The name of Atticus has been mentioned more than once in the preceding chapters as a correspondent of Cicero. We have indeed more than five hundred letters addressed to him, extending over a period of almost five-and-twenty years. There are frequent intervals of silence—not a single letter, for instance, belongs to the year of the consulship, the reason being that both the correspondents were in Rome. Sometimes, especially in the later years, they follow each other very closely. The last was written about a year before Cicero's death.
Atticus was one of those rare characters who contrive to live at peace with all men. The times were troublous beyond all measure; he had wealth and position; he kept up close friendship with men who were in the very thickest of the fight; he was ever ready with his sympathy and help for those who were vanquished; and yet he contrived to arouse no enmities; and after a life-long peace, interrupted only by one or two temporary alarms, died in a good old age.
Atticus was of what we should call a gentleman's family, and belonged by inheritance to the democratic party. But he early resolved to stand aloof from politics, and took an effectual means of carrying out his purpose by taking up his residence at Athens. With characteristic prudence he transferred the greater part of his property to investments in Greece. At Athens he became exceedingly popular. He lent money at easy rates to the municipality, and made liberal distributions of corn, giving as much as a bushel and a half to every needy citizen. He spoke Greek and Latin with equal ease and eloquence; and had, we are told, an unsurpassed gift for reciting poetry. Sulla, who, for all his savagery, had a cultivated taste, was charmed with the young man, and would have taken him in his train. "I beseech you," replied Atticus, "don't take me to fight against those in whose company, but that I left Italy, I might be fighting against you." After a residence of twenty-three years he returned to Rome, in the very year of Cicero's consulship. At Rome he stood as much aloof from the turmoil of civil strife as he had stood at Athens. Office of every kind he steadily refused; he was under no obligations to any man, and therefore was not thought ungrateful by any. The partizans of Cæsar and of Pompey were content to receive help from his purse, and to see him resolutely neutral. He refused to join in a project of presenting what we should call a testimonial to the murderers of Cæsar on behalf of the order of the knights; but he did not hesitate to relieve the necessities of the most conspicuous of them with a present of between three and four thousand pounds. When Antony was outlawed he protected his family; and Antony in return secured his life and property amidst the horrors of the second Proscription.
His biographer, Cornelius Nepos, has much to say of his moderation and temperate habits of life. He had no sumptuous country-house in the suburbs or at the sea-coast, but two farm-houses. He possessed, however, what seems to have been a very fine house (perhaps we should call it "castle," for Cicero speaks of it as a place capable of defence) in Epirus. It contained among other things a gallery of statues. A love of letters was one of his chief characteristics. His guests were not entertained with the performances of hired singers, but with readings from authors of repute. He had collected, indeed, a very large library. All his slaves, down to the very meanest, were well educated, and he employed them to make copies.
Atticus married somewhat late in life. His only daughter was the first wife of Agrippa, the minister of Augustus, and his granddaughter was married to Tiberius. Both of these ladies were divorced to make room for a consort of higher rank, who, curiously enough, was in both cases Julia, the infamous daughter of Augustus. Both, we may well believe, were regretted by their husbands.
Atticus died at the age of seventy-seven. He was afflicted with a disease which he believed to be incurable, and shortened his days by voluntary starvation.
It was this correspondent, then, that Cicero confided for about a quarter of a century his cares and his wants. The two had been schoolfellows, and had probably renewed their acquaintance when Cicero visited Greece in search of health. Afterwards there came to be a family connection between them, Atticus' sister, Pomponia, marrying Cicero's younger brother, Quintus, not much, we gather from the letters, to the happiness of either of them. Cicero could not have had a better confidant. He was full of sympathy, and ready with his help; and he was at the same time sagacious and prudent in no common degree, an excellent man of business, and, thanks to the admirable coolness which enabled him to stand outside the turmoil of politics, an equally excellent adviser in politics.
One frequent subject of Cicero's letters to his friend is money. I may perhaps express the relation between the two by saying that Atticus was Cicero's banker, though the phrase must not be taken too literally. He did not habitually receive and pay money on Cicero's account, but he did so on occasions; and he was constantly in the habit of making advances, though probably without interest, when temporary embarrassments, not infrequent, as we may gather from the letters, called for them. Atticus was himself a wealthy man. Like his contemporaries generally, he made an income by money-lending, and possibly, for the point is not quite clear, by letting out gladiators for hire. His biographer happens to give us the precise figure of his property. His words do not indeed expressly state whether the sum that he mentions means capital or income. I am inclined to think that it is the latter. If this be so, he had in early life an income of something less than eighteen thousand pounds, and afterwards nearly ninety thousand pounds.
I may take this occasion to say something about Cicero's property, a matter which is, in its way, a rather perplexing question. In the case of a famous advocate among ourselves there would be no difficulty in understanding that he should have acquired a great fortune. But the Roman law strictly forbade an advocate to receive any payment from his clients. The practice of old times, when the great noble pleaded for the life or property of his humbler defendants, and was repaid by their attachment and support, still existed in theory. It exists indeed to this day, and accounts for the fact that a barrister among ourselves has no legal means of recovering his fees. But a practice of paying counsel had begun to grow up. Some of Cicero's contemporaries certainly received a large remuneration for their services. Cicero himself always claims to have kept his hands clean in this respect, and as his enemies never brought any charge of this kind against him, his statement may very well be accepted. We have, then, to look for other sources of income. His patrimony was considerable. It included, as we have seen, an estate at Arpinum and a house in Rome. And then he had numerous legacies. This is a source of income which is almost strange to our modern ways of acting and thinking. It seldom happens among us that a man of property leaves anything outside the circle of his family. Sometimes an intimate friend will receive a legacy. But instances of money bequeathed to a statesman in recognition of his services, or a literary man in recognition of his eminence, are exceedingly rare. In Rome they were very common. Cicero declares, giving it as a proof of the way in which he had been appreciated by his fellow-citizens, that he had received two hundred thousand pounds in legacies. This was in the last year of his life. This does something to help us out of our difficulty. Only we must remember that it could hardly have been till somewhat late in his career that these recognitions of his services to the State and to his friends began to fall in. He made about twenty thousand pounds out of his year's government of his province, but it is probable that this money was lost. Then, again, he was elected into the College of Augurs (this was in his fifty-fourth year). These religious colleges were very rich. Their banquets were proverbial for their splendour. Whether the individual members derived any benefit from their revenues we do not know. We often find him complaining of debt; but he always speaks of it as a temporary inconvenience rather than as a permanent burden. It does not oppress him; he can always find spirits enough to laugh at it. When he buys his great town mansion on the Palatine Hill (it had belonged to the wealthy Crassus), for thirty thousand pounds, he says, "I now owe so much that I should be glad to conspire if anybody would accept me as an accomplice." But this is not the way in which a man who did not see his way out of his difficulties would speak.
Domestic affairs furnish a frequent topic. He gives accounts of the health of his wife; he announces the birth of his children. In after years he sends the news when his daughter is betrothed and when she is married, and tells of the doings and prospects of his son. He has also a good deal to say about his brother's household, which, as I have said before, was not very happy. Here is a scene of their domestic life. "When I reached Arpinum, my brother came to me. First we had much talk about you; afterwards we came to the subject which you and I had discussed at Tusculum. I never saw anything so gentle, so kind as my brother was in speaking of your sister. If there had been any ground for their disagreement, there was nothing to notice. So much for that day. On the morrow we left for Arpinum. Quintus had to remain in the Retreat; I was going to stay at Aquinum. Still we lunched at the Retreat (you know the place). When we arrived Quintus said in the politest way, 'Pomponia, ask the ladies in; I will call the gentlemen.' Nothing could—so at least I thought—have been more pleasantly said, not only as far as words go, but in tone and look. However, she answered before us all, 'I am myself but a stranger here.' This, I fancy, was because Statius had gone on in advance to see after the lunch. 'See,' said Quintus, 'this is what I have to put up with every day.' Perhaps you will say, 'What was there in this?' It was really serious, so serious as to disturb me much, so unreasonably, so angrily did she speak and look. I did not show it, but I was greatly vexed. We all sat down to table, all, that is, but her. However, Quintus sent her something from the table. She refused it. Not to make a long story of it, no one could have been more gentle than my brother, and no one more exasperating than your sister—in my judgment at least, and I pass by many other things which offended me more than they did Quintus. I went on to Aquinum." (The lady's behaviour was all the more blameworthy because her husband was on his way to a remote province.) "Quintus remained at the Retreat. The next day he joined me at Arpinum. Your sister, he told me, would have nothing to do with him, and up to the moment of her departure was just in the same mood in which I had seen her."
Another specimen of letters touching on a more agreeable topic may interest my readers. It is a hearty invitation.
"To my delight, Cincius" (he was Atticus' agent) "came to me between daylight on January 30th, with the news that you were in Italy. He was sending, he said, messengers to you. I did not like them to go without a letter from me, not that I had anything to write to you, especially when you were so close, but that I wished you to understand with what delight I anticipate your coming. . . . The day you arrive come to my house with all your party. You will find that Tyrannio" (a Greek man of letters) "has arranged my books marvellously well. What remains of them is much more satisfactory than I thought. I should be glad if you would send me two of our library clerks, for Tullius to employ as binders and helpers in general; give some orders too to take some parchment for indices. All this, however, if it suits your convenience. Anyhow, come yourself and bring Pilia with you. This is but right, Tullia too wishes it."