Harvard Classics, Volume 9: Cicero & Pliny

The ninth volume of the Harvard Classics moved from Ancient Greece to Rome. This volume was divided between two major political figures, separated by a century, and some of their copious surviving writings.

Cicero was an important statesman during the fall of the Roman Republic. Being killed by Marc Antony, he never lived to see the accession of Augustus, but he knew the Republic was gasping its last breaths when he was killed. Cicero was famously a “new man”, the first man of his family to rise to the rank of Senator and the first to be elected Consul. Cicero didn’t grow up poor by any means though, his family was firmly entrenched in the second tier of the Roman caste system (equestrian class), but in an era of decreasing social mobility, Cicero’s accomplishment was considered a big deal. 

Cicero’s importance goes far beyond his social climbing. He was an influential senator, who was one of the last people standing for the Republic. Caesar desperately sought Cicero’s approval, and courted his friendship.

While Cicero would not have felt this way, his most significant historical accomplishments were in the transmission of knowledge across eras. Cicero was widely credited with starting the interest in Greek philosophy among Roman elites. At this time, Plato & Aristotle were already centuries old, and their resurgence in popularity at this later date is owed to Cicero. By staying relevant and popular z Cicero helped preserve these works for us.

Yet perhaps the most important influence Cicero has on the world today is the conduit for the Renaissance. Works of pre-Christian antiquity were not frequently studied in the middle ages. But then one day, Petrarch discovered by happenstance, a copy of the letters of Cicero in storage. This ignited a passion in Petrarch for the works of antiquity, and Cicero in particular. The works of Cicero in summarizing and describing Greek philosophy would shape the scholarship at the beginning of the Renaissance.

The works of Cicero included in this volume include the letters that Petrarch discovered, as well as two philosophical essays. “On Friendship” and “On Old Age” are precursors to the philosophy of people like Francis Bacon who dealt with understanding things that every human deals with at some level. These essays are well argued and present interesting points, but stand below the works of Plato & Aristotle. 

The letters of Cicero take place during the later career of Cicero, falling after his consulship, but ending before the war between Antony & Octavian. They reflect his personal thoughts and feelings at times of stress and loss as well as present his involvement in political affairs. He sends letters to Pompey, Caesar and Brutus, and discusses his thoughts on many other politicians of the era. Augustus appears by reference only, as Caesar’s heir, despite the fact that he was mentioned for saving Cicero’s life. While beloved by Caesar, Cicero never returned the sentiment, siding against him during the War with Pompey. He even sends a letter to Brutus, escaped to Greece after the murder of Caesar to offer advice. Altogether the letters give important insights into a key period of history and give a look into the life of an extremely important figure.

In addition to Cicero, this volume also includes the Letters of Pliny. Unlike Cicero’s letters, these were written and collected for public consumption by Pliny the Younger. Pliny was the nephew of the famous historian Pliny the elder, and was a Roman aristocrat at the height of the empire under Trajan. 

Pliny intended his letters to be passed down through the ages, and his descriptions of two of his villas and other relatively mundane topics are excellent primary sources of historical study. Pliny lived through the famous eruption of Mount Vesuvius and describes the scene from his perspective as well as the death of his uncle from a blast of poisonous gas while leading a rescue effort. His description of the eruption are written in response to a request by Tacitus, the famous historian. Many of Pliny’s letters are obituaries to people he knew and the causes and circumstances of their deaths remind us how much medicine has changed the world. 

Pliny died at the age of 52 while serving as governor in Bithynia, a province in the north west of modern day Turkey, stretching from the Sea of Marmara along the Black Sea coast and encompassing old Ionian Greek cities as well as relatively new colonies. In his short time as governor, however, Pliny preserved his correspondence with Trajan, though in many circumstances the responses are clearly from secretaries. This correspondence is something like an FOIA dump and includes all of Pliny’s reports to Rome, his requests from the Emperor, and his seeking judgment from Trajan on how to administer in certain cases.

It is clear from these letters that while provincial governors were very much the reigning authority in their provinces, they did not exercise much autonomy and asked for input from Rome in any case when the law was not clear, or before undertaking an action that would be unpopular.

One interesting thing about Pliny’s letters as a whole is the shadow cast by previous emperors. At this point, the Romans had had emperors for over a century, starting with Augustus and following with Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, Domitian, Nerves and finally Trajan. The prior administration of Nerva is barely mentioned, but the long and unpopular reign of Domitian casts a long shadow. Vitellius & Vespasian get briefly mentioned, but Nero is mentioned quite frequently at the edge of living memory. The reigns of Claudius and Augustus are mentioned for dating purposes only.

At this time, versus Cicero’s time, Roman power was consolidated within its territory. In Cicero’s letters, he is dispatched to modern day Turkey to deal with client kings ruling over former kingdoms, even though they were at that time very much a part of the Roman empire. By the time of Pliny, the client kings have disappeared, but local laws and constitutions remained for cities that had peacefully integrated into the Roman empire.

Altogether, the works of Cicero and Pliny are windows into the political world of their respective eras and are important for understanding the trajectory of the Roman Empire.

The next volumes will diverge from the recent trend of antiquity and highlight two of the most influential books from the century and a half preceding the publication of the Harvard Classics. The first of these is an abridged version of “The Wealth of Nations”, which laid the foundations for modern economics. The second is Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” which introduced the theories of evolution and natural selection. Following these will be Plutarch’s Lives, after which I’ll get a break from history and philosophy for 11 volumes of literary works ranging from the Bronze Age to the Victorian Age in time and from the Persia to America in geography. And once I am through all of that, we will be half-way done with our journey through the Harvard Classics.

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