Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.07.26

van den Hout, Michel P.J. , A Commentary on the Letters of M. Cornelius Fronto. Mnemosyne Supplement 190.   Leiden:  E. J. Brill, 1999.  Pp. xi + 725.  ISBN 90-04-10957-9.  

Reviewed by James Zetzel, Columbia University (
Word count: 3748 words

Pity poor Fronto. In his lifetime, he was a renowned orator (Romanae eloquentiae non secundum, sed alterum decus according to the panegyrist Eumenius), tutor to the future emperor Marcus Aurelius, and consul for two months in the summer of 143 CE. For a long time, his reputation matched his real accomplishments, but his orations (with the exception of a few fragments and a small scrap of one manuscript) disappeared forever. Meanwhile, some befuddled descendant, probably a century or so after his death, decided to collect and publish his correspondence, something that Fronto himself had had the wisdom not to do. What is more, that first editor did a bad job: the chronology is garbled, the letters are grouped in part by the whims and errors of the compiler, and they include many trivial notes about his health and holidays that a wiser editor would simply have destroyed. Fate granted Fronto a reprieve: the manuscript of his correspondence was erased and reused at Bobbio in the seventh century, covered with a copy of the Acts of the Council of Chalcedon. The text of Fronto's correspondence remained happily concealed for nearly 1200 years, until in the early nineteenth century Angelo Mai discovered half the palimpsest at Milan and then, after his translation to the Vatican Library in 1819, the other half in Rome. Mai's prompt publication of the texts destroyed any reputation that Fronto might have had: tediously fawning and hypochondriacal, steeped in disappointment that his pupil Marcus disdained the glories of rhetoric in favor of Stoic philosophy, filled with archaizing language and pointless wordplay, Fronto's letters are not always a pleasure to read. They do contain some valuable historical evidence (the collection includes the letters of his correspondents, including Marcus, Antoninus Pius, and Lucius Verus), quite a lot of information about archaic Latin language and literature, and some very acute observations about style and rhetoric. His own style is at times astonishing (see below), but a little goes a very long way, and even his editor describes him as "a third-class writer" (x). That is unfair, but it is certainly the case that Fronto's correspondence, as a whole, is not one of the masterpieces of Latin literature.

The general quality of Fronto's letters, moreover, is matched by the quality of the text itself. The palimpsest is a difficult one; even restoring the order of the pages is far less certain than, for instance, in the palimpsest of Cicero's De re publica. Many leaves are missing, and it was never easy to read. Mai's treatment of the manuscript with powerful chemicals (the usual practice of his day) helped him to read it; but the resulting deterioration of the parchment and ink have left it far more illegible than it was when he began. That Mai guarded his manuscripts jealously (for fear that a more competent scholar might be able to do better than he had) meant that no-one else was permitted to examine it until after his death in 1854, more than forty years after his first discovery. Nor, indeed, was Mai a good editor: his Latin was not good, and his Greek (the correspondence is bilingual) terrible. One great scholar (B.G. Niebuhr) tried his hand at editing the text in the first years after its discovery; but as a competent reader, a German, and a Protestant, he was not given access to the manuscript. One philological genius (Giacomo Leopardi) contributed some valuable readings and emendations on the basis of the published text. But since that time, no great scholar has had much to do with the text of Fronto. Very few, indeed, have even tried to use the manuscript. A few years after Mai's death, G. N. Du Rieu collated it, and placed his collations in the hands of his friend Naber, who published an unmemorable edition in 1867, which served as the basis for the even more unmemorable Loeb edition of Haines. After Naber, however, two serious students of palimpsests undertook to study the manuscript: Wilhelm Studemund, while working in Milan on the apograph of the palimpsest of Plautus which cost him his sight, made collations of most of it, but published little. After his death, his papers were used by Edmund Hauler, who studied the Fronto palimpsest and published dozens of articles reporting his readings over a period of more than forty years -- but never published an edition.

Hauler died in 1941; not long after that, M. P. J. van den Hout (hereafter H.) undertook, as his doctoral dissertation, to publish the edition that Hauler never finished. H. did not collate the palimpsest for himself; instead, he used the published notes of Hauler and other scholars and produced a careful and conservative text of Fronto in 1954. H.'s edition was far and away the most useable text of Fronto; but, as reviewers did not hesitate to point out, it was scarcely critical: above all, he had never used the manuscript itself, and in editing the text he paid little attention to the important readings of the second hand in the palimpsest. After thirty years as the headmaster of a gymnasium, H. returned to Fronto in the 1980s and published a new edition in the Teubner series in 1988. In this text, he made somewhat more use of the readings of the second hand, and he also had access to the unpublished notes and drafts for the edition that Hauler had never completed; but he still did not made use of the palimpsest itself. His account of the various readings of the palimpsest and of Hauler's second thoughts about the text itself are daunting: what is one to make of a manuscript in which one reader (Mai) sees (at 204.13 of H.'s 1988 edition) only the letters deus al, the second reader (Hauler in 1896) sees apparatu Apollo deus alitis pinas, and that same reader forty years later records (with some of the letters doubtful) arte extruendi deus alitis pinatas? True, this is a marginal note, and even more difficult to read than much of the text itself; but one has the strong sense that what the manuscript actually said is in many cases beyond recovery, and that the reports of it should perhaps be classified as wishful imagination rather than fact. H.'s apparatus is not, for the most part, a record of manuscript readings and editorial conjectures, but a record of multiple modern readings, often by the same person, of the same manuscript. Nor, in fact, is it a well-composed apparatus: in many passages, I find it impossible, among the reports of conjectures and corrections, to determine what in fact is (or is generally agreed to be) in the manuscript itself. Now, a decade after his second edition and more than 40 years after he optimistically described his text as 'Volume I,' H. has published an extensive and detailed commentary on Fronto -- the first, as he records in his preface, that has ever been written.

I dwell on the problems of text and transmission that occupied H. in his editions of the text in part to explain the formidable difficulties that he faced, and in part because H.'s commentary is in fact inseparable from his edition. That is true not merely because determining what the text in fact is (or was) and explaining the often impenetrable scraps of the palimpsest ought to be central to the commentator's task, but because H. has linked the two volumes together in often undesirable ways. The commentary, for instance, gives no titles for the various letters and collections within the correspondence: lemmata are simply the page and line number of the Teubner edition. And, as the only concordance between H.'s numeration and that of other editions (his own first edition and Haines's Loeb) is in the back of the text, not the commentary, it is impossible for anyone using a different text of Fronto to find anything at all in H.'s commentary. The same is true of bibliography: many of the titles included in the bibliography of the Teubner edition are simply omitted from that of the commentary: following up the references to scholarly opinions in the commentary on, for instance, the chronology of the letters, requires flipping to the back of the commentary and to the end of the Prolegomena to the text, and then looking once more at the chronological table given at the back, not of the commentary, but of the text. Indeed, while there are very full indices of grammatical and rhetorical terminology in the commentary, there is no index nominum: back to the text again.

It is perhaps ungrateful to begin an assessment of this massive work, the result of nearly half a century's study of Fronto, by carping at matters of format and organization, but unfortunately they matter: neither the substance of the letters nor the text is easy to master, and I found it a remarkably tedious process to find what H. had to say about important passages, because the organization and layout of the commentary imply that one is supposed to read it cover to cover, and not merely consult it; and that is something that very few people will want to do. Furthermore, H.'s commentary assumes the presence of his text in a more fundamental way: with the exception of passages where he has changed his mind or (rarely) is genuinely uncertain about the text, he generally assumes the correctness and comprehensibility of his edition -- but, with a text of such complexity and incompleteness, readers need help: in explaining the possible contents of lacunae; in exploring the possible meaning of incomplete sentences; in discussing variant readings (and H. still seriously undervalues the corrections and variants of the second hand); and in general in letting the reader know why H. chose to print what he did. H. does some of this, but not nearly enough. And too often, when he does comment on textual issues, it is merely to dismiss peremptorily the ideas of others.

To say this, however, is not to diminish the genuine contributions made by H. This is indeed the first commentary on Fronto, and as such it was necessary for H. to do a huge amount of basic work. As he says in the introduction, his main goal is to explain Fronto from Fronto, and he does that, in great detail. He has long notes on chronology; on the identification of persons and events or texts referred to; on legal issues; and, above all, on matters of language and rhetoric. He is scrupulous in documenting, for instance, Fronto's use of tenses and moods and of various introductory and inferential particles; he lists all the passages where given words or constructions occur and discusses in detail such matters as the different uses of the future perfect or perfect subjunctive in Fronto. For all significant issues (e.g. chronology, or the legal issue in the case of the excerpted speech transcribed by Marcus at 10.14-13.9) he gives copious bibliography. On linguistic matters he generally cites the standard grammars and lexica, taking perhaps excessive pleasure in correcting trivial errors in TLL. In terms of the basic exegesis of Fronto's words and the content of his letters, H.'s book is immensely valuable and very welcome.

Despite one's gratitude for what H. has achieved, however, this massive volume arouses considerable reservations. One cannot help feeling that a commentary on such a strange writer and such a difficult text should do more than cite copious linguistic and rhetorical parallels from Fronto himself, or give large doxographies of scholarly opinion. In far too many places H. does not really explain the text, and in some cases, his interpretations leave a great deal to be desired. In the first place, an author as allusive as Fronto needs to be explained with careful and precise references to the texts he uses, and, while H. does generally tell us that a given word or phrase occurs in archaic texts, he often simply gives names of authors rather than citations, and at times he omits crucial references. Thus, in referring to a possible allusion to an epigram of Catulus at 2.6-7, H. quotes Usener as saying that it would have been drawn from an anthology rather than from Catulus himself. Without context, that comment is pointless; but in fact the existence of such an anthology in the second century CE is almost guaranteed by the references to the same group of second-century BCE epigrammatists (including Catulus) in the same order by both Gellius (19.9.10) and Apuleius (Apol. 9). On Fronto's preference (57.16) for insperata atque inopinata uerba, he gives a set of citations from Fronto and one from Quintilian, but fails to mention Caesar's famous instruction to avoid unfamiliar words 'like a reef': "tamquam scopulum, sic fugias inauditum atque insolens uerbum." That might not be relevant, were the sentence not quoted by Fronto's contemporary Gellius (1.10.4) and were the contrast between the two views of language not central to the archaist debate of the second century. And at 145.20, where Fronto describes Sallust's phrase manu ventre pene as 'parum pudicum', H.'s sole comment on the phrase is to cite the same alliteration from Plautus and Valerius Maximus, omitting what is in fact the only important parallel (for both sound and content), Catullus 16.3-4 'qui me ex uersiculis meis putastis, / quod sunt molliculi, parum pudicum.'

The comment on "the same alliteration" cited above, moreover, is unfortunately typical of H.'s method. Over and over, one finds pointless parallels of this sort to sound patterns or rhetorical figures, with almost no consideration of sense or context. When he comments on some of the most overblown pieces of Fronto's affected style, H. simply lists the rhetorical figures to be found in the passage. And to be told over and over again that a phrase is alliterative (e.g. 235.26ff. "Providentia--provisum: etymological pun"; 236.8 "Providentia prospicit: alliterating pun") is a waste of space. One has the sense that H. (like Fronto himself?) is less interested in sense than in sounds and words.

But Fronto does, at least at times, make sense, and far too often H. is of no help at all in piecing together that sense, telling us where words come from rather than what Fronto means. Thus, at 3.20ff., Fronto expresses amazement at Marcus' love for him, and asks what he could have done to deserve it. Caput suum pro te ... devovit? he asks; and H. says simply that "caput (de)vovere is a religious term" -- not what it means or its importance in, above all, the story of the devotio of the Decii. Succidaneum se pro uestris periculis subdidit? Fronto continues; and H. tells us simply that succidaneum, meaning 'substitute' was an archaic sacral and legal term of unclear meaning -- but the point is that a hostia succidanea was a substitute sacrifice when the first offering had in some way failed. H. cites all the apposite references, but does not make clear that Gellius gives a lengthy discussion (4.6) of disputes over the word's meaning, or that Apuleius (8.26) is making a religious joke (as Fronto is here) in referring to an asinus succidaneus. H. prefers explaining facts to explaining language: when Marcus refers to his lucubratiunculae (6.1) we get a long note on why the early sunrise at Rome in the summer made such use of oil-lamps generally unnecessary. His explanation of Marcus' reference to hoc diuturno Ulixi labyrintho a few lines later (6.8-9) expresses puzzlement, and takes the labyrinth as a metaphor: "the maze with its endlessly and aimlessly strolling visitors, for Marcus did not like the seashore." The suggestions of the scholars whom he cites (disapprovingly) that this is likely to be an allusion to Odysseus in the underworld are far more probable than H.'s own reading -- which is, however, of a piece with his question, when Marcus says that he will take suitable examples (for a declamation against sleep) from Ulysses, "Did Marcus consult a lexicon Homericum?"

H. repeatedly draws false conclusions about events or texts based on his own pedantic readings of a very fanciful author (i.e. his idea that Fronto "made a special study of poetical prooemia" [on 7.19] is nonsense). At the same time, he uses his excessive faith in an extraordinarily fragile text to draw completely unwarranted conclusions. His discussion of the identification (and legal issues) of Fronto's speech at 10.14ff. is based largely on Hauler's reading reus publicanus at 12.9. That is, as H. says, a very uncertain reading; and indeed his own apparatus reveals that Hauler at various times also thought he could read the same obscure letters as pius publicanus or Piso Gallicanus or remota alto anus. More damaging is his belief not only that the Gellius referred to at Ad amicos 1.19 (182.4ff.) is Aulus Gellius (as some other scholars believe), but that the letter refers to Gellius' portrayals of Fronto in the Noctes Atticae. H. can find no other suitable Gellius (although Marshall and Baldwin argued that it was L. Gellius Menander), but that is surely not compelling evidence. More important is that the letter is very obscure; it suggests that this Gellius was seeking to publish Fronto's letters, and very clearly has nothing to do with the conversations of Fronto that Gellius records (or invents) in NA. H.'s explanation is pure fiction: "What Fronto fears is that Gellius' report of the learned conversations would do no justice to his linguistic expositions." I see nothing in the letter that would lead to that conclusion.

It is also unfortunately the case that H.'s commentary has too many errors in it. Some of them are simply typographical, but there are a great many of those, including all too many where the lemma of the commentary disagrees with his printed text. (As this is not a review of the text, I will say nothing about the many places where I think his choice of reading wrong.) And although H. is very fond of pointing out often minor errors in the translations of others, he too is capable of serious misinterpretations. In talking about the individual linguistic strengths of various writers, Fronto singles out Lucilius "in cuiusque artis ac negotii propriis" (57.3). This does not mean "the peculiarities of everyone's line of business" as H. suggests, but "in the technical language (terms of art) of every occupation." In his brilliant demolition of Seneca's incessant variations on the same themes, Fronto says "dicendum est de fortuna aliquid: omnis ibi Fortunas Antiatis, Praenestinas...reperias" (155.1-3). H. translates the first clause as "I can add that the same is the case with Fortuna" (i.e. that Fortuna is always Fortuna, whatever her title or attributes); what it means is "If his subject is luck" (then he trots out every Fortuna ever known and rings endless changes on the same theme).

In many respects, therefore, this commentary is disappointing. It is extremely useful within limits -- but those limits are extremely narrow. Fronto is, in his own way, an extraordinary writer. H. remarks at one point (p.29, on 10.14ff.) that it is typical of Fronto to use similes as arguments. That is absolutely true; and if H. had made use of his own observation more consistently, this would be a far better commentary. As it is, the reader gets remarkably little sense of Fronto's amazing linguistic virtuosity, his almost sensual pleasure in the sounds of words, his pyrotechnic displays of verbal agility. In the letter to Marcus known as De orationibus, Fronto criticizes the emperor, apparently, for having quoted or made use of Seneca, the author whom above all Fronto loathes for his tinny triviality. He launches into an attack on both Seneca and Lucan that is a string of recherche archaic abuse and all too vivid images. He compares Seneca to a dinner-guest who tosses olives in the air and catches them in his mouth; and then immediately, to dismiss the idea that the few worthwhile ideas in Seneca make him worth reading: "sometimes there are strips of silver found in the sewers: but is that any reason to bid on the contract for cleaning the sewers?" (154.12-13) H. explains the words and the syntax; he points out that Fronto's sewer image is a variation on the proverbial aurum in luto quaerere; he discusses the orthography of cloaca / cluaca; but nowhere in his discussion of a very long and extraordinary passage of acute and vivid criticism does he display any appreciation for Fronto's linguistic and literary talents. Fronto may be most of the time a third-rate writer, as H. calls him; and there are large stretches of the correspondence that are eminently forgettable; but when he pulls out all the stops, he uses the Latin language as a gloriously baroque instrument and writes passages as astonishing as the best of his greater contemporary Apuleius.

In Antony and Cleopatra II 2, the prosaic and cynical soldier Enobarbus, asked to report on the first meeting between Antony and Cleopatra, suddenly produces a famous and gloriously purple description of the scene ("The barge she sat in ..."), revealing the effect of the queen on even the most unromantic souls. When I teach Latin stylistics, I give my students this speech to translate into the style of Fronto, not merely because the overblown and baroque language of Enobarbus's speech resembles Fronto's style at its most luxuriant, but because the sensuality of the speech is in many ways also reminiscent of Fronto -- except that for Fronto it is an almost erotic attachment to the Latin language itself that produces his most overpowering writing. H. thinks of Fronto not as a writer, but as "an eminent philologist" (viii), and at one of Fronto's more vivid comparisons he comments "another simile of dubious taste" (on 9.2). Fronto's taste is indeed dubious; from a classicizing point of view, in fact, it is simply awful. No matter: Fronto is not a classicist; and if he was a philologist (as he was), it was in the service of his luxuriant linguistic passions. He is, in many respects, a bad writer; but he is a great bad writer. And nowhere in H.'s large, serious, and scholarly commentary does one have any sense that Fronto is a writer capable of genius, a linguistic artist who deserves to be read (at least in parts) for the sheer exuberance of his love of words. H.'s commentary is indeed useful; but one would like to have a commentator more sympathetic to the character of his text.

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