In this letter, the future Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius uses erotic terms in his homework assignment from his mentor Fronto, who has asked him to read Plato's Phaedrus
. It is interesting to note that Marcus has flipped the traditional arrangement of the Greek same-sex model; although Fronto is his mentor, Marcus calls himself the erastes
[lover in charge of the relationship].
mi magister optime.
Ave perge, quantum libet, comminare et
argumentorum globis criminare: Numquam tu tamen erasten tuum, me dico
depuleris; nec ego minus amare me Frontonem praedicabo minusque amabo, quod tu tam variis tamque vehementibus sententiis adprobaris minus amantibus magis opitulandum ac largiendum
esse. Ego hercule te ita amore depereo neque deterreor isto tuo dogmate ac, si
magis eris aliis non amantibus properus et promptus, ego tamen amabo atque usque amabo. Ceterum quod ad sensuum densitatem, quod ad
inventionis argutiarum, quod ad aemulationis
tuae felicitatem adtinet, nolo quidem dicere te multo placentis
illos sibi et provocantis Atticos antevenisse, ac tamen nequeo quin dicam. Amo
enim et hoc denique amantibus vere tribuendum esse censeo, quod victoriis τῶν ἐρωμένων magis gauderent. Vicimus
igitur, vicimus, inquam. Num . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . praestabilius sub laquearibus quam
sub platanis, intra pomerium quam extra murum, sine deliciis quam ipsa Lai
proxime adsistente habitanteve disputari? Nequeo retejaclari, utra re magis
caveam, quod de Lysia orator saeculi hujus dogma tulerit an quod magister meus
de Platone. 3 Illud equidem non temere adjuravero: Si quis iste re
vera Phaeder fuit, si umquam is a Socrate afuit, non magis Socraten Phaedri
desiderio quam me per istos dies (‘dies’ dico? ‘menses’, inquam) tui adspectus
cupidine arsisse… Tua epistula haec fecit, ne ille Diona esset quin tantum amet
nisi confestim tuo amore corripitur.
Vale, mihi maxima res sub caelo, gloria mea.
Sufficit talem magistrum habuisse. Domina mater te salutat.
--A letter of Marcus Aurelius preserved in the correspondence of Marcus Cornelius Fronto, Add.7 ( 249 Haut, Haines I.30)
Hello, my best mentor!
Go on then, threaten and
complain with any heap of arguments as much as you can: for you will never get
rid of me, your lover (erasten)! For even if you give me a convincing
argument with varied and vehement words that the *object* of a lover’s desire (minus
amantibus, a Latin pun on the Greek term eromenos) ought to be cherished and lavished
with gifts [more than the lover himself], I will not I will not stop declaring that I love my Fronto
any less, and I won’t stop loving you. For by Hercules, I am dying for love of you, nor am I kept in check
by your rules (dogmate). Even if you treat others--others that you don’t
love--better than me, I will still keep on loving you.
[Reading Plato's Phaedrus] I shouldn’t say that you’re
better than all those cocky and self-sure Attic intellectuals [in the book] because of the wealth
of your thoughts, the cleverness of your wit, the utter perfection of your
imitation: but here I am, saying it. I love you and I reckon that it’s proper for a person in love to say that they enjoy their lovers’ [τῶν ἐρωμένων] victories more than
their own. We’ve won, so in effect, I’ve won …
But [still reading Plato’s
Phaedrus] whether someone is under intricately paneled ceiling or under a plane tree,
whether inside or outside the city walls, holding a discussion without your
sweetheart (deliciis) is [main clause missing] than while Lais herself is not only at hand, but also a
neighbor. But I can’t seem to wrap my head around which is worse, what the politician (orator) Fronto said about Lysia or what my mentor (magister) Fronto has said about Plato.
And I don’t say this lightly: if Phaedrus actually existed in real life,
if he was ever apart from Socrates, Socrates could not have burned in longing for
Phaedrus more than I burn in longing for you all these days (“days”? I mean “months”!).
Your letter has such effect that he wouldn’t need to be Dion* to love you so
much, but rather he’d immediately be seized by a love for you at first sight.
Goodbye, my glory, the
best thing to happen to me under heaven. It’s enough that I had such a mentor. My mother says “hi.”
*Dion was one of Plato's lovers
Fronto was a Roman statesman born in Cirta (Numidia, located in northern
Africa) whose rhetorical and literary abilities earned him the nickname “Second
Cicero.” He was tutor and mentor to the future Roman emperors Marcus Aurelius
and Lucius Verus; his correspondence with them provides unique insight into
the personal lives of much of the Antonine dynasty.