Letters, Language, and Identity in the Writings of Caesar, Cicero, and Catullus
In The Roman Way Chapters V – VII, Edith Hamilton discusses Cicero, greatest of orators and politician in the time of Julius Caesar, and a few of his contemporaries—namely, Caesar himself and Catullus the poet. The chapters detail some of Cicero’s speeches, letters between himself and Caesar, portions of Caesar’s Gallic War, and the poems of Catullus: all writings disclosing various degrees of the writers’ personalities. In addition to revealing the intellects of the writers, these preserved works reveal to us much of the broader nature of language itself.
In Chapter VI: Cicero Himself, Hamilton speaks of Cicero’s fame, the truisms still around today that originated in his speeches, and his letters, which expose aspects of the man hidden under his oratory. He writes to Atticus, his banker friend, of a speech he had recently given: “How I showed off! You know how I can thunder. This time it was so loud I expect you heard it right over there,” revealing a self-awareness he certainly shied away from in his formal speeches. Furthermore, even in his letters, the self Cicero portrays differs based on his audience, exemplified in his reactions to those who spoke against his kind treatment of Caesar, who Cicero hated more than anything. To his friends, he wrote that since his freedom was lost to Caesar, Cicero no longer had any right to say anything against the dictator; “the wise man will prefer nothing to the avoidance of wrong doing,” Cicero says. But again to Atticus, Cicero writes of himself without the veil of politics and reputation—he says: “What other purpose had my letter save to kow-tow to [Caesar]? Do you suppose I should have been at a loss for words if I had wanted to tell him what I really thought? … Perhaps I am blinded by my passion for high ideals.” In both cases, Cicero is defensive of himself, seemingly afraid of disrupting his reputation as a dissenter against Caesar. However, in his letter to Atticus, Cicero allows his frustration with the people speaking against him to show, along with even a bit of self-doubt. The appearance of Cicero’s “other side” as depicted in these letters demonstrates to the reader the nature of our identities—not concrete but based fluidly on our audiences, whether we like it or not—in addition to the portal our language opens to those identities.
Chapter VI opens with a discussion of Caesar’s Gallic War before moving to more letters, now between Caesar and Cicero. According to Hamilton, Gallic War is almost as impersonal as a text can be. Perhaps the closest Caesar comes to revealing himself directly in this text is in the following sentence: “The Senate, informed of these successes by Caesar’s letters, decreed a thanksgiving of fifteen days, a number never allowed to any general before.” Even here, in what Hamilton considers to be the most personal of his statements, Caesar refers to himself in the third person and omits his emotions on the event from his writing about it. However, if we read this as a contemporary celebrity speaking of receiving his latest award, still referring to himself in the third person, the statement can sound quite arrogant. Depending on what you think of Caesar, you’ll interpret this statement either as a humbly dry relation of a significant cause for pride or as an arrogant display of Caesar’s own magnificence. (Cicero almost certainly thought the latter.) And in this interpretive ambiguity, we can see one of the failings of written language: emotion and even reality often remain uncaptured, especially when the writer is unfamiliar to his readers as we are to Caesar. Even though we now rarely send letters, this failure is still evident today in our more modern, expedited forms of communication. (Remember that in the first century B.C., letters were the expedited form.) When messages are relayed distinct from the sender’s vocal inflections, the meanings can easily be misconstrued, but from Caesar we see that this problem is not new to our generation.
To reward the perseverant reader, I’ll end with the chapter on Catullus, a romantic and poetic gem whose writings on love and politics still resonate. The magic of poetry lies in its spaces; unlike prose, poetry requires a writer to leave out words, removing whatever isn’t necessary to relay the desired image. In this way, the language of poetry is often timeless, though the aspects of understanding derived from a poem’s historical context can elude readers. Luckily for readers of Catullus, the contexts of his most famous poems are basically universal: he fell deeply in love but was awakened from love’s slumber by his lover’s infidelity, and he hated his political leader, Caesar. Hamilton says that “Catullus, seeing nothing in the universe but Lesbia [his lover], [was] able to speak with perfect simplicity because he felt nothing that was not simple,” but I’m not sure I agree with Hamilton’s verdict on the simplicity of Catullus’s subject matter. Late in Catullus’s series of love poems to Lesbia, his moniker for a real and married lover named Clodia, Catullus writes of the infidelity of Lesbia and his consequent love-hate for her. The duality of emotion in these poems is not simple, though the description is:
Yours is the guilt, my Lesbia, to this past you have brought
me, where love’s duty works ruin to love itself.
So that I have no power to wish you were best among women,
Yet no power to cease loving you through all you do.
In this poem, Catullus blames Lesbia for his pain and for his ruined love, while telling the reader of his own powerlessness: he is unable to praise Lesbia for anything but at the same time must continue to love her. The poetry of Catullus, especially regarding his love for Lesbia, can be uncomfortably personal; according to the nature of poetry, his writing cuts into us with its simplicity, directness, and humanity. Unlike the writings of Cicero and Caesar, Catullus must write everything as personally and subjectively as possible in order to be best understood. He doesn’t have the option of hiding.
In the writings of Cicero, Caesar, and Catullus, we see as much of the writers’ identities as they saw fit to relate in their various types of publication. Additionally, the language of these writings exemplifies how deeply intertwined identity and language are with audience—both of the former rely heavily on the latter to determine what will be portrayed, whether it be an orator’s relating of his true frustration to a friend, a dictator’s sly comments about his own accomplishments, or a poet’s anecdote of his anguished love to fellow romantics. All of these writings lend us understanding of our origins through physical relics, papers preserved and copied over the years; without the physical components of aging paper and manual copying, it seems that our own descendants will remember us much less romantically.