There is the economy of a body of writing and there are the debts and impositions behind its production; then, there are the protocols of friendship and correspondence. The social, interpersonal, personal political dynamics of gift-giving between patronage and politesse theorized since Mauss (notably by such as Bourdieu and Strathern) have by now framed a shelf’s worth of incisive exposition of Roman letters, some of the most gripping modern scholarship between Latin and Rome, literature and cultural history.1 Sorting out the langue of epistolarity starts with the (defensive) point that it’s not necessarily cynical, let alone damning, to attend to the dimensions of self-interest, self-promotion, and exploitation that are in play in any mail; then the familiar feedback bind needs declaration, that said langue /institution is only constru(ct)able through instances of parole /praxis, none of them transparent read-offs that correspond with any given scheme, and/or from schemata bidding to direct production and (like our own incursions) interpretation. In a myriad ways, letters have always seen us coming. The first half of her Penn thesis-book Amanda Wilcox devotes to the tease and tangle of Cicero’s Ad Fam, blending high-yield general issues with alert up-close specific analysis. Her strategy is to address four well-designed chapters to the topics of ‘Euphemism’, ‘Consolation’, ‘Recommendation’ and — less perspicuous from the title ‘Absence and Increase’ (chapter 3) — motifs that stress ‘missing you, this much’.
Letters invest heavily in denial that they are chiselling, usually by massaging what’s wanted into some soft-soaping version of yours sincerely worthiness shared between sender and receiver. Through smoke-signals of embarrassment, assumed-paraded-overdone-gauche … or whathaveyou, ‘masterstrokes’ and/as ‘fumbles’ (p.25) smarm or sidle towards incorporation in family or cause and, the ultimate, not two participants, but one outlook. Missives come along with and as gifts, they figure as — animate, personify — mediators; and they bring urbanity, sport self-deprecation, and, self-loaded with panache, sinuous or brash, play the game of humility, even by breaking its rules (chapter 1). By contrast full-on consolation stages a ding-dong ‘competition’, challenging, gazumping, duelling, swarming past what’s missing, who’s missed. Grabbing attention, saying what’s what, what’s expected. Not mincing words, where we would; or else emoting all-in, where we would not (chapter 2). Gift-(w)rapping letters next: these vault distance, they bottle and package, would convey and stimulate affect (chapter 3). Letters (esp. of reference) literally or letterally accompanying people or objects have to cope with the intruded gooseberry, and so they do, by promoting their (own) practised artistry in pen portraiture (chapter 4).
These essays familiarize us with Cicero, for sure, esp. in his Tullia episode and through his grief for Libertas, but let us in close-up and canny to the likes of Appius Claudius, M. Marcellus, Trebatius, Messalla, Brutus, Torquatus, Trebonius, and the pattern-setting Lentulus, plus the gaggle of clients. Wilcox picks apt series of interactive examples, documents one-offs as well as formulae, and pares down this her book’s first half into a lean and effective introduction to — and recommendation for — Ad Fam that any reader, wet or gnarled, will get, and think with to advantage.
But in truth Cicero is foil to the main thrust of the book, which arrives in the bombshell of ‘Part 2’. This, ‘Seneca. Commercium Epistularum : the gift refigured’, pp.97-174, traces out a compelling synoptic profile of the whole corpus of EM as reactive exploitation and upchuck of Ad Fam along with much that it stands for. In the same deftly compact style as before, but in very different modality, Wilcox succeeds in nailing the relentless trashing of Roman epistolary etiquette perpetrated by Seneca’s assault-course of rough-house bruising, his brew of acid scorn for mundanity and its fatuous phatic posing. I would recommend her second four-step analysis in chapters 5 to 8 as getting into Seneca’s schetliastic maildrop as well as anything I know of in print, certainly inside Anglophonia.
Co-respondent to lip-service ace Cicero’s cheating proprieties, our gifted sermonizer transforms the world that matters ‘From Practice to Metaphor’. Humdrum reality only exists to serve up useful images for spiritual self-care, itself catachrestically cashed out as hard utility, where each succussive blast in the post amounts only to crass part-payment of permanent debt (chapter 5). Quite contrariwise, none of those oh-so-familiar dead-giveaway twittery niceties deliver on ‘friendship’, which can only be ‘rehabilitated’ through retreat from intrication in ethically compromised sociopolitical culture, plus unremitting scepticism on all motives, including this (and, now, this). Manoeuvring third parties around to mediate self-parade, conceal imposition, and sweeten exploitation, is so much pfaffing: rather, a reference letter is written so we must do better; even a supportive letter to keep up our good work is self-addressed — it tells, first, the writer to shake it up, heed each letter’s stipulation, to s. your own s. Self-ish-ness decides who to pick for a friend, the less you owe them the better, in fact they only matter so you can get closer to running yourself. Seneca to Seneca: Autocracy’s all you need (chapter 6, ‘Rehabilitating Friendship’). No half-measures now: these (inevitably parasitic, ha!) hoarse EM are the appellations they deliver because the story they spell out defictionalizes the Familiares’ shambolism. Rip down all hate: scream fractious inconsistency, devilry with convention, levelling of gurus, and, the ultimate and sole benefice, the vacuity of epistolarity, its de-signer self (chapter 7, ‘Redefining Identity: Persons, Letters, Friends’). And finally … ‘Consolation and Community’. Seneca-stylus: letters end, people end. Get used to it. Again now. And again (chapter 8). These essays feast — they scavenge! — particularly on EM 3, 18-19, 118, and the run from EM 30-63, through Books 4-6 to 7.1.
Naturally, Wilcox doesn’t do Senecan anti-writing; but then she doesn’t do Ciceronian flim-flam either. What she does have is a real gift for organizing a lucid reading.2 So: be my guest. Let her.
1. From P. L. Bowditch, Horace and the Gift Economy of Patronage (2001) through essays in M. L. Satlow, ed., The Gift in Antiquity (2013), esp. S. C. Stroup, ‘Without patronage: fetishization, representation, and the circulation of gift-texts in the Late Roman Republic’, pp.107-21; on Cicero, see esp. J. Hall, Politeness and Politics in Cicero’s Letters (2009); and for a cross-/inter-cultural angle, P. A. Rosenmeyer, ‘Epistolary epigrams in the Greek Anthology’, in M. A. Harder, R. F. Regtuit, G. C. Wakker, eds, Hellenistic Epigrams (2002), pp.137-49, esp. pp,139-42, on ‘gift letters’. For the humane relations side of things see C. Williams, Reading Roman Friendship (2012), esp. pp.218-38 on Cicero’s Letters.
2. Copy is admirably polished. (Just the blemish p.33, alterum parentum).