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Creating familiaritas: Cicero’s letters of recommendation of 46-45 BCE

Jeffrey Easton

University of Toronto

The large corpus of Cicero’s letters is invaluable for the insight it offers into the volatile period of the Late Republic. Scholars have long recognized these letters’ prosopographical value and their potential to illuminate the political tensions of the period (e.g., Hall 2009) and to reveal Cicero’s genuine sentiments (e.g., Shackleton Bailey 1971; Wilkinson 1982) and his tangible and symbolic generosity as a patron (e.g., Déniaux 1993). Letters of recommendation represent a particularly interesting category in the corpus. The Latin term commendatio nicely encapsulates the mixture of letters under this rubric, which consists of recommendations, introductions, and requests for assistance on someone’s behalf. It should be noted that this type of correspondence was the most public that Cicero produced. Eighty-three such letters are collected in Fam. Book 13, according to the manuscript tradition, while a couple of dozen other recommendations are appended to letters found elsewhere in Fam. In all, it is estimated that recommendations constitute approximately 10% of Cicero’s overall correspondence with friends and associates (White 2010: 46).

Leaving aside issues of thematic organization by the ancient compiler(s) or letters missing from the collection, a focus on the chronology of the discrete recommendations in Fam. 13 produces an intriguing resultOf the eighty-three letters written in the period 59-44 BCE, over half, forty-four, were composed in the two-year period of 46-45. This prolific epistolary output in such a short span of time merits closer examination.

Peter White (2010: 46-51, 127-30) has remarked that in cataloguing the recommendations in Fam. 13 the compiler(s) of the manuscript may have sought to demonstrate how well-connected Cicero was within the networks of the Roman elite and subaltern groups: he advertised his posture as patron to the latter and his capacity to call on favors from the former. This technique of ‘triangulation’ between beneficiary and addressee is particularly fruitful when applied to our case-study of the recommendations of 46-45, a period that was characterized by a unilateral power structure in which Caesar wielded unrestricted authority under the title of dictator. 

In this paper, I offer a close reading of a selection of letters of recommendation from these two years against the backdrop of the social and political status of the recipients and commendati of the letters. The recipients, and in some cases the subjects, were affiliates of Caesar and served in important positions in the dictator’s regime. The analysis reveals that Cicero was engaged in much more than making recommendations, sometimes bland ones, on behalf of friends and clients. He manipulatedthe text of the letters in order to promote his own interests to magistrates who owed their positions to their loyalty to Caesar (cf. White 2010: 83). Cicero’s project relies on deploying conventional epistolary language, placing himself at the crux of each letter, exploiting genuine or contrived close personal connections (familiaritas), and invoking common literary interests and life experiences. I argue that the desired outcome of this strategy was to ingratiate himself with Caesar’s regime by reminding his readers of his reconciliation with Caesar and by declaring his support of the dictator’s position. In turn, Cicero could both rely on the support of these powerful allies and hope that word of his pro-Caesarian sentiments would flow back to the dictator himself. This conclusion raises the possibility that Cicero was attempting to reengage in Roman politics in a period when many scholars believe he had voluntarily withdrawn from public life.

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