In her seminal article “The Ciceronian Bi-Marcus”, Eleanor Winsor Leach perceptively explores the disorientation that Caesar’s policy of clementia produced on Cicero’s sense of self in 46 BCE. In passing, she notes that Cicero experiences “a kind of symbolic death” in the disordered world of Caesar’s dictatorship (Leach 1999: 162). Cicero had already described his exile as a living death or overliving in letters to Atticus and his family. This paper will explore why Cicero conceives of his experiences in the opening months of the civil war of 49 as a kind of living death and how he articulates this to Atticus.
Given that the Romans equated exile with, at the very least, a civil death (Gaius Instit. 3.153;Wistrand 1968: 9-25), it is not surprising that Cicero’s letters from exile are replete with images of overliving and living death (Att. III.7.2 III.15.4; Hutchinson 1998: 25-48). As in epic or tragedy, Cicero’s overliving is not the result of a gradual, natural decline but of a single, sharply defined event (Wilson 2004: 3). But in spring of 49 there had been no pitched battle, no exiles. Nevertheless, the situation created for Cicero a perfect storm of anxieties that he shared with Atticus as he agonized over what to do.
Underneath Cicero’s horror of civil war and fears of a tyranny, lies his fear of another exile (Mitchell 1991: 256). Aware of this, Atticus offers carefully calibrated advice. He urges Cicero to consider returning to Rome if Pompey withdraws from Italy; otherwise, where would Cicero’s “travels” end? Cicero spots this as a euphemism for “miserable exile” (miserrima fuga) (Att. IX.10.4). Life in Italy drags on like an exile (Att. X.4.6; X. 11.2).
Once Pompey is besieged in Brundisium, Cicero portrays his life as overliving (Att. IX.12.3). He expresses guilt and shame, (another trope of the overliver), at not following Pompey and playing no constructive political role at Rome. A few days later, Cicero meets Caesar and refuses to come back to the Senate if he cannot speak his mind. He equates his wandering with death and again reproaches himself for not playing a public part. His present behavior makes for dishonor without security (Att. X.1a). Writing the next day without hope, he exhorts himself to go to Pompey. The Republic has foundered, and Cicero cannot bear to watch what is happening in the Senate. Nothing is left for him except breath in his body, and he wishes he did not have even that much left (Att. IX.19.2).
Cicero portrays himself as in another exile-like limbo because he has lost the very things he lost during his exile – his dignitas, auctoritas and a meaningful role in political life (Q.fr. I.3.6; Att. IV.1.3). If the Republic is dying, then so is something vital in him. Cicero even gives himself a laudatio funebris of sorts (Att. X.4.1; 5). Ahead may lie exile, captivity or slavery (to a tyrant, Att. X.4.2), all considered death like states under Roman law.
Cicero, constantly seeking Atticus’ reassurance and approval, uses the tropes of living death and overliving to signal the gravity of his situation without blaming his friend for any advice he may give. Cicero is no longer the hero of 63 and not yet the hero of 44 for whom death would not be premature (Phil. 2.118). Instead he quotes Odysseus’ exhortation to bear up, since he has borne worse, only to contrast his past exile with worse to come (Att. IX.15.3). Cicero portrays his life as “mere repetition of the same pattern, over and over again”, a key component of tragic overliving (Wilson 2004: 9).
Epistolary Fictions and Realities