February 17, 2010


Imagining Cicero's life offers insight into Roman history (Robert Fulford, 2/15/10, National Post)

Among the many slave owners of ancient Rome, Marcus Tullius Cicero must have been one of the luckiest. A great lawyer, orator and writer, he depended through much of his career on a superb secretary, editor, friend and personal manager who also happened to be his slave.

History can't say how Cicero became the owner of young Tiro; possibly his mother was a slave in Cicero's own household. But we know that Cicero spotted the boy's talent and had him carefully schooled in law, politics, language (Greek as well as Latin) and the functioning of a household. By the time Cicero was in middle age, Tiro's sympathetic intelligence was a major element in running his owner's life.

Was ever a man more loyal and useful to the man who owned him? Tiro looked after Cicero's household accounts, supervised his gardeners and organized his dinner parties, learning which distinguished citizens should never be invited along with which other distinguished citizens.

Tiro negotiated with money lenders on those many occasions when Cicero was short of cash -- and later offered excuses for tardy repayment. He devised a form of shorthand so that he could take dictation as quickly as Cicero could speak. (Later called Tironian Notes, it was used in Christian monasteries for centuries.) Tiro was like an uncle to Cicero's children and Cicero, in a letter, said Tiro was more friend than slave. Most important, he edited his master's books and speeches with such skill that Cicero said he didn't like to have anyone else read his work till Tiro had vetted it.

After Cicero's death, Tiro wrote a four-volume biography of his master. It was lost, along with most Roman literature; only the bits quoted by other writers survive. But in recent years Robert Harris, an accomplished British storyteller, has been constructing a trilogy on Cicero's life, written as if in Tiro's words. It's a deft, witty replacement for the vanished text that, had it endured, might well be a precious account of Roman life. [...]

The fictionalized Tiro writes as an admirer of Cicero's oratory and his ethical view of public life. But he's not blind to his master's faults. He tells us that Cicero became a bore after his triumph over the plotters, painfully eager to tell everyone he knew about his own cleverness. Much worse, Harris has Tiro discover that when sufficiently committed to a policy, Cicero violates his own morals and the laws against forgery and false testimony.

And Tiro? We know that he received his freedom from Cicero. Like many ex-slaves, he continued to work with for his former master. He saved enough money to buy a small farm and some degree of independence. After Cicero's death he devoted much of his life to burnishing his employer's reputation. He outlived just about every Roman he knew during the desperate years that Lustrum describes. According to one account, he died at the age of 99. No doubt Robert Harris's third volume, a year or two from now, will have a great deal to tell us about all that.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 17, 2010 6:32 PM
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