιρνάναι προσῆκεν πολλῇ μὲν φιλοφροσύνῃ, ἐλαχίστῳ δὲ ἀναλώματι. τίσιν γὰp ἂν Φαίημεν ἁρμόττειν τὰ πολυτελῆ δῶρα; ἆρά γε τοῖς πένησιν; ἀλλὰ πέμπειν οὐ δύνανται・ ἢ τοῖς πλουσίοις; ἀλλά λαμβάνειν οὐ δέονται. τοῖς μὲν οὖν μεγάλοις δώροις τὸ συνεχὲς οὐ πρόσεστιν, ἢ ἐκπεσεῖν ἀναγκὴ τῶν ὑπαρχόντων, εἴ τις μεγάλα τε πέμποι καὶ πολλάκις. τοῖς δὲ μικροῖς δώροις τό τε συνεχὲς πρόσεστιν καί τὸ ἀμεταγνωστόν, εἰ <καὶ μικρὰ δεῖ τε>λέσαι μικρὰ πέμψαντι.†

 

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Hermit at work on a manuscript, from the Estoire del Saint Graal, France

Seneca Says: We Are Worse off at Death than At Birth

Your periodic reminder from Seneca: we are all going to die.

Seneca, Moral Epistle 22.12-13

“If you desire to be free of this and freedom seems truly attractive to you, and if you seek help for this reason alone—that it might be allowed for you to do this without constant trouble—how would the whole gang of Stoics fail to approve it? Every Zeno and Chrysippus will advise you about your moderation and honor. But if you keep turning your back so you can try to see how much you carry with you and how much money you need for leisure you will never find an end to it.

No one can swim to safety with their bags. Emerge to a better life with divine favor but let it not be in that way in which they are favorable to those people to whom they grant great evils with pleasant and pleasing glances—and they are excused for doing so because those things which burn and torture are given to those who beg for them.

I was already closing this letter with a seal, but it had to be opened again so that it may come to you with the dutiful contribution and bring some great saying to you. And look, here is something that comes to my mind which I don’t know if it is truer or more well-put. “Whose saying?” you ask? It is Epicurus, for I am still sewing my quilt from other people’s fragments. “Everyone leaves from life just as if they just had entered it”.

Grab anyone suddenly—a youth, an old man, someone in the middle—and you will find them equally afraid of death and without understanding of life. No one has finished anything, because we keep postponing everything we do to tomorrow. Nothing makes me happier in that quotation than the fact that it calls old men out for being babies.

“No one”, he says, “leaves the world differently from the way in which they were born.” This is false! We are worse when we die than when we are born. This is our fault, not nature’s. Nature ought to criticize us, saying, “What is this? I produced you without desires, without fear, without superstition, without treachery and these diseases! Leave as you were when you got here!”

Sed si deponere illam in animo est et libertas bona fide placuit, in hoc autem unum advocationem petis, ut sine perpetua sollicitudine id tibi facere contingat, quidni tota te cohors Stoicorum probatura sit? Omnes Zenones et Chrysippi moderata, honesta, tua suadebunt. Sed si propter hoc tergiversaris, ut circumspicias, quantum feras tecum et quam magna pecunia instruas otium, numquam exitum invenies. Nemo cum sarcinis enatat. Emerge ad meliorem vitam propitiis dis, sed non sic, quomodo istis propitii sunt, quibus bono ac benigno vultu mala magnifica tribuerunt, ad hoc unum excusati, quod ista, quae urunt, quae excruciant, optantibus data sunt.

13Iam inprimebam epistulae signum; resolvenda est, ut cum sollemni ad te munusculo veniat et aliquam magnificam vocem ferat secum, et occurrit mihi ecce nescio utrum verior an eloquentior. “Cuius?” inquis; Epicuri, adhuc enim alienas sarcinas adsero; “Nemo non ita exit e vita, tamquam modo intraverit.” Quemcumque vis occupa, adulescentem senem medium; invenies aeque timidum mortis, aeque inscium vitae. Nemo quicquam habet facti, in futurum enim nostra distulimus. Nihil me magis in ista voce delectat quam quod exprobratur senibus infantia. “Nemo,” inquit, “aliter quam qui modo natus est exit e vita.” Falsum est; peiores morimur quam nascimur. Nostrum istud, non naturae vitium est. Illa nobiscum queri debet et dicere: “Quid hoc est? Sine cupiditatibus vos genui, sine timoribus, sine superstitione, sine perfidia ceterisque pestibus; quales intrastis exite.”

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A Banquet of Learning; A Dinner No-Show

Cicero Topica V

“But because I have welcomed someone eager for a feast of learning, I shall prepare it so well that there will be some leftovers rather than allow you to leave still hungry for more….”

Sed quoniam avidum hominem ad has discendi epulas recepi, sic accipiam, ut reliquiarum sit potius aliquid quam te hinc patiar non satiatum discedere.

Pliny the Younger to Septimius Clarus (Letter 15)

“Who do you think you are?! You agree to come do dinner…but you don’t come? The judgment is passed: You must pay my cost to a penny, and this is not moderate. All was set out: a lettuce for each, three snails, two eggs, wine with honey chilled with snow—for you should include this too among the highest expense since it dissolves on the plate—and there were olives, beets, pickles, onions and countless other things no less neat.

You would have heard a comedy or a reader or a singer of all of them, given my generosity. But you went where I don’t know, preferring oysters, a sow’s belly, sea-urchins, and Spanish dancers. You will suffer for this, somehow, believe me. You did something bad to one of us, certainly to me, but perhaps to yourself too. How much we played, laughed, and studied! You might eat better food at many homes, but nowhere will you eat so enjoyably, simply, and freely. In sum: try me: and if later you don’t excuse yourself from another’s meal, you can always lie to me again. Goodbye!”

Plinius Septicio Claro Suo S.

Heus tu! promittis ad cenam, nec venis? Dicitur ius: ad assem impendium reddes, nec id modicum. Paratae erant lactucae singulae, cochleae ternae, ova bina, halica cum mulso et nive (nam hanc quoque computabis, immo hanc in primis quae perit in ferculo), olivae betacei cucurbitae bulbi, alia mille non minus lauta. Audisses comoedos vel lectorem vel lyristen vel (quae mea liberalitas) omnes. At tu apud nescio quem ostrea vulvas echinos Gaditanas maluisti. Dabis poenas, non dico quas. Dure fecisti: invidisti, nescio an tibi, certe mihi, sed tamen et tibi. Quantum nos lusissemus risissemus studuissemus! Potes adparatius cenare apud multos, nusquam hilarius simplicius incautius. In summa experire, et nisi postea te aliis potius excusaveris, mihi semper excusa. Vale.

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Fresco from Pompeii

Despair Upon Checking on the News

Cicero, Letters 4.6 

“The single solace I still had has been stolen from me. My thoughts were occupied with neither the business of my friends nor the the country’s bureaucracy. Nothing was drawing me to the courts; I couldn’t even look at the Senate. I was imagining–the truth–that I had lost every benefit of my luck and hard work. Yet when I realized that I had this in common with you and some others, I settled myself down and resolved to endure it well. Even while I did this, I had a place where I could retreat and rest, where I could escape all my worries and defeats in conversation and kindness.

But now those injuries I thought were healed are torturing me again thanks to this heavy hit. When I retreated from public life in the past, I found safety and comfort in my home. But I cannot flee from pain at home in public service, as if it offers any relief at all. So I make myself scarce from home and the Forum the same. Neither public nor private life can offer any relief to the pain and anxiety that plague me.”

unum manebat illud solacium quod ereptum est. non amicorum negotiis, non rei publicae procuratione impediebantur cogitationes meae, nihil in foro agere libebat, aspicere curiam non poteram, existimabam, id quod erat, omnis me et industriae meae fructus et fortunae perdidisse. sed cum cogitarem haec mihi tecum et cum quibusdam esse communia et cum frangerem iam ipse me cogeremque illa ferre toleranter, habebam quo confugerem, ubi conquiescerem, cuius in sermone et suavitate omnis curas doloresque deponerem.

Nunc autem hoc tam gravi vulnere etiam illa quae consanuisse videbantur recrudescunt. non enim, ut tum me a re publica maestum domus excipiebat quae levaret, sic nunc domo maerens ad rem publicam confugere possum ut in eius bonis acquiescam. itaque et domo absum et foro, quod nec eum dolorem quem e re publica capio domus iam consolari potest nec domesticum res publica.


Le Forum Romain à Rome. Vue panoramique HDR sur 9 photos (3 expositions sous 3 angles différents). Photo prise des musées du Capitole.

Collective Madness and False Beliefs

Seneca, Moral Epistles 94.17

“This part of precepts should be tossed away because it can’t give to everyone what it guarantees to a small few. Wisdom, however, welcomes all. There’s no difference, really, between the popular madness in general and the kind that requires medical treatment except that the individual suffers from a disease and the masses are afflicted by false opinions. For one, the symptoms of insanity develop from poor health, the other arises from sick minds.

If one offers maxims to a madman about how to speak, or walk, or how to act in public and private, they’d prove to be crazier than the one they’re advising. Someone really needs to treat their black bile and remove the initial cause of the affliction. This is what is required for a diseased mind too. The madness needs to be shed first, otherwise all your words of warning are useless.”

“Ergo ista praeceptiva pars summovenda est, quia quod paucis promittit, praestare omnibus non potest; sapientia autem omnes tenet. Inter insaniam publicamet hanc, quae medicis traditur, nihil interest nisi quod haec morbo laborat, illa opinionibus falsis. Altera causas furoris traxit ex valitudine, altera animi mala valitudo est. Si quis furioso praecepta det, quomodo loqui debeat, quomodo procedere, quomodo in publico se gerere, quomodo in privato, erit ipso, quem monebit, insanior. Ei bilis1 nigra curanda est et ipsa furoris causa removenda. Idem in hoc alio animi furore faciendum est. Ipse discuti debet; alioqui abibunt in vanum monentium verba.”


Detail from The Extraction of the Stone of Madness, a painting by Hieronymus Bosch depicting trepanation (c.1488–1516).

Loving Flesh, Fearing Violence

Seneca, Moral Episitles 14

“I admit that we all have an innate love for our body; I admit that we manage its safety. I don’t deny that it should be indulged, but that it must not be our master. Whoever serves their body will have many masters–one who fears too much for it, who judges everything by what the body needs. We should make our decisions not as if we live for the body but as if we could not live without it. Too great a love for the flesh troubles us with fear, weighs us down with worry, and makes us exposed to insult. Virtue is cheap for one who holds the body too dear. We should care for our bodies as much as we can, but we should be ready to surrender them to flames when reason, respect, or duty demand it.

Yet, we should live as much as possible to avoid discomfort and danger and to retreat to safe-ground by always thinking of how we can ward off fear. Unless I am in error, there are three causes of this. We fear poverty, sickness, and the dangers that come from a stronger person’s violence. Of these, nothing shakes us as much as someone else having power over us. This comes with a great shout and trouble. But the natural troubles of poverty and sickness sneak up on us quietly and suddenly, giving no warning fright to eyes or ears.”

Fateor insitam esse nobis corporis nostri caritatem; fateor nos huius gerere tutelam. Non nego indulgendum illi; serviendum nego. Multis enim serviet, qui corpori servit, qui pro illo nimium timet, qui ad illud omnia refert. Sic gerere nos debemus, non tamquam propter corpus vivere debeamus, sed tamquam non possimus sine corpore. Huius nos nimius amor timoribus inquietat, sollicitudinibus onerat, contumeliis obicit. Honestum ei vile est, cui corpus nimis carum est. Agatur eius diligentissime cura, ita tamen, ut cum exiget ratio, cum dignitas, cum fides, mittendum in ignes sit.

Nihilominus, quantum possumus, evitemus incommoda quoque, non tantum pericula, et in tutum nos reducamus excogitantes subinde, quibus possint timenda depelli. Quorum tria, nisi fallor, genera sunt: timetur inopia, timentur morbi, timentur quae per vim potentioris eveniunt. Ex his omnibus nihil nos magis concutit, quam quod ex aliena potentia inpendet. Magno enim strepitu et tumultu venit. Naturalia mala quae rettuli, inopia atque morbus, silentio subeunt nec oculis nec auribus quicquam terroris incutiunt. Ingens alterius mali pompa est.

Bust of Seneca, Italian c.1700, Albertinum, Dresden

I Hope this Finds You With Nothing to Write About

Cicero, Letters to Atticus, 128 (VII.5)

 “Right now I simply have nothing to write to you about. Certainly not politics, since we know the same things and we also know each other’s domestic matters. Jokes are all that remain, if that guy will allow it.

I am one who thinks that it is better to give in to his demands than start a war. It is too late for us to resist someone we’ve been raising against us for ten years!

What’s my strategy? Nothing unless by your judgment and nothing before I’ve completed my own affairs or given them up. Take care of yourself!”

Iam plane mihi deest quid ad te scribam; nec enim de re publica, quod uterque nostrum scit eadem, et domestica nota sunt ambobus. reliquum est iocari, si hic sinat; nam ego is sum qui illi concedi putem utilius esse quod postulat quam signa conferri; sero enim resistimus ei quem per annos decem aluimus contra nos. ‘quid senti<e>s4 igitur?’ inquis. nihil scilicet nisi de sententia tua, nec prius quidem quam nostrum negotium aut confecerimus aut deposuerimus. cura igitur ut valeas…

Top third of a surviving 4th-century Roman letter, from Vitalis to his dominus Achillio, from Franz Steffens’ Lateinische Paläographie (1903), table 13. The letter is reported to be Latin papyrus “Argent 1”, at Strassbourg.

I Am Dedicating My Life to Philosophy. Please Send Me Some Gossip From Rome

Cicero, Letters to Atticus (25; II.5)

“I am waiting for your letters on those events [in Rome]: what is Arrius saying and what is is opinion about being overthrown. Which consuls are being prepared—is it Pompey and Crassus as people claim or, as was just written to me, is it Servius Sulpicius with Gabinius. Are there new laws? Is there anything worthy of news at all? Or, who, since Nepos has left, is going to be nominated as Augur? (and this is the one thing I might be captured with by those people—look at how easy I am!)

Why do I ask these things when I want to put them aside and pursue philosophy with all my focus? This, I say, is what is in my mind. I wish I had pursued this from the start. But now when I have learned that everything which I thought was precious is empty, I am planning to dedicate myself to all the Muses.

Nevertheless, please do tell me in your reply about ?Tutius? and whether they have readied someone for his place and also what has become of Publius Clodius. Write me about everything, as you promised, at leisure. And also tell me on what day you think you will leave Rome so that I may tell you more certainly where I will be then? Please send me a letter right away on the things I have written you about. I am deeply awaiting your letter.”

De istis rebus exspecto tuas litteras, quid Arrius narret, quo animo se destitutum ferat, et qui consules parentur, utrum, ut populi sermo, Pompeius et Crassus, an, ut mihi scribitur, cum Gabinio Ser. Sulpicius, et num quae novae leges et num quid novi omnino, et, quoniam Nepos proficiscitur, cuinam auguratus deferatur, quo quidem uno ego ab istis capi possum—vide levitatem meam! sed quid ego haec, quae cupio deponere et toto animo atque omni cura ϕιλοσοϕεῖν? sic, inquam, in animo est; vellem ab initio, nunc vero, quoniam quae putavi esse praeclara expertus sum quam essent inania, cum omnibus Musis rationem habere cogito.

3Tu tamen de †Tutio†1 ad me rescribe certius et num quis in eius locum paretur, et quid de P. Clodio fiat, et omnia, quem ad modum polliceris, ἐπὶ σχολῆς scribe. et quo die Roma te exiturum putes velim ad me scribas, ut certiorem te faciam quibus in locis futurus sim, epistulamque statim des de iis rebus de quibus ad te scripsi. valde enim exspecto tuas litteras.

Письменные принадлежности и аксессуары – 308 photos
Chroniques de Hainaut (vers 1470)

Cicero Says Something Nice to His Son

From the Fragments of Cicero’s Letters (=Augustin. c. Iul. op. imperf. 6.22)

9. “What? Didn’t Cicero send the words from the guts of every father with this line to his son, writing to him: I wish you alone of all people in the world would do better than me in all things’

9. Quid? illam vocem nonne de visceribus cunctorum patrum Cicero emisit ad filium, ad quem scribens ait: solus es omnium a quo me in omnibus vinci velim?

Of course, since this is Cicero, this is partly about himself, but it is still rather sweet, especially when compared to fathers like Odysseus

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Roman Sarcophagus with father and child

 

Comfort in Literature in the Face of Disease and Death

Pliny, Letters 8.19

“I have so much joy and comfort in literature that there’s nothing that can’t be made happier because of it and there’s nothing sad enough to detract from its effect. I am so troubled by the sickness of my wife and the danger to my household, even the threat of death, that I have fled to my study as the only distraction from pain. I may sense my troubles more in this way but I yet bear them more easily. 

It is my custom, however, to test on my friends’ judgment–especially yours– anything I intend to circulate publicly. So, if you have ever before done so, please examine the book which you are receiving with this letter, since I fear that have focused too poorly because of my sorrow. I was able to overcome my grief enough to write, but I could not do it with a light and happy spirit. For happiness to come from study, study must arise from joy.  Goodbye”

Et gaudium mihi et solacium in litteris, nihilque tam laetum quod his laetius, tam triste quod non per has minus triste. Itaque et infirmitate uxoris et meorum periculo, quorundam vero etiam morte turbatus, ad unicum doloris levamentum studia confugi, quae praestant ut adversa magis intellegam sed patientius feram. Est autem mihi moris, quod sum daturus in manus hominum, ante amicorum iudicio examinare, in primis tuo. Proinde si quando, nunc intende libro quem cum hac epistula accipies, quia vereor ne ipse ut tristis parum intenderim. Imperare enim dolori ut scriberem potui; ut vacuo animo laetoque, non potui. Porro ut ex studiis gaudium sic studia hilaritate proveniunt. Vale.

Rattenberg (Tyrol). Augustine museum – Memento-mori-painting ( 1694 ) from Kitzbühl – detail with inscription: “All skulls are signed but one; write your name on it, it is yours.”