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Irony in Cicero’s Letter to Lucceius

Joanna Kenty

Radboud University, Netherlands

For those who perceive Cicero as vain and megalomaniacal, his letter to the historian Lucceius (Fam. 5.12), suggesting that Lucceius should write a history of Cicero’s consulship, is exhibit A.  I argue that this letter was meant to be read as ironic, an erudite joke shared amongst friends, rather than as a serious demand. Cicero’s treatment of Lucceius as a reader and as an author in his own right is particularly rich in double meanings and potential ambiguity, which encourage Lucceius not to view the letter as a transgression of decorum. I argue that it is essential to acknowledge and fully understand this use of irony if we are to use the letter to Lucceius as evidence for Cicero’s attitude to historiography, as many scholars of ancient history have done. It is still possible to read the letter as an impudent request transgressing social norms, but it is also possible to read it as a joke, and Cicero treads the line between them so that we cannot discern his intent one way or the other.

Cicero certainly was looking to commemorate his consulship and his defeat of Catiline’s conspiracy, and wrote several works in several genres and two languages to pursue that goal (Dugan 2005, 2014). I would not go so far as to argue that he would have dissuaded Lucceius from writing such a history, if he had expressed a desire to do so. However, Cicero himself did not see his request to Lucceius as demeaning, nor did he attempt to hide the fact that he had written it. On the contrary, he described this letter as “valde bella” - “quite smart” or “clever” – and wished it to be shown to a wider audience as evidence of his wit (Att. 4.6.4). Cicero was well known for his wit and humor in his lifetime (Pro Murena and Pro Caelio are good examples, and De Oratore contains theoretical discussion), and some of his correspondence, particularly the letters to Trebatius Testa and Thrasea Paetus, is written in an obviously comedic mode. I argue that the letter to Lucceius is best read as reflecting this jocular persona as well. Cicero also anchors the letter in the social conventions of politeness, witty repartee, and friendship to encourage Lucceius to play along with the joke (Hall 1998, 2009). He intertwines flattery of Lucceius and praise of historiography with self-praise, making it impossible for Lucceius to interpret the letter as evidence of Cicero’s admiration without also affirming Cicero’s achievements.

I argue that Cicero’s characterization of Lucceius’ style as a historian, his contempt for emphasizing pleasure and entertainment over truth, is directly and intentionally contradicted by the history of his consulship Cicero pretends to want. All of the reasons Cicero gives for why Lucceius should write this history are actually reasons why Lucceius would refuse to do so, because they would add up to the style of historiography he has rejected. This is irony at work: Cicero makes Lucceius an offer he cannot accept, knowing full well (and demonstrating his knowledge) that his proposal is an absurd one. Throughout the letter, Cicero uses the techniques of irony and oratio figurata to subvert the superficial, apparent meaning of the letter and to lead his reader toward an ironic reading instead.

Cicero’s assessment of the letter as valde bella employs aesthetic criteria more often associated with Catullan poems than with epistolography (Krostenko 2001). The letter is filled with rhetorical figures and artistic ornaments (particularly hyperbole), flourishes which exhibit Cicero’s technical mastery and convey confidence and nonchalance rather than humiliation. This combination of artistry with a playful, even irreverent persona also shares many features with Catullus’ nugatory poetry, and the letter can thus be analyzed using the philological techniques often applied to the poems, including the evaluation of the authorial persona and ironic text as literary constructs separate from the historical figure.

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