Breath of My Life
The Love Letters of Emperor Marcus Aurelius and Marcus Cornelius Fronto
Excerpts from My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries (1998), Edited by Rictor Norton
The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (121–80) is not cited as one of the "great queens of history", for he was noted as a model husband and father and an advocate of the virtues of heterosexual marriage. In his famous Meditations, written towards the end of his life, he recorded that he learned from his father "to suppress all passion for young men", although as Emperor he instituted no official sanctions against homosexuality, other than to refuse to acknowledge the existence of Antinous, boyfriend of his patron the Emperor Hadrian. But Marcus's life was not always so earnest. Hadrian adopted Marcus in 138 AD after the early death of his father, and appointed Marcus Cornelius Fronto as his tutor. Fronto was born in Numidia around 95 AD, studied in Alexandria, and was to become a Consul in 143, becoming famous as an advocate and orator, and a teacher of literature and archeology upon his retirement from public life. He valued eloquence more highly than philosophy, but failed to persuade his serious pupil to follow that path. Marcus Aurelius's writings are moving in their simplicity, while Fronto's works often have more elegance than pith. (Walter Pater translates his beautiful apologue on sleep in Marius the Epicurean.) Fronto loved children and the young men who lived with him as his pupils, but he was unlucky in having the blossoming of these affections cut short, for five of his own six children predeceased him, and he also lost a grandson for whom he composed a moving elegy. The relationship between the eighteen-year-old pupil and his middle-aged teacher seems to have been playfully passionate, and the letters which survive from this earliest period are characteristic of both the elder orator noted for his splendid rhetoric (pompa) and the young emperor-to-be whom Hadrian nicknamed Verissiums, most truthful of men. Marcus Aurelius kept a bust of Fronto amongst his own household gods, and erected his statue in the Senate upon his death in 176.
MARCUS AURELIUS TO MARCUS CORNELIIUS FRONTO
c. 139 AD
To my master.
I have received two letters from you at once. In one of these you scolded me and pointed out that I had written a sentence carelessly; in the other, however, you strove to encourage my efforts with praise. Yet I protest to you by my health, by my mother's and yours, that it was the former letter which gave me the greater pleasure, and that, as I read it, I cried out again and again O happy that I am! Are you then so happy, someone will say, for having a teacher to show you how to write a maxim more deftly, more clearly, more tersely, more elegantly? No, that is not my reason for calling myself happy. What, then, is it? It is that I learn from you to speak the truth. That matter of speaking the truth is precisely what is so hard for Gods and men . . . .
Farewell, my good master, my best of masters. I rejoice, best of orators, that you have so become my friend. My Lady [i.e. his mother Domitia Lucilla, or his adopted mother Faustina the elder].
MARCUS AURELIUS TO FRONTO
c. 139 AD
Hail my best of masters.
If any sleep comes back to you after the wakeful nights of which you complain, I beseech you write to me and, above all, I beseech you take care of your health. Then hide somewhere and bury that "axe of Tenedos" [proverb for unflinching justice], which you hold over us, and do not, whatever you do, give up your intention of pleading cases, or along with yours let all lips be dumb. . . .
Farewell, breath of my life. Should I not burn with love of you, who have written to me as you have! What shall I do? I cannot cease. Last year it befell me in this very place, and at this very time, to be consumed with a passionate longing for my mother. This year you inflame that my longing. My Lady greets you.
FRONTO TO MARCUS AURELIUS AS CAESAR
c. 139 AD
This is the third letter that I am sending you on the same theme . . . . But if the present treatise [A Discourse on Love, composed by Fronto in Greek] seems to you to be longer than those which were previously sent through Lysias and Plato, let this be a proof to you that I can claim in fair words to be at no loss for words. But you must consider now whether my words are no less true than new.
No doubt, O Boy, you will wish to know at the very beginning of my discourse how it is that I, who am not in love, long with such eagerness for the very same things as lovers. I will tell you, therefore, first of all how this is. He who is ever so much a lover is, by Zeus, gifted with no keener sight than I who am no lover, but I can discern your beauty as well as anyone else, aye, far more accurately, I might say, even than your lover. But, just as we see in the case of fever patients, and those who have taken right good exercise in the gymnasium, the same result proceeds from different causes. They are both thirsty, the one from his malady, the other from his exercise. It has been my lot also to suffer some such malady from love . . .
Money given by me you would be right in calling a gift, but given by a lover a quittance. And the children of prophets say that to gods also is the thank-offering among sacrifices more acceptable than the sin-offering, for the one is offered by the prosperous for the preservation and possession of their goods, the other by the wretched for the averting of ills. Let this suffice to be said on what is expedient and beneficial both to you and to him.
But if it is right that he should receive aid from you . . . you set this on a firm basis . . . you framed this love for him and he devised Thessalian love-charms . . . owing to his insatiable desire . . . unless you have manifestly done wrong. [mutilated passage in the manuscript]
And do not ignore the fact that you are yourself wronged and subject to no small outrage in this, that all men know and speak openly thus of you, that he is your lover; and so, by anticipation and before being guilty of any such things, you abide the imputation of being guilty. Consequently the generality of the citizens call you the man's darling; but I shall keep your name unsullied and inviolate. For as far as I am concerned you shall be called Beautiful, not Darling [kalos, not ephebos]. . . .
Your lover, too, as they say, composes some amatory writings about you in the hope of enticing you with this bait, if with no other, and attracting you to himself and catching you; but such things are a disgrace and an insult and a sort of licentious cry, the outcome of stinging lust, such as those of wild beasts and fed cattle, that from sexual desire bellow or neigh or low or howl. Like to these are the lyrics of lovers. If, therefore, you submit yourself to your lover to enjoy where and when he pleases, awaiting neither time that is fitting nor leisure nor privacy, then, like a beast in the frenzy of desire, will he make straight for you and be eager to go to it not the least ashamed. . . .
One thing more will I tell you, and if you will pass it on to all other boys, your words will seem convincing. Very likely you have heard from your mother, or from those who brought you up, that among flowers there is one [perhaps the sunflower or marigold] that is indeed in love with the sun and undergoes the fate of lovers, lifting itself up when the sun rises, following his motions as he runs his course, and when he sets, turning itself about; but it takes no advantage thereby, nor yet, for all its love for the sun, does it find him the kinder. Least esteemed, at any rate, of plants and flowers, it is utilized neither for festal banquets nor for garlands of gods or men. Maybe, O Boy, you would like to see this flower. Well, I will show it you if we go for a walk outside the city walls as far as the Illisus . . .
MARCUS AURELIUS TO FRONTO
c. 139 AD
Hail, my best of masters.
Go on, threaten me as much as you please and attack me with hosts of arguments, yet shall you never drive your lover, I mean me, away; nor shall I the less assert that I love Fronto, or love him the less, because you prove with reasons so various and so vehement that those who are less in love must be more helped and indulged. So passionately, by Hercules, am I in love with you, nor am I frightened off by the law you lay down, and even if you show yourself more forward and facile to others, who are non-lovers, yet will I love you while I have life and health. . . .
This I can without rashness affirm: if that Phaedrus of yours ever really existed, if he was ever away from Socrates, Socrates never felt for Phaedrus a more passionate longing than I for the sight of you all these days: days do I say? months I mean . . . [line missing in manuscript] unless he is straightaway seized with love of you. Farewell, my greatest treasure beneath the sky, my glory. It is enough to have had such a master. My Lady mother sends you greeting.
SOURCE: The Correspondence of Marcus Cornelius Fronto, ed. C. R. Haines, 2 vols. (London: William Heinemann; New York: G. P. Putnam, 1919).