Cicero Needs Nothing So Much as a Friend

Cicero can seem an insufferable windbag in some of his speeches–but some of his letters humanize him.

Cicero to Atticus 1.18 20 Jan 60

“Know that I need nothing so much as a person to whom I can explain the things I worry about, someone who cares about me, who is wise, to whom I may speak and fabricate nothing, lie about nothing, and hold nothing back.

My brother is away, the most honest and beloved man. Metellus is not a man but instead is “shore and air” and “only solitude”. You, moreover, who most wisely lightens by concern and anxiety of spirit with conversation and counsel, you are my companion in public affairs and my confidant in private matters, and who are usually a companion of all my speeches and plans, where are you? I am so completely isolated that I only have as much relaxation as those moments spend with my wife, my little girl and my sweetest Marcus.

For my ambitious and convenient friendships have a certain shine in public affairs, but they bear no domestic fruit. My home is so full with a crowd in the morning but when I go to the forum with flocks of friends, I can’t find a single person in the great crowd to share a joke with or to whisper familiarly.

This is why I am looking for you, why I miss you, and I am also now calling you home. Many things really trouble me and make me anxious—but these are things which I think I can get off my chest once I have your ears for a talk during a single walk.”

Nihil mihi nunc scito tam deesse quam hominem eum quocum omnia quae me cura aliqua adficiunt una communicem, qui me amet, qui sapiat, quicum ego cum loquar nihil fingam, nihil dissimulem, nihil obtegam. abest enim frater ἀϕελέστατος et amantissimus. †Metellus† non homo sed ‘litus atque aër’ et ‘solitudo me<r>a.’ tu autem qui saepissime curam et angorem animi mei sermone et consilio levasti tuo, qui mihi et in publica re socius et in privatis omnibus conscius et omnium meorum sermonum et consiliorum particeps esse soles, ubinam es? ita sum ab omnibus destitutus ut tantum requietis habeam quantum cum uxore et filiola et mellito Cicerone consumitur. nam illae ambitiosae nostrae fucosaeque amicitiae sunt in quodam splendore forensi, fructum domesticum non habent. itaque cum bene completa domus est tempore matutino, cum ad forum stipati gregibus amicorum descendimus, reperire ex magna turba neminem possumus quocum aut iocari libere aut suspirare familiariter possimus. qua re te exspectamus, te desideramus, te iam etiam arcessimus. multa sunt enim quae me sollicitant anguntque, quae mihi videor auris nactus tuas unius ambulationis sermone exhaurire posse.

Image result for medieval manuscript cicero letter to a friend
Enter a caption

The Kinds of People Who Seek out Friendships

Cicero, De Amicitia 46-47

“They say, moreover, that there are others who believe even more inhumanely—a topic which I briefly mentioned a little before—that friendships ought to be sought to provide defense and help and not out of good will or emotion. They also believe, then, that those who have the least strength of character and limited physical strength, seek friendships for this reason especially. This is why that women seek the defense of friendships more than men do, why the poor seek it more than the rich, why the downtrodden look for it more than those thought lucky.

Famous wisdom! How they seem to rob the universe of the sun when they take friendship out of life, when the gods themselves have not granted us any better or more pleasing than this! What is this security of theirs worth?”

Alios autem dicere aiunt multo etiam inhumanius, quem locum breviter paulo ante perstrinxi, praesidi adiumentique causa, non benevolentiae neque caritatis amicitias esse expetendas; itaque ut quisque minimum firmitatis haberet minimumque virium, ita amicitias appetere maxime : ex eo fieri ut mulierculae magis amicitiarum praesidia quaerant quam viri, et inopes quam opulenti, et calamitosi quam ei qui putentur beati, O praeclaram sapientiam! Solem enim e mundo tollere videntur ei, qui amicitiam e vita tollunt, qua nihil a dis immortalibus melius habemus, nihil iucundius. Quae est enim ista securitas?

Panther emerging from a cave
Animal Friends (Harley 3244  f. 37)

Catullus: A Lexicon

Catullus 96 is classed as a consolation, a poem comforting the bereaved at the death of a loved one (in this case a wife or mistress, it seems). The poems imagines what the corpse would feel if somehow it were aware of the grief of the living: 


If anything dear and welcome can happen in mute graves
Because of our sadness, Calvus,
Because of that longing by which we renew old loves
And by which we weep for friendships formed long ago,
Surely Quintilia isn’t saddened by her untimely death,
But rather, she’s gladdened by your love.

Si quicquam mutis gratum acceptumve sepulcris
accidere a nostro, Calve, dolore potest,
quo desiderio veteres renovamus amores
atque olim junctas flemus amicitias,
certe non tanto mors immatura dolori est
Quintiliae, quantum gaudet amore tuo.

The central word in the lyric is “sadness” (dolor): it motivates the first couplet; it’s given a synonym and definition in the second; and reappears in the third. 

What’s styled as a consolation is really an occasion for Catullus to display his private language. Catullus tells us that “sadness” (dolor) is a form of “longing” (desiderium), and longing has two aspects: 1. the reanimation of old love (desire renewed, that is), and 2. a lament for an old friendship.

I’m fairly sure that if you or I were to deconstruct “sadness” this is not where we would land. These definitional moves beg the question, if in Catullus’s private language familiar terms like “sadness” and “longing” have idiosyncratic meanings, then “love” (amor) and “friendship” (amicitia) probably do too. 

You’ll have to take my word for it that by love (amor) Catullus intends something like passion and desire (nothing unusual there). But “friendship” (amicitia) is trickier. It also belongs to amorous discourse, but it’s some combination of intimacy, mutuality, and trust between lovers. “Longing” is both carnal (amor) and, for lack of a better word, spiritual (amicitia). 

The love lyric Catullus 109 shows what “friendship” means:    


My everything, you claim this mutual love
Of ours will be lasting and happy.
Great god, grant that she can keep her word,
Speaks sincerely, and speaks from the heart,
So we might sustain this eternal compact
Of sacred friendship for all of life.

Iucundum, mea vita, mihi proponis amorem
hunc nostrum inter nos perpetuumque fore.
di magni, facite ut vere promittere possit,
atque id sincere dicat et ex animo,
ut liceat nobis tota perducere vita
aeternum hoc sanctae foedus amicitiae.

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at

The Need for a Serious Friend or a Committed Enemy

Plutarch, Progress in Virtue 81f-82b

“When they need healing, people who have tooth pain or a stubbed toe go to doctors while those who have a fever ask them to come to their homes and help them. But people who fall into melancholy or a frenzy or hallucinations often cannot handle doctors visiting them and either urge them to leave or chase them off because they do not perceive that they are sick thanks to the severity of their sickness.

This is true as well of those who seriously fuck up. The people who cannot be cured are those who behave hatefully and cruelly and turn mean to those who try to correct them or help them. Those who endure and even welcome help do better. It is no small sign of progress when someone who is screwing up listens to those who try to correct them, to explain what the problem is, to reveal weakness and not to take pleasure in hiding mistakes or in them not being known but to admit them and the need to be held and advised by someone else. 

That’s why Diogenes says somewhere that for the sake of safety a person should be concerned about finding either a serious friend or a committed enemy, to escape wickedness either through direct critique or kind assistance.”

Τῶν τοίνυν δεομένων ἰατρείας οἱ μὲν ὀδόντα πονοῦντες ἢ δακτυλον αὐτόθεν βαδίζουσι παρὰ τοὺς θεραπεύοντας, οἱ δὲ πυρέττοντες οἴκαδε καλοῦσι καὶ δέονται βοηθεῖν, οἱ δ᾿ εἰς μελαγχολίαν ἢ φρενῖτιν ἢ παρακοπὴν ἥκοντες οὐδὲ φοιτῶντας ἐνιαχοῦ πρὸς αὐτοὺς ἀνέχονται, ἀλλ᾿ ἐξελαύνουσιν ἢ φεύγουσιν, μηδ᾿ ὅτι νοσοῦσιν ὑπὸ τοῦ σφόδρα νοσεῖν αἰσθανόμενοι. οὕτω δὴ καὶ τῶν ἁμαρτανόντων ἀνήκεστοι μέν εἰσιν οἱ πρὸς τοὺς ἐλέγχοντας καὶ νουθετοῦντας ἐχθρῶς καὶ ἀγρίως διατιθέμενοι καὶ χαλεπαίνοντες· οἱ δ᾿ ὑπομένοντες καὶ προσιέμενοι πραότερον ἔχουσι. τὸ δ᾿ ἑαυτὸν ἁμαρτάνοντα παρέχειν τοῖς ἐλέγχουσι καὶ τὸ πάθος λέγειν καὶ τὴν μοχθηρίαν ἀποκαλύπτειν καὶ μὴ χαίρειν λανθάνοντα μηδ᾿ ἀγαπᾶν ἀγνοούμενον ἀλλ᾿ ὁμολογεῖν καὶ δεῖσθαι τοῦ ἁπτομένου καὶ νουθετοῦντος οὐ φαῦλον ἂν εἴη προκοπῆς σημεῖον. ὥς που Διογένης ἔλεγε τῷ σωτηρίας δεομένῳ ζητεῖν προσήκειν ἢ φίλον σπουδαῖον ἢ διάπυρον ἐχθρόν, ὅπως ἐλεγχόμενος ἢ θεραπευόμενος ἐκφεύγοι τὴν κακίαν. 

Joseph Stevens, “Enemies” 1854

The Best New Year’s Gift

More than one ancient writer might have said that the New Year’s gift with universal appeal is friendship (cue groans).

Here Aristotle makes the logical case for friendship, and Euripides shows friendship at work:

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. 1169b.19-21

No one would wish to enjoy all good things by himself, for human beings are social and born to live with others. Accordingly, a happy person requires the company of others. Also, a happy person possesses the things that are by their nature good. And, it’s clearly better to pass one’s time among friends and good people than among strangers and people who just happen to be on hand. Therefore it follows that a happy person must have friends.

Euripides. Electra. 67-73

I regard you as a friend on par with the gods,
For you have not slighted me in my distress.
It’s great luck when mortals find someone who doctors
To their misfortunes, such as I find in you.
So it’s only right I lighten your burden, unasked;
Add my hands to yours in work, best I can,
So you might more easily carry on.


οὐδεὶς γὰρ ἕλοιτ᾽ ἂν καθ᾽ αὑτὸν τὰ πάντ᾽ ἔχειν ἀγαθά: πολιτικὸν γὰρ ὁ ἄνθρωπος καὶ συζῆν πεφυκός. καὶ τῷ εὐδαίμονι δὴ τοῦθ᾽ ὑπάρχει: τὰ γὰρ τῇ φύσει ἀγαθὰ ἔχει, δῆλον δ᾽ ὡς μετὰ φίλων καὶ ἐπιεικῶν κρεῖττον ἢ μετ᾽ ὀθνείων καὶ τῶν τυχόντων συνημερεύειν. δεῖ ἄρα τῷ εὐδαίμονι φίλων.


ἐγώ σ᾿ ἴσον θεοῖσιν ἡγοῦμαι φίλον·
ἐν τοῖς ἐμοῖς γὰρ οὐκ ἐνύβρισας κακοῖς.
μεγάλη δὲ θνητοῖς μοῖρα συμφορᾶς κακῆς
ἰατρὸν εὑρεῖν, ὡς ἐγὼ σὲ λαμβάνω.
δεῖ δή με κἀκέλευστον εἰς ὅσον σθένω
μόχθου ᾿πικουφίζουσαν, ὡς ῥᾷον φέρῃς,
συνεκκομίζειν σοι πόνους.

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at

Larry and Joel got to meet in person on Christmas Eve

I Made Your Poems Worse: You’re Welcome!

Pliny, Letters, 4.18

“To Arrius Antonius, My friend:

Is there any way I can prove myself to you beyond the work I have put in to your Greek epigrams, which I have tried to match in Latin translation? It’s still a turn for the worse: the cause is the weakness of my own genius followed by the inadequacy of what Lucretius calls the “poverty of our country’s language.” But, if these Latin translations of mine seem to you to possess any bit of charm, then you know how much pleasure I have in the originals you made in Greek. Farewell.”

Plinius Arrio Antonino Suo S.

Quemadmodum magis adprobare tibi possum, quanto opere mirer epigrammata tua Graeca, quam quod quaedam Latine aemulari et exprimere temptavi? in deterius tamen. Accidit hoc primum imbecillitate ingenii mei, deinde inopia ac potius, ut Lucretius ait, egestate patrii sermonis. Quodsi haec, quae sunt et Latina et mea, habere tibi aliquid venustatis videbuntur, quantum putas inesse iis gratiae, quae et a te et Graece proferuntur! Vale.

Greek Epigram by Sopater

A Brother or a Counterfeit: Theognis on Friendship

Theognis, 93-100

“If someone praises you for as long as you see him
But lashes you with an evil tongue when you are apart,
That kind of man is not a very good friend at all.
He’s the kind who speaks smoothly with his tongue, but harbors different thoughts.

Let me have that kind of friend who knows his companion
And puts up with him when he’s mean or in a rage,
Like a brother. But you, friend, keep these things your heart
And you will remember me in future days.”

ἄν τις ἐπαινήσῃ σε τόσον χρόνον ὅσσον ὁρῴης,
νοσφισθεὶς δ᾿ ἄλλῃ γλῶσσαν ἱῇσι κακήν,
τοιοῦτός τοι ἑταῖρος ἀνὴρ φίλος οὔ τι μάλ᾿ἐσθλός.
ὅς κ᾿ εἴπῃ γλώσσῃ λεῖα, φρονῇ δ᾿ ἕτερα.
ἀλλ᾿ εἴη τοιοῦτος ἐμοὶ φίλος, ὃς τὸν ἑταῖρον
γινώσκων ὀργὴν καὶ βαρὺν ὄντα φέρει
ἀντὶ κασιγνήτου. σὺ δέ μοι, φίλε, ταῦτ᾿ ἐνὶ θυμῷ
φράζεο, καί ποτέ μου μνήσεαι ἐξοπίσω.


“Nothing is harder than recognizing a counterfeit.
But, Kurnos, there is nothing more urgent than guarding against one.”

κιβδήλου δ᾿ ἀνδρὸς γνῶναι χαλεπώτερον οὐδέν,
Κύρν᾿, οὐδ᾿ εὐλαβίης ἐστὶ περὶ πλέονος.


“One can survive the ruin from counterfeit silver and gold
Kurnos—and a wise person can easily discover it.
But if a dear friend’s mind is hidden in his chest
When he is false and he has a deceptive heart,
Well this the most counterfeit thing god has made for mortals
And it is the most painful thing of all to recognize.
For you cannot know the mind of a man or a woman
Before you investigate them, like an animal under a yoke—
And you cannot imagine what they are like at the right time
Since the outer image often misleads your judgment.”

Χρυσοῦ κιβδήλοιο καὶ ἀργύρου ἀνσχετὸς ἄτη,
Κύρνε, καὶ ἐξευρεῖν ῥάιδιον ἀνδρὶ σοφῶι.
εἰ δὲ φίλου νόος ἀνδρὸς ἐνὶ στήθεσσι λελήθηι
ψυδρὸς ἐών, δόλιον δ’ ἐν φρεσὶν ἦτορ ἔχηι,
τοῦτο θεὸς κιβδηλότατον ποίησε βροτοῖσιν,
καὶ γνῶναι πάντων τοῦτ’ ἀνιηρότατον.
οὐδὲ γὰρ εἰδείης ἀνδρὸς νόον οὐδὲ γυναικός,
πρὶν πειρηθείης ὥσπερ ὑποζυγίου,
οὐδέ κεν εἰκάσσαις ὥσπερ ποτ’ ἐς ὥριον ἐλθών·
πολλάκι γὰρ γνώμην ἐξαπατῶσ’ ἰδέαι.


“Alas, I am a wretch: because of the terrors I have suffered
I bring pleasure to my enemies and toil to my friends”

῎Ωιμοι ἐγὼ δειλός· καὶ δὴ κατάχαρμα μὲν ἐχθροῖς,
τοῖσι φίλοις δὲ πόνος δεινὰ παθὼν γενόμην.


“I’ll fault no enemy when he is noble,
nor will I praise a friend when he is wrong”

Οὐδένα τῶν ἐχθρῶν μωμήσομαι ἐσθλὸν ἐόντα,
οὐδὲ μὲν αἰνήσω δειλὸν ἐόντα φίλον.


“Never dismiss a present friend and seek another
Because you are persuaded by the words of cowardly people.”

μήποτε τὸν παρεόντα μεθεὶς φίλον ἄλλον ἐρεύνα
δειλῶν ἀνθρώπων ῥήμασι πειθόμενος.


“Dude, let’s be friends with each other at a distance.
With the exception of wealth, there’s too much of any good thing.
But we can be friends for a long time, just spend time with different men
Who have a better grasp of your mind.”

ἄνθρωπ᾿, ἀλλήλοισιν ἀπόπροθεν ὦμεν ἑταῖροι·
πλὴν πλούτου παντὸς χρήματός ἐστι κόρος.
δὴν δὴ καὶ φίλοι ὦμεν· ἀτάρ τ᾿ ἄλλοισιν ὁμίλει
ἀνδράσιν, οἳ τὸν σὸν μᾶλλον ἴσασι νόον.


“It is difficult for an enemy to deceive
But it is easy for a friend to fool a friend.”

᾿Εχθρὸν μὲν χαλεπὸν καὶ δυσμενεῖ ἐξαπατῆσαι,
Κύρνε· φίλον δὲ φίλωι ῥάιδιον ἐξαπατᾶν.

Royal 19 C II  f. 59v

The Highest Good: Friendship

Some Latin passages on Friendship

Seneca, De Tranquilitate Animi

“Still nothing lightens the spirit as much as sweet and faithful friendship. What a good it is when hearts have been made ready in which every secret may be safely deposited, whose understanding of yourself you worry about less than your own, whose conversation relieves your fear, whose opinion hastens your plans, whose happiness dispels your sadness, and whose very sight delights you!”

Nihil tamen aeque oblectaverit animum, quam amicitia fidelis et dulcis. Quantum bonum est, ubi praeparata sunt pectora, in quae tuto secretum omne descendat, quorum conscientiam minus quam tuam timeas, quorum sermo sollicitudinem leniat, sententia consilium expediat, hilaritas tristitiam dissipet, conspectus ipse delectet!

Image result for Ancient Roman Friendship

Boethius, On the Consolation of Philosophy 3.35

“The most sacred thing of all is friends, something not recorded as luck but as virtue, since the rest of the goods are embraced with a view toward power or pleasure.”

amicorum vero quod sanctissimum quidem genus est, non in fortuna sed in virtute numeratur, reliquum vero vel potentiae causa vel delectationis assumitur

Cicero, De Finibus 1.64

“A subject remains which is especially important to this debate, that is friendship which, as you believe, will completely disappear if pleasure is the greatest good. Concerning friendship, Epicurus himself says that of all the paths to happiness wisdom has prepared, there is none greater, more productive, or more enchanting than this one. And he did not advocate for friendship in speech alone but much more through his life, his deeds and his customs.

Myths of the ancients illustrate how great friendship is—in those tales however varied and numerous you seek from the deepest part of antiquity and you will find scarcely three pairs of friends, starting with Theseus and up to Orestes. But, Epicurus in one single and quite small home kept so great a crowd of friends united by the depth of their love. And this is still the practice among Epicureans.”

XX Restat locus huic disputationi vel maxime necessarius, de amicitia, quam si voluptas summum sit bonum affirmatis nullam omnino fore; de qua Epicurus quidem ita dicit, omnium rerum quas ad beate vivendum sapientia comparaverit nihil esse maius amicitia, nihil uberius, nihil iucundius. Nec vero hoc oratione solum sed multo magis vita et factis et moribus comprobavit. Quod quam magnum sit fictae veterum fabulae declarant, in quibus tam multis tamque variis, ab ultima antiquitate repetitis, tria vix amicorum paria reperiuntur, ut ad Orestem pervenias profectus a Theseo. At vero Epicurus una in domo, et ea quidem angusta, quam magnos quantaque amoris conspiratione consentientes tenuit amicorum greges! quod fit etiam nunc ab Epicureis.

Herodotus 5.24.2

“An intelligent and well-disposed friend is the finest of all possessions.”

κτημάτων πάντων ἐστὶ τιμιώτατον ἀνὴρ φίλος συνετός τε καὶ εὔνοος

Your Ignorance of My Suffering

Libanius, Letters 155

“You don’t know, dear Heortius, the number or the severity of the sicknesses which are assailing me nor how long this has plagued me. For you would not disregard sympathy and criticize me if you did. But ignorance is harmful to human beings everywhere and it has force you to accuse instead of console. I will not call you out for not knowing about my suffering.

But someone of those who easily criticize you might still say that you were ignorant because you failed to inquire and that you did not inquire because of antipathy, and by attracting a suspicion of arrogance to yourself you risk greater accusations. But I will not do this because I don’t think it is right to ruin a strong friendship through nonsense. But whenever something like this happens, once I search around or a likely cause for events, I make a defense to myself on others’ behalf.”

1. Οὐκ οἶσθα, ὦ φίλε Ἐόρτιε, τῶν προσβαλόντων μοι νοσημάτων οὔτε τὸ πλῆθος οὔτε τὸ μέγεθος οὔτ᾿ ἐφ᾿ ὅσον προῆλθε τοῦ χρόνου. οὐ γὰρ ἄν ποτε ὑπερβὰς τὸ συναλγεῖν ἐμέμφου. νῦν δὲ ἡ ἄγνοια πανταχοῦ τοῖς ἀνθρώποις βλαβερὸν καὶ δὴ καὶ σὲ κατηγορεῖν ἐπῆρεν ἀντὶ τοῦ παραμυθεῖσθαι. ἐγὼ δέ σοι οὐκ ἐγκαλῶ τὸ τὰς δυσκολίας ἡμῶν ἀγνοεῖν.

2. καίτοι φαίη τις ἂν τῶν ὥσπερ σὺ ῥᾳδίως ἐπιτιμώντων, ὡς ἀγνοεῖς μὲν τῷ μὴ πυνθάνεσθαι, οὐ πυνθάνῃ δὲ τῷ μισεῖν, καὶ οὕτως ἂν ὑπεροψίαν προφέρων αὐτὸς ἐνέχοιο μείζοσιν. ἐγὼ δὲ τοῦτο οὐ ποιήσω φιλίαν ἰσχυρὰν ὑβρίζειν οὐκ ἀξιῶν συκοφαντίᾳ. ἀλλ᾿ ὅταν τι γένηται τοιοῦτον, ζητήσας αἰτίαν τοῖς πράγμασιν ἐπιεικεστέραν οὕτω πρὸς ἐμαυτὸν ὑπὲρ ἐκείνων ἀπολογοῦμαι.

Image result for medieval manuscript sickness
Bibliothèque Municipale de Lyon, MS P.A. 78, Folio 36r

A Fine Poem on Friendship

Martial 12.40

“You lie, I trust you. You recite terrible poems, I praise them.
You sing, I sing. You drink, Pontilianus and I drink too.
You fart, I ignore it. You want to play a board game, I am defeated.
You do one thing without me, I’ll be quiet too.
You do no duty for me at all: You say, “when you’re dead”
I will take good care of you. I don’t want anything, but you can die.”

Mentiris: credo. recitas mala carmina: laudo.
cantas: canto. bibis, Pontiliane: bibo.
pedis: dissimulo. gemma vis ludere: vincor.
res una est sine me quam facis: et taceo.
nil tamen omnino praestas mihi. ‘mortuus’ inquis
‘accipiam bene te.’ nil volo: sed morere.

Image result for medieval manuscript friendship
Royal 19 C II f. 59v