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Cicero: Letters to Atticus, Volume I (Loeb…

Cicero: Letters to Atticus, Volume I (Loeb Classical Library)

by Marcus Tullius Cicero

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With interests up and down the peninsula as well as in Greece and Asia Minor, Romans traveled--and wrote letters to friends and family. The most extant cache of letters is from Marcus Tullius Cicero to his friend and mentor, Titus Pomponius Atticus. The period of time covered in this volume is from November, 68 B.C.E. to mid-May. 54 B.C.E. These letters span Cicero's career from its height, just before elected consul in 60 B.C.E., to shortly after his return from exile.

First, a word about the format. This is the Loeb Library edition from Harvard University Press, "hard" bound, but in an incredibly cheap binding that absorbs moisture quickly and warps. Also, it's "pocket sized", 4 1/2" x 6 1/2" (11 cm x 16.5 cm) as are other volumes in my collection from the Loeb Library. I would prefer the more standard, larger format. These considerations account for the fact that the rating is not a full 5 stars.

But other aspects of this edition are excellent. The book is set up with the original Latin (as amended here and there by scholars) on the left-hand page and the English translation on the right. My Latin is extremely rusty after over 50 years, but from time to time, I would read the Latin first to see if I could follow it, and that added considerably to the pleasure of reading the book.

In addition, the translation is by D.R. Shakleton Bailey, who was Pope Professor of Latin Language and Literature at Harvard. The translator can make or break a book; while I am no expert and can not comment on the accuracy of the translation, what is clear is that Shackleton Bailey has produced a flowing, articulate text that makes for easy reading and understanding. It also conveys a sense of Cicero himself, as the tone of the letters changes dramatically over the 11 year period covered, in accordance with the ups and downs of his career. Again, I am no Latin scholar, but it seems to me that this translation is faithful to the sense of the letters and their author as well as eminently readable in English.

As for the Letters themselves: one difficulty is that it's hard to keep track of the players without a scorecard. Cicero was deeply involved in the politics of his day, which were tumultuous--the last days of the Republic, where the governing system that worked very well for Rome when it was a regional power was falling apart under the strain of a growing empire. While there had been important figures in earlier stages of Rome's history, this particular span of time saw the eminence of Pompeius Magnus--Pompey the Great--and the rise of Julius Caesar, the latter through his Gallic Wars. Cicero was heavily engaged in politics; Atticus had chosen a business career instead (in Republican Rome, the two were mutually exclusive). But all upper-class Romans engaged in those activities to one extent or another as their interests allowed. Cicero's letters to Atticus reflect both his business interests--acquiring statuary, care of property--and more particularly, his views on the politics of the day.

Here is where a reader with no background in the history of the era will find the letters hard to follow. Cicero's letters are peppered with references to notable men of the day as well as comments about books and his brother's marriage (Q. Cicero was married to Atticus' sister). The Introduction does a good job with giving a background of Cicero's career and the footnotes are excellent, but it's hard to understand just why Cicero was sent into exile without understanding much more of the enmity Publius Clodius had for him and the execution of the Cataline conspirators without a trial during Cicero's consulship.

Still, the Letters are engaging and we do get a sense of Cicero the man. Who comes across as a vainglorious, preening type of person, quite concerned with his image (although that was standard for prominent Romans at that time) and superficial, even petty. The Letters capture first his complacency about Clodius' trial for contaminating a service of the Bona Dea--the letters do not describe it, since the seriousness of the offense would be taken for granted, but this was an affair that rocked Rome--at which Cicero was prosecutor. However, the letters go from complacency and almost contempt to unease to alarm as Clodius rebuilds his political power base and ultimately promulgates a bill in the Senate that sends Cicero into exile. The Letters change dramatically at this point, going from one extreme of self-congratulation at his successes and influence to the depths of despair, threatening to take his own life (which, of course, he never did), bewailing his fate, claiming no one had ever suffered the way he is (many had, and worse). This despite the fact that 1) many times such exiles had been reversed and 2) Atticus, a powerful influence among the commercial classes in Rome, and others of Cicero's friends were working to have him recalled, as Cicero himself writes in his letters. You get the picture of a relatively shallow man with not much spine who goes from one emotional extreme to the other.

This volume of the Letters ends with #89, with Cicero back in Rome for two years, still interested in politics, still heavily dependent on Atticus--and still without a clue.

Highly recommended, although a knowledge gained from, say, Colleen McCullough's Master of Rome series will go far towards making the Letters more enjoyable. ( )
  Joycepa | Dec 7, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0674995716, Hardcover)

In letters to his dear friend Atticus, Cicero reveals himself as to no other of his correspondents except, perhaps, his brother. These letters, in this four-volume series, also provide a vivid picture of a momentous period in Roman history--years marked by the rise of Julius Caesar and the downfall of the Republic.

When the correspondence begins in November 68 BCE the 38-year-old Cicero is a notable figure in Rome: a brilliant lawyer and orator, who has achieved primacy at the Roman bar and a political career that would culminate in the Consulship in 63. Over the next twenty-four years--to November 44, a year before he was put to death by the forces of Octavian and Mark Antony--Cicero wrote frequently to his friend and confidant, sharing news and discussing affairs of business and state. It is to this corpus of over 400 letters that we owe most of our information about Cicero's literary activity. And taken as a whole the letters provide a first-hand account of social and political life in Rome.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:42 -0400)

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