Does Cicero have anything to say about social distancing?
Rome’s notoriously eloquent plebeian consul secured himself a place in the history books when he foiled a coup attempt by the patrician Catiline in 63 B.C. But four years later everything looked different. Pompey, in whom Cicero had placed his hopes, decided to ally himself with Julius Caesar. Cicero thought this was disastrous — and dangerous. In the long run, he was right: before it was all over, Pompey’s head would be delivered to Caesar in a box, Caesar would wind up a bloodied mess on the senate floor, and Cicero would have his head nailed up in the Roman Forum. But Cicero’s short term answer, in 59 B.C., was simply to get away. Roman politics had become a contagious, fatal disease.
There are always going to be times when it’s best for us to keep to ourselves, and there are also going to be people who don’t quite get it. Cicero attempted to retreat to his seaside property at Formia, between Rome and Naples. He figured he could give up politics, and try his hand at writing. For that, he needed a little social distancing. Unfortunately, not everyone was on board with his plan. He instantly became Formia’s most famous citizen. He wrote to his friend Atticus with a literary update:
“About the writing, which you’re always pushing — there’s no chance. This is not a villa here — it’s a stock exchange, there are so many Formians in my house!” [“Basilicam habeo, non villam, frequentia Formianorum!”] (Ad Atticum, 2.14)
Roman social etiquette at the time required a great man — a patronus — to receive guests in the morning, who would offer him their services and ask for his protection. Cicero dutifully saw them all. But the real offenders were his two near neighbors, Arrius and Sebosus, who here make their appearance in Roman history like two eccentric neighbors out of a sit-com:
After about ten o’clock the others aren’t so bad. Gaius Arrius though — my next-door neighbor, or rather I should say my roommate! He’s canceling his trips to Rome so he can “philosophize” with me all his days! Then on the other side is Sebosus, Catulus’s friend. Where can I turn? … If anyone offered to buy this place while these clowns are here, I’d seize the opportunity!
Post horam quartam molesti ceteri non sunt. C. Arrius proximus est vicinus, immo ille quidem iam contubernalis! Qui etiam se idcirco Romam ire negat ut hic mecum totos dies philosophetur! Ecce ex altera parte Sebosus, ille Catuli familiaris. Quo me vertam? … Occasionem mirificam, si qui nunc dum hi apud me sunt emere de me fundum Formianum velit! (Ad Atticum 2.13)
In the letter Cicero wrote to Atticus the very next day, Cicero was writing about the progress of Caesar’s consulship — he couldn’t keep himself, even in his self-imposed exile, from the political news — when the comedy routine resumed:
Just as I was writing that, in comes Sebosus! I hadn’t even gotten the groan out, when ‘Hi there!’ says Arrius! This is “leaving Rome”! What people have I escaped, when I just run right into these ones!
Cum haec maxime scriberem, ecce tibi Sebosus! nondum plane ingemueram, ‘salve’ inquit Arrius. Hoc est Roma decedere! Quos ego homines effugi, cum in hos incidi! (Ad Atticum 2.14)
This is all a reminder of how social distancing really has to be a group effort: whether it’s for literary or pandemic purposes, there are times when solitude is the most productive thing you can do. Cicero says in his letters that he was trying at the time to write a work on geography. It’s strange to imagine what that would be like, and we’ll never know, because Cicero never actually got a chance to write it. And politics is the kind of thing you can’t fully escape: the following year, Cicero’s political enemy Clodius got the Roman government to confiscate Cicero’s properties and banish him from Italy. Cicero’s attempts to distance himself had led to family ruin, and he had to resume his political activities to restore his fortunes.
All of this comes from what must count as the single most remarkable thing to survive from antiquity, a collection of some nine-hundred-odd letters of Cicero and his correspondents. To have a collection of 900 of anyone’s letters from 2,000 years ago would be amazing; that it comes from someone so intimately involved in so many of the remarkable events of the time is even more amazing. And to find humanity largely unchanged since that time — well, that’s the sort of thing that really can shape the entire way you look at history. In his letters, Cicero is no marble colossus stalking statesmanlike through history. They shocked Petrarch, who discovered them. The letters are full of talk about family troubles, annoying neighbors, promotions, real estate deals, and a whole host of other quotidian things people talk about today.
And if you feel you’re having trouble with social distancing, you have a companion in Cicero. He puts a brave face on it, but when he writes from Anzio — another place where he tried to get away and get some writing done — you can feel the boredom and listlessness he felt when he contemplated his more solitary life:
In an earlier letter I promised you I’d compose something during this retreat. Now I can’t confirm anything. I’ve so embraced my idleness that I can’t be torn out of it. And so I take pleasure in books — of which I have a party-sized supply here — or I count the waves, because the weather’s been no good for fishing. My soul absolutely recoils from writing.
Quod tibi superioribus litteris promiseram, fore ut opus exstaret huius peregrinationis, nihil iam magno opere confirmo; sic enim sum complexus otium ut ab eo divelli non queam. itaque aut libris me delecto, quorum habeo Anti festivam copiam, aut fluctus numero (nam ad lacertas captandas tempestates non sunt idoneae); a scribendo prorsus abhorret animus. (Ad Atticum, 2.6)
A word on the text there: ad lacertas captandas tempestates non sunt idoneae appears to say “the weather’s no good for catching lizards [lacertas].” Lacerta does mean lizard, but it also means some kind of fish — many words for animals are recycled as words for types of fish in Latin. We’re pretty sure it means fish here, but it’s gloriously silly to think of Cicero waiting for the best weather for catching lizards. Who knows? Maybe ancient Roman men were agog to catch lizards the way modern American men can catch the fishing bug.
Social distancing may not always feel good. But at times it’s necessary. Even if you go through periods of listlessness and uncertainty, give your neighbors a little space. Get yourself a festiva copia — Cicero’s marvelous phrase for a party-sized supply — of good books. Maybe even read some of Cicero’s letters, in the delightful Loeb edition by Shackleton Bailey. And whatever you do, don’t be 2020’s Arrius and Sebosus, the annoying sitcom neighbors who just can’t keep their distance.
John Byron Kuhner is the former president of the North American Institute of Living Latin Studies (SALVI), and editor of In Medias Res.