Obsessed with Literature: Humanizing and Enlightening the Mind

Cicero, Pro Archia 13

“I confess indeed that I am obsessed with studying literature. Let this fact shame others who do not know how to make use of their books so that they can’t provide anything from their reading to common profit or to make their benefit clear in sight.

Why, moreover, should I be ashamed when I have lived so many years in such a way that my hobby never prevented me from being useful to anyone at any time and its pleasure or sleepiness never distracted me or slowed me down? In what way, then, can anyone criticize me or censure me if if I am discovered to have spent that very same amount of time in pursuing these studies as others do without blame in pursuing profit, or in celebrating festivals or games, in seeking the pleasure and rest of the body and mind, or dragging out hours in dining, gambling or ballgames?”

Ego vero fateor me his studiis esse deditum: ceteros pudeat, si qui se ita litteris abdiderunt, ut nihil possint ex his neque ad communem adferre fructum neque in aspectum lucemque proferre: me autem quid pudeat, qui tot annos ita vivo, iudices, ut a nullius umquam me tempore aut commodo aut otium meum abstraxerit aut voluptas avocarit aut denique somnus retardarit? Qua re quis tandem me reprehendat aut quis mihi iure suscenseat, si, quantum ceteris ad suas res obeundas, quantum ad festos dies ludorum celebrandos, quantum ad alias voluptates et ad ipsam requiem animi et corporis conceditur temporum, quantum alii tribuunt tempestivis conviviis, quantum denique alveolo, quantum pilae, tantum mihi egomet ad haec studia recolenda sumpsero?

Cicero, Pro Archia 16

“But if this clear profit [of studying literature] is not clear and if entertainment alone should be sought from these pursuits, I still believe that you would judge them the most humanizing and enlightening exercise of the mind.

For other activities do not partake in all times, all ages, and all places—reading literature sharpens us in youth and comforts us in old age. It brings adornment to our successes and solace to our failures. It delights when we are at home and creates no obstacle for us out in the world. It is our companion through long nights, long journeys, and months in rural retreats.”

Quod si non hic tantus fructus ostenderetur et si ex his studiis delectatio sola peteretur, tamen, ut opinor, hanc animi adversionem humanissimam ac liberalissimam iudicaretis. Nam ceterae neque temporum sunt neque aetatum omnium neque locorum: haec studia adolescentiam acuunt,1 senectutem oblectant, secundas res ornant, adversis perfugium ac solacium praebent, delectant domi, non impediunt foris, pernoctant nobiscum, peregrinantur, rusticantur.

Image result for medieval manuscripts animals reading
BDLSS, MS 264, 14th c.

No One Uses Thucydides As A Model

Cicero, Orat. 9.30-32

“Thucydides, however, tells of history, wars and battles, in a noble and strong way, but nothing he writes can be transferred to forensic or political use. Those well-known speeches have so many unclear and odd phrases that they barely make sense, something which is probably the worst offense in public address.

Do humans possess so much perversity that we will eat acorns after grains have been discovered? Is it possible that the human diet could be changed thanks to Athenian invention but not oratory? Who of the Greek orators, moreover, ever used Thucydides’ work as a model? Surely, he’s praised by everyone. I concede this. But he is praised as a wise explainer of events, a no-nonsense, serious man of the kind who did not pursue cases in court but described battles in history. For this reason, he has never been counted as an orator and would not, indeed, have gained any fame if he had not written history, even though he was noble and elected to office.

Still, no one can really imitate the weight of his words and ideas—but when some people articulate a few broken and unrelated statements, which they could have done even without a teacher, they imagine themselves to be a new-born Thucydides.”

Thucydides autem res gestas et bella narrat et proelia, graviter sane et probe, sed nihil ab eo transferri potest ad forensem usum et publicum. Ipsae illae contiones ita multas habent obscuras abditasque sententias vix ut intellegantur; quod est in oratione civili vitium vel maximum. Quae est autem in hominibus tanta perversitas, ut inventis frugibus glande vescantur? An victus hominum Atheniensium beneficio excoli potuit, oratio non potuit? Quis porro unquam Graecorum rhetorum a Thucydide quicquam duxit? At laudatus est ab omnibus. Fateor; sed ita ut rerum explicator prudens, severus, gravis, non ut in iudiciis versaret causas, sed ut in historiis bella narraret. Itaque nunquam est numeratus orator, nec vero, si historiam non scripsisset, nomen eius exstaret, cum praesertim fuisset honoratus et nobilis. Huius tamen nemo neque verborum neque sententiarum gravitatem imitatur, sed cum mutila quaedam et hiantia locuti sunt, quae vel sine magistro facere potuerunt, germanos se putant esse Thucydidas.

Fragment of the Athenian Tribute List, 425-424 BCE

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)

The Brevity and Quickness of Life

Pliny, Letters 3.7 To Caninius Rufus

“I have just learned that Silius Italicus ended his life by starvation in Naples. Sickness was the cause of death, really: he had an untreatable tumor whose pain made him escape by death. He made it to his final day happy and fortunate, except that he lost his two younger songs. He left the older and better son successful and already of consular rank.

Silius harmed his reputation under Nero—for he was believed to have accused people willingly—but he conducted himself in his friendship with Vitellius wisely and with kindness. He earned some fame for his proconsulate in Asia and cleansed the stain of his earlier activity with a praiseworthy retirement.

He was among our top citizens without holding power or incurring envy. He was visited and much sought out, nearly always reclining on his couch in a room crowded not by accident. He filled his days with the most educated conversation whenever he took a break from writing. He used to write his poems more with effort than inspiration, and did not spare himself from critical judgment thanks to his recitations.

In recent years, he left Rome in a concession to old age. Once he made his home in Campania, he did not leave, not even for the coming of a new Emperor. This is reason for great praise for Caesar since he allowed this freedom and for Silius himself since he dared to take it.

He was a lover of things to the extent that he was mocked for excessive purchases. He owned multiple homes in the same neighborhood and overlooked the older ones in his excitement for the new ones. In each he had plenty books, statues, paintings and busts, each of which meant much to him, especially the one of Vergil, whose birthday he celebrated more religiously than his own, especially at Naples where he used to visit his grave as if it were a temple.

He completed his seventy-fifth year in this peaceful place. His body was solicitously tended even though he was not disabled. He was the final consul Nero appointed and the last of Nero’s consuls to die. It is remarkable that not only did Nero’s final consul die with him but that Nero died when he was consul!

Pity for human fragility fills me as I tell you this. Nothing is as brief and quick as the longest human life. Doesn’t it seem to you that Nero just died? But not one of the men who were consuls in his time remain alive today. I should not be so surprised! Only recently did Lucius Piso, the father of the Piso who was killed so evilly by Valerius Festus in Italy, used to say that none of those men he used to ask to speak when he was consul were still in the Senate!

The boundaries of life are so narrow that even in a community of great size I think we could forgive the Persian king for his famous tears—or maybe even admire him for them. For it is reported that after Xerxes reviewed his immense army, he wept when he thought that so many would die in so short a time.

This is why we should draw out our passing minutes with reading and writing, since we don’t have any control over them and action seems futile. Since we cannot live a long life, let us leave something to declare we have lived.

I know that you don’t need to be encouraged. But my concern for you still drives me to encourage you, like a horse eager to run, as you urge me in turn. Competition is good when friends push each other on with shared exhortations on the love of immortal memory.”

Plinius Caninio Rufo Suo S.

Modo nuntiatus est Silius Italicus in Neapolitano suo inedia finisse vitam. Causa mortis valetudo. Erat illi natus insanabilis clavus, cuius taedio ad mortem inrevocabili constantia decucurrit usque ad supremum diem beatus et felix, nisi quod minorem ex liberis duobus amisit, sed maiorem melioremque florentem atque etiam consularem reliquit. Laeserat famam suam sub Nerone (credebatur sponte accusasse), sed in Vitelli amicitia sapienter se et comiter gesserat, ex proconsulatu Asiae gloriam reportaverat, maculam veteris industriae laudabili otio abluerat.

Fuit inter principes civitatis sine potentia, sine invidia: salutabatur colebatur, multumque in lectulo iacens cubiculo semper, non ex fortuna frequenti, doctissimis sermonibus dies transigebat, cum a scribendo vacaret. Scribebat carmina maiore cura quam ingenio, non numquam iudicia hominum recitationibus 6experiebatur. Novissime ita suadentibus annis ab urbe secessit, seque in Campania tenuit, ac ne adventu quidem novi principis inde commotus est: magna Caesaris laus sub quo hoc liberum fuit, magna illius 8qui hac libertate ausus est uti.

Erat ϕιλόκαλος usque ad emacitatis reprehensionem. Plures isdem in locis villas possidebat, adamatisque novis priores neglegebat. Multum ubique librorum, multum statuarum, multum imaginum, quas non habebat modo, verum etiam venerabatur, Vergili ante omnes, cuius natalem religiosius quam suum celebrabat, Neapoli maxime, ubi monimentum eius adire ut templum solebat. In hac tranquillitate annum quintum et septuagensimum excessit, delicato magis corpore quam infirmo; utque novissimus a Nerone factus est consul, ita postremus ex omnibus, quos Nero consules fecerat, decessit. Illud etiam notabile: ultimus ex Neronianis consularibus obiit, quo consule Nero periit. Quod me recordantem fragilitatis humanae miseratio subit.

Quid enim tam circumcisum tam breve quam homini vita longissima? An non videtur tibi Nero modo modo fuisse? cum interim ex iis, qui sub illo gesserant consulatum, nemo iam superest. Quamquam quid hoc miror? Nuper L. Piso, pater Pisonis illius, qui a Valerio Festo per summum facinus in Africa occisus est, dicere solebat neminem se videre in senatu, quem consul ipse sententiam rogavisset.

Tam angustis terminis tantae multitudinis vivacitas ipsa concluditur, ut mihi non venia solum dignae, verum etiam laude videantur illae regiae lacrimae; nam ferunt Xersen, cum immensum exercitum oculis obisset, inlacrimasse, quod tot milibus tam brevis immineret occasus. Sed tanto magis hoc, quidquid est temporis futilis et caduci, si non datur factis (nam horum materia in aliena manu), certe studiis proferamus, et quatenus nobis denegatur diu vivere, relinquamus aliquid, quo nos vixisse testemur. Scio te stimulis non egere: me tamen tui caritas evocat, ut currentem quoque instigem, sicut tu soles me. ’Αγαθὴ δ’ ἔρις cum invicem se mutuis exhortationibus amici ad amorem immortalitatis exacuunt. Vale.

Vergil’s Tomb by Moonlight, with Silius Italicus Declaiming by Joseph Wright

Skipping the Passive for the Straight-Up Aggressive

Pliny, Letters 2.1

“I am super mad and whether or not it is right I’m not sure but I’m super mad. You know how unfair love is frequently, often powerless always quick to be offended. But my reason is still serious whether I believe it’s right and I am as mad as I would be if it were right since I have had no letter from you for such a long time.

The only solution to this is if you write me many really long letters right now. This is the only way I will forgive you. Other things seem fake. I won’t even hear “I was in Rome” or “I was busy”. But Gods forbid you say, “I’ve been sick.”

I’ve been in my country-house enjoying my two delights that come from leisure: reading and resting. Bye!”

Plinius Paulino Suo S.

1Irascor, nec liquet mihi an debeam, sed irascor. Scis, quam sit amor iniquus interdum, impotens saepe μικραίτιος semper. Haec tamen causa magna est, nescio an iusta; sed ego, tamquam non minus iusta quam magna sit, graviter irascor, quod a te tam diu litterae nullae. Exorare me potes uno modo, si nunc saltem plurimas et longissimas miseris. Haec mihi sola excusatio vera, ceterae falsae videbuntur. Non sum auditurus “non eram Romae” uel “occupatior eram”; illud enim nec di sinant, ut “infirmior”. Ipse ad villam partim studiis partim desidia fruor, quorum utrumque ex otio nascitur. Vale.

File:Ancient Roman villa of Salar 012 (30512518878).jpg ...
This is a Villa. It is not Pliny’s. 

Septicia’s Second Marriage and Final Testament

Valerius Maximus, Famous Words and Deeds, 7.7.4

“Septicia as well, the mother of Ariminum’s Trachali, because she was angry with her sons, married Publicius who was already old, even though she could no longer have children, as an insult against them. Then she took both of them out of her will.  When they appealed to him, the divine Augustus criticized both the woman’s marriage and her final allotments. He ordered that the sons have their mother’s inheritance and the dowry since she had not begun the marriage for the purpose of having children.

If Fairness herself were to judge this affair, could she have come up with a more just or more substantial opinion? You spurn the children you bore, make a sterile marriage, make a mess of a final will because of your malicious spirit, and you don’t blush to hand all your wealth over to a man whose body you climb under even when it has already been laid out like a corpse? So, since you acted like this, you are struck by divine lightning even among the damned!”

Septicia quoque, mater Trachalorum Ariminensium, irata filiis, in contumeliam eorum, cum iam parere non posset, Publicio seni admodum nupsit, testamento etiam utrumque praeteriit. a quibus aditus divus Augustus et nuptias mulieris et suprema iudicia improbavit: nam hereditatem maternam filios habere iussit, dotem, quia non creandorum liberorum causa coniugium intercesserat, virum retinere vetuit. si ipsa Aequitas hac de re cognosceret, potuitne iustius aut gravius pronuntiare? spernis quos genuisti, nubis effeta, testamenti ordinem malevolo animo confundis, neque erubescis ei totum patrimonium addicere cuius pollincto iam corpori marcidam senectutem tuam substravisti. ergo dum sic te geris, ad inferos usque caelesti fulmine adflata es.

Related image
Marriage scene on a sarcophagus

 

Avoiding Viruses and Playing Games in Rome

Ammianus Marcellinus, Constantius and Gallus 23-25

And since, as is natural in the world capital, the harsh diseases overpower so intensely that the profession of healing fails at treating them, the plan for safely is that no one will go to see a friend who suffers some disease like this. And some more cautious people add another salubrious remedy to this: slaves who have been sent to ask about the health of someone related to people who have this sickness are not allowed to enter the home before they have cleansed their body with a bath. This is how much they fear a sickness seen by other people.

But even when these practices are rather consistently performed, there are some people who, if they are invited to a wedding where gold might be offered to their open right hands, will run all the way to the Spoletium struggling, even though the strength of their limbs is weak from sickness.

But the mass of the poorest and lowest born people: some of them spend their entire nights in bars while some others haunt the shadows of the theater-awnings which Catullus during his aedileship was the first of all to have suspended as he emulated that Campanian corruption. Some of them play dice violently, sounding out foully when they draw air rapidly into their quivering nostrils; or, that thing they like most of all: they stand with their mouths agape from dawn to dusk in rain or shine analyzing the details of charioteers and the strengths and weaknesses of their horses.

And it is completely a surprise to see an uncountable crowd of plebians with a burning passion in their minds, hanging on what happens in the chariot races. These things and those like them allow nothing serious to happen at Rome.”

Et quoniam apud eos, ut in capite mundi, morborum acerbitates celsius dominantur, ad quos vel sedandos omnis professio medendi torpescit, excogitatum est adminiculum sospitale, nequi amicum perferentem similia videat, additumque est cautioribus paucis remedium aliud satis validum, ut famulos percontatum missos quem ad modum valeant noti hac aegritudine colligati, non ante recipiant domum, quam lavacro purgaverint corpus. Ita etiam alienis oculis visa metuitur Iabes.

Sed tamen haec cum ita tutius observentur, quidam vigore artuum imminuto, rogati ad nuptias, ubi aurum dextris manibus cavatis offertur, impigre vel usque Spoletium pergunt. Haec nobilium sunt instituta.

Ex turba vero imae sortis et paupertinae, in tabernis aliqui pernoctant vinariis, non nulli sub velabris umbraculorum theatralium latent, quae, Campanam imitatus lasciviam, Catulus in aedilitate sua suspendit omnium primus; aut pugnaciter aleis certant, turpi sono fragosis naribus introrsum reducto spiritu concrepantes; aut quod est studiorum omnium maximum ab ortu lucis ad vesperam sole fatiscunt vel pluviis, per minutias aurigarum equorumque praecipua vel delicta scrutantes.

Et est admodum mirum videre plebem innumeram, mentibus ardore quodam infuso, e dimicationum curulium eventu pendentem. Haec similiaque memorabile nihil vel serium agi Romae permittunt. Ergo redeundum ad textum.

Pottery floor tile incised with lines for use as a game board, with various bone game counters, excavated from Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester). Reading Museum.

Just a Lazy Sunday Morning Contemplating the Nature of Things

Cicero, Tusculan Disputations. 3.16

“To begin with, they wrongly reject prior meditation on future affairs. For there is nothing which works so well to calm or relieve anxiety as much as the thought throughout your life that there is nothing that is can’t happen; there’s no contemplation better for our human condition as the law of of life and learning obedience to it—this doesn’t make us sad all the time but keeps us from ever being so. For the person who reflects on the nature of things, on the variety of life, and the precarity of human existence is not sad in considering these things but is carrying out the duty of wisdom in the fullest way.

For they pursue both in enjoying the particular harvest of philosophy by considering what happens in human life and in suffering adverse outcomes by cleansning with a three-part solace. First, by previously accepting the possibility of misfortune—which is the most way of weakening and managing any annoyance and second, by learning that human events must be endured humanely; and third, by recognizing that there is nothing evil except for blame and there is no blame when the event is something against which no human can endure.”

Principio male reprehendunt praemeditationem rerum futurarum. Nihil est enim quod tam obtundat elevetque aegritudinem quam perpetua in omni vita cogitatio nihil esse, quod non accidere possit, quam meditatio condicionis humanae, quam vitae lex commentatioque parendi, quae non hoc adfert, ut semper maereamus, sed ut numquam. Neque enim qui rerum naturam, qui vitae varietatem, qui imbecillitatem generis humani cogitat, maeret, cum haec cogitat, sed tum vel maxime sapientiae fungitur munere. Utrumque enim consequitur, ut et considerandis rebus humanis proprio philosophiae fruatur officio et adversis casibus triplici consolatione sanetur: primum quod posse accidere diu cogitavit, quae cogitatio una maxime molestias omnes extenuat et diluit; deinde quod humana humane ferenda intelligit; postremo quod videt malum nullum esse nisi culpam, culpam autem nullam esse, cum id, quod ab homine non potuerit praestari, evenerit.

 

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura .540-147

“Unless matter itself had been eternal before our time
Everything would have already reverted to nothing
And whatever we see would also have come from nothing.
But since I have demonstrated that nothing can be made from nothing
And what has been made cannot be returned to nothing
There ought to be a primal creation for the immortal body
Where everything diffuses again at the final moment
to supply matter itself for the rebirth of things.”

raeterea nisi materies aeterna fuisset,
antehac ad nilum penitus res quaeque redissent,
de niloque renata forent quaecumque videmus.
at quoniam supra docui nil posse creari
de nilo neque quod genitum est ad nil revocari,
esse inmortali primordia corpore debent,
dissolui quo quaeque supremo tempore possint,
materies ut suppeditet rebus reparandis.

Pharmorphix, Cambridge
https://www.diamond.ac.uk/Home/News/LatestNews/14-11-14.html

Writing Your Way Out of Misery

Cicero, De Natura Deorum 1.4

“Many scholars of Greek studies were not able to communicate what they could teach to their own people because they were unsure that they could share in Latin what they had learned from the Greeks. But I think that in style we have made such improvement that the Greeks do not defeat us even in abundance of words.

The great sickness and heavy pain of our fortune also compelled my mind to this work. If I could have discovered any greater relief, I would not have taken refuge in this most potent comfort. Indeed, I was incapable of enjoying this in any other way that not merely reading books but also writing a monograph on all of philosophy.

We most readily come to learn every part of a subject and all of its parameters when all the questions are explained by writing. And philosophy, moreover, is a certain kind of marvelous continuation and series of things where different ideas appear to be interwoven with each other and they all connect in some way and are bound together.”

Complures enim Graecis institutionibus eruditi ea quae didicerant cum civibus suis communicare non poterant, quod ilia quae a Graecis accepissent Latine dici posse diffiderent: quo in genere tantum profecisse videmur ut a Graecis ne verborum quidem copia vinceremur. Hortata etiam est ut me ad haec conferrem animi aegritudo fortunae magna et gravi commota iniuria; cuius si maiorem aliquam levationem reperire potuissem, non ad hanc potissimum confugissem, ea vero ipsa nulla ratione melius frui potui quam si me non modo ad legendos libros sed etiam ad totam philosophiam pertractandam dedissem. Omnes autem eius partes atque omnia membra tum facillume noscuntur cum totae quaestiones scribendo explicantur; est enim admirabilis quaedam continuatio seriesque rerum, ut alia ex alia nexa et omnes inter se aptae conligataeque videantur.

Cicero, after 10 months in quarantine

Anger and Masks of Injury

Seneca, De Ira 5-8

“Some one will be said to have spoken badly of you: think whether you did this first; think of how many people you talk about. Let us think, I say, that some are not offending us, but repaying us; that some are doing good for us, that others are forced to act, and some are just ignorant. There are those who do what they do willingly and with full understanding who attach us not for the injury itself: one is either seduced by the sweetness of his wit; other does it not to move against us but because he cannot pursue his own aims unless he moves through us.

Often praise, although it flatters, offends. Whoever reminds himself of how many times he has encountered false suspicion or how many good services fortune has disguised with masks of injury, or how many people he learned to love after hating them, he will not anger quickly. As you are offended each time, say to yourself quietly: “I have done this myself.”

And where would you encounter a judge this just? The one who desires everyone’s wife and believes that it is just enough a reason to love her that someone else has her refuses to have his own wife seen. The traitor has the harshest demands on loyalty and the perjurer is obsessed with lies himself. The devious lawyer despises any charge made against him and the man who thinks nothing of his own shame will not abide the temptation of others. We keep everyone else’s vices in clear view, but own own behind our backs.”

Dicetur aliquis male de te locutus; cogita an prior feceris, cogita de quam multis loquaris. Cogitemus, inquam, alios non facere iniuriam sed reponere, alios pro nobis facere, alios coactos facere, alios ignorantes, etiam eos, qui volentes scientesque faciunt, ex iniuria nostra non ipsam iniuriam petere; aut dulcedine urbanitatis prolapsus est, aut fecit aliquid, non ut nobis obesset, sed quia consequi ipse non poterat, nisi nos repulisset; saepe adulatio, dum blanditur, offendit. Quisquis ad se rettulerit, quotiens ipse in suspicionem falsam inciderit, quam multis officiis suis fortuna speciem iniuriae induerit, quam multos post odium amare coeperit, poterit non statim irasci, utique si sibi tacitus ad singula quibus offenditur dixerit: “Hoc et ipse commisi.” Sed ubi tam aequum iudicem invenies? Is qui nullius non uxorem concupiscit et satis iustas causas putat amandi, quod aliena est, idem uxorem suam aspici non vult; et fidei acerrimus exactor est perfidus, et mendacia persequitur ipse periurus, et litem sibi inferri aegerrime calumniator patitur; pudicitiam servulorum suorum adtemptari non vult qui non pepercit suae. Aliena vitia in oculis habemus, a tergo nostra sunt.

 

File:Bronze Cavalry Sports Mask Roman 2nd century CE.jpg
Roman Calvary Sports Mask, MET