Who wrote his letters? Cicero, Petrarch, Watt, Shackleton Bailey, Walsh…?

Who wrote his letters? Cicero, Petrarch, Watt, Shackleton Bailey, Walsh…?

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 – 43 BCE), generally known as Cicero, was a Roman political and literary figure who is now famous in particular for his large number (900+) of letters. Asking the question ‘who wrote them?‘ might seem an oxymoron – of course this was Cicero! But it is by no means so simple.

When I read these letters I read them in editions compiled a different points in time and having different emphases, for instance by Walsh 2008 (though there are numerous other recent editions), with these all depending on Watt and Shackleton Bailey (1961, 1965-79, 1977, 1988, 1989, 2002). But originals of most of the letters do not exist, and these editors work with versions that derive in particular from the ‘rediscovery‘ of the original scrolls by Petrarch on or about 13 June 1345 (Petrarch writes a letter about it). Mainly, these scrolls no longer exist, for reasons which Petrarch comments on, that they were crumbling and barely legible when he expectedly came across them, so he copied them out.

In a literal sense, then, we are reading Petrarch’s (copies of Cicero’s) letters as mediated later by a number of later editors, and there are no originals of Cicero’s (these scrolls no longer exist) against which to check Petrarch’s renditions. But some do exist from other sources and there is enough commonality with the way Petrarch’s versions are written to indicate that somewhere along the line something that was letters were written by Cicero. We take this on trust, because of the circumstantial evidence, although whether proof exists is another matter.

There was another hand at work before even Petrarch’s, though. Someone, usually said to be Cicero’s scribe Tiro, and sometimes Cicero himself, is seen as the first editor in collecting (but not editing) letters together, excluding some, and sorting them into groups. Whether Tiro, whether Cicero, may be doubted – but it seems that some key elements of an ‘editor function’ were indeed performed at some point ‘before Petrarch’.

However, the Cicero letters were written long ago and far away and it might be supposed that the issues that arise concerning their authorship and editorship are therefore highly specialist ones, not relevant for most of us. Not so. In the same budget of book-buying that saw the Cicero letters land on my doorstep was an edition of letters exchanged between writers and poets Audre Lorde and Pat Parker, dating from 1970s and 1980s USA (Enszer 2018). Although the publishing information doesn’t quite say this, these are both edited and also selected letters. They are not the totality of the letters Lorde and Parker exchanged, or at least if they are this is not made explicit; and information is given about some of the ways in which they have been edited to make reading easier.

In addition, actually I found them harder to read than those of Cicero, because they are idiomatic and immersed in the language of black lesbian feminist circles of the day and are very much to each other, whereas many of the Cicero letters were written in a literal sense by scribes and most were intended for a wider audience of potential readers than the addressee alone, so they tend to be more general in their mode of expression. Put simply, you do need to know who was Pat Parker‘s current lover when a letter was written and what had happened to previous relationships to get the most out of her letters, while you do not need to know that Cicero had a quite distant relationship with his then-wife Terentia and they eventually divorced to understand what is going on in his to her.

But of more structural import than this is that an editor stands between the Lorde and Parker manuscript letters, now archived in different women’s colleges in the USA, and the printed ones I am reading in the book in question. And this editor has been busy at work in rendering (an apposite word) the letters from one medium and ontology into another. There is nothing ‘wrong’ with this, of course, it is what editorship is all about, because involving a person who renders from one ontological realm into another. But what is important is to recognise that this happens and to be clear about the precise details involved, which will vary between different editors because they will operate different principles around which their activities are based, but is always consequential.

In writing about epistolary fiction, Janet Altman has commented that the reader ‘comes late’. That is, writers and editors have been at work before a reader arrives at the moment of reading, and their activities mark what it is that the reader reads and therefore condition if not determine how they do so. So it is with the Cicero letters: the reader is a very late arrival and a small army of people has already been at work. And that the hand of Petrarch was importantly involved needs to be thought through, not least because of his impatient crossness with Cicero in the post-discovery June 1345 letter he wrote to him, alluded to earlier. Petrarch really does not understand Cicero standing true to his democratic principles even though it led to his murder by the new triumvirate of would-be emperors. How might this conflict of world-views have played out in terms of ‘copying‘ the crumbling letters by Petrarch? Food for thought.

Last updated:  8 April 2021


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