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Cicero’s Best Friend Atticus

Gregory DiPippo

Today is the anniversary of the death in 32 BC of one Titus Pomponius, who is generally known by the nick-name Atticus. Born in Rome towards the end of the 2nd century BC, to a family of the equestrian order, he studied alongside his contemporary Cicero, with whom he became close friends. He moved to Athens when he was in his mid-twenties, as Cicero himself would later do, and became particularly interested in philosophical studies. He gave himself the nickname “Atticus” as a sign of his love for the city and the culture which it represented, and of which, long after its complete political decline, it was still very much the capitol.

Having inherited a great deal of wealth from his noble family, and having made a great deal more himself, Atticus used his money to promote literature and the arts by publishing the works of his friend Cicero, and new editions of those of some of the great classical authors of Greece such as Plato and Demosthenes. Unlike Cicero, however, Atticus stayed aloof from politics, although he supported his friend in his political career, and in the troubles that came to him as a result in the final, chaotic years of the Roman Republic, as civil wars that brought it to an end. This explains why he outlived Cicero by over a decade.

Unfortunately, none of Atticus’ own literary production survives, but we know a good deal about him from the nearly four hundred of Cicero’s letters to him which do survive. These letters were discovered in Verona by the poet Petrarch in 1345, along with many others addressed to several other people.

Cicero frequently protests in his letters to Atticus that he does not hear from him often enough, so frequently, that these protestations are regarded by some scholars as effectively little more than a rhetorical device. Be that as it may, it is a rhetorical device that evinces a deep and genuine friendship, despite the evident differences in the characters of the two men, and of which this sample may be sufficient indication.

“Believe me there is nothing at this moment of which I stand so much in need as a man with whom to share all that causes me anxiety: a man to love me; a man of sense to whom I can speak without affectation, reserve, or concealment. For my brother is away—that most open-hearted and affectionate of men. …

While you, who have so often lightened my anxiety and my anguish of soul by your conversation and advice, who are ever my ally in public affairs, my confidant in all private business, the sharer in all my conversations and projects—where are you? So entirely am I abandoned by all, that the only moments of repose left me are those which are spent with my wife, pet daughter, and sweet little Cicero. For as to those friendships with the great, and their artificial attractions, they have indeed a certain glitter in the outside world, but they bring no private satisfaction. And so, after a crowded morning levée, as I go down to the forum surrounded by troops of friends, I can find no one out of all that crowd with whom to jest freely, or into whose ear I can breathe a familiar sigh. Therefore I wait for you, I long for you, I even urge on you to come, for I have many anxieties, many pressing cares, of which I think, if I once had your ears to listen to me, I could unburden myself in the conversation of a single walk. And of my private anxieties, indeed, I shall conceal all the stings and vexations, and not trust them to this letter and an unknown letter-carrier. These, however—for I don’t want you to be made too anxious—are not very painful: yet they are persistent and worrying, and are not put to rest by the advice or conversation of any friend.”

Cicero with his friend Atticus and brother Quintus at his villa in Arpinum, ca. 1771, by Richard Wilson (1714-82); public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

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