The best friend of Marcus Tullius Cicero was Titus Pomponius, called Atticus. Even though they were often apart, Cicero and Atticus exchanged letters over the years that reveal a friendship of rare devotion and warm affection.
In the year 44 BCE, in his waning years, living on his farm outside of Rome removed from political power by the dictatorship of Julius Caesar, under the law condemning to exile anyone who executed a Roman citizen without a trial (Catiline’s conspirators condemnation to death), after the recent loss of his beloved daughter Tullia, Cicero produced some of the most readable and influential essays ever written on subjects ranging from the nature of the gods and the proper role of government to the joys of growing older and the secret to finding happiness in life. Among these works was a short essay on friendship dedicated to Atticus, “How to Be a Friend” or in Latin De Amicitia.
According to Aulus Gellius, the inspiration for the thoughts contained in How to Be a Friend was primarily the lost work of the peripatetic Theophrastus, Aristotle’s pupil and successor, as well as the ethical works of Aristotle and the Greek Stoic philosopher Chrysippus. Cicero doesn’t deny that friendship viewed in mostly practical terms as a relationship between people for mutual advantage is important, but he reaches beyond the utilitarian to praise a deeper kind of friendship in which two people find in each other another self who doesn’t seek profit or advantage from the other person. Cicero creates in this short work a compelling guide to finding, keeping, and appreciating those people in our lives we value not for what they can give us, but because we find in them a kindred soul.
With this work, with the words of Laelius – in truth the words of Cicero – on the nature of friendship, Cicero erected a Cicero – Atticus friendship monument.
Cicero’s guide to true friendship had a tremendous influence on writers in the ages following him, from St. Augustine to the Italian poet Dante and beyond, and was one of the earliest books translated into and printed in English.
Here are some of Cicero’s timeless advice on friendship:
- There are different kinds of friendship.
- Only good people can be true friends.
- We should choose our friends with care.
- Friends make you a better person.
- Make new friends, but keep the old.
- Friends are honest with each other.
- The reward of friendship is friendship itself.
- A friend never asks another friend to do something wrong.
- Friendships can change over time.
- One way or another, friendship creeps into every life and allows no way of living without it. Even a person so savage and fierce by nature that he shuns and loathes human society, like the legendary Timon of Athens, can’t stand not to have someone around him on whom to spew his poison. Judge by the following whether or not I’m right: Suppose a god carried you far away to a place where you were granted an abundance of every material good nature could wish for, but denied the possibility of ever seeing a human being. Wouldn’t you have to be as hard as iron to endure that sort of life? Wouldn’t you, utterly alone, lose every capacity for joy and pleasure?