Cicero on Friendship

Related Links in the GSR:
Related Links:

Source: Introduction to Cicero De Amicitia (On Friendship) and Scipio’s Dream, translated with an Introduction and Notes by Andrew P. Peabody (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1887).



TheDe Amicitia, inscribed, like the De Senectute, to Atticus, was probably written early in the year 44 b. c., during Cicero’s retirement, after the death of Julius Caesar and before the conflict with Antony. The subject had been a favorite one with Greek philosophers, from whom Cicero always borrowed largely, or rather, whose materials he made fairly his own by the skill, richness, and beauty of his elaboration. Some passages of this treatise were evidently suggested by Plato; and Aulus Gellius says that Cicero made no little use of a now lost essay of Theophrastus on Friendship.

In this work I am especially impressed by Cicero’s dramatic power. But for the mediocrity of his poetic genius, he might have won pre-eminent honor from the Muse of Tragedy. He here so thoroughly enters into the feelings of Laelius with reference to Scipio’s death, that as we read we forget that it is not Laelius himself who is speaking. We find ourselves in close sympathy with him, as if he were telling us the story of his bereavement, giving utterance to his manly fortitude and resignation, and portraying his friend’s virtues from the unfading image phototyped on his own loving memory. In other matters, too, Cicero goes back to the time of Laelius, and assumes his point of view, assigning to him just the degree of foresight which he probably possessed, and making not the slightest reference to the very different aspect in which he himself had learned to regard and was wont to represent the personages and events of that earlier period. Thus, while Cicero traced the downfall of the republic to changes in the body politic that had taken place or were imminent and inevitable when Scipio died, he makes Laelius perceive only a slight though threatening deflection from what had been in the earlier time.1 So too, though Cicero was annoyed more than by almost any other characteristic of his age by the prevalence of the Epicurean philosophy, and ascribed to it in a very large degree the demoralization of men in public life, with Laelius the doctrines of this school are represented, as they must have been in fact, as new and unfamiliar. In fine, Laelius is here made to say not a word which he, being the man that he was, and at the date assumed for this dialogue, might not have said himself; and it may be doubted whether a report of one of his actual conversations would have seemed more truly genuine.

This is a rare gift, often sought indeed, yet sought in vain, not only by dramatists, who have very seldom attained it, but by authors of a very great diversity of type and culture. One who undertakes to personate a character belonging to an age not his own hardly ever fails of manifest anachronisms. The author finds it utterly impossible to fit the antique mask so closely as not now and then to show through its chinks his own more modern features; while this form of internal evidence never fails to betray an intended forgery, however skilfully wrought. On the other hand, there is no surer proof of the genuineness of a work purporting to be of an earlier, but alleged to be of a later origin, than the absence of all tokens of a time subsequent to the earliest date claimed for it.1

In connection with this work it should be borne in mind that the special duties of friendship constituted an essential department of ethics in the ancient world, and that the relation of friend to friend was regarded as on the same plane with that of brother to brother. No treatise on morals would have been thought complete, had this subject been omitted. Not a few modern writers have attempted the formal treatment of friendship; but while the relation of kindred minds and souls has lost none of its sacredness and value, the establishment of a code of rules for it ignores, on the one hand, the spontaneity of this relation, and, on the other hand, its entire amenableness to the laws and principles that should restrict and govern all human intercourse and conduct.

Shaftesbury, in his “Characteristics,” in his exquisite vein of irony, sneers at Christianity for taking no cognizance of friendship either in its precepts or in its promises. Jeremy Taylor, however, speaks of this feature of Christianity as among the manifest tokens of its divine origin; and Soame Jenyns takes the same ground in a treatise expressly designed to meet the objections and cavils of Shaftesbury and other deistical writers of his time. These authors are all in the right, and all in the wrong, as to the matter of fact. There is no reason why Christianity should prescribe friendship, which is a privilege, not a duty, or should essay to regulate it; for its only ethical rule of strict obligation is the negative rule, which would lay out for it a track that shall never interfere with any positive duty selfward, manward, or Godward. But in the life of the Founder of Christianity, who teaches, most of all, by example, friendship has its apogee, — its supreme pre-eminence and honor. He treats his apostles, and speaks of and to them, not as mere disciples, but as intimate and dearly beloved friends; among these there are three with whom he stands in peculiarly near relations; and one of the three was singled out by him in dying for the most sacred charge that he left on the earth; while at the same time that disciple shows in his Gospel that he had obtained an inside view, so to speak, of his Master’s spiritual life and of the profounder sense of his teachings, which is distinguished by contrast rather than by comparison from the more superficial narratives of the other evangelists.

But Christianity has done even more than this for friendship. It has superseded its name by fulfilling its offices to a degree of perfectness which had never entered into the ante-Christian mind. Man shrinks from solitude. He feels inadequate to bear the burdens, meet the trials, and wage the conflicts of this mortal life, alone. Orestes always needed and craved a Pylades, but often failed to find one. This inevitable yearning, when it met no human response, found still less to satisfy it in the objects of worship. Its gods, though in great part deified men, could not be relied on for sympathy, support, or help. The stronger spirits did not believe in them; the feebler looked upon them only with awe and dread. But Christianity, in its anthropomorphism, which is its strongest hold on faith and trust, insures for the individual man in a Divine Humanity precisely what friends might essay to do, yet could do but imperfectly, for him. It proffers the tender sympathy and helpfulness of Him who bears the griefs and carries the sorrows of each and all; while the near view that it presents of the life beyond death inspires the sense of unbroken union with friends in heaven, and of the fellow-feeling of “a cloud of witnesses” beside. Thus while friendship in ordinary life is never to be spurned when it may be had without sacrifice of principle, it is less a necessity than when man’s relations with the unseen world gave no promise of strength, aid, or comfort.

Experience has deepened my conviction that what is called a free translation is the only fit rendering of Latin into English; that is, the only way of giving to the English reader the actual sense of the Latin writer. This last has been my endeavor. The comparison is, indeed, exaggerated; but it often seems to me, in unrolling a compact Latin sentence, as if I were writing out in words the meaning of an algebraic formula. A single word often requires three or four as its English equivalent. Yet the language is not made obscure by compression. On the contrary, there is no other language in which it is so hard to bury thought or to conceal its absence by superfluous verbiage.

I have used Beier’s edition of the De Amicitia, adhering to it in the very few cases in which other good editions have a different reading. There are no instances in which the various readings involve any considerable diversity of meaning.


Caius Laelius Sapiens, the son of Caius Laelius, who was the life-long friend of Scipio Africanus the Elder, was born b. c. 186, a little earlier in the same year with his friend Africanus the Younger. He was not undistinguished as a military commander, as was proved by his successful campaign against Viriathus, the Lusitanian chieftain, who had long held the Roman armies at bay, and had repeatedly gained signal advantages over them. He was known in the State, at first as leaning, though moderately and guardedly, to the popular side, but after the disturbances created by the Gracchi, as a strong conservative. He was a learned and accomplished man, was an elegant writer, — though while the Latin tongue retained no little of its archaic rudeness, — and was possessed of some reputation as an orator. Though bearing his part in public affairs, holding at intervals the offices of Tribune, Praetor, and Consul, and in his latter years attending with exemplary fidelity to such duties as belonged to him as a member of the college of Augurs, he yet loved retirement, and cultivated, so far as he was able, studious and contemplative habits. He was noted for his wise economy of time. To an idle man who said to him, “I have sixty years”1 (that is, I am sixty years old), he replied, “Do you mean the sixty years which you have not?” His private life was worthy of all praise for the virtues that enriched and adorned it; and its memory was so fresh after the lapse of more than two centuries, that Seneca, who well knew the better way which he had not always strength to tread, advises his young friend Lucilius to “live with Laelius;”2 that is, to take his life as a model.

The friendship of Laelius and the younger Scipio Africanus well deserves the commemoration which it has in this dialogue of Cicero. It began in their boyhood, and continued without interruption till Scipio’s death. Laelius served in Africa, mainly that he might not be separated from his friend. To each the other’s home was as his own. They were of one mind as to public men and measures, and in all probability the more pliant nature of Laelius yielded in great measure to the stern and uncompromising adherence of Scipio to the cause of the aristocracy. While they were united in grave pursuits and weighty interests, we have the most charming pictures of their rural and seaside life together, even of their gathering shells on the shore, and of fireside frolics in which they forgot the cares of the republic, ceased to be stately old Romans, and played like children in vacation-time.


Caius Fannius Strabo in early life served with high reputation in Africa, under the younger Africanus, and afterward in Spain, in the war with Viriathus. Like his father-in-law, he was versed in the philosophy of the Stoic school, under the tuition of Panaetius. He was an orator, as were almost all the Romans who aimed at distinction; but we have no reason to suppose that he in this respect rose above mediocrity. He wrote a history, of which Cicero speaks well, and which Sallust commends for its accuracy; but it is entirely lost, and we have no direct information even as to the ground which it covered. It seems probable, however, that it was a history either of the third of the Punic wars, or of all of them; for Plutarch quotes from him — probably from his History — the statement that he, Fannius, and Tiberius Gracchus were the first to mount the walls of Carthage when the city was taken.


Quintus Mucius Scaevola filled successively most of the important offices of the State, and was for many years, and until death, a member of the college of Augurs. He was eminent for his legal learning, and to a late and infirm old age was still consulted in questions of law, never refusing to receive clients at any moment after daylight. But while he was regarded as foremost among the jurists of his time, he professed himself less thoroughly versed in the laws relating to mortgages than two of his coevals, to whom he was wont to send those who brought cases of this class for his opinion or advice. He was remarkable for early rising, constant industry, and undeviating punctuality, — at the meetings of the Senate being always the first on the ground.

No man held a higher reputation than Scaevola for rigid and scrupulous integrity. It is related of him that when as a witness in court he had given testimony full, clear, strong, and of the most damnatory character against the person on trial, he protested against the conviction of the defendant on his testimony, if not corroborated, on the principle held sacred in the Jewish law, that it would be a dangerous precedent to suffer the issue of any case to depend on the intelligence and veracity of a single witness. When, after Marius had been driven from the city, Sulla asked the Senate to declare him by their vote a public enemy, Scaevola stood in a minority of one; and when Sulla urged him to give his vote in the affirmative, his reply was: “Although you show me the military guard with which you have surrounded the Senate-house, although you threaten me with death, you will never induce me, for the little blood still in an old man’s veins, to pronounce Marius — who has been the preserver of the city and of Italy — an enemy.”

His daughter married Lucius Licinius Crassus, who had such reverence for his father-in-law, that, when a candidate for the consulship, he could not persuade himself in the presence of Scaevola to cringe to the people, or to adopt any of the usual self-humiliating methods of canvassing for the popular vote.


Palimpsests1 — the name and the thing — are at least as old as Cicero. In one of his letters he banters his friend Trebatius for writing to him on a palimpsest,2 and marvels what there could have been on the parchment which he wanted to erase. This was a device probably resorted to in that age only in the way in which rigid economists of our day sometimes utilize envelopes and handbills. But in the dark ages, when classical literature was under a cloud and a ban, and when the scanty demand for writing materials made the supply both scanty and precarious, such manuscripts of profane authors as fell into the hands of ecclesiastical copyists were not unusually employed for transcribing the works of the Christian Fathers or the lives of saints. In such cases the erasion was so clumsily performed as often to leave distinct traces of the previous letters. The possibility of recovering lost writings from these palimpsests was first suggested by Montfaucon in the seventeenth century; but the earliest successful experiment of the kind was made by Bruns, a German scholar, in the latter part of the eighteenth century. The most distinguished laborer in this field has been Angelo Mai, who commenced his work in 1814 on manuscripts in the Ambrosian Library at Milan, of which he was then custodian. Transferred to the Vatican Library at Rome, he discovered there, in 1821, a considerable portion of Cicero’s De Republica, which had been obliterated, and replaced by Saint Augustine’s Commentary on the Psalms. This latter being removed by appropriate chemical applications, large portions of the original writing remained legible, and were promptly given to the public.

This treatise Cicero evidently considered, and not without reason, as his master-work. It was written in the prime of his mental vigor, in the fifty-fourth year of his age, after ample experience in the affairs of State, and while he still hoped more than he feared for the future of Rome. His object was to discuss in detail the principles and forms of civil government, to define the grounds of preference for a republic like that of Rome in its best days, and to describe the duties and responsibilities of a good citizen, whether in public office or in private life. He regarded this treatise, in its ethics, as his own directory in the government of his province of Cilicia, and as binding him, by the law of self-consistency, to unswerving uprightness and faithfulness. He refers to these six books on the Republic as so many hostages1 for his uncorrupt integrity and untarnished honor, and makes them his apology to Atticus for declining to urge an extortionate demand on the city of Salamis.

The work is in the form of Dialogues, in which, with several interlocutors beside, the younger Africanus and Laelius are the chief speakers; and it is characterized by the same traits of dramatic genius to which I have referred in connection with the De Amicitia.

The De Republica was probably under interdict during the reigns of the Augustan dynasty; men did not dare to copy it, or to have it known that they possessed it; and when it might have safely reappeared, the republic had faded even from regretful memory, and there was no desire to perpetuate a work devoted to its service and honor. Thus the world had lost the very one of all Cicero’s writings for which he most craved immortality. The portions of it which Mai has brought to light fully confirm Cicero’s own estimate of its value, and feed the earnest — it is to be feared the vain — desire for the recovery of the entire work.

Scipio’s Dream, which is nearly all that remains of the Sixth Book of the De Republica, had survived during the interval for which the rest of the treatise was lost to the world. Macrobius, a grammarian of the fifth century, made it the text of a commentary of little present interest or value, but much prized and read in the Middle Ages. The Dream, independently of the commentary, has in more recent times passed through unnumbered editions, sometimes by itself, sometimes with Cicero’s ethical writings, sometimes with the other fragments of the De Republica.

In the closing Dialogue of the De Republica the younger Africanus says: “Although to the wise the consciousness of noble deeds is a most ample reward of virtue, yet this divine virtue craves, not indeed statues that need lead to hold them to their pedestals, nor yet triumphs graced by withering laurels, but rewards of firmer structure and more enduring green.” “What are these?” says Laelius. Scipio replies by telling his dream. The time of the vision was near the beginning of the Third Punic War, when Scipio, no longer in his early youth, was just entering upon the career in which he gained pre-eminent fame, thenceforward to know neither shadow nor decline.

I have used for Scipio’s Dream, Creuzer and Moser’s edition of the De Republica.

[1 ]Deflexit jam aliquantulum.

[1 ]Thus among the many proofs of the genuineness of our canonical Gospels, perhaps none is more conclusive than the fact that, though evidently written by unskilled men, they contain not a trace or token of certain opinions known to have been rife even before the close of the first Christian century; while the (so-called) apocryphal Gospels bear, throughout, such vestiges of their later origin as would neutralize the strongest testimony imaginable in behalf of their primitive antiquity.

[1 ]Sexaginta annos habeo.

[2 ]Vive cum Laelio.

[1 ]Rubbed again, — the parchment, or papyrus, having been first polished for use, and then rubbed as clean as possible, to be used a second time.

[2 ]In palimpsesto.

[1 ]Praedibus.