The Correspondence of Marcus Cornelius Fronto/Volume 1/Fronto, the Orator and the Man


Almost all that we know of Fronto is drawn from the book before us. The probable date of his birth is 100 A.D., and in any case before 113 A.D. He was born at Cirta, now Constantine, in Numidia. This was a Roman colony, and his name being Cornelius, he was doubtless of Roman descent, though he jestingly calls himself "a Libyan of the nomad Libyans." His brother, who is mentioned several times in the Letters, was named Quadratus.[1] Of his youth we are told nothing, but he no doubt studied at Alexandria, for at a later time he had numerous friends there. He mentions as his parens and magister the philosopher Athenodotus, but it was not philosophy, which he disliked, that he learnt from him, but an inordinate fondness for similes, or as he calls them, εἰκόνες.[2] Another master named by him is Dionysius the rhetor, whose fable on The Vine and the Holm-Oak he quotes. He tells us that he took late to the study of Latin literature, in which he afterwards came to be such an adept.

An inscription found at Calamae (Guelma) in Numidia,[3] of which city, as of Cirta, he was a patronus, gives us the earlier part of his cursus honorum, from which we learn his father's name Titus, the name of his tribe Quirina, and that he was successively triumvir capitalis, quaestor in Sicily, plebeian aedile, and praetor. The office of quaestor gave him a place in the Senate.

In 143, under Pius, he became consul suffectus for July and August, the consul ordinarius for which year was Herodes the eminent Athenian rhetorician, himself like Fronto a tutor to the young princes. Fronto's lesser honour gave occasion for the jesting allusion of Ausonius[4] to the consuls in whose consulship Fronto was consul.

From his place in the Senate he tells us that he extolled Hadrian studio impenso et propenso in speeches that were still read many years later.[5] But he confesses that in this he courted rather than loved him. His great reputation,[6] but no doubt his character also, induced Pius on his accession to choose him as the instructor of his adopted sons in Latin and oratory He remained for the rest of his life on the most intimate and affectionate terms with the court, and there is no evidence that he abused his position in any way. He was not, however, above flattering his royal pupils on occasion, for he could scarcely have believed himself, when he attributed to Marcus the abilities of the great Julius or to Lucius the military genius of a Marius or a Vespasian. Still at times he could tell Marcus some home truths, and at all events impressed both his charges with his sincerity and love of truth.[7] It was more excusable in Marcus to overrate, as he did, Fronto's oratorical gifts, and to set him beside Cato, Gracchus, Sallust, and Cicero, asserting that he alone of present-day orators talked Latin.[8]

When the time came for Fronto to receive a provincial appointment, the lot gave him Asia. He made preparations to take up his duties there, but a more than usually serious attack of illness supervened, and he was obliged to beg off his appointment.

His political life being now ended, Fronto devoted his remaining years to his profession of eloquence and to literature. Aulus Gellius[9] gives us a picture of him as one of the recognized leaders in the intellectual salons of the time, where questions of literature and archaeology were habitually discussed. He is there seen surrounded by all the great authors and critics of Rome, and regarded as an oracle on linguistic and grammatical questions, and in his letters we find him always inculcating a careful precision in the use of words and a deference to the authority of older writers.

How far was his great reputation as orator and pleader justified? Unfortunately we have no specimen, even approximately complete, of his oratory, whether forensic or epideictic, on which to base a verdict. The longest extract extant is from a speech respecting oversea wills, possibly delivered before the Emperor's Court of Appeal. There is besides the well-known fragment of an indictment of the Christians,[10] preserved by Minucius Felix in his Octavius, which reads like a set declamation, or an episode in a speech on behalf of some client. But we do not know how far the writer has given Fronto's words verbatim.

The interesting and important letter to Arrius Antoninus on behalf of Volumnius Quadratus[11] is an example of legal causidicatio. There remain besides a few sentences quoted by the orator himself[12] from his speech of thanks to Pius in 143, and a simile, perhaps from the same speech, quoted by Eumenius, where the success of the Roman arms in Britain is referred to.[13] Moreover we have, preserved on a palimpsest in the Palatine Library, a few concluding words of a speech of thanks for the Carthaginians, some years later.[14] It was evidently one of his pompaticae orationes.

Of other speeches we have a mere mention: the Pro Ptolemaeensibus, from which Charisius preserves a single grammatical form; a speech against Herodes in 142, of which we do not know the title; one Pro Demostrato Petitiano; several in behalf of Saenius Pompeianus and other friends;[15] and speeches on behalf of the Cilicians and Bithynians, the latter in its revised form giving details of his past life, the loss of which is to be regretted.[16] His most famous effort, according to Sidonius Apollinaris, was the speech against Pelops, probably a physician of Pergamus, mentioned by Galen.

It will be seen from this short summary that we have really no material for judging Fronto's capacity either as advocate in the courts or as orator in the Senate. Dirksen[17] denies his juristic competence, but few will believe that he was not perfectly conversant with Roman Law. How otherwise could he have gained his commanding position at the bar in an age which produced such eminent jurists and was almost the heyday of Roman Law. Not but that Fronto was, first and foremost, an orator, whose object is not justice but persuasion. It cannot be denied that in the extract from the speech on wills he indulges in fancy pictures and ignores obvious and material facts. Still his presentment of the case is certainly not without point and vigour, though it is over-elaborated and smacks too much of the art of rhetoric.

The letters on Matidia's will and the Falcidian Law are in their mutilated condition too ambiguous to assist us in our enquiry as to Fronto's legal attainments.

Fronto's ideals in oratory were high. The most difficult test of an orator seemed to him to be that he should please without sacrificing the true principles of eloquence. Smooth phrases for tickling the ears of the hearers must not be such as are offensive to good taste, a feebleness in form being preferable to a coarseness of thought.[18] In spite of his insistence on style and the choice of words, Fronto knows well enough and affirms that noble thoughts are the essential thing in oratory, for the want of which no verbal dexterity or artistic taste will compensate. It was his deficiency in "high thought's invention" that forced Fronto to concentrate his attention on the form and eke out the matter with the manner. Needless to say he has at his fingers' ends all the tropes and figures and devices of the art of rhetoric, and his knowledge of the Roman language and literature was profound.

It has too hastily been assumed that he slighted the great writers of the best age, except Cicero and Sallust, and totally ignored the silver age authors except Lucan and Seneca. But he constantly imitates Terence, recognizes the literary eminence of Caesar and quotes him with approval,[19] calls Lucretius sublime, quotes him, and ranks him with his prime favourites, quotes Horace, whom he calls memorabilis, more than once, shows an intimate knowledge of Vergil,[20] and borrows from Livy. He also shows some acquaintance with Quintilian, Tacitus and Juvenal.

Fronto has been repeatedly called a pedant, but he was a true lover of his own language and guarded it jealously from unauthorized innovations and ignorant solecisms. His aim seemed to have been to shake the national speech out of the groove into which the excessive and pedantic purism of Cicero, Caesar and their followers had confined it. To do this effectually it was necessary to call in the aid of the great writers of an earlier age, such as Plautus and Ennius and Cato. But this sort of archaism was nothing novel. Thucydides was a thorough archaist, and so was Vergil, and Sallust was eminently one.[21] As the cramping effects of the Ciceronian tradition tended more and more to squeeze the life out of the language, the ingrained feeling that "the old is better" gradually spread among the leaders of literary thought. An immense impetus was given to this tendency by the versatile littérateur Hadrian, who openly preferred Ennius to Vergil and Cato to Cicero.

But Fronto, fond as he was of old words and ancient locutions, insisted that such must be not only old but more expressive and appropriate than modern ones, or they must not be preferred. He himself confesses that he used only ordinary and commonplace words. No one in his opinion has a right to invent expressions—he calls such words counterfeit coin. He availed himself of old and established words, that were genuine Latin and had all the charm of novelty without being unintelligible, drawing largely on the vocabulary and idiom of Plautus, Ennius, Cato, and Gracchus, and interspersing his familiar letters with quotations from Naevius, Accius, Pacuvius, and Laberius. But this was not an affected or repellent archaism, such as Seneca and Lucian mock at.[22] Fronto's attitude somewhat resembled that of Rossetti, who declares that "he has been reading early English ballads in search of stunning old words."[23] It is of such words that Fronto is thinking when he speaks of words that must be hunted out with toil and care and watchfulness and by the treasuring up of old poems in the memory.[24] He explains that he has in mind the "inevitable" word, for which, if withdrawn, no substitute equally good could be found. Some old words would certainly have no modern equivalent, as for instance in English the word "hansel." "The best words in the best places" would be Fronto's definition of oratory, as it was Coleridge's of poetry.

It is a prevalent but mistaken idea that Fronto disparages or underrates Cicero. He may personally prefer Cato or Sallust, but he recognizes the pre-eminence of Cicero's genius. It is quite possible that if we had the works of the older writers, we also should prefer their simple dignity and natural vigour even to the incomparable finish and opulence of Tully. However that may be, Fronto credits Cicero with almost every conceivable excellence except the due search for the precise word.[25] He calls him the greatest mouthpiece of the Roman language, the head and source of Roman eloquence, master on all occasions of the most beautiful language, and deficient only in unlooked for words.[26] He candidly confesses his own inferiority.[27] Of his letters he says "nothing can be more perfect." He calls them tullianae and remissiores, and seems to envy their careless ease.[28] But in practice he disavows the structure of the Ciceronian sentence and the arrangement of its words. He breaks up the flowing periods of Ciceronian prose and introduces new and abrupter rhythms. For older cadences he substitutes cadences of his own, though he occasionally prides himself on imitating the Tullian mannerisms.[29] Where he affects the staccato style, and the historic present, as in Arion, the result is as unpleasing as it is in modern English. In some cases, for forensic speeches, he recommends a deliberate roughness and studied negligence at the end of sentences; but in epideictic displays everything must be neatly and smoothly finished off.[30] Circumlocution and inversions he utterly condemns.[31] Next to the choice of words their natural and perspicuous arrangement counts most with him. This makes his work easy reading. Such difficulties as we find are chiefly due to the mutilated condition of the text in our copy. We have often not only to interpret but to divine what was written.

It has been supposed that Fronto set himself purposely to renovate and remodel the language by recalling old words and obsolete idioms,[32] and by transferring into the literary language colloquialisms from the common speech. But the novella elocutio of which he speaks seems rather to mean a fresher, more vivacious diction, and a more individual form of expression: in fact originality of style. The patina of antiquity which he wished to give his work need not necessarily be thought to disfigure it; and his minute accuracy in the use of words is surely more deserving of praise than of blame. He prided himself on distinguishing the nice shades of meaning in allied words, and insisted that his pupil should be exact in his use of words, knowing well that clearness of thought is dependent on definiteness of expression. The extracts from Aulus Gellius given at the end of the book show us the care with which Fronto distinguished the meaning of words, of which there is further evidence in the De Differentiis Vocabulorum,[33] if that work is his, as it may well be. It was possibly written for the use of his pupils, that they might not misuse words apparently synonymous, such as the various terms for sight and perception. In this connexion it may be noted that Fronto set great store by the careful use of synonyms, and they abound in his correspondence, but are seldom so colourless as, for instance, our "tied and bound," "let and hinder," "many a time and oft" or so run to death as "by leaps and bounds" or "in any shape or form."

Eloquence was to Fronto the only thing that mattered in the universe. It was the real sovereign of the human race. Philosophy he disliked and even despised, though he admitted that it inspired great thoughts, which it was for eloquence to clothe.[34] Philosophy and rhetoric contended for the soul of Marcus in the persons of the austere Rusticus,[35] the domestic chaplain of Marcus in the Stoic creed, and the courtly Fronto. But the result was a foregone conclusion. Marcus before he was twelve had already made his choice;[36] and though he tried loyally to please his master and learn all the tricks of rhetoric, yet his heart was always far from the wind-flowers of eloquence.[37] He aroused his master's ire by asserting that, when he had said something more than usually brilliant, he felt pleased, and therefore shunned eloquence. Fronto pertinently rejoined, "You feel pleasure, when eloquent; then, chastise yourself, why chastise eloquence?" Again when Marcus in his ultra-conscientiousness avows a distaste for the obliquities and insincerities of oratory, Fronto is clearly nettled, and counters smartly with a reference to the irony of Socrates.

In spite of all Fronto's efforts Marcus in his twenty-fourth year finally declared his decision. He could no longer consent to argue on both sides of a question, as the art of oratory would have him do. There is no doubt that his master was bitterly disappointed, as he honestly believed he could make a consummate orator of Marcus.

A few words require to be said now as to Fronto's method of instruction. He began by taking his pupil through a course of old farces, comedies, ancient orators and poets, and Marcus was encouraged to make extracts from the authors that were read. Cato, Gracchus, Ennius, Sallust, and Cicero were especially studied. The first was Marcus's favourite, but Fronto preferred Sallust before all. In letter-writing Cicero was recognized as supreme, and the "tullian" style of his more familiar letters was looked upon as worthy of imitation.

Verse-making was regularly practised as an aid towards oratory. Only hexameters are mentioned in this connexion, and Vergil, who is both archaistic and intensely rhetorical, was no doubt the model. Horace was apparently read but Marcus took a dislike to him.[38]

Similes, or εἰκόνες, formed an important part of Fronto's oratorical armoury. He always had numbers at command on every conceivable subject, some appropriate, and many ingenious, but others far-fetched and out of place. He clearly regarded them as indispensable, and gives elaborate instructions as to their use.[39] They could scarcely have been of much use in his forensic speeches, one would think.

The next step was to use the Commonplaces of Theodorus for the manufacture of maxims or γνῶμαι. One aphorism a day was the allotted task. The object was to strike out some neat epigrammatic sententia, such as are characteristic of Sallust, and to turn the same thought freely and boldly in various ways, often from one language to another. Truth to say, Fronto is himself extraordinarily deficient in sayings of pith and moment. He imitates the panem et Circenses of Juvenal and perhaps the cupido gloriae novissima exuitur[40] of Tacitus, but the most striking of his own maxims are noticeable chiefly for their rhythm, such as pleraque propria venustate carentia gratiam sibimet alienam extrinsecus mutuantur, and longeque praestat secundo gentium rumore iniuriam neglegere quam adverso vindicare. We do not know which maxim of Marcus it was that Fronto declared worthy of Sallust,[41] but this is a not unsuccessful one: turpe alioqui fuerit diutius vitium corporis quam animi studium ad reciperandam sanitatem posse durare.[42]

Translation from one language to another forms part of the curriculum. Original composition in history was also recommended by Fronto, and Marcus himself seems to have had some aspirations in that direction. Too much stress was laid upon the outward trappings of rhetoric, such as alliteration, oxymoron, antithesis, paronomasia, paraleipsis, and every variety of trope or figure. And in the use of these for his rhetorical flights Fronto is ever urging Marcus to "be bold; be bold, and evermore be bold."[43]

Finally came the writing of themes and controversiae, in which the pros and cons of any question, historical or fictitious, are discussed as by a forensic speaker.

Whether after all this study Marcus became a really accomplished speaker is not known. We have too little to judge by. But at all events he had mastered thoroughly the principles of the art,[44] and that he was straightforward, sensible, and practical in his official orations is certain. The Senate, the soldiers, and the people alike heard him with eagerness.[45]

There are several passages in this work where Fronto tries his hand at descriptive narrative, and two in which he essays the rôle of historian. But his view of history, and how it should be written, was thoroughly mistaken. His eyes are not on the facts, but on the best way to show his rhetorical skill in commonplace or panegyric. His efforts therefore in this direction are useless as history and of no account as literature. The descriptive passages are more successful, the best being the apologue on sleep, translated by Pater in his Marius the Epicurean. A favourable specimen is the mutilated passage referring to Orpheus at the beginning of Ad Marcum, iv. Arion is technically skilful but lacks distinction, and the Ring of Polycrates is decidedly tame. The Praises of Smoke and Dust and Negligence are mere tours de force, but they throw light on his theory of rhetoric.

After so long and close an intimacy as these letters reveal we are surprised to find so meagre a mention of Fronto in the gallery of Worthies, from whom he learnt enduring lessons, which Marcus sets at the head of his Thoughts. It is nothing but this:

"From Fronto, to note the envy, the subtlety, and the dissimulation, which are habitual to a tyrant; and that as a general rule those amongst us who rank as patricians are somewhat wanting in natural affection."[46]

We find no trace in these letters of the former part of this obligation but there are references to φιλοστοργία, in which Fronto says that the patricians are wholly deficient.[47] He was himself a notable exception. Marcus calls him philostorgus.[48] His devotion to his wife and daughter, and to Victorinus, her husband, and their children, shows him to us in a very amiable light. He was very fond of children, and his love for Marcus and Lucius was deep and abiding.

We cannot help liking the old man for his honest, kindly disposition, and his loyalty to a high ideal of friendship.[49] He always showed the greatest affection for the young pupils who from time to time lived under his roof, and readiness to help them in their careers. He was the centre of a large literary coterie, and his personal friends were devoted to him, while his services as advocate had attached to him many influential friends in the provinces, especially in Cilicia and Africa.

Though not really wealthy compared with many other patricians of his time, and very far behind his rival Herodes in this respect, he had by his profession and by taking pupils and also through good management, aided by legacies, gathered a competence sufficient not only for his own wants but for the helping of his friends. He owned one or more villas near Rome and probably estates in Africa. His Horti Maecenatiani on the Esquiline could have been no mean residence, and he was able on one occasion to spend as much as £3000 on new baths there.[50]

The family life of Fronto was a singularly happy one in the mutual affection of its surviving members, though death deprived him of five out of his six children (all daughters) in their infancy. The sole surviving daughter, Gratia, married Aufidius Victorinus, one of the best and most capable men of his age, who afterwards committed suicide under Commodus. One child of this union died, aged three, in Germany, where Victorinus was governor, about 165 A.D. One son certainly, and possibly a second, survived to manhood. The former, M. Aufidius Victorinus Fronto, was brought up in Fronto's house and lived to be consul in 199, and in an inscription[51] to his son at Pisaurum recalled his grandfather as "orator, consul, and master of Marcus and Lucius." We hear of an eloquent descendant of Fronto's, Leo by name, in the fifth century at Toulouse.[52]

Mommsen and others have supposed that Fronto lived till the year 175 at least, and possibly longer, because in the De Orationibus he mentions coins of Commodus, but it is necessary to explain the allusion in some other way than as implying the date of Commodus's participation in the Empire. For it is certain that no letter in this correspondence, as we have it, can be dated later than 166, and we find Fronto's health getting worse and worse, and the loss of his wife and grandchild in 165 also affected him greatly. There can be little doubt that he predeceased Verus and died in 166 or 167. His grateful pupil Marcus rewarded his love and fidelity with equal affection, and on his death obtained permission from the Senate to set up his statue in the Senate-house and kept his bust among his household gods.[53] No representation of him has come down to us.

He founded a school of disciples who imitated his methods in oratory and language, and he playfully alludes to his secta.[54] The Frontonian tradition had a vogue of a least 300 years, as Sidonius Apollinaris mentions the Frontoniani in an obscure passage.[55]

The great service that Fronto did to his countrymen was to leave their language a freer and more plastic instrument of speech than he found it, by reinforcing it with those elements which were in danger of atrophy for want of use, or were being wasted by being left outside the pale of good literature. Moreover by minute accuracy in the use of words and careful definition of their meaning, he gave precision and clarity to the language, which was a work well worth doing, and deserving of credit.

To the reader his style is easy and perspicuous, and far less abnormal and fantastic than that of his fellow African Apuleius. Unfortunately Fronto lacked originality of thought, and his humour is rather heavy, but his fatal foible lay not in his leanings to archaism but in his faith in εἰκόνες, which disfigure even the real pathos of his dirge over the loss of his grandson, and lessen the force of his special pleading for Volumnius of Concordia, though in his criticism of Seneca they find an effective place. He never grasped the fact that comparatio is not ratio. Whether he was proof against the seductive powers of the simile in the speeches which earned for him the epithets gravis and siccus we do not know, but the fragment on overseas wills is not free from this favourite device. One thing seems highly probable, that, if the bulk of Fronto's speeches should ever be recovered, we should form a much higher opinion of his abilities. As it is we can say of him, and this is surely much, that he was vir bonus dicendi peritus.



  1. See inscription (C.I.L. xv. 7438) on conduit pipes from the Esquiline hill, where his Horti Maecenatiani (see Index) were situated.
  2. See Index and pp. 131 ff.
  3. Corp. Inscr. Lat. viii. 5350.
  4. "Unica mihi amplectenda est Frontonis imitatio: quem tamen Augusti magistrum sic consulatus ornavit, ut praefectura non cingeret. Sed consulatus ille cuiusmodi? Ordinario suffectus, bimestri spatio interpositus, in sexta anni parte consumptus, quaerendum ut reliquerit tantus orator, quibus consulibus gesserit consulatum." In Gratiarum Actione, ad med.
  5. See p. 110.
  6. Dio, lxix. 8; Lucian, De Conscr. Hist. 21, ἀοίδιμος ἐπὶ λόγων δύναμει.
  7. Ad M. Caes. iii. 12, Ad Verum, ii. 2 (verique amorem).
  8. Ad M. Caes. ii. 13; Ad Ant. i. 4.
  9. Noctes Atticae, ii. 26, xiii. 23, xix. 8, 10, 13.
  10. Octavius, ix. It seems probable that the section immediately preceding this, and describing the "Thyestean feasts" attributed to the Christians, also comes from the same speech. Some think the whole of the anti-Christian polemic of the Octavius is drawn from a Frontonian source. .See Schanz, Rhein. Mus. 1895, 114–36.
  11. Ad Amicos, ii. 7.
  12. Ad M. Caes. i. 8, pp. 118 ff.
  13. See below. He made many speeches in praise of Pius.
  14. On the occasion of Pius's liberality to the city after a great fire. See Capit. Vit. Pii. ix.
  15. See pp. 232, 238.
  16. For the mention of these, see Index.
  17. Opp. 1, pp. 243 ff. and 277 &.
  18. P. 37.
  19. Aul. Gell. xix. 8.
  20. Aul. Gell. ii. 26.
  21. Bacon "spangled his speech with unusual words," and Ben Jonson says that Spenser "in affecting the ancients writ no language."
  22. Seneca, Ep. 114; Lucian, Demonax, 26.
  23. See Brock, Studies in Fronto, p. 103 d .
  24. P. 7.
  25. P. 4.
  26. Ad Amicos, i. 14.
  27. When he bids Victorinus compare his Pro Bithynis with Cicero's Pro Sulla. Ad Amicos, i. 14.
  28. See p. 122.
  29. Brock, Studies in Fronto, p. 141, and Droz, De Frontonis institutione oratoria, p. 64; and see p. 110 below, and Ad Anton. i. 2.
  30. P. 40.
  31. De Orationibus, ad fin.
  32. cp. Horace, Ars Poet. 70.
  33. Printed in Mai's edition of Fronto, with another work attributed to Fronto, the Exempla Elocutionum. This consists of phrases from Terence, Vergil, Cicero, and Sallust. We know that he made extracts from Cicero, Ad Anton. ii. 5.
  34. De Eloqu. i. ad finem.
  35. Under him as Praef. Urbi, about 163, Justin Martyr and his companions were condemned.
  36. Capit. Vit. Mar. ii. 6.
  37. Thoughts, i. 7; i. 17, § 4.
  38. P. 140.
  39. P. 36.
  40. Tac. Hist. iv. 6, and De Eloqu. i. ad med. below.
  41. P. 12.
  42. Ad M. Caes. iv. 8.
  43. Ennius, see p. 10.
  44. Dio, lxxi. 35, § 1. He shows his skill in rhetoric even in the Greek of the Meditations.
  45. Ad Anton. i. 2.
  46. Thoughts, i. 11.
  47. Ad Verum, ii. 7.
  48. De Fer. Als. 4.
  49. See his letter to Pius about his friend Censorius and the letter to Appian.
  50. Aul. Gell. xix. 10.
  51. Corp. Inter. Lat. xi. 6334.
  52. Sidon. Apoll. Ep. iv. 21.
  53. Capit. Vit. Mar. ii. § 5.
  54. Ad Anton. i. 2.
  55. Ep. i. 1. "Nor did Jul. Titianus picture Cicero's whole epistolary style in a worthy image (by means of a series of fictitious letters) under the names of noble women. On this account all the Frontonians, as rivals of their fellow-disciple, because he followed the languid (Ciceronian) style of speaking, called him the orators' ape." Here the style of Cicero's letters, which Fronto calls remissior, easy or careless, seems to be disparaged. See Barth, Advers. xlvii. 9, and Nieb., Introd. to his ed. of Fronto, p. xxiii. The word used by Sidonius is veternosus. How Cicero's style could be called laguid or senile (veternosus) is incomprehensible.