De Latinis Historicis—Atticus

Cornelius Nepos

Home/Ancient Texts | Beliefs | Relationships | History | Resources | Epicurean Philosophy List

In one his collections of biographical sketches, Cornelius Nepos described the life of an Epicurean from the first century B.C., the banker, publisher, and close associate of Cicero, Titus Pomponius Atticus:

Titus Pomponius Atticus, descended from the most ancient Roman ancestry, kept uninterrupted the equestrian rank inherited from his forbears. His father was industrious, by the standards of those days wealthy, and greatly interested in literature. He, in accord with his love of letters, educated his son in all those branches of learning in which boyhood should be made to share. As a boy, in addition to a natural capacity for learning, he also had an exceptionally agreeable expression and tone, so he not only swiftly learned passages that were set, but also recited them extremely well. As a result he had a distinguished reputation among his peers and shone forth more brightly than his high-born schoolmates could bear with indifference. Thus he roused them all by his own zeal: among their number were—Lucius Torquatus, the younger Gaius Marius, and Marcus Cicero; with all of whom he became so close that no one was dearer to them throughout his life.

His father died early. As a young man, because of his being an in-law of Publius Sulpicius, who was killed while tribune of the plebians, he had some share in that danger; for Anicia, a cousin of Pomponius on his mother's side, had married Servius, Sulpicius' brother. So when Sulpicius was killed and Atticus saw that the state was thrown into strife by the disorder Cinna incited, and that he was given no opportunity to live in keeping with his rank without offending one side or the other—the citizens' loyalties were divided with some favoring the party of Sulla, others that of Cinna—he thought it was the right time to devote himself to his studies and moved to Athens. Nevertheless, when the younger Marius had been declared an enemy of the state, he helped him from his own resources and assisted his escape with money. And in order that his travels abroad should do his estate no harm, he moved a substantial part of his fortune to Athens.

There he lived in such a manner that he became greatly beloved by all Athenians, and for good reason. For apart from his personal charm which was already abundant in his youth, he often relieved their public want from his own resources; when they were obliged to roll-over the public debt and were unable to obtain reasonable terms for it, he always intervened on terms where he never accepted usurious interest rates from them nor allowed them to remain in debt beyond the term fixed. Both conditions were advantageous to them, since he neither suffered their debt to become overdue by his leniency nor to grow through compounding of the interest. He augmented this service by a further act of generosity: he gave them all six modii [~50 liters] of wheat per person: the equivalent measure being called a medimnus at Athens.

His behavior in Athens was such that he showed himself to be at one with the humblest and equal with the mighty. The result was that they bestowed upon him all the public honors possible and desired to make him a citizen. This gift he was unwilling to take advantage of, because the jurists hold that if one becomes a citizen elsewhere, Roman citizenship is forfeited. So long as he lived there, he opposed the erection of any statue to him, but when he left he could not stop them. And so they put up several statues to him and Phidiae in their most sacred places, for in all the administration of the state's business, they treated him as both agent and adviser. It was, therefore, fortune's foremost gift that he was born in that very city where rulership over the world resided, so that it was for him both his fatherland and home; on the other hand, it was a mark of his wisdom that when he moved to the city which surpassed all others in its antiquity, culture, and learning, he was dearer to it than all other men.

When Sulla came to Athens on his way back from Asia, he kept Pomponius by him as long as he was there, captured by the young man's culture and learning. He spoke Greek so well that he seemed a native Athenian; on the other hand his Latin was so graceful that its charm seemed somehow inborn, not learned. He also recited poetry, both in Greek and in Latin, so well that there was nothing further to be desired. The effect of this was that Sulla at no point left him and wanted to take him back with him to Italy. When Sulla tried to persuade him, “No, please, I beg you,” said Atticus, “I left Italy to avoid bearing arms against you in the company of those men against whom you would lead me.” Sulla praised the young man's sense of duty, and ordered that all the gifts which he had received at Athens be passed on to him when he departed. He resided at Athens for several years; he gave as much attention to his family estate as the careful master of a household should, and devoted all the rest of his time either to literature or to the Athenians' public affairs.

At the same time he placed himself at the service of his friends in Rome, for he often came to their elections, and never failed them if there was any important action taken; thus, he was exceptionally loyal to Cicero in all his perils: when he fled his country, Atticus made him a present of 250,000 sesterces [~7,800 troy ounces of silver]. After calm was restored to affairs at Rome, he returned, I believe when Lucius Cotta and Lucius Torquatus were consuls. On his departure the whole citizen body of Athens escorted him, showing by their tears their grief at his coming absence. .

His uncle on his mother's side was Quintus Caecilius, a Roman knight and a friend of Lucius Lucullus, a rich man of a very difficult nature. Atticus so respected his harshness that he gave no offense and retained his goodwill—though no one else could stand him—down to his old age and thereby reaped the fruits of his devotion, for Caecilius at his death adopted him in his will and made him heir to three-quarters of his estate: from this inheritance he received about 10 million sesterces [~312,500 troy ounces of silver]. Atticus' sister was married to Quintus Tullius Cicero; the marriage was arranged by Marcus Cicero, with whom Atticus lived on very close terms ever since they were students together, indeed much more intimately than with Quintus, which shows that similarity of character carries more weight in friendship than ties of blood. He was also on such intimate terms with Quintus Hortensius, who in those days was among the foremost in eloquence, that one couldn't know whether Cicero or Hortensius loved him more dearly, and he achieved the very difficult feat of preventing conflict between two men who so competed for glory; he was himself the bond between these two men.

His conduct in public life was such that he always belonged and was regarded as belonging to the optimates [the aristocratic party]; yet he did not commit himself to the waves of civil disorder, for he considered that men who entrusted themselves to such waves were no more in control than those who were tossed by the waves of the sea. He did not seek offices, though they were open to him through both his influence and his status; because they could not be canvassed for as in the good old days, and couldn't be won without breaking the law amid the unlimited bribery and corruption, nor could they be administered to the state's advantage without danger when public morals had been so corrupted. He never took part in a public auction of confiscated property. He never became a public surety or a public contractor [for farming tax-revenues]. He accused no one, whether in his own name or as seconder; he never went to law on his own account; he never exercised jurisdiction.

The post of prefect, offered him by many consuls and praetors he accepted on condition that he accompany no one to his province, be content with the honor alone, and despise the profit to his estate. He would not even consent to go with Quintus Cicero to Asia, though he might have obtained the post of legate [lieutenant-governor] on his staff, for he said that it was not appropriate, after he had refused to hold a praetorship [governorship], to be a praetor's assistant. He served therein the interests not only of his dignity but also of his peace of mind, since he avoided any suspicion of criminality. Consequently everyone valued more highly the courtesy which he showed them, since they could see it was to be attributed to his genuine respect for others and not to fear or hope.

When he was about 6o, Caesar's civil war broke out. He took advantage of the exemption due to his age, and did not move away from Rome. Whatever his friends needed when they set out to join Pompey he gave from his own fortune. Pompey himself, close though he was to him, he did not offend. From him he was holding no award, as others did, who through him had received either office or money; some of them most reluctantly joined his army, while others remained at Rome and gave him the greatest offense. Atticus' inactivity was so gratifying to Caesar that when he had won, and was demanding money from private individuals by letter, not only did he give Atticus no trouble, but at his request pardoned his sister's son and Quintus Cicero, as they were in Pompey's camp. Thus by his old rule of life he avoided new dangers.

Then there was that time after Caesar's death, when it seemed that the state was in the hands of the two Brutuses and Cassius, and that all the citizens had turned to them. He was on such good terms with Marcus Brutus that the younger man was not closer to any of those his own age than he was to Atticus, old though he was. Brutus kept him not only as his principal adviser, but also as a daily companion. Some men formed the idea that a private fund should be set up by the Roman equestrians for the assassins of Caesar. They thought it could easily be brought about if the leading men of the order contributed money. So Gaius Flavius, an intimate of Brutus, appealed to Atticus to lead the scheme. But because he thought that services should be performed for friends, but not join parties, and had always kept away from such plots, he replied that if Brutus wished to make any use of his resources he might do so as far as they permitted, but that he would neither discuss nor join with anyone in that plan. So the unity of the conspiratorial association was shattered, just by this one man's disagreement.

Not long after that, Antony began to gain superiority, to such an extent that Brutus and Cassius ceased to perform the duties assigned to them as a pretext by the Consul, utterly despaired of the situation, and went into exile. But Atticus, who had refused to contribute money along with others to that cause when it was prospering, sent Brutus, when he was in dire straits and leaving Italy, a gift of 100,000 sesterces [~3,125 troy ounces of silver]. In his absence,. he sent orders for another 300,000 sesterces [~9,375 troy ounces of silver] to he given to Brutus in Epirus. He did not flatter Antony the more in his time of power on that account nor abandon those in despair.

After that came the war fought at Modena. During it, if I just called him prudent, I should praise him less than I should, since it was more properly a divination, if by divination we mean a perpetual natural goodness which no circumstances shaken or lessen. When Antony was adjudged a public enemy and left Italy, there was no hope of his restoration. Not only his enemies, who were then very numerous and powerful, but also those who had joined with his opponents and hoped by doing him harm to gain some advantage, began to persecute Antony's friends, wanted to rob his wife Fulvia of all her possessions, and even preparing to put his children to death.

Atticus, though he was very intimate with Cicero, and a close friend of Brutus, not only gave them no encouragement towards injuring Antony, but on the contrary protected, as far as he could, those close to him as they fled from the city, and helped them with whatever they required. To Publius Volumnius he gave so much that more could not have come from a parent. Further, to Fulvia herself, when she was distracted by lawsuits and tormented by great anxiety, so diligently did he perform his services that she never appeared in court without Atticus, and Atticus was her surety in all legal actions. Even more, since she had in the days of her propsperity bought an estate to be paid for by a fixed date, and was unable, after the calamity, to raise a loan, stepped in and lent her the money with no interest and no stipulated terms, considering it his greatest gain to be acknowledged as mindful of and grateful for favors, and at the same time to make it obvious that he was accustomed to be a friend not to good fortune, but to people.

In so doing no one could think that he acted bide his time, for no one held the opinion that Antony would return to power. But gradually he was most sharply criticized by several optimates, because they thought he wasn't sufficiently hostile to bad citizens. Atticus, however, being a man of independent judgment, considered what it was right for him to do rather than what others were going to commend.

Fortune suddenly changed. Antony returned to Italy, and everyone thought that Atticus was in very great danger because of his close intimacy with Cicero and Brutus. Thus, on the eve of the junta's homecoming he had withdrawn from public life, fearing proscription, and was in hiding at the house of Publius Volumnius, to whom, as I have explained, he had helped shortly before. Such was the changeability of fortune at that time that now one party, now the other, was at the extremes either of the heights of power or of the depths of peril; he had with him Quintus Gellius Canus, a man of his own age and very similar to him. This may also serve as an example of Atticus' goodness that he lived on such close terms with this man, whom he had known as a boy in school, that their friendship continued growing on down to their old age.

Antony on the other hand, though he was spurred on by such hatred for Cicero that he was an enemy not only to him but to all his friends and wanted to proscribe them, as many encouraged him to do, still remembered the services rendered him by Atticus. After he had found out where he was, he wrote to him in his own hand telling him not to be afraid and to come to him at once; he had removed his name, and for his sake Canus, from the list of the proscribed. And so that no danger might befall him—that used to occur at night—he sent him an escort. Thus Atticus at a time of great danger served to protect not only himself but also the friend whom he held dearest. Nor did he seek aid from anyone for his own safety alone, but did so also for his friend's, so that it appeared that he desired no good fortune for himself that was not shared by his friend. But if the helmsman who saves the ship from a storm in a rock-filled sea is exalted with the highest praise, why should not the skill of a man who reached safety after such grave and numerous tempests of civil strife be thought unparalleled? .

Once he emerged from these troubles, he made it his one goal to help as many people as he could and in whatever manner he could. When the mob was seeking out those proscribed for the rewards offered by the junta, no one came to Epirus who lacked for anything they needed and everyone was given the means to stay there permanently. Even more, after the battle of Philippi and the death of Gaius Cassius and Marcus Brutus, he even began to protect Lucius Julius Mocilla, the ex-praetor, and his son, and Aulus Torquatus, and the other victims of the same misfortune, ordering that all they needed should be transported from Epirus to Samothrace. It is difficult to cover all the details, nor is it necessary. I want one point clear, that his generosity did not depend on biding time or on calculation of gain. It may be understood from the facts and circumstances themselves since he did not sell himself to those in power but always helped those in trouble. He even took care of Servilia, Brutus' mother, no less after his death than while she prospered.

He was generous and pursued no quarrels, since he harmed no one, and if he had received some injury, he certainly preferred to forget, not to avenge. He likewise retained the kindness he had received in an unfailing memory, while those he had himself bestowed he remembered for as long as the recipient was grateful. He so acted as to bear out the truth of the saying “it is each man's character that shapes his fortune.” Nor did he shape his fortune before he shaped his character so as to take care not to ever be injured with justification.

So by such conduct he brought it about that Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, who was a most intimate friend of the young Caesar, although through his own influence and Caesar's power had the opportunity of any match he desired, chose an alliance by marriage with the family of Atticus, and preferred the daughter of a Roman equestrian over an optimate bride. It was—and this is not to be concealed—Marcus Antonius, triumvir for reconstituting the republic, who arranged this marriage. Where Atticus might have increased his possessions through his influence, so far was he from a avaricious desire for money that he only used his influence in begging the removal of his friends' dangers or annoyances.

This was really quite evident during the proscription itself. Lucius Saufeius, who was a Roman equestrian of the same age as Atticus, and who was drawn by his love of philosophy to live several years in Athens, held valuable estates in Italy. When the triumvirs, according to the manner in which things were done at the time, sold the property, Atticus' good work and efforts brought it about that it was by the same messenger that Saufeius was told both that he had lost, and that he had regained, his inheritance. Likewise for Lucius Julius Calidus, who I truly think I can say is by far the most elegant poet which our age has produced since the death of Lucretius and Catullus, and no less a good man and well-educated in the most important arts; who was in his absence entered in the register of the proscribed by Publius Volumnius, Antony's chief engineer, after the proscription of the equestrians, on account of his large estates in Africa. It is hard to determine whether it was at this time more troublesome or more glorious for Atticus, since it was recognized that in their time of peril he cared for his friends whether present and absent.

But he was regarded as no less good a master of his household than he was a citizen. Although he was wealthy, no man was less inclined to excess in buying and in building. However, he did live extremely well and used the best of everything. His residence, built by Tamphilus on the Quirinal hill, had been left to him by his uncle, the charm of which lay not in the building but in the landscape, for the structure itself was built long ago and had more taste than luxury. In it he changed nothing except in situations when he was forced to by its age. His slaves, if judged by their usefulness, were excellent; if judged by their appearance, mediocre. For among them there were highly educated slaves, excellent readers, and numerous copyists, so there was not even a single footman who could not both read and copy well. Similarly, the other specialists required for domestic comfort were especially good.

Notwithstanding this, he owned no one who wasn't born and trained in the household; this is a sign not only of his restraint but also of his industry. For, first, not to have immoderate desires, such as you would see in many, should be considered the sign of self-control, and, second, to procure by work rather than by expenditures is a sign of no ordinary determination. He was of good taste, not pretentious; distinguished, not extravagant; and with all his efforts aimed not at excess but at elegance. His furniture was moderate, not copious, so that it could not be noted for either excess.

Nor shall I pass over, although I think it may seem trivial, that though he was of the richest Roman equestrians, and with no lack of hospitality invited to his home men of all ranks, we know from his daily accounts he used to allow 3,000 sesterces [~ 94 troy ounces of silver] a month on average for domestic expenses. This I state as a matter not reported but observed, for I often joined in his life at home on account of our relationship.

At dinner-parties no one heard any entertainment other than a reader, which is quite delightful in my opinion, nor was there ever a dinner at his house without some reading to please his guests' minds not less than their bellies; for he invited people whose way of life was not incompatible with his own. When the great increase in his wealth occurred, he made no change in his daily routine and displayed such moderation that neither on the 2 million sesterces [~ 62,500 troy ounces of silver] which he had inherited from his father did he live with insufficient splendor, nor on 10 million sesterces [~ 312,500 troy ounces of silver] did he live in greater extravagance than before, and on both fortunes maintained the same level. He had no gardens, no expensive villa near Rome or by the sea, nor any country estate in Italy, except for those at Arezzo and Mentana. All his income came from the estates in Epirus and Rome. From this one can see that he measured the usefulness of money not by quantity but by reason.

He never told lies nor could endure them. Hence his courtesy did not lack severity nor his gravity charm, so that it was difficult to understand whether his friends more respected or loved him. Whenever a request was made him, he gave his word scrupulously, because he thought it not generous but rather capricious to the extent that one could not perform. He was also so careful in attending to what he had promised them that he gave the impression of carrying out not a mandate for another but his own business. He never tired of a venture once undertaken, for he thought his own reputation was involved in it, and than that there was nothing dearer to him. Thus the consequence was that he looked after all the business affairs of the Ciceros, of Marcus Cato, Quintus Hortensius, Aulus Torquatus, and of many Roman equestrians besides. From this the judgment is permissible that he avoided administration of the state's business not from indolence but from choice.

Of his humanity I can report no greater proof than that as a young man he was most dear to Sulla in his old age, yet likewise as an old man was the same to the young Marcus Brutus, while with men of his own age, Quintus Hortensius and Marcus Cicero, he lived on such good terms that it is difficult to judge to which generation he was best suited. And yet it was Cicero who held him in high esteem, so much so that not even his own brother Quintus was dearer or closer to him. To demonstrate the point, apart from the published works in which Cicero mentions Atticus, there are sixteen rolls of letters, sent to Atticus from the time of his consulship to the end of his life. Whoever read them would have little need of a continuous history of these times, for they offer so full a record of everything to do with the leaders' policies, generals' blunders, and changes in the state that there is nothing that does not appear in them, and it is easy to think that Cicero's foresight was almost prophetic, for not only did he predict things which actually happened in his lifetime, but also foresaw like a prophet events now currently experienced.

What more should I tell of Atticus' devotion to his family? I heard him priding himself on just this at his mother's funeral, whom he buried at the age of ninety, being himself sixty-seven, that he never had occasion to need reconciliation with his mother nor quarreled with his sister, who was roughly his own age. That is a sign either that no conflict had ever occurred between them or that he was so indulgent towards his family that he judged it vicious to be angry with those whom he ought to love. Nor did he do this because of nature alone, although we all obey her, but also on account of his principles, for he had so fully perceived the precepts of the principal philosophers that he employed them for conducting his life, not for show.

He was a great follower of ancestral custom and lover of antiquity, which he had so thorough a knowledge that he set it all out in the volume in which he placed the magistrates of each year in order. For there is no law nor peace treaty nor war nor any other illustrious deed of the Roman people which is not recorded in it at its proper date and—this was most difficult—he has so worked out the genealogies of families that from it we can learn the descendents of our famous men. He did the same thing in his other books; thus at the request of Marcus Brutus he gave an account of the Junian family from its origin to the present time, recording who was whose offspring, what magistracies he held, and their dates. He did the same at Claudius Marcellus' request for the Marcelli, at Cornelius Scipio's and Fabius Maximus' on the Fabii and Aemilii. There can be nothing more delightful than these books to those who have some desire for knowledge about famous men.

He also touched on poetry in order to have some part, I suppose, in its charm, for it was in verse that he celebrated those who surpassed the rest of the Roman people in honors received and in the greatness of their deeds, inscribing beneath the portraits of each of them their deeds and magistracies in not more than four or five verses. It is barely believable that such important achievements could be set forth so concisely. There is also a single book written in Greek on the consulate of Cicero.


The preceding chapters were published in Atticus' lifetime. Now, since fortune has decreed that I survive him, I shall complete our account and so far as possible show my readers by means of actual examples, as I indicated above, that for the most part it is each man's character that determines his fortune. For content as he was with the equestrian rank in which he was born, he married into the family of the emperor, son of the deified Caesar; after having already won his friendship previously through no other means than by the refined style of life thanks to which he had charmed the other leaders of the city, Caesar's equals in standing but inferiors in good fortune. For such prosperity befell Caesar that Fortune refused him nothing that she had given anyone previously and granted him what no Roman citizen was able to achieve. To Atticus there was born a granddaughter by Agrippa, to whom he had given his daughter in marriage as a girl. This granddaughter Caesar betrothed when she was scarcely a year old to Tiberius Claudius Nero his stepson [later known as the Emperor Tiberius], the son of Drusilla. This union confirmed their close relations and rendered their friendly intercourse more frequent.

Even before this betrothal, when Octavian was absent from Rome, he never sent a letter to any friend or kinsman without letting Atticus know what he was doing and above all what he was reading, and where and for how long he was going to be staying. But also, when he was in Rome and enjoyed Atticus' company less often than he might wish on account of his countless engagements, hardly even a single day passed on which he did not write to him; sometimes he asked him something about antiquity, sometimes he put him some difficult passage in poetry, sometimes he jestingly coaxed longer letters from him. So it happened that when the temple of Jupiter Feretrius, which had been founded on the Capitol by Romulus, from age and neglect had lost its roof and was collapsing, it was at Atticus' urging that Caesar saw to its restoration. Although far away, Marcus Antonius cultivated him in correspondence no less, and so took care to inform Atticus exactly on what he was doing from the ends of the earth. Just what this means will be more readily appreciated by a reader who can judge how much wisdom it requires to retain the intimacy and goodwill of those two men who were divided not only by a competition for the highest prizes, but by such a mutual disparagement as was bound to occur between Caesar and Antony when each of them desired to be the leader not only of the city of Rome but of the entire world.

He had completed seventy-seven years in such a manner, and into extreme old age had advanced no less in dignity than in influence and fortune—for he obtained many inheritances exclusively by his own goodness—and had enjoyed such good health that he had not needed medicine for thirty years, then he fell ill. At the beginning neither he nor his physicians took it seriously, for they thought it was a griping of the bowel [i.e. dysentery] for which swift and simple remedies were proposed. When he had suffered for three months in this condition without any pain except for those he experienced from the treatment, the disease burst so violently into his lower intestine that at the end ulcers full of pus burst through his loins.

And before this befell him, after he felt the pains increase daily and the fever grow, he gave orders for his son-in-law Agrippa to be summoned, and Lucius Cornelius Balbus and Sextus Peducaeus along with him. When he saw they had come, he leaned on one elbow and said: “How much care and attention I have devoted to restoring my health recently I do not need to tell at length, since I have you as witnesses. Since I have, I hope, satisfied you that I have left nothing undone that might serve to cure me, all that is left is that I now look after my own well-being. I did not wish you to be ignorant of my purpose: for I am resolved no longer to nourish the disease. For however much food I have taken in these last days, I have so prolonged my life as to increase the pain without hope of recovery. Thus I beg of you both to approve of my resolution and not to try to shake me by pointless dissuasion”

After giving this speech with such resolve in his voice and expression that he seemed not to be quitting life but moving from one house to another, Agrippa in particular embraced him in tears and begged him not to hasten his death over and above nature's compulsion, and, since even then he might survive the crisis, to preserve himself for his own sake and for the sake of those dearest to him, but Atticus quelled his pleas with silent obstinacy. So when he had abstained from food for two days, the fever suddenly abated and the disease began to be more bearable. Nevertheless he carried through his resolution undeviatingly and so died on the fifth day after he made his decision, on the last day of March when Gnaeus Domitius and Gaius Sosius were consuls [March 31rst, 22 B.C.]. He was carried to his burial on a modest bier as he had himself directed, without any funeral procession, but escorted by all men of substance and by very large crowds of the common people. He was buried by the Appian Way at the fifth milestone, in the tomb of his maternal uncle Quintus Caecilius.