Adventures in Decoding Cicero's "Consolation"Roundup
tags: digital humanities, classics, Cicero, Forgery
Mike Fontaine teaches Latin at Cornell University. Readers of Antigone will enjoy The Pig War, his bilingual edition of the Pugna Porcorum. He would like to thank Mark Saltveit for helping edit this essay.
Sooner or later, every Latinist hears about Cicero’s lost masterpiece. Known as the Consolation, it was his searching and personal exploration of overwhelming grief. He wrote it on the death of his daughter, Tullia, and as a later writer, Lactantius (AD c.250–325), put it:
Tullius in sua Consolatione pugnasse se semper contra fortunam loquitur, eamque a se esse superatam, cum fortiter inimicorum impetus retudisset; ne tum quidem se ab ea fractum, cum domo pulsus patria caruit: tum autem, cum amiserit carissimam filiam, victum se a fortuna turpiter confitetur. “Cedo,” inquit, “et manum tollo.”
In his Consolation, Marcus Tullius says he always fought Fortune and won, in thwarting his enemies’ attacks. She didn’t break him even when he’d been chased from home and homeland. When he loses his dearest daughter, though, he shamefully admits that Fortune has defeated him: “I give up,” he says. “It’s over.” (Divine Institutes 3.28.9)
Tullia, the light of his life, was only 32.
From those depths of despair, Cicero found a way out – and it consisted of the Consolation itself. It seems his essay was equal parts philosophy and self-help book. And with it, Cicero later boasted to his friend Atticus, he’d done something no one ever had before: “I talked myself out of depression” (ipse me per litteras consolarer, Att. 12.14.3).
Admired for generations, Cicero’s Consolation was lost at some point during or after the 4th century. All that remained were 23 fragments quoted in books or letters by Lactantius, Pliny the Elder, Augustine, and Cicero himself. The direct quotations amount to only 500 words, with allusions to its contents adding a couple thousand more. Petrarch (1304–74), who rediscovered Cicero’s letters, lamented that he couldn’t find this book.
In 1583, though, against all odds, the text sensationally resurfaced in Venice. Or did it? Unlike most recovered texts, it appeared as a printed book, not as a manuscript, and it didn’t give any clue as to where it had come from. Some suspected a hoax, and polemics broke out instantly. These went back and forth for years, and skeptics predominated, but there was no conclusive proof either way.
The problem was that the text seemed so real. It contained all the known fragments of the lost Consolation, and the rest sounded exactly like Cicero as well. It included many famous examples of Romans who survived grief, examples that Cicero had made inquiries about in contemporary letters to his friends. Much of the content matches what we find in the Tusculan Disputations (45 BC), Cicero’s next book which he began writing very soon after the Consolation. And the style itself is highly Ciceronian.
Four centuries after the polemics petered out, a computer program analyzed the style in 1999 and concluded that it was “probably” not authentic. The computer was right. I was able to prove it definitively last year, and what I discovered in the process was startling. Here’s the story.