Nihil igitur afferunt, qui in re gerenda versari senectutem negant, similesque sunt ut si qui gubernatorem in navigando nihil agere dicant, cum alii malos scandant, alii per foros cursent, alii sentinam exhauriant, ille autem clavum tenens quietus sedeat in puppi. non facit ea, quae iuvenes, at vero multo maiora et meliora facit. non viribus aut velocitate aut celeritate corporum res magnae geruntur, sed consilio, auctoritate, sententia, quibus non modo non orbari, sed etiam augeri senectus solet.
(Cicero, De Senectute 17)

Those, therefore, who allege that old age is devoid of useful activity adduce nothing to the purpose, and are like those who would say that the pilot does nothing in the sailing of his ship, because, while others are climbing the masts, or running about the gangways, or working at the pumps, he sits quietly in the stern and simply holds the tiller. He may not be doing what younger members of the crew are doing, but what he does is better and much more important. It is not by muscle, speed, or physical dexterity that great things are achieved, but by reflection, force of character, and judgement; in these qualities old age is usually not only not poorer, but is even richer. (tr. William Armistead Falconer)



Ibi, ut ex pristino sermone relaxarentur animi omnium, solebat Cotta narrare, Crassum sermonem quendam de studio dicendi intulisse. qui cum ita esset exorsus, non sibi cohortandum Sulpicium et Cottam, sed magis utrumque collaudandum videri, quod tantam iam essent facultatem adepti, ut non aequalibus suis solum anteponerentur, sed cum maioribus natu compararentur, “neque vero mihi quicquam” inquit “praestabilius videtur, quam posse dicendo tenere hominum coetus, mentes allicere, voluntates impellere quo velit; unde autem velit, deducere. haec una res in omni libero populo, maximeque in pacatis tranquillisque civitatibus, praecipue semper floruit, semperque dominata est. quid enim est aut tam admirabile, quam ex infinita multitudine hominum exsistere unum, qui id, quod omnibus natura sit datum, vel solus vel cum paucis facere possit? aut tam iucundum cognitu atque auditu, quam sapientibus sententiis gravibusque verbis ornata oratio et polita? aut tam potens tamque magnificum, quam populi motus, iudicum religiones, senatus gravitatem unius oratione converti? quid tam porro regium, tam liberale, tam munificum, quam opem ferre supplicibus, excitare adflictos, dare salutem, liberare periculis, retinere homines in civitate? quid autem tam necessarium, quam tenere semper arma, quibus vel tectus ipse esse possis vel provocare integer vel te ulcisci lacessitus? age vero, ne semper forum, subsellia, rostra curiamque meditere, quid esse potest in otio aut iucundius aut magis proprium humanitatis, quam sermo facetus ac nulla in re rudis? hoc enim uno praestamus vel maxime feris, quod colloquimur inter nos, et quod exprimere dicendo sensa possumus. quam ob rem quis hoc non iure miretur, summeque in eo elaborandum esse arbitretur, ut, quo uno homines maxime bestiis praestent, in hoc hominibus ipsis antecellat? ut vero iam ad illa summa veniamus; quae vis alia potuit aut dispersos homines unum in locum congregare, aut a fera agrestique vita ad hunc humanum cultum civilemque deducere, aut, iam constitutis civitatibus, leges, iudicia, iura describere? ac, ne plura, quae sunt paene innumerabilia, consecter, comprehendam brevi; sic enim statuo, perfecti oratoris moderatione et sapientia non solum ipsius dignitatem, sed et privatorum plurimorum et universae rei publicae salutem maxime contineri. quam ob rem pergite, ut facitis, adulescentes, atque in id studium, in quo estis, incumbite, ut et vobis honori et amicis utilitati et rei publicae emolumento esse possitis.”
(Cicero, De Oratore 1.29-34)

In that place, as Cotta was fond of relating, Crassus introduced a conversation on the pursuit of oratory, with a view to relieving all minds from the discourse of the day before. He began by saying that Sulpicius and Cotta seemed not to need exhortation from him but rather commendation, seeing that thus early they had acquired such skill as not merely to be ranked above their equals in age, but to be comparable with their elders. “Moreover,” he continued, “there is to my mind no more excellent thing than the power, by means of oratory, to get a hold on assemblies of men, win their good will, direct their inclinations wherever the speaker wishes, or divert them from whatever he wishes. In every free nation, and most of all in communities which have attained the enjoyment of peace and tranquillity, this one art has always flourished above the rest and ever reigned supreme. For what is so marvellous as that, out of the innumerable company of mankind, a single being should arise, who either alone or with a few others can make effective a faculty bestowed by nature upon every man? Or what so pleasing to the understanding and the ear as a speech adorned and polished with wise reflections and dignified language ? Or what achievement so mighty and glorious as that the impulses of the crowd, the consciences of the judges, the austerity of the Senate, should suffer transformation through the eloquence of one man? What function again is so kingly, so worthy of the free, so generous, as to bring help to the suppliant, to raise up those that are cast down, to bestow security, to set free from peril, to maintain men in their civil rights ? What too is so indispensable as to have always in your grasp weapons wherewith you can defend yourself, or challenge the wicked man, or when provoked take your revenge?” Nay more (not to have you for ever contemplating public affairs, the bench, the platform, and the Senate-house), what in hours of ease can be a pleasanter thing or one more characteristic of culture, than discourse that is graceful and nowhere uninstructed? For the one point in which we have our very greatest advantage over the brute creation is that we hold converse one with another, and can reproduce our thought in word. Who therefore would not rightly admire this faculty, and deem it his duty to exert himself to the utmost in this field, that by so doing he may surpass men themselves in that particular respect wherein chiefly men are superior to animals? To come, however, at length to the highest achievements of eloquence, what other power could have been strong enough either to gather scattered humanity into one place, or to lead it out of its brutish existence in the wilderness up to our present condition of civilization as men and as citizens, or, after the establishment of social communities, to give shape to laws, tribunals, and civic rights? And not to pursue any further instances—wellnigh countless as they are—I will conclude the whole matter in a few words, for my assertion is this: that the wise control of the complete orator is that which chiefly upholds not only his own dignity, but the safety of countless individuals and of the entire State. Go forward therefore, my young friends, in your present course, and bend your energies to that study which engages you, that so it may be in your power to become a glory to yourselves, a source of service to your friends, and profitable members of the Republic.” (tr. Edward William Sutton)



Ego qualem Kalendis Ianuariis acceperim rem publicam, Quirites, intellego, plenam sollicitudinis, plenam timoris; in qua nihil erat mali, nihil adversi quod non boni metuerent, improbi exspectarent; omnia turbulenta consilia contra hunc rei publicae statum et contra vestrum otium partim iniri, partim nobis consulibus designatis inita esse dicebantur; sublata erat de foro fides non ictu aliquo novae calamitatis, sed suspicione ac perturbatione iudiciorum, infirmatione rerum iudicatarum; novae dominationes, extraordinaria non imperia, sed regna quaeri putabantur. quae cum ego non solum suspicarer, sed plane cernerem (neque enim obscure gerebantur) dixi in senatu in hoc magistratu me popularem consulem futurum. quid enim est tam populare quam pax? qua non modo ei quibus natura sensum dedit sed etiam tecta atque agri mihi laetari videntur. quid tam populare quam libertas? quam non solum ab hominibus verum etiam a bestiis expeti atque omnibus rebus anteponi videtis. quid tam populare quam otium? quod ita iucundum est ut et vos et maiores vestri et fortissimus quisque vir maximos labores suscipiendos putet, ut aliquando in otio possit esse, praesertim in imperio ac dignitate. quin idcirco etiam maioribus nostris praecipuam laudem gratiamque debemus, quod eorum labore est factum uti impune in otio esse possemus. qua re qui possum non esse popularis, cum videam haec omnia, Quirites, pacem externam, libertatem propriam generis ac nominis vestri, otium domesticum, denique omnia quae vobis cara atque ampla sunt in fidem et quodam modo in patrocinium mei consulatus esse conlata?
(Cicero, Leg. Agr. 2.8-9)

I am aware, Romans, what the condition of the republic was when it was handed over to me on the 1st of January; it was full of anxiety, full of fear; in it there was no evil, no calamity which good citizens did not dread, which the bad were not hoping for. All kinds of seditious plots against the present form of government and against your quiet were reported, some to be already in progress, some to have been entered on the moment we were elected consuls. All confidence was banished from the forum, not by the stroke of some fresh calamity, but owing to suspicion and the disorganization of the law-courts, the invalidation of decisions already made; new tyrannies, extraordinarypowers, not merely military, but regal powers, were, it was supposed, being aimed at. Since I not only suspected what was going on, but saw it plainly (for everything was done quite openly) I declared in the senate that, as long as I held this office, I would be the people’s consul. For what is so welcome to the people as peace, the delights of which not only those animals whom nature has endowed with sense, but even the houses and fields appear to me to enjoy? What is so welcome to the people as liberty, which you see is longed for and preferred to everything else not only by men but also by beasts? What is so welcome to the people as repose, which is so pleasant that both you and your ancestors and the bravest of men think that the greatest labours ought to be undertaken in order to enjoy repose some day, especially when accompagnied by authority and dignity? Surely the very reason we owe especial praise and heartiest thanks to our ancestors is because it is thanks to their labours that we are able to enjoy repose free from danger. How then can I help being on the side of the people, Romans, when I see that all these things—peace outside, liberty the characteristic of your name and race, tranquillity at home, in short, everything that is nearest and dearest to you, were entrusted to my keeping and, in a way, to the protection of my consulship? (tr. John Henry Freese)



Gradus autem plures sunt societatis hominum. ut enim ab illa infinita discedatur, proprior est eiusdem gentis, nationis, linguae, qua maxime homines coniunguntur. Interius etiam est eiusdem esse civitatis; multa enim sunt civibus inter se communia, forum, fana, porticus, viae, leges, iura, iudicia, suffragia, consuetudines praeterea et familiaritates multisque cum multis res rationesque contractae. artior vero colligatio est societatis propinquorum; ab illa enim inmensa societate humani generis in exiguum angustumque concluditur. nam cum sit hoc natura commune animantium, ut habeant libidinem procreandi, prima societas in ipso coniugio est, proxima in liberis, deinde una domus, communia omnia; id autem est principium urbis et quasi seminarium rei publicae. sequuntur fratrum coniunctiones, post consobrinorum sobrinorumque, qui cum una domo iam capi non possint, in alias domos tamquam in colonias exeunt. sequuntur conubia et affinitates ex quibus etiam plures propinqui; quae propagatio et suboles origo est rerum publicarum. Sanguinis autem coniunctio et benivolentia devincit homines et caritate. magnum est enim eadem habere monumenta maiorum, eisdem uti sacris, sepulcra habere communia.
(Cicero, De Officiis 1.53-55)

There are indeed several degrees of fellowship among men. To move from the one that is unlimited, next there is a closer one of the same race, tribe and tongue, through which men are bound strongly to one another. More intimate still is that of the same city, as citizens have many things that are shared with one another: the forum, temples, porticoes and roads, laws and legal rights, law-courts and political elections; and besides these acquaintances and companionship, and those business and commercial transactions that many of them make with many others. A tie narrower still is that of the fellowship between relations: moving from that vast fellowship of the human race we end up with a confined and limited one. For since it is by nature common to all animals that they have a drive to procreate, the first fellowship exists within marriage itself, and the next with one’s children. Then, there is the one house in which everything is shared. Indeed that is the principle of a city and the seed-bed, as it were, of a political community. Next there follow bonds between brothers, and then between first cousins and second cousins, who cannot be contained in one house and go out to other houses, as if to colonies. Finally there follow marriages and those connections of marriage from which even more relations arise. In such propagation and increase political communities have their origin. Moreover, the bonding of blood holds men together by goodwill and by love; for it is a great thing to have the same ancestral memorials, to practise the same religious rites, and to share common ancestral tombs. (tr. Miriam Tamara Griffin & E. Margaret Atkins)



Attamen, quae causae sunt eiusmodi, ut de earum iure dubium esse non possit, omnino in iudicium vocari non solent. num quis eo testamento, quod paterfamilias ante fecit, quam ei filius natus esset, hereditatem petit? nemo; quia constat agnascendo rumpi testamentum. ergo in hoc genere iuris iudicia nulla sunt. licet igitur impune oratori omnem hanc partem iuris incontroversi ignorare, quae pars sine dubio multo maxima est; in eo autem iure, quod ambigitur inter peritissimos, non est difficile oratori, eius partis, quamcumque defendat, auctorem aliquem invenire; a quo cum amentatas hastas acceperit, ipse eas oratoris lacertis viribusque torquebit.
(Cicero, De Or. 1.241-242)

And yet those cases which are such that the law involved in them is beyond dispute, do not as a rule come to a hearing at all. Does anyone claim an inheritance under a will made by the head of a household before the birth of a son of his? No one; since it is settled law that the will is revoked by such subsequent birth. Thus there are no judicial
decisions on this branch of the law. And so the orator may safely disregard all this region of unquestionable law, being as it certainly is by far the larger portion of the science: while, as for the law which is unsettled in the most learned circles, it is easy enough for him to find some authority in favour of whichever side he is supporting, and, having obtained a supply of thonged shafts* from him, he himself will hurl these with all the might of an orator’s arm.

* These were javelins with a slinging-strap to help the thrower.

(tr. Edward William Sutton, with his note)


Paul Gauguin, D'où venons-nous, que sommes-nous, où allons-nous, 1897
Paul Gauguin, D’où venons-nous ? Que sommes-nous ? Où allons-nous ? (1897-98)

Nimis caducum simul ac superbum animal est homo, nimis alte fragilibus superedificat fundamentis. e tanta sodalium turba ad quem redacti numerum sumus, vides; et ecce, dum loquimur, ipsi etiam fugimus atque umbre in morem evanescimus, momentoque temporis abiisse alter alterum accipiet, et ipse mox previum secuturus. quid ergo sumus, frater optime? quid sumus? nec desinimus superbire. suis angoribus consternatus Cicero, in epystola quadam ad Athicum, “Ipsi” inquit “quid sumus aut quandiu hec curaturi sumus?” brevis quidem sed bona, ni fallor, questio, et salutaris et gravida atque utilibus plena sententiis, sub qua multum vere humilitatis ac modestie multumque contemptus rerum fugitivarum vigil fossor inveniet. “quid sumus?” inquam; quam gravi, quam tardo, quam fragili corpore, quam ceco, quam turbido, quam inquieto animo, quam varia quamque incerta volubilique fortuna! “qut quandiu hec curaturi sumus?” profecto perbreviter. nempe non aliud sonat, quam si diceret: “ipsi quid sumus, et hoc ipsum quandiu futuri sumus?” utique hercle non diu, cum hoc idem nostrum esse, ut diuturnum esse non potest, sic nunc possit inter verba desinere, neque si accidat, miri aliquid acciderit. utrunque igitur bene et graviter queris, Marce Tulli; sed, queso te, ubinam tertium reliquisti, et eventu periculosius et quesitu dignius? postquam hic esse desierimus, quid futuri sumus? o rem magnam et ambiguam, sed neglectam! vale.
(Petrarca, Epist. Fam. 8.7.23-26)

Man is both too mortal and too proud a creature, and builds too high on brittle foundations. YOu see the small number to which we have been reduced from so great a group of friends, and even as we talk we ourselves are fleeting and disappearing like a shadow, and in a moment of time one of us will learn that the other has departed, destined himself soon to follow his predecessor. O best of brothers, what are we? What? And yet we do not abandon our pride. Cicero once, overwhelmed by anxieties, wrote in a letter to Atticus: “Who are we, really, or for how long will we concern ourselves over these woes?” A short question, but a good one, if I am not mistaken, one beneficial and loaded with useful thoughts, that will force the wakeful investigator to find much true humility and modesty and much contempt for fleeting affairs. I say again, what are we? How heavy, slow and fragile is our body, how blind, how troubled, how disturbed our mind, how shifting and unsure and mobile is Fortune. Or how long shall we care for these troubles? Surely only for a very brief time. To me this does not sound any different than if Cicero were saying: “Who are we, really? And how long shall we be the same person?” In any case, not for long, since our identities cannot last for long and can come to an end now as we speak, and if it happened this would be nothing strange. So you do well and wisely to ask both questions, Marcus Tullius; but I ask you, where did you leave that third possibility, more dangerous in outcome and more worthy of investigation? After we have ceased to exist here, what shall we become? What a great and problematic issue, but one overlooked! Farewell. (tr. Elaine Fantham)


Pieter Claesz, Vanitas, 1630
Pieter Claesz, Vanitas (1630)

Male de Seio. sed omnia humana tolerabilia ducenda. ipsi enim quid sumus aut quam diu haec curaturi sumus? ea videamus quae ad nos magis pertinent, nec tamen multo. quid agamus de senatu? et ut ne quid praetermittam, Caesonius ad me litteras misit Postumiam Sulpici domum ad se venisse. de Pompei Magni filia tibi rescripsi me nihil hoc tempore cogitare; alteram vero illam quam tu scribis, puto, nosti: nihil vidi foedius. sed adsum. coram igitur.
obsignata epistula accepi tuas. Atticae hilaritatem libenter audio. commotiunculis συμπάσχω.
(Cicero, Ep. ad Att. 249 (=12.11))

I am so sorry about Seius. But we must resign ourselves to the lot of mankind and all that is part of it. What after all are we, and how long shall we be taking these things to heart? Let us look at matters which concern us more directly, though not much more. What am I to do about the Senate? And, not to leave anything out, Caesonius has sent me a letter to say that Postumia, Sulpicius’ wife, has been to see him at his house. I wrote to you in answer to your remark about Pompeius Magnus’ daughter that I had no such thought at present. As for the other lady you mention, I think you know her. She is quite remarkably ugly. However I am nearly home, and we shall talk of it* together.
After sealing my letter I received yours. Glad to hear of Attica’s good spirits. I sympathize with her little upsets.

* I.e., of a new wife for Ciero, who had divorced Terentia earlier in the year. The ‘other lady’ may have been Hirtius’ sister, whom according to St. Jerome (Adversus Iovinianum, 1.48) Cicero declined to mary on the ground that he coul not devote himself equally to a wife and to philosophy.

(tr. David Roy Shackleton Bailey, with his note)