Cicero's Griefs II
Bill Long 11/26/07
Losing a Daughter
3. Though Cicero unceasingly berated himself for the breakup of his daughter's marriage (and for the failed marriage itself--with Dolabella. Indeed, it was her third failed marriage. Maybe she had as much difficulty choosing a good man as her dad did a good woman...), his grief knew no bounds when she died shortly after giving birth in January 45 BCE. Of all the fears a parent can have, the loss of a child is perhaps the worst. A child's death saps the energy from life and often sends the parent into a tailspin of inconsolable grief and regret. This essay will focus on what we know of how Cicero "coped with" or "dealt with" the loss of Tullia.
He first had to send away the unsympatheic Publilia, his new wife, though he apparently didn't formally divorce her. As the great biographer Plutarch says:
"He took the event so much to heart that he even sent away his wife, as she had seemed to take pleasure in Tullia's death."
At first Cicero took refuge with his friend Atticus in Rome, but this didn't last long, and he set out for his villa at Astura, about 40 miles South of Rome on the Tyrrhenian Sea. He poured out his soul to Atticus. In a March 9 letter he says:
"In this lonely place I have no one with whom to converse, and, plunging into a dense and wild wood early in the day, I do not leave it till evening. Next to you, I have no greater friend than solitude. In it my one and only conversation is with books. Even that is interrupted by tears, which I fight against as long as I can. But as yet I am not equal to it," Ad Atticus 12, 15.
A Friend Responds
In another letter he says, "I have lost the one thing that bound me to life." While in this disconsolate state, letters came to him, such as one from Caesar. One from the jurist Sulpicius, a governor in Achaia, had both a comforting and chiding tone to it.
"Why is it that a private grief should agitate you so deeply. Think how fortune has hitherto dealt with us. Reflect that we have had snatched from us what ought to be no less dear to human beings than their children--country, honor, rank, every possible distinction."
And then, in a sentence that sounds hauntingly similar to the advice Job's friend Eliphaz gave to him after the loss of all 10 of his children (Job 4), Sulpicius continues:
"Now is the time for you to convince us that you are able to bear ill fortune equally well, and that it does not appear to you to be a heavier burden than you ought to think it," Ad Fam. 4.5.
Sulpicius had been led to write this way because he had just made a boat trip and had sailed by the Greek cities of Aegina, Megara, Piraeus, Corinth, cities which he described as "at one time most flourishing but now prostrate and decayed." Shouldn't the fate of cities prove a kind of balm or tonic to the soul?
"Why do we insignificant mortals feel rebellious if one of us dies or is killed, we whose life must be brief, when in one place the remains of so many cities lie prostrate before us?" Why should Cicero be so distressed by the loss "of the frail spirit of one poor girl, who if she had not died would have had to die a few years hence, for she was mortal born?"
But we have the sense that Sulpicius has rather missed the point. He is parading the brilliant arguments of Stoicism to a person known to be sympathetic to Stoic philosophy, but all should know that when you lose a child, everything goes out the window. Neatly constructed systems of philosophy, apparently impregnable intellectual fortresses of rational argument, are simply no defense against the onslaught of the realization that the dearest thing in life to a father has been taken from him.
Turning to Writing
When the Yale Divinity School philosopher of religion, Nicholas Wolterstorff, lost his twenty-something son to a mountain climbing accident, Wolterstorff wrote a beautiful and poignant book Lament for a Son. When Cicero lost his daughter he, too, turned to writing. He wrote to Atticus from Astura:
"I assure you there is no more effective consolation [than writing]. I write all day long, not that it does any good, but for a while I experience a kind of relief, or if not quite that--for the violence of my grief is overpowering--yet I get some relaxation, and I try with all my might to recover composure."
But Cicero didn't just write aimlessly. He produced a book called the Consolatio. Though it certainly would have been written to describe his private grief, the book brings us into a genre of writing in antiquity, also called the Consolatio literature, which rather than being an attempt to comfort the writer, was intended to comfort the readers.
Little of the Consolatio survives today. One of the ironies or accidents of history is that things that are generally considered to be worthless or of little historical or literary value might survive, while other pieces we wish had survived have long disappeared. But one precious and heart-rending line remains:
"I have always fought against Fortune and beaten her. Even in exile I played the man. But now I yield and throw up my hand!," quoted in Haskell, This Was Cicero, 251.
Just as grief itself can't easily be contained in a predictable way, so, I suppose, my writing on grief can't easily be limited. I need one more essay which talks about the Consolatio as well as the other works that flew off Cicero's pen at this time.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long