BMCR 2001.10.25

Amicizia e Potere nelle Lettere di Cicerone e nelle Elegie Ovidiane dell’Esilio

, Amicizia e Potere nelle Lettere di Cicerone e nelle Elegie Ovidiane dell'Esilio. Firenze: Università degli Studi, 2000. 405. L. 50.000.

This interesting book analyses the evolution of the treatment of friendship (in its relationship with power) between Cicero and Ovid. Citroni Marchetti’s contention is that the differences in friendship discourse between Cicero’s Letters and Ovid’s Elegies from the are not only due to the different personalities and experiences of the two authors and the differing conventions of prose and poetry letter-writing, but most importantly to the changes in Roman society that occurred in the eighty odd years between Cicero’s first letters and Ovid’s Epistulae ex Ponto. Those changes (which are essentially the changes in the relationships of power among the Roman élite) are, according to Citroni Marchetti, the main reason why, from the time of Cicero to that of Ovid, “friendship” changed as well and carry a bigger weight in determining the character of their respective epistolary works than the contrasting types of relationships those letters reflect (mainly political in the case of Cicero, exclusively private in Ovid’s).

Cicero’s Letters mirror a society that is substantially homogeneous from the point of view of power, with a system that Citroni Marchetti regards as tendentially balanced. By contrast, Ovid’s discourse on friendship situates itself at the centre of an imbalance, between an omnipotent princeps on the one hand (the ultimate addressee of all the Elegies) and the exiled poet on the other.

Such a massive shift is partially obliterated in the texts by the conventional usage of fixed literary formulas and topoi in the discourse of friendship which create an impression of continuity. Nevertheless, those formulas undergo subtle but substantial changes as well inasmuch as that they are applied to something different from their original meaning.

The first part of the work, slightly less than a third of the whole book, is dedicated to Cicero. Through an insightful analysis of some of his letters and works, Citroni Marchetti shows how letter-writing was, in the late Republic, one of the means to express one’s “will” ( voluntas) to one’s friends within a balanced system of relationships and power in which the male members of the Roman élite exercised on their world the kind of control that they regarded as belonging to them as patres familias and political men.

In this context, it is particularly fascinating to read the analysis of Cicero’s attempts in his letter-writing to accommodate the old dynamics to the new reality involved in Caesar’s acquisition of power. The fact that the will of one friend (Caesar) carries now objectively more weight than those of the others upsets the balance, although this does not lead to the end of communication but to a kind of communication of a different sort, with the insertion of a third term (Caesar) in the (traditionally binary) language of friendship that we find, ultimately, in the letters of the Younger Pliny. The final outcome, in the reality of the Roman Empire, is thus a new view of reality, in which the wills of the members of the élite, far from governing the world, are limited by the superior will of the superior friend (the Caesar), who “governs” ( regit) not only the Empire, but Pliny—and the others—as well (cf. 10. 19. 1; 10. 56).

That situation is prepared and foreshadowed in the latter part of the Augustan Age by Ovid’s Elegies from exile ( Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto), and the remaining three sections of the book deal mostly with Ovid, albeit always also in relation to Cicero. A constant search for sources, though, also leads us back in time, so that Part Two (on the precedents for Ovid’s exile) presents a lengthy analysis of the Corpus Theognideum, seen as a cumulative document of aristocratic relationships in archaic Greece and as the origin of the literary tradition on friendship within a strongly political context. The contacts suggested are sometimes direct and intentional, as in the case of the theme of Ulysses suffering in exile, which in Tr. 1. 5 Ovid combines with the other Theognidean theme of the proof of friendship ( i.e., the fact that only few real friends remain by the poet in bad fortune).

The tyrant is another theme identified in the Theognidea and then traced down to the different political contexts of Cicero’s and of Ovid’s Rome (with all the changes this entails). While being the “enemy” in the Theognidea, and hence a figure kept away from “the usual dynamics of friendship” (“nelle dinamiche usuali dell’amicizia”, p. 126), the tyrant reappears in Cicero’s Letters when he is identified with Caesar after his death. The over-powerful friend is killed and then recognised to be a tyrant, but to no avail: he remains, eternal, in the form of a god in the sky, and, on earth, in the shape of his heir who bears the same name. Caesar, the name of the tyrant, has become the name of a god and of a superior “friend”; hence, the overt presence of the tyrant is not allowed, in Ovid’s poetry.

Similarly, the “dynamism of hope” (p. 156) that Citroni Marchetti recognises in Cicero’s Letters from exile (that is to say, the fact that his hopes are linked to many different friends) yields, in Ovid’s Elegies, to a static situation in which the only hope is Caesar Augustus, whilst the Theognidean prayer to Hope the goddess ( Theogn. 1143 ff.) is replaced by Ovid’s supplication to the princeps ( Pont. 1. 6).

Part Three of the book also deals with Ovid’s literature of exile, but this time from the point of view of its intermediary function. Again, Citroni Marchetti is here looking for sources, and analyses mediation not only in Cicero, but also in Greek tragedy, viewed as a privileged place for debate on the ways to intercede for a friend with a powerful person. As in the case of the Theognidea, Citroni Marchetti here identifies direct contacts with Ovid’s Elegies, e.g. in the case of Pont. 3. 3 with the Prometheus Bound, the tragedy about the victim of an unfair power, or of Tr. 3. 3 and Pont. 1. 8 with the Phoenissae, a tragedy about exile and freedom of speech. Greek tragedy speaks, to Ovid in his confinement, of “the solitude of the exiled rebel as well as the pain of the choirs of suppliants at the altars” (“la solitudine dell’esule ribelle così come l’abbandono al dolore dei cori di supplici agli altari”, p. 253). But all the references are subtle and dissimulated: again, the presence of the Caesar inevitably affects the poet’s discourse.

Thus, the function and importance of mediation have radically changed from Cicero to Ovid, so much so that the keenness to intervene in favour of his exiled friends displayed by Cicero dramatically emphasises the absence of intermediation exhibited by Ovid’s friends. Mediation was a Roman tradition, and by practising it Cicero seeks to “obtain also for himself some residual form of authority and influence” (“ottenere lui stesso una forma residua di autorità e influenza”, p. 277). But in Ovid’s text the fear of the powerful carries a much greater weight, and the ultimate outcome of the tradition of mediation will be (as in Pont. 4. 8) supplicatio to the holder of power, as if to a god.

Finally, Section Four reflects on the implication that Ovid’s censorship of the names of his friends in the Tristia has on his discourse on friendship and regards that normally underestimated absence as of primary importance, in as much as the metus (“fear”) of the now all-powerful man (Augustus Caesar) that has caused that absence has subverted the traditional function of the poetry of friendship (see, again, the Theognidea), i.e., that of making the friend’s name eternal. Hence, “a change in the relationship between friendship and poetry” (“un cambiamento nel rapporto fra amicizia e poesia”, p. 305) has occurred.

But this is not all: it is friendship itself that requires the use of names, because real friendship—according to the ancient ideal—is an exemplary, mythical model that must be remembered. In Ovid’s Tristia, the disappearance of the name of the friends “is but the most notable sign” of a crisis of friendship “as it was known” (p. 315). Such a crisis is caused by the appearance within friendship of a third character (Augustus Caesar), as well as of the fear he inspires. Hence, doubt, uncertainty, dissimulation.

The weight of the presence of this third character is even greater in the Epistulae ex Ponto, which are not addressed anymore to (unknown) equal friends but to (known) powerful “friends” to whom the poet is inferior and who in turn receive their power from their (privileged) friendship with Caesar. “The self-portrait of the poet as a friend degenerates towards his self-depiction as a client” (“l’autoraffigurazione del poeta come amico scade a raffigurazione di sè come cliente”, p. 331), and the fear is now shifted toward the powerful addressees, whom Ovid is afraid to offend.

This work constitutes a fascinating reading for the social historian interested in Roman ideology and especially for the literary scholar, since the focus is very much on the language and representation of friendship and the changes they underwent to adapt to new social and political realities. Thus, although the historical, political and social sphere on one side and the literary and philological one on the other are not theoretically distinguished by Citroni Marchetti in her analysis (which can lead, sometimes, to some confusion), the changes in the “exterior reality” of the Roman world are largely assumed a priori, whilst the book concentrates (more interestingly, in the opinion of the reviewer) on the changes that occurred in the textual world.

One criticism of the book is that, although Citroni Marchetti starts with a lucid analysis of Cicero’s definition of amicitia as a consensus of wills and opinions between boni viri ( Lael. 15), she fails to clarify from the beginning what it is that she means when employing the word “amicizia” (“friendship”). The discussion encompasses (and swings between) such diverse and not always mutually reconcilable issues as the dynamics of amicable relationships in the political élite of ancient Rome, the ideology of friendship, its textual representation (but should we say construction?) in Cicero and Ovid, and even friendship as a universal category transcending historical and personal delimitation. This can be confusing and also perhaps lead to contradiction, as when Citroni Marchetti writes: “Through the various historical periods and the various authors that talk about it, friendship, albeit changing, is always also the same friendship” (“Attraverso i diversi periodi storici e i diversi autori che ne parlano, l’amicizia, pur trasformandosi, è sempre anche la stessa amicizia”, p. 109).

The most substantial contribution of the book is, in the opinion of the reviewer, its analysis of the representation and language in Roman (epistolary) literature of friendship viewed in its relationship with power, and with a power that shifts from belonging to the friends to being associated with a third party intrusive to the friendship. By setting Cicero’s and Ovid’s texts in dialogue with each other, Citroni Marchetti allows the differences to emerge clearly, but also shows how some of the characteristics of Ovid’s representation of friendship start to emerge, albeit less pronounced, in Cicero’s Letters.

There is some tendency to repetition (partly unavoidable), and the four main sections of the book do not always appear to be in direct dialogue with each other so that the same issues or themes are sometimes analysed more than once and the book’s central argument seems to seek to impose itself more by accumulation than progression of thought between sections. On the other hand, Citroni Marchetti’s language commends itself for clarity and readability, and her argumentation in the analysis of texts is always convincing, displaying good philological expertise, wide knowledge of both Greek and Latin literature, and insightful reasoning. The search for sources is of the best type, in which contacts and differences are always analysed for the revelation of meaning they can offer.

In discussing Cicero’s Letters and Ovid’s Elegies of exile side by side, Citroni Marchetti shows that she regards them both—despite their obvious formal and thematic differences—as part of the same epistolary category (although this assumption is not openly addressed). In this respect, she situates herself within a recent tendency, in literary scholarship, to ignore or underplay rigid formal differences between ancient texts, and the traditional approaches to those texts, in favour of an appraisal of more subtle common characteristics that allows us to set them in dialogue with each other, with fruitful results. Hence, e.g., the emphasis in recent scholarship on Cicero’s Letters as “literature” (rather than historical documents) and the increased appreciation of the “epistolarity” of many a poetic work of ancient literature. In the case of this book, the common epistolary affiliation of the texts analysed is utilised by Citroni Marchetti as a foundation of her appraisal of the evolution of the representation and language of friendship in those texts. Therefore, although that concept of common affiliation is by no means the focus of the book, it is what allows it to exist.