A Father’s Advice – Cicero De Officiis (On Duties)

This month, Ray Laurence reflects on how concepts of age by key Roman writers feature in Latin texts and how age shapes the expectations of the young by the old.

The Lucius films feature a theme of the relationship between a teenage son and his father. Many have asked for the evidence for this relationship, it lies in many ancient texts and in this blog, we will take a look at what Cicero says about the matter in On Duties written in 44 BC.

On Duties or De Officiis was advice from Cicero to younger men in Rome in the aftermath of Caesar’s murder on the Ides of March and, in particular, his son – Marcus junior – studying in Athens. His son is 21 years old and Cicero is 63. Marcus has returned from Athens, where he was taught by Cratippus.   Marcus has already gained military glory commanding cavalry under the leadership of Pompey (now dead). LINK to 2.45.

Cicero sees that duties is a subject worthy of his auctoritas (authority) and his age (LINK to section 1.4) and the treatise was seen by him to replace a trip to see young Marcus in Athens.

Age plays its part in defining the difference between Cicero as a senex (an old man) and his son as a iuvenis (youngman). Their worlds are defined in On Duties as very different – but the intersection of the old and the young was essential for both the old and the young in (Link to 1.122):

  • Youth must respect his elders and choose from their number the best and most upright person, whose advice and authority he will depend on;
  • The good sense of old age was there to guide the inexperience of youth;
  • Youth was a period of time to guard against passions and to train the body and the mind in toil and endurance to flourish in both military and civil duties;
  • Pleasure was to be enjoyed but in a restrained way and one that did not bring shame on the youngman

Never far away within On Duties, lies Cicero’s greatest year of his life – his consulship – held when Marcus was an infant, not that this stops Cicero from raising the matter: ‘I am allowed to boast to you Marcus. For yours, it is both to inherit my glory and to imitate my deeds’. He can compare this to military triumphs of others, including Pompey, but notes that: ‘Let arms yield to the toga’. LINK to 1.77-8. It is his consulship that defines both his identity and that of his son.

The Lucius films also set out to encapsulate the relationship between the inhabitants of Rome, both as citizens and as people who used the city of Rome. There is much on this in On Duties. Cicero sees a relationship between an individual and all humans, there is everybody in the world. Yet, then, can narrow things down to just those of the same race, tribe or language, or even further to living in a single city. Within cities, Cicero saw everyone sharing their citizenship, and also the physical aspects of the city: forum, temples, porticoes and roads. In addition, they also shared the same time laws, legal rights and elections; as well as business transactions. However, within each city – the closest group were relatives as the link to this passage shows (Link to 1.53).

Cicero – junior, Marcus at the age of 21 years could have been looking to be married within the next three to five years and to establish a house in which things were shared. In fact, sharing can be seen as a key aspect of Roman identity from marriage through to citizenship. The bonds of family are also discussed in On Duties: with children, between brothers – think of the tempestuous relationship between Cicero and his brother (link here), and also bonds with cousins (Marcus and his Cousin Quintus) and second cousins. There are then 54 more forms of familial relatives listed. Kinship had its hierarchy, but was something to map very carefully.

Even the sort of house, a leading man should have is covered in On Duties: it needed to be open to the public gaze and Cicero considers the openness of a house to have been a factor in the gain or the loss of consular elections, as you can see from this link 1.138. Yet, a house does not win a consulship – it accommodates visitors and guests, but needs a limit on its luxuriousness or magnificence. To demonstrates this he cites the example of Lucullus living in villas to be imitated, but having a lifestyle no one would want to imitate (LINK to 1.140).

Everyone was at risk from the perils of luxury and if the old succumb, they were seen to drag the young down with them, which provides a view of the old (Link to 1.123):

  •  Use of the body was reduced, but the exercise of their minds increased;
  • They should assist their friends and the young and most of all the republic with good advice;
  • Idleness and inactivity was best avoided;
  • Luxurious living was particularly dishonourable in old age;
  • Unrestrained passion in old age was shameful, but would also affect the young (who were advised by the elderly)

There is a sense in which duties were performed for the future and the memory of those deeds in the present. As Cicero makes clear in book 2 of On Duties:

 ‘We must make an effort to affect as many as possible by kind services of such a sort that the memory of them is handed down to children and children’s children, so that they too may not be without gratitude’ (Link to 2.61).

 Thus, the great banquets and games given by Julius Caesar would have been seen as extravagant and only to be remembered briefly; whereas the ransoming of captives from bandits, paying a friend’s debts, provision of a friend’s dowry for his daughter; or help a friend expand a property were seen more positively and to have been lasting over a longer time frame (Link to 2.55-56). Cicero reviews all the splendid games given by the aediles in the past, and discusses the building activities of Pompey: a theatre, temples and a porticus being open to critique as extravagant. Noting that: it would have been better to have spent the money on: but can simply say it would be better to spend money on walls, docks, harbours, or aqueducts – things of utility rather than of beauty (Link to 2.57-60).

On Duties contains advice of an old man to his young son, who he sees as becoming independent through the study of philosophy – but nevertheless still needs guiding and advising by his father on how to live his life (Link to`3.5).

Reading this text, we might place Cicero in the law-courts or in the Forum; but the reality was, as he sets out in On Duties 3.1, that there was no place for Cicero in public life in 44 BC – he was living in enforced leisure (otium) and composed treatises such as On Duties.

Further Research
You will have seen above how there are concepts of age embedded within the text of On Duties or De Officiis. You can examine almost any Latin text to see how age shapes the Roman conceptions of how people should behave, what they should do and so on. It is slightly surprising how age is often ignored or just missed in the reading of Latin literature. Thus, you may wish to examine how age influenced the writing of Cicero’s speeches such as the Pro Caelio or in his Letters to Atticus from 43 BC that discuss the abilities of Octavian, who he wished to provide guidance for as an old man. The advice to the young by the old was an essential part of the role of the senex. Interestingly, most of Latin Literature was written by men in late mid-life to old age. This is particularly true of philosophical works by Cicero and Seneca. It could be said that stoicism was a philosophy that was designed by the old in order to endure the challenges of Old Age.

More information on ageing is available:

Harlow, M. & Laurence R. 2002. Growing Up and Growing Old in Ancient Rome: A Life Course Approach, Routledge: London.

Harlow, M. & Laurence R. 2011. ‘Viewing the ‘Old’: Recording and Respecting the Elderly at Rome’, in Christian Krötzl & Katariina Mustakallio (eds) De senectute et mortis: Ideals and Attitudes towards Old Age and Death in Antiquity and Middle Ages, Brepolis, pp.3-24.

Harlow, M. & Laurence R. 2010. ‘De Amicitia: The Role of Age’, Acta Instituti Romani Finlandiae 36: 21-32.