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Fronto

(c. 95—166 ad)


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(c.ad 95–c.166),

orator, suffect consul July–August 143; born at Cirta (Constantine) in Numidia (north Africa); completed his education in Rome; a leading advocate under Hadrian, he was appointed tutor by Antoninus Pius to Marcus Aurelius (Caesar) and his adoptive brother Lucius Verus, remaining on intimate terms with them until his death, probably from the plague of 166/7.

Though famous for his oratory (‘not the second but the other glory of Roman eloquence’, XII Panegyrici Latini 8 (5). 14. 2, an allusion to Cicero), Fronto is known today almost exclusively through his correspondence, chiefly with Marcus, but also with Pius, Lucius, and various friends. The letters expound and illustrate his stylistic theories: the orator must seek out the most expressive word in Early Latin texts, preferring the unusual to the commonplace provided it is not obscure or jarring (but new coinages are discountenanced); he must dispose his words in the best order and cultivate rhetorical figures, the sententia (a brief saying embodying a striking thought), and the image-like description (eikōn). Among Fronto's favourite authors are Cato the Elder, Plautus, Ennius, and Sallust; Cicero, though unsurpassed as a letter-writer, is criticized as an orator for taking insufficient pains to find ‘unexpected and surprising words’ (insperata atque inopinata verba, 57. 16–17). Virgil is ignored, Lucan and Seneca the Younger damned.

The letters also illustrate Fronto's distaste for Stoicism, his distress at its hold on Marcus, his constant ill-health, his family joys and sorrows, and the difficulties of life at court. He complains (111. 17–20) that Romans have no capacity for affection (philostorgia), nor even a name for it; Marcus, silent on Fronto's rhetorical tuition, acknowledges that he has learnt from him the hypocrisy of courts and the coldness of Roman patricians (M. Aur. Med. 1. 11). Their own correspondence is marked by extreme displays of affection.

A few declamations and fragments of speeches have also survived, as has a draft for a panegyrical history of the Parthian War. Minucius Felix (Oct. 9. 6–7) quotes a speech alleging that Christian ritual included incest and murder; despite the entire absence of political advice from Fronto's letters, some have seen in this invective the origin of Marcus' persecution. At the opposite extreme, it has been dismissed as incidental forensic abuse; it might also have been a speech in loyal support of imperial policy.

Aulus Gellius includes Fronto in five chapters of his Attic Nights; three are in book 19, perhaps making the connection seem closer than it was. His authority in questions of vocabulary is vividly conveyed, but the admiration expressed for Quadrigarius and Virgil is probably Gellius' own. Fronto reacts with dismay to a report that ‘Gellius’ (presumably Aulus) is trying to acquire and publish his works (182. 5–6).

Before his letters came to light in 1815, Fronto had been idealized as the wise counsellor of a philosophic emperor; afterwards an exaggerated reaction dismissed him as a futile twaddler. He was more remarkable for mastery of language and warmth of heart than for keenness of intellect or strength of purpose; but our few fragments of his speeches tend to justify his ancient fame.

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Subjects: Classical Studies.


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