What's up, my Lord, sweetest dear teacher?

Marcus Aurelius in Love

Pornography, Priapus, ancient pederasty. These are topics that Amy Richlin, a professor of classics at the University of California, Los Angeles, is expert on. Hence this book with its provocative title. It is a translation of 44 early letters between Marcus Aurelius, now remembered as one of the "good" Roman emperors, and his appointed tutor, Cornelius Fronto. There is a brief but comprehensive introduction, explanatory notes on the letters themselves and a bibliography, which opens one's eyes to the amount that has been published in the past 20 years on sex and homosexuality in the Greco-Roman world.

Then as now there was debate whether education should be a quest for truth ("philosophy") or a training for leadership ("rhetoric"). Fronto favoured the latter, and the course he set was aimed at teaching what we would call communication skills - language, literature and the "creative" composition of speeches on implausible subjects. Marcus, who was 18 when the relationship began and already designated future emperor, was a conscientious pupil. But he had a keener conscience than his mentor and eventually rebelled, refusing to write in defence of both sides of a question. Nevertheless, the correspondence continued even after he married and became emperor. They were obviously fond of each other - and Richlin wonders just how fond.

Manuscripts containing Fronto's correspondence (about 200 letters in Greek and Latin) were discovered at the beginning of the 19th century. Publication of the original text followed soon after, and an admirable English translation by C. R. Haines appeared in the Loeb series in 1920. It has been available ever since. Nevertheless, Richlin claims to be the first to draw attention to the nature of the master-pupil relationship. "Fashion [has] buried it all in a corner," she writes in the climax of her introduction, but "Now you hold Marcus and Fronto in your hands... Go on, take a look."

OK then. And what do we see? Unexpectedly unstuffy English. "Hi!" is the first word of the first letter. "Don't get too shook up," Fronto is told on one occasion, and on another Fronto himself asks, "What is with this custom?" And why not? It's how people speak, innit?

Well, perhaps. But in that case they should speak like it all the time. However, they do not. Richlin's translation makes Marcus write of Fronto's "so learned brain and so kind nature" while Fronto addresses Marcus sometimes as "My Lord" as if he were in England, sometimes as "Lord" as if he were in church, and once, in total confusion, he asks, "What's up, Lord?"

So how far can Richlin's English be taken as a safe guide to the mood of the original? When Marcus calls Fronto "My sweetest and dearest teacher" or "my honeyest honey, my love, my pleasure" and Fronto pays back as good as he gets with "My sweetest Lord" or "I love to pieces every little letter of every word you write" are they really being as soupy as they sound? Perhaps, but conventions change. In 17th-century English this kind of language could be used between men, just as nowadays between the sexes, without any emotional implications.

Richlin clearly sees herself as introducing us to a welcome and unexpected example of same-sex emancipation in the Roman world. But she offers no proof of this, and her choice of letters hides the true interest of the correspondence, which is the light it sheds on higher education and the glimpses it gives of everyday life in a non-ostentatious court.

Maurice Pope is emeritus professor of classics, Cape Town University, South Africa.

Marcus Aurelius in Love

Editor - Amy Richlin
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Pages - 176
Price - £22.50
ISBN - 9780226713007

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