BMCR 2007.04.48

Lectures de Fronton: Un rhéteur latin à l’époque de la Seconde Sophistique

, Lectures de Fronton: Un rhéteur latin à l'époque de la Seconde Sophistique. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2006. ix, 375. €45.00.

Pascale Fleury, of the Université Laval, Québec, who has translated Fronto’s letters into French,1 has now added to her distinguished articles on his work a full-length study devoted above all to the literary genres in which he wrote, and addressed to readers who need Latin and Greek quotations translated as a back-up in the footnotes, but know that a scholar writing in 1950 would not find Calamis in any current text of Ad Anton. Imp. 3. 1. 2 (p. 179 n. 50). It is an extremely valuable account of the writer that may be commended to all students of his oeuvre; as a study of the man it would be disappointing were it so intended.

In her ‘Introduction’, Fleury records the basic facts about Fronto’s life and work;2 she notes the difficulty of extracting ‘la pensée de Fronton’ from letters that are real letters, not epistolary treatises. Having explained her intention of complementing for Latin literatue studies made of the transformation of Greek genres in the Second Sophistic, she then confronts the problem of defining genre, which she does on Cairnsian lines (less fashionable than they were), deciding that the letter is not a genre, but a framework of genres such as the letter of commendation or consolation. As the book progresses, the rebellious spirit may suggest that her unwitting achievement is to have demonstrated the futility of over-anxious classification. If it walks like a duck and honks like a goose and swims like a fish, why call it any of them?

Indeed, the survey of ancient epistolography in theory and practice that begins her chapter on ‘Le cadre épistolaire et ses impondérables’ makes it abundantly clear that letters were whatever the writer wished to make of them, from mode of instruction to social rite; Fronto made those addressed to his pupils—in fact we have none to L. Aelius Aurelius Commodus before he became the emperor Verus—models both of letter-writing and of style, at the same time expecting their replies to meet his standards (p. 23). There are well-observed comments on other features of Fronto’s letters, especially as compared with those of other Roman writers as well of free-range prose. However, one problem, perhaps because it strays beyond the literary, is inadequately handled.

The great majority of Fronto’s letters, including those written to Marcus and Verus as Augusti, are tokens of friendship; according to Fleury (p. 25), it cannot be determined whether the affective expressions, found also in the letters Ad amicos, are mere tributes to convention or spring from genuine feelings, but in view of Marcus’ praise in Meditations 1. 11, she would like to think they are not totally artificial, supporting her position with an article published in 1877 (neither my misprint nor hers). To be sure, expressions of amor and the like are commonplace in letters between persons who felt no real warmth for each other,3 and in Fronto’s correspondence they have been taken as masks for strains and embarrassments,4 but the letters exchanged with M. Caesar before accession seem excessive even by ancient standards, for example when Fronto praises Marcus’ kiss at Ad M. Caes. 3. 14. 3,5 a compliment that Cicero does not find it necessary to bestow even on Atticus. Fleury sees in such passages ludic extravaganzas in the rhetoric of love; no doubt they are, but what does it mean that they are peculiar to these letters? If they simply reflected Fronto’s fanciful style or his φιλόστοργος character, we should find them in his correspondence at large.

Fronto’s letters to the young Marcus were intended for the Caesar’s eyes only; it is evident from his replies that that is how he wished, or at least was willing, to be addressed by his magister. This goes beyond what one expects of teacher and pupil; if they were not ἐραστής and ἐρώμενος,6 they were playing at so being, which itself would be worth an inquiry. Fleury may consider that this question, not being literary, is not hers to answer; but it is a literary observation—the unprecedent warmth and physicality of Fronto’s expressions—that has caused it to be asked.7 The human and the literary are not mutual exclusives; they are different dimensions of the same reality.

There follows an excellent discussion of ‘L’image: procédé épistolaire et outil frontonien’, on the εἰκών or imago, the extended simile, analysing various specimens and noting how tendentiously the details may be selected; at Ad M. Caes. 2. 3. 4 Fronto has to pull himself up sharp on the edge of an inauspicious comparison. She also remarks on the almost total absence of theorizing about metaphor; here she rejects (p. 43) van den Hout’s unnatural punctuation at Ad M. Caes. 4. 3. 7, but fails to see that the objectionable translatio is not the entire clause interuallis uestis aestum ut suspendi diceres but the specific phrase aestum suspendi, in which Fronto finds a mismatch between subject and predicate.

Fleury now turns to ‘Un genre épistolaire: l’exemple de la consolation’, distinguishing the philosophical type, aimed at invalidating grief by argument, from the emotive type, aimed at curing grief by sharing it; in Fronto she finds them respectively exemplified (despite both letters’ fragmentary state) by Ad M. Caes. 2. 1 to Herodes Atticus and Ad amic. 1. 22 to Sardius Saturninus. More interesting is her discussion of Nep. am. 2, in which Fronto rejects the conventional themes of consolation before seeking refuge in the contemplation of his own virtue. Fleury argues, against Ramírez de Verger, that the letter, in view of its content, is not modelled on the standard consolatio, but is not the latter its antimodel, its repoussoir ? The place of the philosophical commonplaces that Cicero had addressed to himself is taken by Fronto’s rejection of them; praise of the deceased being impossible for a child he had not actually seen, he falls back on himself. The relevance (which Fleury also denies) of Quintilian’s preface to Inst. 6 is more doubtful, since Fronto had no great work to finish for the common good; but perhaps it precluded the theme (which Cicero may have used)8 of losing himself in literary labours.

The longest chapter (pp. 101-70) is ‘De la pratique oratoire: conceptions de l’orateur agissant’, covering not only Fronto’s precepts for speeches but letters with a persuasive function, including commendaticiae but also those concerned to argue a case of public concern. Fleury returns to the distinction between the aulos9 and the trumpet, on which she has written before at Phoenix, 55 (2001), 109-15. Her discussion assumes that Fronto has a coherent understanding of the difference, to which all his partial expressions may be related: thus at Ad M. Caes.‘omnes autem mugiunt vel stridunt potius’, said of the early orators other than Cato and Gracchus, the implication of mugire is the same as that of mugitus at De eloq. 4. 4 ‘Ennium deinde et Accium et Lucretium ampliore iam mugitu personantis tamen tolerant’ many years later, even though here it seems to be a sound of middling loudness, there an unmusical noise parallel to stridere suggesting rather the result of an unskilful effort at playing the trumpet. In any case, beside the trumpet of the elevated style there is also the thunder appropriate to the emperor; as Fleury shows, Fronto is not a slave to consistency in his exposition (p. 128). Next come letters in which Fronto exercises his suasion on judges or even emperors; again the discussion is valuable, though more concerned with the relation between Fronto’s letters and epistolographic theory than with their Sitz im Leben. It emerges, unsurprisingly, that he conforms to the schoolmasters’ rules when they suit him and sets them aside when they do not, being a master of styles and of tactics, capable of finding any philosophical or other argument that suits his purpose. Like other commentators, Fleury is perhaps too quick to call the moral principles that Fronto delights in enunciating his own; the high view of friendship expounded in Ad Anton. Pium 3—his self-defence for accepting Censorius Niger’s inheritance—distracts attention from the cunning whereby Fronto paints Antoninus Pius into the corner of letting him keep the money, for when he anticipates the objection (section 4) that he ought to have broken off his friendship with a man who had lost imperial favour, what else could a Good Emperor do but repudiate any such suggestion? Would Fronto have held to this high view had the inheritance been a mountain of debts? Likewise, are we to credit him with an individual conception of justice (p. 168), rather than ability to exploit current ideas? More valuable is the closing suggestion (p. 170) that for Fronto the division of oratory into genres and styles ran not between speeches but within them, between their parts.

In ‘Utilisation de l’histoire: topique conservatrice et genre hybride’ Fleury considers Fronto’s writings on the Parthian War. Rightly repudiating the moralistic desire to see Fronto refuse the role of flatterer, as if recusatio —itself no more than a device to praise the emperor by declaring him above the author’s skill to praise10—were credible in the face of the promise given at Princ. hist. 2, she finds instead, in Ad. Anton. Imp. 3. 1. 2 and De eloq. 1. 1-2 a reluctance to embark on a genre he had not practised; but in the former passage the subject is Marcus (‘faceres’)11, in the latter we have Fronto’s apologia for a style about which Marcus has become priggish; whether it has anything to do with a request to write history may be doubted, though at Ad Ver. 2. 15 Fronto maintains that history should be written in the brilliant style ( splendide), a term Fleury explicates at length. A nuanced discussion of De bello Parthico leaves no doubt that this is not a work of history for all its historical exempla; the Principia historiae is aptly described as ‘un texte laudatif aux fondements historiographiques’ (p. 212), though Fleury strangely finds it overbold to speak of propaganda (p. 218).12

Nuanced too is the discussion in ‘Paradoxe et persuasion: limites et utilisation de l’éloge sophistique’ of encomia for ἄδοξοι ὑποθέσεις, arguing that they are not always without persuasive intent. There follows a study of Fronto’s Laudes fumi et pulveris, the Laudes neglegentiae, and De feriis Alsiensibus 3, which clearly resembles the other two even if Sleep, being a god, can hardly be ἄδοξος; Fleury reasonably sees in these works an attempt to combat Marcus’ addiction to a philosophy that Fronto loathed, but as she brings in Ad M. Caes. 1. 3 and De eloq. 2 in order to elucidate ‘les valeurs des Laudes neglegentiae‘, one begins to suspect her of making his thoughts more coherent and more systematic than they were.

‘L’ éroticos : atmosphère platonicienne, processus rhétorique’ similarly begins by examining ἐρωτικοὶ λόγοι, before attempting a definition of the genre, which ‘s’enracine dans la nécessité de persuasion intrinsèque à la relation homosexuelle’ (p. 294); on that basis does Plutarch’s count? Fleury then turns to Add. ep. 8, in which she finds a concealed exaltation of his own rhetoric above the philosophy to which Marcus was so attracted; it is thus neither an attempt at seduction nor a model for imitation, but has ‘un but éthique, voire idéologique’ (p. 305).

Fleury’s case is subtly argued, and might be the whole story if the letter were as free of personal detail as the Platonic ἐρωτικώ on which it follows; but a letter from τὴν μὲν φωνὴν ὀλίγου δεῖν βαρβάρου must (despite Fleury, p. 303) speak even at the textual level for the same self-deprecating Fronto who was Λίβυς τῶν Λιβύων τῶν νομάδων at Ep. M. Caes. 2. 3. 5. The beautiful ‘you’ must therefore, even in the letter, be Marcus; and the adverse party is no generalized lover, but a rival who sends the ‘dear boy’ dirty poems and may mount him at the charge (section 8). Furthermore, Marcus will repeat Fronto’s arguments to ‘the other boys’ (section 10); is not this a recognition that he is now of an age to be the ἐραστής (or the μὴ ἐρῶν) rather than the ἐρώμενος ? And will not he recall Phaedrus 237B, where the soi-disant non-lover is a lover in disguise? The human and the literary are not so easily separated.

In her ‘Conclusion’ Fleury returns to the theme of genre, mainly as a means of demonstrating Fronto’s refusal to be confined by generic frameworks; one would be happier if one believed that ancient genre theory had ever been as uniform or as clear-cut as such claims presuppose. She also summarizes her findings, emphasizing the supreme position that Fronto accorded rhetoric, and ends with the statement that though not a sophist, he took part in the Second Sophistic. With that no-one will quarrel.

Despite the occasional doubts and quibbles expressed above, this book will be necessary reading for all students of Fronto’s writing.


1. Fronton, Correspondance. Textes traduits et commentés par P. Fleury avec la collaboration de S. Demougin (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2003).

2. On p. 4 Fronto’s consulate is dated to ‘juillet-août 142 ou 143’, even though Eck (who is cited) has shown conclusively that it was the former; Jean-Louis Ferrary in his foreword (p. VII) knows better.

3. ‘de summo meo erga te amore’, writes Cicero to App. Pulcher ( Ad fam. 3. 12. 4).

4. M. L. Astarita, Frontone oratore (Catania, 1997), 153 n. 56: ‘una manifestazione di “amore” esageratamente espressa, che come sempre maschera qualche implicazione’; at greater length Simon Swain, in Leofranc Holford-Strevens and Amiel Vardi (eds.), The Worlds of Aulus Gellius (Oxford, 2005), 19-21.

5. For Fleury, these are ‘des exclamations touchantes’ (p. 28); the Printer’s Devil evidently disagrees, for in the rhetorical question ‘quid est mihi osculo tuo suauius?'(to be punctuated so, not ‘suauius!’ with the editors), the last word appears as ‘saeuius’. There are several other misprints, especially in Greek (e.g. p. 45, l. 14 ἄψυξον for ἄψυχον), but none so amusing and few as misleading; at p. 31 n. 45 for ‘Frowd’ read ‘Frowde’, in p. 35 n. 61 run on last sentence and for ’36’ read ’50’. In the bibliography second and further works by female authors, including Fleury herself, are ungrammatically assigned to ‘Idem’.

6. Amy Richlin, Marcus Aurelius in Love (Chicago, forthcoming), maintains that before Marcus’ marriage, and the turn to philosophy, the relation was fully sexual: University of Chicago Press.

7. Catullus poses a problem at once similar and different: the disparity in tone between his love-poems and those of the Augustan elegists makes it harder for readers to accept they are mere exercises in the Glasperlenspiel; on the other hand they were not written for Lesbia or Juventius alone, even if they were real persons.

8. There is no hint in the extant fragments, but that is what he did.

9. Fleury renders tibia as ‘flûte’; but Jacques Chailley, La Musique grecque antique (Paris, 1979), 204 writes ‘aulos, instr(ument) de mus(ique) à vent et à anche ( γλωσσίς) et non pas flûte’.

10. For all the scorn heaped on Choerilus, no poet was ever cited whom Alexander would have been wiser to commission; not only Augustus, but even Domitian understood the point, for Statius could hardly have dared refuse a request for the epic that he twice affects to postpone ( Theb. 1. 18-23, Achil. 1. 14-19; cf. K. M. Coleman on Silv. 4. 4. 96-7).

11. Fleury renders ‘tu agirais’ (similarly Haines and Portalupi), which is ambiguous between faceres and facias : Fronto must be saying, not that should something be the case in the future, Marcus would behave ( facias) like Calamis, but one of three things: that, were something now the case, which it is not, Marcus would be behaving like Calamis, as he is not; or, by the Early Latin use of the imperfect subjunctive, that, had something been the case, which it was not, Marcus would have behaved like Calamis, which he did not; or, by the construction of at tu dictis, Albane, maneres, that Marcus ought to have behaved like Calamis but did not.

12. The absence of narrative is pointed up by comparison with Arion, whose purpose Fleury is unable to discern (p. 206 with n. 97). May it not be compared with the tales of Apuleius’ Florida ?