Roman emperors are notoriously unknowable. We read about their exploits in the pages of Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio, but their personalities are too often subsumed beneath a veneer of rhetoric and invective. With the second century emperor Marcus Aurelius, matters are a little different: we not only have the record of his innermost thoughts provided by the Meditations, but also a substantial number of private letters, exchanged with his tutor and friend, Cornelius Fronto, over a period of some twenty-five years. These letters were first discovered by Cardinal Mai in the Ambrosian Library in Milan in 1815, but proved somewhat of a disappointment to scholars hoping to unravel the lives of these two great men. Here was Marcus Aurelius, the great philosopher emperor, not thinking great thoughts, but writing about his holidays at imperial villas or his boredom while listening to speeches. Here was Cornelius Fronto, acclaimed as the greatest Latin orator after Cicero, complaining about his health problems and writing simpering letters to courtiers. Even more controversially, some of the amorous language in the letters suggests that the two men may have been in love, a possibility not taken seriously until very recently. In this paper, I will unravel the secrets of Marcus and Fronto’s correspondence, demonstrating that far from being disappointing, their letters provide vital insights into the mind of a Roman emperor.
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