Francis Petrarch (1304-1374)
Letter to Cicero

Original Electronic Text at the web site of the Hanover Historical Texts Project.

Francis Petrarch has been labelled the "first modern man of letters" and the "founder of humanism." Probably best known for his creation of the sonnet form of poetry and for his love poems to Laura, he was also a prolific scholar and writer. He wrote theological and philosophical treatises, epic poems, and polemical works directed against those whom, he believed, had corrupted learning and religion in Christendom. He also played a leading role in rehabilitating the literary genre of the epistle, a letter addressed to a private individual but intended for a public audience. Most of Petrarch's letters are addressed to living human beings, but he did write several addressed to authors of the ancient world.

Petrarch was highly critical of the learning of his own age. He criticized scholasticism, the dominant method of learning in the "schools" or universities, as arid and useless, focusing too much on hair-spitting logic and on abstract and abstruse subjects. Petrarch instead looked to the ancients for guidance, and especially to Cicero. Marcus Tullius Cicero (104-43 B.C.E.) appealed to Petrarch and to subsequent humanists because his writings provided (in elegant Latin) an overview of all of Greek and Roman learning and specifically because Cicero was a prophet of a humanities-based liberal arts education favored by the humanists (and articulated by Vergerius in the next section). Petrarch wrote the following letter to Cicero after he had discovered a hitherto unknown cache of Cicero's letters. The letters reveal Cicero to be a man deeply involved in the Roman politics in the last years of the Republic, a partisan on the side of Republican liberty against the side of monarchy, or empire. Before reading the letters, Petrarch had imagined Cicero in his later years to be a sage philosopher, retired from public life and far removed from the world of politics.

1. Why would Petrarch write to a dead man?
2. Why exactly was Petrarch disappointed in Cicero? Of what does he accuse him?
3. What does the closing (paragraph 4) reveal about Petrarch's thinking?

To Marcus Tullius Cicero

[1] Your letters I sought for long and diligently; and finally, where I least expected it, I found them. At once I read them, over and over, with the utmost eagerness. And as I read I seemed to hear your bodily voice, O Marcus Tullius, saying many things, uttering many lamentations, ranging through many phases of thought and feeling. I long had known how excellent a guide you have proved for others; at last I was to learn what sort of guidance you gave yourself.

[2] Now it is your turn to be the listener. Hearken, wherever you are, to the words of advice, or rather of sorrow and regret, that fall, not unaccompanied by tears, from the lips of one of your successors, who loves you faithfully and cherishes your name. O spirit ever restless and perturbed! in old age---I am but using your own words---self-involved in calamities and ruin! what good could you think would come from your incessant wrangling, from all this wasteful strife and enmity? Where were the peace and quiet that befitted your years, your profession, your station in life? What will-o'-the-wisp tempted you away, with a delusive hope of glory; involved you, in your declining years, in the wars of younger men; and, after exposing you to every form of misfortune, hurled you down to a death that it was unseemly for a philosopher to die? Alas! the wise counsel that you gave your brother, and the salutary advice of your great masters, you forgot. You were like a traveller in the night, whose torch lights up for others the path where he himself has miserably fallen.

[3] Of Dionysius1 I forbear to speak; of your brother and nephew, too; of Dolabella2 even, if you like. At one moment you praise them all to the skies; at the next fall upon them with sudden maledictions. This, however, could perhaps be pardoned. I will pass by Julius Caesar,3 too, whose well-approved clemency was a harbour of refuge for the very men who were warring against him. Great Pompey,4 likewise, I refrain from mentioning. His affection for you was such that you could do with him what you would. But what insanity led you to hurl yourself upon Antony5? Love of the republic, you would probably say. But the republic had fallen before this into irretrievable ruin, as you had yourself admitted. Still, it is possible that a lofty sense of duty, and love of liberty, constrained you to do as you did, hopeless though the effort was. That we can easily believe of so great a man. But why, then, were you so friendly with Augustus6? What answer can you give to Brutus7? If you accept Octavius, said he, we must conclude that you are not so anxious to be rid of all tyrants as to find a tyrant who will be well-disposed toward yourself. Now, unhappy man, you were to take the last false step, the last and most deplorable. You began to speak ill of the very friend whom you had so lauded, although he was not doing any ill to you, but merely refusing to prevent others who were. I grieve, dear friend at such fickleness. These shortcomings fill me with pity and shame. Like Brutus, I feel no confidence in the arts in which you are so proficient. What, pray, does it profit a man to teach others, and to be prating always about virtue, in high-sounding words, if he fails to give heed to his own instructions? Ah! how much better it would have been, how much more fitting for a philosopher, to have grown old peacefully in the country, meditating, as you yourself have somewhere said, upon the life that endures for ever, and not upon this poor fragment of life; to have known no fasces, yearned for no triumphs, found no Catilines to fill the soul with ambitious longings!---All this, however, is vain. Farewell, forever, my Cicero.

[4] Written in the land of the living; on the right bank of the Adige, in Verona, a city of Transpadane Italy; on the 16th of June, and in the year of that God whom you never knew the 1345th.


1. Dionysius T. Pomponius was Cicero's tutor as a young man.
2. Dolabella P. Cornelius was a follower of Julius Caesar and later Marc Antony. Cicero defended him on capital charges in a court of law.
3. Gaius Julius Caesar ruled as dictator from 49 to 44 B.C.E. Cicero was an opponent of Caesar.
4. Gnaieus Pompeius, or Pompey, a consul and general, was a member, together with Caesar and Crassus, of the so-called First Triumvirate, which dominated Roman politics from 59 to 53.
5. Marcus Antonius, or Marc Antony, was one of Julius Caesar's principal lieutenants and held high offices in the 40s. He eventually formed the Second Triumvirate with Octavian and Lepidus
6. The Roman Senate conferred the title of "Augustus," or "blessed," on Gaius Octavius, known by modern historians as Octavian, the Roman leader who emerged as the victor in the years of armed struggle to became Rome's first emperor, ruling from 27 B.C.E to 14 C.E.
7. Marcus Brutus, a trusted lieutenant of Caesar, led the conspiracy to assassinate Julius Caesar.

James Harvey Robinson, ed. and trans.,
Francesco Petrarca: The First Modern Scholar and Man of Letters
(New York: G.P. Putnam, 1898).

Electronic text by the Hanover Historical Texts Project, 1995 and 1996.

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