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This paper addresses aspects of epistolarity (Altman 1982) in the letters of Fronto, focusing on one thematic strand, “linguistic competence,” as a form of symbolic capital (Bourdieu 1982). I show how Fronto self-consciously manipulates the flexible, dialogic nature of (didactic) letter-writing to direct the readers’ gaze upon himself as the preeminent, successful tutor (magister) of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus and as the authoritative commander of the Latin language. Fronto’s insistence on Latin’s preeminence and his self-posturing as its leader should be read in light of the Second Sophistic context, when Greek was increasingly valued as the language of the learned elite, and the Antonine court reinforced inter- and intra-class competition for distinction. In addition to these language issues, Fronto legitimates letter-writing as a product of linguistic competence, both to assert and maintain imperial authority.

My paper challenges traditionally-held beliefs about the “real” and “private” nature of Fronto’s correspondence and contributes to the growing appreciation of the literary and thematic merit of Fronto’s letters (e.g., Fleury 2006; Richlin 2007). Annelise Freisenbruch’s (2007) study of the correspondence’s “narrative of sickness” reveals one of the ways in which Fronto asserts authority over his pupil(s).  My analysis builds upon her work, as well as earlier, seminal studies in prose epistolography and self-fashioning, such as Eleanor Leach’s Lacanian reading of Cicero’s correspondence with Varro and Paetus (1999) and her application of Bourdieu on the letters of the Younger Pliny (Leach 2003; c.f., J. Henderson, 2002, J. Carlon, 2009).

I begin by considering the collection’s first letter (Ad M. Caesarem et invicem 4.3, 139 CE) to illustrate Fronto’s strategy. Ostensibly the letter’s purpose is to respond to Aurelius’ recent effort(s) to implement Fronto’s lessons, namely the searching out of [antiquated] words (quaerendis scrupulosius verbis) and using words in unexpected contexts – skills Fronto especially emphasizes for the rhetorical values they symbolically encapsulate (e.g., studium, periculum, and audacia). Fronto uses the letter, however, not merely to address, as magister, Aurelius’ strengths and weaknesses, but to promote his own linguistic and pedagogical authority. For example, he employs a conventional epistolary tactic, anticipating and then answering an imagined question from his recipient: Aurelius’ envisioned inquiry concerning Cicero’s linguistic practice provides Fronto the opportunity to claim superiority over the fons Romanae eloquentiae by critiquing Cicero’s lack of linguistic originality. Fronto’s authoritative assessment, moreover, is further legitimized by his admission (or boast?) of having meticulously (studioissime) examined Cicero’s entire corpus to prove his point (c.f., Aul. Gel. Noct. Att. 19.8). Fronto’s epistolary self-fashioning as one legitimately authorized to assign praise or blame is reinforced by the replies of his pupil-recipients, emperors no less, whose letters both overtly and implicitly acknowledge and confirm Fronto’s linguistic and pedagogical authority. This self-conscious dialogic interaction between letter-writer/recipient and recipient/letter-writer thus functions as a valuable tool in asserting linguistic competence since it offers “real”-life evidence of Fronto’s authoritative, effective influence, something his published treatises cannot do.

After considering other examples I conclude with a letter written to Lucius Verus twenty-four years later (Ad Verum Imp. 2.1, 163 CE) to illustrate Fronto’s continued assertion of linguistic competence and pedagogical authority, despite changed circumstances. The former tutor/now-subject praises his former pupil/now-emperor not for his recent military victories (as Fronto imagines his recipient as anticipating) but, instead, for the elegant letter Lucius composes to the Senate detailing his recent military successes. In a supreme act of meta-literary display, Fronto reinforces the very lesson promoted in his first letter more than two decades earlier, adapting military vocabulary to take credit for Lucius’ epistolary achievement as, in fact, Fronto’s own “triumph” (egotriumpho). Fronto boldly contends (ausim dicere) that, thanks to his linguistic “generalship” (meo ductu), Lucius has successfully employed an “army of eloquence” (eloquentiae copiis) to achieve, like Fronto, an epistolary tour de force.