The Latin Guide to Winning Friends and Influencing People

Toward the end of his life, Roman philosopher Cicero wrote a masterpiece, recently translated into Hebrew, on how power and authority influence friendship.

Rachel Feig-Vishnia
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Rachel Feig-Vishnia

“On Friendship ‏(Laelius de Amicitia‏),” by Marcus Tullius Cicero. Translated from Latin with notes and an afterward by Avraham Aroeti. Nahar Books, 99 pages, NIS 79

In the years 45-44 B.C.E., Marcus Tullius Cicero was a shattered man. After a glorious public career in the service of the Roman republic, and after a long series of unforgettable appearances in the Senate and the law-courts, he was essentially forced to retire from public life because of the dictatorial rule of Julius Caesar, with whom he had maintained a complex relationship for many years.

Cicero’s personal life was not a source of satisfaction either during this period. He quarreled with his brother Quintus, who had been his loyal assistant throughout his political career; Cicero’s only daughter, Tullia, who was very close to her father, died from childbirth complications; and a few months after that, he divorced his second and much younger wife, whom he had married two years earlier.

The man who in 63 B.C.E. had been awarded the honorific title “pater patriae” ‏(“father of the country”‏) − after, as consul, he uncovered and suppressed the coup Catilina and his supporters were plotting against the republic − became virtually irrelevant. There is no more definitive evidence of this than the fact that he was not a party to the conspiracy being secretly forged against Julius Caesar, who was assassinated on the Ides of March ‏(the 15th), 44 B.C.E., even though one of the chief conspirators, Brutus, was among his closest friends.

Cicero, then 66, enjoyed a brief comeback in 43 B.C.E. when he stood up in the Senate against Mark Antony, who sought to become Caesar’s heir and avenge his death. Cicero attacked him bluntly in 14 speeches known as the Philippics, and backed Octavian ‏(who was to become Augustus‏), Caesar’s great-nephew, whom the dictator had adopted in his will, and who wanted to assume all of Caesar’s legacy and powers himself, despite being only 19 years old. But the young Octavian betrayed the man who had praised him, and as soon as he was elected consul, later that year. He formed an alliance with Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony) and Lepidus ‏(the Second Triumvirate‏), and abandoned Cicero to Antony’s cruel vengeance as part of the pact to eliminate personal political rivals. Cicero was assassinated in December of that year by Antony’s agents.

During the preceding, troubled years, however, Cicero did not allow depression to overcome him. His pain at the loss of the Republic, his inability to preserve its government − on behalf of which he had toiled ceaselessly − and the unbearable sorrow over the demise of Tullia, whom he called “my single tie to life,” sparked in him a most impressive burst of creativity. This took the form of about a dozen works of a philosophical nature. Cicero, who had studied philosophy in his youth in Greece and continued to pursue it even when he was an active politician, was not an original thinker, and basically recycled the ideas of the Greek philosophers, whose writings he knew well.

He did, however, make a great contribution by finding Latin equivalents for terms relating to dialectics and physics. Plutarch ‏(“Life of Cicero,” chapter 40‏) relates that “he it was, as they say, who first, or principally, provided Latin names for phantasia, synkatathesis, epokhe and katalepsis, as well as for atomon, ameres, kenon and many others like these, contriving partly by metaphors and partly by new and fitting terms to make them intelligible and familiar.”

But it is important to stress that Cicero was first and foremost a political man, and that none of his “philosophical” works is totally free of associations to contemporary politics and politicians.

Dramatic date

“On Friendship” ‏(“De Amicitia”‏), one of Cicero’s best-known essays, which was recently translated into Hebrew, was composed in 44 B.C.E. ‏(probably after Caesar’s assassination‏) and was dedicated to his close friend Titus Pomponius Atticus, who had accompanied him since youth and supported him in his toughest hours. The dramatic date in which the dialog is set is the year 129 B.C.E., a few days after the mysterious death of Scipio Aemilianus, Africanus the Younger, who had destroyed Carthage in 146.

The interlocutors here are Gaius Laelius, who was Scipio’s close friend and associate, and Laelius’ two sons-in-law: Mucius Scaevola ‏(who would later become the young Cicero’s mentor‏) and Gaius Fannius. All three were active and prominent statesmen who served in the highest public magistracies. The declared subject of Cicero’s essay is the special friendship that existed between Laelius and Scipio, in particular, and the nature of human friendship in general.

It is impossible to overlook the connection between “On Friendship” and its publication date − immediately following the end of a bloody civil war that raged throughout the Roman Empire between 49 and 45 B.C.E. − in the course of which years’-long loyalties were put to the test, and both members of the same families and close friends found themselves on opposing sides.

Repeatedly, throughout the work, Cicero voices concern over the influences power and authority exert on friendship, and addresses the tensions and rifts that can arise between relatives and friends due to differing political views or personal ambitions. It is impossible not to feel his concern regarding the obedience and flattery displayed toward Caesar by those who, until a short while beforehand, had been his enemies, and whom the dictator had pardoned. ‏(Cicero himself, it should be said, also curried favor with Caesar, but felt that Caesar disparaged him, and withdrew from Rome to his country estate in 46 B.C.E.‏). Flattery, he states ‏(in chapter 89‏), “is unworthy of a free-born man, to say nothing of a friend. It is one thing to live with a tyrant, another with a friend.”

Avraham Aroeti’s Hebrew translation is by and large meticulous, although there are a few slip-ups. Some of these stem from inattention to the precise meaning of certain terms. For example ‏(in chapter 97‏), the word “contio” is translated as a people’s assembly, whereas it actually means an unofficial assembly, which even people who were not Roman citizens could attend, and to which well-known figures were invited to express their opinion on certain topics ‏(legislative proposals, usually‏). The correct terms for the people’s assembly are “comitia” or “concilium”; participation in these bodies was open only to Roman citizens and they were convened solely for the purpose of voting.

It sometimes seems like the book came out of the oven half-baked. The footnotes and comments are not always complete or accurate. For example: Scipio Nasica ‏(footnote No. 65‏) did not kill Tiberius Gracchus; the explanation of the laws governing written voting ‏(note 67‏) is confused; and in footnote No. 110 it would have been appropriate to mention Terence’s dates, so that we could understand why Laelius calls him “my friend.” Nor is there any explanation for why the translator decided to add a translation of one of Seneca’s epistles to Lucilius.

But particularly striking in its absence is an illuminating introduction, as the translator’s postscript is very brief and lacking almost any component we would expect to find in it. Nothing is said about the history of the work’s manuscripts; there is no expansion of the historical and cultural background so as to explain the cultural world of the speakers in the dialogue ‏(for example: presentation of “the Scipionic Circle”‏). Furthermore, it should have been also mentioned that Laelius was named “wise” ‏(Sapiens‏) not only because of his broad education, but mainly because he retracted, as consul in 140 B.C.E., an agrarian law that was perceived in the Senate as revolutionary and harmful to the elite’s status.

No less relevant issues remain unanswered, such as: Who are the Greek philosophers on whom Cicero based his work and how faithful was he to their ideas, and what are the various meanings of the word amicitia, one of the most loaded and elusive terms in the Roman political lexicon, the interpretation of which is still fiercely debated by contemporary scholars.

Moreover, the translator notes in his afterward that Cicero was a “lawyer.” That is a misleading appellation. There were no law schools or law firms in Rome. Learning the art of oratory and arguing before the law-courts was an inseparable part of the training of Rome’s elite in preparation for a public career, and as orators they would argue, usually on the basis of political motives or personal connections, for or against a given individual. Incidentally, by law, orators in the law-courts were not paid for their labor.

Despite these reservations, the addition of another translation from Latin literature to the Hebrew bookshelf is, of course, to be commended.

Prof. Rachel Feig-Vishnia teaches ancient Roman history in Tel Aviv University’s general history department.

'Cicero Denouncing Catiline,' John Leech, 1850.



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