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The Correspondence of Marcus Cornelius Fronto/Volume 1/Introduction


Time has not dealt kindly with Fronto. For more than a millennium and a half his name stood high in the lists of fame. On the strength of ancient testimony he was looked upon as the Cicero of his age; if not indeed his equal, yet as an Isocrates to a Demosthenes. Eumenius,[1] writing late in the third century, described him as "not the second but the alternative glory of Roman eloquence." A century or more later he is singled out by Macrobius[2] as the representative of the plain, precise, matter-of-fact style, contrasted with the copious, in which Cicero is supreme, the laconic, which is the province of Sallust, and the rich and florid, in which Pliny the Younger and Symmachus luxuriate.

Jerome[3] about the same time, speaks of the subtleties of Quintilian, the fluency of Cicero, the serious dignity of Fronto, and the smooth periods of Pliny. A little later Claudius Mamertus[4] recommends Plautus for elegance, Cato for gravitas, Gracchus for pungency, Chrysippus for dialectical skill, Cicero for eloquence, and Fronto for splendour (pompa). Sidonius Apollinaris[5] attributes gravitas to Fronto and pondus to Apuleius.

Though Fronto's reputation stood so high for 300 years after his death, scarcely a line of his works had survived, as it seemed, to modern times, until in 1815 Cardinal Mai discovered in the Imperial Library at Milan a palimpsest MS. containing many of his letters, the existence of which in classical times had indeed been occasionally intimated, though little was known of their contents.

When deciphered the work proved to consist mostly of his educational correspondence with his royal pupils, afterwards the joint Emperors Marcus Antoninus and Lucius Verus. There were included, however, one or two letters between Fronto and their adoptive father, the Emperor Pius, and some, chiefly commendatory, letters to the orator's friends, of whom the only one whose answer is preserved was the historian Appian. Some of the letters are in Greek. In judging this correspondence it should not be forgotten that Fronto disclaims the habit of letter-writing, and declares that no one could be a worse correspondent than himself.[6]

It would, therefore, not be fair to estimate Fronto's eminence as an orator from these letters alone, though, of course, they throw light on his mind and powers in general, and his theory of rhetorical art in particular. They labour under the limitation of having been mostly written to pupils, and chiefly in connexion with their studies. They are of a private, domestic, and professional nature, and coloured by the relationship between a courtly master and his royal scholars.

The early editors of the book, who were disappointed with the nature and contents of the work, had no good word to say for it or its author, but their indignation and contempt were certainly not justified.[7] The volume was well worth recovering and is here presented to the English reader for the first time.

On discovering the MS. in 1815, Mai, the librarian of the Ambrosian Library at Milan, lost no time in producing his first edition of it. But the work was done too hastily and carelessly. He also seems to have injured the MS. by a too free use of reagents to bring out the faded characters.[8]

Becoming librarian of the Vatican library a few years later, Mai found a second volume containing more leaves of the original Fronto Codex. These he published with the previous portion in 1823. The Vatican leaves being in better condition than the Ambrosian ones, and the editor besides being now more skilful in deciphering the palimpsest, and having taken more pains with his work, the result was more satisfactory. Moreover, the older portion was somewhat improved through a fresh inspection of the MS. by Peter Mazuchelli at Milan, and also because Mai availed himself freely of the critical labours of Niebuhr, Heindorf, and Buttmann on the moiety already published. In their edition of 1816 they had sometimes divined, without seeing the MS., the correct reading, which Mai had missed with it under his eyes.

The old Codex of Fronto must have been dismembered and its leaves mixed with others of the same kind before being used for a second writing upon them. For the two volumes of the Acta Concilii of the first Council of Chalcedon, in 451 A.D., in which the Fronto fragments are found, contain besides the Fronto leaves, which are the most numerous, parts of seven speeches of Symmachus, a portion of Pliny's Panegyric, some scholia on Cicero, Moeso-Gothic notes on St. John's Gospel, fragments of a tract on the Arian Controversy, and a single page apiece of Juvenal and Persius. The monks in using the leaves for a second script have generally turned them upside down. When this is not the case, the writing is more difficult to read.

On the first page of both volumes is found the inscription, Liber S. Columbani e Bobio. Bobbio lies in a secluded valley of the Pennine Alps, near the scene of the battle of the Trebia, where Saint Columban founded a monastery at the beginning of the seventh century, and formed a good library containing not only Latin works in Saxon characters but many classical authors in their own script, such as Cicero, Juvenal, Persius, and Fronto. The Fronto Codex was, we may suppose, purchased by Columban in Italy. In the same library there was another book of Fronto's, entitled Cornelii Frontonis Elegantiae Latinae, which was extant as late as 1494.[9] It was lexicographically arranged. Possibly it was one of the works of Fronto mentioned below.

The Vatican volume (No. 5750), contains a Latin version of the Acta of the Council of Chalcedon to nearly the end of the first session, written about the tenth century. The volume contained 292 leaves of which two are missing at the beginning and four at the end.

The Ambrosian volume (E. 147) is larger and had 180 pages of which are now wanting twelve at the opening and sixteen at the close. There must have been a third volume of the Acta, somewhat smaller than the others, possibly of about 230 pages, the whole work thus comprising with the other two volumes about 1000 leaves.

The Fronto part of the Vatican volume, as we have it, is 106 leaves, of the Ambrosian, 282. The thirty-four pages missing from these two volumes would probably have contained about twenty Fronto leaves. As the Fronto leaves are more numerous in the Ambrosian volume than in the Vatican according to the proportion 106/286 : 282/452, it is likely that in the third volume there would have been a corresponding increase of them. The whole might therefore have contained about 580 Fronto leaves. But the quaternion marks, still visible in the margin of the MS., show that there were at least 421/2 quaternions or 680 pages, in the original Fronto Codex.[10] Even if the third volume were forthcoming, we should still be about one-seventh part short of the Fronto Codex. What we have contains something like four-sevenths of the whole work, but some part of this has not been deciphered, and not a little is obliterated for ever.

Dr. Hauler, of Vienna, has been engaged upon the study of the MS. for more than twenty years, and we must wait for the final word on our author until his edition is published. It will certainly revolutionize the text. He has been given unusual facilities by the Italian authorities in his work, and the leaves of the Vatican MS. have been especially washed, cleaned and pressed for the purpose of photographing it in facsimile.

As far as possible the new readings which Dr. Hauler has made public in various periodicals have been incorporated in this work, together with the important, if rather hastily compiled, notes of a fresh collation of the MS. by the Dutch scholar, Professor Brakman. In spite of Dr. Hauler's keen eyesight and prodigious industry, certain of his restorations do not command complete confidence, especially in cases where we find the other inspectors of the Codex, Mai, du Rieu, and Brakman supporting an entirely different reading.

The original Fronto Codex has two columns of writing to each page, each column containing twenty-four lines of fifteen to twenty-one letters each.[11]

As the Greek in the Codex is written without accents, the MS. must have been produced before the seventh century, and probably in the sixth. The alterations made by the reviser of the copy show that the copyist was a careless one; nor did the corrector notice all the errors. Some letters are given twice over,[12] as if a second exemplar had been used.

A few of the Fronto leaves seem themselves to have had a previous writing on them,[13] and these must themselves have been palimpsests before being used for the Acta Concilii. Moreover, our Codex of Fronto was revised and annotated by a certain Caecilius. Besides correcting mistakes, and adding various readings from at least two other exemplars,[14] he gives explanatory glosses and occasionally suggests emendations.[15] Further, to our manifest advantage, he used the margins, which are free from the second writing, for setting down numerous words or passages, that struck him, sometimes verbatim, sometimes in an abbreviated or paraphrased form. The writing of the text and the corrections are in uncial letters, the marginal additions in sloping cursive. Caecilius endorsed each separate section of the work except the Epistulae Graecae and (apparently by inadvertence) Ad Verum Imp. i.

Indices were probably prefixed to all the separate books of letters, of which are extant only those to Ad M. Caes. iv., v; Ad Anton. Imp. i.; Ad Plum; Ad Amicos i., ii. They are valuable as supplying the opening words of letters that are lost, but they do not in all cases seem to correspond with the succeeding letters.

From Fronto to Marcus as Caesar there are fifty-six letters or parts of letters, and nine to him as Emperor, besides the four De Eloquentia. From Marcus seventy-one and seven respectively. To Verus as Emperor eight, and six from him, and six to Pius with two answers. There are forty letters to friends, two being in Greek, and one answer (from Appian); two in Greek to the mother of Marcus; the set piece on Arion; the two specimens of nugalia, the De Bello Parthico, the Principia Historiae, and the Greek λόγος ἐρωτικός.

There are few traces of Fronto's letters in such subsequent writers as have descended to us. It is certain that Minucius Felix, who was probably a fellow-countryman of Fronto's, knew something of him, for in his Octavius he quotes his declamation against the Christians, and calls him Cirtensis noster,[16] Capitolinus,[17] or his authority Marius Maximus, probably had an eye on what Fronto says, when he mentions the habit that Marcus had of reading in the theatre, and where he calls him durus. However that may be, it can hardly be doubted that Nazarius[18] in his Panegyric on Constantine recalls, though in a confused way, what Fronto says about the Parthian king and Verus in his Principia Historiae. Symmachus too, another orator of the same century, shews some signs of being acquainted with Fronto. Augustine, himself an African, is supposed in a letter to the Cirtenses to refer to the mention of Polemo by Fronto.[19]

Servius, the fifth-century commentator on Vergil, quotes Fronto for one or two usages, but his quotations cannot be identified with any passages in our extant letters. A contemporary grammarian, Charisius,[20] however, undoubtedly quotes from Fronto's letters as we have them. P. Consentius, another grammarian of the same period, quotes a sentence referring to Rheims, which may very possibly come from a lost letter to Victorinus. Niebuhr thought that Sidonius Apollinaris, a learned and eloquent bishop of the fifth century, imitated Fronto here and there.

The last author to refer to Fronto was John of Salisbury in the twelfth century. He quotes an obscure remark of his concerning Seneca, that "he was so successful in abolishing error that he seemed almost to create again an age of gold and call down the Gods from heaven to live among men." But Fronto, as we know him, has no word of praise for Seneca.

We cannot tell who made and published this collection of letters, but it is impossible to subscribe to the view of Mommsen that it was Fronto himself.[21] Several letters are misplaced: one that was certainly to the Emperor with his answer appears under the heading Ad M. Caesarem; and some that are related to one another are widely separated. Mommsen considered that the letters were in the main arranged chronologically, but this can only be allowed with large deductions. For instance, some of the earliest letters come quite at the end of the book. The correspondence with Pius is put after that with his successors. But there is obviously some attempt at systematic arrangement. The letters that belong to the year of Fronto's consulship are grouped together and placed first. In more than one case several letters bearing on a single subject are found placed in juxtaposition in their proper order, as with the letters relating to Herodes.[22] In the separate books the letters are arranged, with obvious exceptions however, in some chionological order; but the letters of a second book, for instance, do not follow those of the first, but begin a new series. The various ailments, also, of Marcus and Fronto are a guide in some cases. Some letters can be dated by means of the speeches of Marcus alluded to in them. As for instance the mention of his Caesar speech by Marcus in Ep. Graec. 6 (p. 18) dates this letter as written in 139-140. The speech referred to in Ad M. Caes. iii. 7 (p. 34) is probably a speech of thanks for his first consulship in 140, and the one in v. 1, 2, that for his second consulship in 145 or for the Trib. Potestas in 147.[23]

The only letters which can be dated to a precise year, except those which mention Fronto's consulship, are Ad M. Caes. i. 8, written when Marcus was twenty-two, and Ad M. Caes. iv. 13,[24] written when he was twenty-four. The latter forms a sort of turning point, not only in the correspondence but also in the life of Marcus. To Fronto's infinite chagrin he broke with rhetoric and betook himself wholly to philosophy, at about the time (147 A.D.) when he became in reality, though not in name, co-emperor. At all events, whether from a slight coolness in their relations or owing to increasing ill-health on the part of Fronto and increasing duties on that of Marcus, the character of the correspondence changes with Book V. Most of the letters are short, some being mere messages, and many of a quite trivial character. The illnesses and ailments of master and pupil figure largely in them. Fronto's rheumatism, for it was this and not gout, had become chronic by that time.

On the accession of Marcus and Lucius the correspondence resumes some of its former character. There are no letters to Lucius earlier than 161, when he became Emperor, but Fronto must have written to him often enough before. But only the later ones were preserved, as the main object of the publication seems to have been to shew Fronto's intimate relations with the Court. We could wish for more correspondence with Pius, but two of Fronto's letters to him are among the best of the series.

Fronto became tutor to Marcus after his adoption by Hadrian in 138. None of the letters we have can be dated before 139, when Marcus became Caesar. The marriage of Marcus, which took place most probably in 145, and the various births of his children enable us to give approximate dates to many of the letters in Book V. The letters Ad Amicos can only be dated with reference to the proconsulships or other governorships of the recipients, many of them being letters commendatory, recommending friends to the notice of the governor of a province.

The more important oratorical and historical pieces, with the letters on the Alsian holiday and the death of Fronto's grandson, a characteristic and interesting piece, fall between 161 and 166, in which year or the next Fronto probably died.

Excluding Fronto himself, who could have collected and published the correspondence? The only person in a position to do this seems to be Aufidius Victorinus, the life-long friend of Marcus and Fronto's son-in-law. We have evidence that Fronto kept copies of some of his letters, and Victorinus, as Fronto's heir and one of the leading men in the reign of Commodus, was in a specially favourable position for acting as his father-in-law's literary executor.

The object of the compilation was not only to bring into prominence the position of Fronto as Magister and Amicus to the Imperial Brothers, but also to put on record his views on oratorical and literary style, in fact his whole theory of rhetoric, which there is no reason to think he ever formulated in any special treatise.

The letters are valuable not only for what they tell us of Fronto and the light they shed on the literary tendencies of the age, but also for their picture of the young Marcus, whose character and rule will always have an interest for mankind. As Pater has said, these letters recall for us "the long buried fragrance of a famous friendship of the ancient world." We find here a young man and an older one, with a genuine affection for one another, exchanging kindly thoughts on their children, their health, the art of rhetoric, and the ancient writers of their country, while here and there we get a glimpse into the penetralia of the imperial court, or read a page from country life at Lorium or a visit to the seaside.[25]

A hundred years ago Mai[26] expressed a confident expectation that, one day the letters would be arranged in their approximate chronological order. A first attempt has here been made to do this.[27]



  1. Paneg. Const. 14: Romanae eloquentiae non secundum sed alterum decus.
  2. Saturnalia, v. 1. He says tenuis quidam et siccus et sobrius amat quandam dicendi frugalitatem, and he ascribes the siccum genus to Fronto, as an orator, no doubt. This was the style of Lysias.
  3. Epist. 12: gravitatem Frontonis.
  4. Ep. ad Sepandum.
  5. Epist. iv. 3.
  6. Ad Amicos, i. 18.
  7. See Hauler, Wien. Stud. (1912), 24. p. 259; Fröhner, Phil v. 1889; and Brock, Studies in Fronto, p. 5, for a much more favourable view.
  8. Hauler, Wien. Stud. 12 and 31 (p. 267), and Naber, Prolog. viii., xiv. But Stud. Epist. ad Klussm. p. 6, seems to differ on this point.
  9. See Raphael Maffaeus Volaterranus, Geogr. iv. ad finem.
  10. The speeches of Fronto must have been in a separate Codex, if in the Bobbio library at all.
  11. The Fronto leaves in the Vat. volume are numbered 1–4, 13–16, 29, 30, 79–128, 131, 132, 137, 138, 141-160, 165, 168, 173, 180, 185–190, 227, 228, 241, 242; in the Ambrosian, 55-76, 81–110, 133–138, 143–152, 155–158, 161–163, 179, 182, 195–198, 213–262, 287–308, 311–314, 319–356, 373–408, 411–414, 417–436, 443–446.
  12. e.g. Epist. Graec. 1 is found in Ambr. 56, Vat. 166, 165, and Ambr. 157, 158, 163, 164.
  13. See Hauler, Vers. d. deut. Phil. 41, 1895, p. 85. He thinks a speech of Hadrian's underlay a page of the Principia Historiae in the Fronto Codex.
  14. There are over forty of these variae lectiones.
  15. The corrector did not revise the Greek letters, but there is a remarkable gloss at the beginning of Ep. Graec. 1.
  16. Mai, Pref. to ed. 1823, p. xxxiii., and Schanz, Rhein. Mus. 1895, p. 133, adduce certain supposed parallelisms. If there is anything in them, the Octavius could not have been written before 166 at least.
  17. Vit. Mar. xv. and xxii. 5; see below, p. 206.
  18. He speaks of Antoninus, but he means Lucius Verus.
  19. Epist. 144: et nos ex illis litteris recordamur.
  20. See Index. He also quotes from Fronto's speech, Pro Ptolemaeensibus.
  21. Hermes, viii. p. 201.
  22. See pp. 58 f.
  23. For further discussion of this subject, see article by C. R. Haines, "On the Chronology of the Fronto Correspondence," in the Classical Quarterly for April, 1914, vol. viii., pp. 113 ff.
  24. See pp. 37, 217.
  25. For some interesting and attractive items, see pp. 58-66, 150, 174–184, the De Fer. Als., the De Nepote Amisso, etc.
  26. Pref. to ed. of 1823, p. xviii.
  27. For various views on the chronology, see Mommsen in Herm. viii. pp. 198 ff.; Brakman in Frontoniana, ii. pp. 24–42; Pauly-Wissowa under "Fronto"; Naber, Proleg. xx.–xxxi.