For this 100th Snippet, let’s take a look further back in time than we generally do on Windows into History, and go right back to the year 100, when Marcus Cornelius Fronto was born. Not the most celebrated Roman writer nowadays, he was however considered during his lifetime to second only to Cicero in his oratory talents. His lack of reputation is partly as a result of little surviving of his writing, and what did only surfacing during the 19th Century. Reading through his body of work, I have found one of his letters particularly inspiring. Writing towards the end of his life, on the subject of all the great tragedy that had befallen him during his life (most recently the death of a grandson) he nevertheless managed to find some solace in his belief that the souls of his lost sons and grandson live on in heaven, and that he had himself lived the best life he possible could. It is quite remarkable that a man who had suffered so much (and his health had been another source of suffering to him over a long period of time) could find even a glimmer of hope in the midst of such sorrow.
Through the whole of my life Fortune has visited me with many sorrows such as this. For (to pass over my other afflictions) I have lost five children under the most pitiful conditions possible; for I lost the five one by one, when each was my only child, and thus suffered these shocks of bereavement in such a manner that I never had a child except when I was already bereaved. In this way I always lost my children without solace, and got them amid fresh mourning.
But those sorrows I bore more bravely, since the pain of them was mine alone. For my spirit battled with my sorrow, facing it as though in single combat, and fought against it as foe with foe, like matched with like. But now (that I have lost my grandson) my sorrow is increased by the sorrow (of my son-in-law), and the burden of my grief is more than I can bear; at the tears of Victorinus I melt and dissolve into weeping. Aye, often do I quarrel with the immortal gods and upbraid the fates.
That Victorinus, affectionate, merciful, truthful, upright and excelling in all the fine arts, should be crushed by the bitter blow of his son’s death — was this in any way just or fair? If providence governs the world, was this rightly “provided”? If all human affairs are decreed by fate, ought they to have been decreed by such a fate as this? Is there then to be no distinction between the fortunes of good and bad? Do not the gods or the fates discern the character of the man whose son is torn from his side? Some rascally scoundrel, who would have served the world better if he had never been born himself, brings up his children safe and sound and at his death leaves them to survive him; while Victorinus, a man of such stainless life that it were well for the state that many such be born, has lost his darling boy. What in the name of fortune is the providence whose provision is so unjust? They say that Fate is derived from fari, to speak; is this to speak correctly? Why, the poets assign to the fates distaffs and threads; surely no spinner would be so churlish and ignorant as to spin the threads of the master’s robe coarse and knotted, but that of the slave’s robe fine and delicate. That good men should be afflicted with sorrow and bad men enjoy their household safe and sound, seems to me neither the allotted work nor task for the spinning fates.
Unless, perhaps, it is really another misconception which is tossing us hither and thither in error, and in our ignorance we are desiring things which are evil as though they were good, and on the other hand shrinking from things that are good as if they were hurtful; it may be that death itself, which seems grievous to all, brings rest from toil and anxiety and trouble, and bears us, set free from the wretched fetters of the body, to regions calm and pleasant and filled with all things good, and to the meeting places of souls. I could more easily believe that this is so than that all human affairs are controlled by no providence at all, or by a providence which is unjust.
But if death is a cause for rejoicing rather than for grief to men, then the younger one dies the happier and the more beloved by the gods ought he to be esteemed, seeing that he has laid aside the sooner the ills of the body and has been called forth the sooner to enjoy the functions of a free soul. Yet, though this be true, it makes little difference to us who yearn for our dead; nor does the immortality of the soul afford any comfort to us, who all the days of our life miss our dear ones…
But I find my comfort in the tale of my years that is now all but told; for death is close at hand, and when death comes, be it by day or night, as I depart I shall greet the Heavens and testify as my conscience bids me:
“In the long years of my life I have done nothing which would bring dishonour, shame or disgrace; no deed of avarice or treachery have I done in all my life; nay rather, much generosity and friendliness, much loyalty and faithfulness have I shown, even at the risk of my life. I have lived most amicably with my excellent brother, and I rejoice that he attained to high office by your father’s grace; and I see that since he enjoys your friendship he is at peace in perfect security. The offices which I held myself I never sought by underhand means. I have cultivated my mind rather than my body. I have preferred the pursuit of learning to wealth. I have preferred to be poor rather than to be indebted to another’s help, and, in the last extremity, to want rather than to beg. I was never extravagant with my money. I have earned it sometimes from necessity. I have done my best to speak the truth and have never shirked hearing it. I preferred to be slighted rather than to fawn, I preferred silence to hypocrisy and to be the friend of few rather than the flatterer of many. I have sought little and deserved much. I have assisted everyone according to my means, as far as I could. I have given help readily to the deserving, recklessly to the undeserving. No one by turning out ungrateful has made me more slow in bestowing readily all the benefits I could give, nor have I ever been harsh to the ungrateful.
The translation of the original Latin text is taken from Madeline Dorothy Brock’s Studies in Fronto and his Age, published in 1911.
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