The Distractions of Someone Else’s Marginalia

Someone else’s marginalia

This has been a challenging spring. Veering off sidewalks for social distancing, searching for masks suddenly recommended by the CDC,  and sacrificing civil liberties to stay home and stop the virus from spreading (as well as we can).

Terrified and saddened by the news, I have avoided reading even novels about the plague, with the exception of 150 pages of Connie Willis’s award-winning SF novel, Doomsday Book.  In this absorbing book, the heroine time-travels to a Plague year in the 14th century.  I may return to it later–much later.  

Reading ancient literature  is a distraction from the pandemic. I recently finished Cicero’s  First Philippic against Marcus Antonius, one of fourteen speeches against Mark Antony.  I adore  Cicero, but may I just say, I am not quite sure which side I am on here.   Antony is much sexier, at least in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, which does make him more interesting, and though  Cicero is brilliant, and often endearing in his letters, he has no sex appeal, which shouldn’t matter at all.   I do imagine he would be  the kind of person you’d love to gossip with at parties.

And it doesn’t help that Cicero spends the first four pages of the speech making excuses for his  absence from the senate from June to January. (He had fled Rome.).  But he takes advantage of Antony’s rare absence from the senate to imply that Antony is not ill at all.  And, damn, he is effective!   

Here’s the thing.  The Fourteenth Philippic, which I read less summer,  is much more exciting. The First is far from his best work.   

 I was also distracted by faded penciled marginalia in this  1952 reprint of a 1926 Latin edition.  I spent a lot of time deciphering this student’s notes.

Most of his/her notes are elementary, but the handwriting is so beautiful I kept thinking it mght be useful. Well, no, but:  “Father-in-law” she scrawls, with a line pointing to the Latin word socero.  She circles last and first syllables of  words that belong together.  Above a perfect infinitive (influxisse) in the middle of a line, she wrote what looks like  “Laura.”  I decided she meant “dawned,” but it still looks like Laura

I don’t usually buy books with marginalia, but this one turned up at a sale, and I do think the introduction and commentary are brilliant.  In the preface, the editor J. D. Denniston expresses ambivalence about Cicero.

Some readers will think I have done less than justice to Cicero, as a man and as a statesman.  I admit that he was in many respects an attractive person, a pure liver in a licentious age, and an unusually honest provincial governor…  He has been unfortunate, not doubt, in bequeathing to posterity a correspondence which has furnished so much of the evidence against him.

I love Cicero, the most brilliant writer of his time, but he can be exasperating.  

Don’t start with the First Philippic.

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