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Cicero the Homerist
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Cicero the Homerist

In six letters1 written to Atticus over a span of fourteen years (59-45 BCE), Cicero quotes Iliad 6.442 in whole or in part: αἰδέομαι Τϱω̑ας ϰαὶ Τϱῳάδας ἑλϰεσιπέπλους (“I hesitate before Trojan men and Trojan women with their trailing dresses”).2 Cicero uses the line to express his hesitation to the reactions of others to a decision, political or literary, that he feels he must make. He clearly depends upon Atticus’ deep knowledge of Greek literature, as he never names the poet, cites the scene or book, or identifies the speaker. He assumes that Atticus will know the passage, in which Hector explains to Andromache why he must return to the fighting or be shamed in front of his fellow Trojans.

Cicero presents himself as Hector attempting to defend Troy against the Greeks, so he surely knows that the battle will be lost and Hector killed, despite all of his efforts on both the battlefield and in the city.3 If Cicero is Hector, then Rome is Troy, but who might be the enemy? Perhaps in the earliest citation of the passage in a letter to Atticus in 59 BCE (25.1), Catiline could play the role of Achilles. In the later ones, which come in a five-year span at the end of Cicero’s letters to Atticus (50-45 BCE), he might have cast Julius Caesar or his assassins in the role. Whether we wish to make a specific link between the Homeric verse and either the Catilinarian conspiracy or the end of Caesar’s dictatorship, we can see Cicero identifying himself as part of the Trojan ancestry that lies behind Rome, even though he himself is a novus homo.4

After he quotes the sentence in full for the first time in a letter to Atticus (25.1), Cicero never again uses the whole remark, but rather borrows only a phrase or two, usually αἰδέομαι Τϱω̑ας. The Homeric verse seems to have become a private aphorism, perhaps shared between Cicero and Atticus from their school days, and its use can stand as a token of their easy familiarity not only with the Homeric poems but also with the Alexandrian scholarship that regularized their form. Such knowledge would have been the natural result of the kind of education that an upper-class Roman male could have received. Early in their schooling, little boys would have been given passages of Homer to rework or paraphrase; at every stage in their education, they would have read the epics. Most schoolboys would not have read much more of the Iliad than books 1–6 and fewer would have read any of the Odyssey (perhaps books 1, 4, 6, 9, 11, and 18), if the few surviving papyri are any guide.5 Cicero, however, cites or quotes from eleven books of the Iliad and nine of the Odyssey, refers to many other Greek authors, and even composes in Greek (see Ad Att. 19, for example). He also makes casual reference to Aristarchus as an editor, revealing not only his knowledge of the texts that had been the subject of study in Alexandria through the second century BCE, but also some knowledge of the scholarship on those works. He is even eager to obtain a copy of a work by Tyrannio, probably his Πεϱὶ τη̑ς Ὁμηϱιϰη̑ς Πϱοσῳδίας, devoted to Homeric accentuation (Ad Att. 306.2). In no extant work, however, despite his evident familiarity with Alexandrian scholarship, does Cicero refer to a passage in the Homeric poems by book number, even though the book divisions had been established by that time (Higbie 2010).

While Cicero may enjoy a shared literary reference in letters to Atticus or to other similarly educated colleagues, his use of Homeric citations depends on genre and audience expectations. The knowledge of the Homeric texts and scholarship on them that Cicero displays in his letters is not found in either his philosophical works or his orations. He seems to be well aware that the literary sophistication and knowledge of Greek that can be shared between equals would not be suitable for works with a wider circulation and acknowledges tacitly, at least, the complex Roman feelings of military superiority, if not literary, over...