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A Community of "Second Selves": the alter ego dynamic and the nature of aristocratic influence in the late Republic

Adam Littlestone-Luria

UC Berkeley

No matter how elevated a Roman’s dignitas and auctoritas, he could not be everywhere at once. Thus, an aristocrat would use personal webs of connection to extend his influence where he could not be physically present, relying on amici and kin to represent him in various contexts—to stand in as his alter ego. In fact, as I hope to show in this paper, the aristocratic community in the late Republic can be seen a network of “second selves.”

Throughout Cicero’s letters, the empirical foundation of this study, this dynamic is pervasive, at least implicitly. The correspondents frequently made it explicit, too, offering themselves as “second selves” for each other at need. We see this regularly within Cicero’s circle of personal intimates and in his connections with other principes with whom he engaged in a carefully constructed form of amicitia.

Recent work on Roman friendship has considered this alter ego conceit. Craig Williams, for instance, sees it as the loftier face of amicitia—two idealized amici sharing “one soul in two bodies” (Williams 2012, 23). Amanda Wilcox shows that the expression could euphemize gift exchange, expand the circle of fictive kin, and play a role in the discourse surrounding consolation for absence (Wilcox 2012). These studies have brought out the function of the alter ego model in constructing amicitia. They have not, however, examined its implications for the nature and function of personal influence and authority in the Republican aristocratic community. This paper focuses on the socio-political implications of the dynamic, drawing out its practical and symbolic utility within a system predicated on power sharing.

            In the correspondence, we see Cicero and his intimates (his brother Quintus, closest friend Atticus, and protégé Caelius Rufus) standing in for each other in private and public contexts (e.g. Ad Attticum 1/I.5), managing property (e.g. Ad Quintum 21/III.1), arranging marriages (e.g. Ad Familiares 88/VIII.6), and canvassing for support in the senate and the courts during spells of absence (e.g. Ad Familiares 91/VIII.11). Moreover, their community perceived these bonds in similar terms. As Cicero planned his departure after his term as Cilicia’s governor, he claimed that, if he left his brother in charge, he would be seen to be leaving an alter ego in his place—not “really” leaving the province (Ad Atticum 121/VI.6).

In curated, idealized relationships between principes, the alter ego conceit was also central. Shared membership in the “consular club” granted formal equality, so bonds between such men were particularly useful when one of them needed a representative in the public sphere, where honores had particular import. This ability to provide representation in public contexts was an important practical reason that senior statesmen cultivated trusting friendships. With consular friends like Lentulus Spinther, Metellus Nepos, and Appius Claudius Pulcher, Cicero and his peer amicus could use each other as a stand-in for himself (e.g. Ad Familiares 11/V.3).

With Pompey, Caesar, and Crassus, Cicero frequently capitalized on the alter ego dynamic, offering himself as surrogate or framing the dynasts as his own proxies. Cicero expressed delight when Pompey labeled him his alter ego in a speech in 57 (Ad Atticum 73/IV.1), framed Caesar as his “second self” as surrogate mentor for Trebatius (Ad Familiares 26/VII.5), and offered to stand-in for Crassus in private and public affairs during the Parthian campaign (Ad Familiares 25/V.8). By casting his influence as interchangeable with the preeminent magnates, Cicero was asserting his position as one of the figures guiding the civic community.

The alter ego dynamic was part of the amicitia ideal, then, but it also allowed an aristocrat to use his network of contacts to turn abstract social and symbolic capital into concrete results—even at a distance. The ability to expand the presence of the self in the community, as I conclude, was essential to the nature and function of aristocratic authority and facilitated the communal power sharing that allowed the Republican system to function.

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Roman Political Self-Representation

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