Libyan perspectives: Cornelius Fronto self-identifies as a “barbarian” and Libyan nomad (mid-second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Libyan perspectives: Cornelius Fronto self-identifies as a “barbarian” and Libyan nomad (mid-second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 7, 2024,

Ancient author: Marcus Cornelius Fronto, Greek Letters [letter to Domitia Lucilla] 1.5 (link).

Comments: Marcus Cornelius Fronto was born in the town of Cirta (now Constantine in Algeria), which had previously been the capital of the Numidian (Berber) kingdom but in the wake of Julius Caesar’s success in 46 BCE had been developed into a Roman colony. Fronto went on to study at Alexandria and then Rome, where he ultimately settled and became renowned as an orator. Fronto was from a family among the north African elites who early on acquired Roman citizenship (gens Cornelia) and Fronto himself followed a somewhat typical career path for those of the senatorial order, culminating with his stint as a consul (142 CE) and then the offer of the position of proconsul of Asia (which he never took on due to bad health). Earlier, due to his oratorical reputation, Fronto had been hired to tutor the adopted sons of Antoninus Pius, beginning in about 138 CE (on biographical details, see the article by Claassen cited below).

In the letter presented here (dates ca. 143 CE), Fronto engages in a humorous and self-deprecating letter to the wife of Marcus Aurelius, Domitia Lucilla. The letter is filled with similes, but there is a running theme here that leads to the clincher at the end, with self-identification as a “barbarian” speaker and “Libyan nomad.” The series of similes are all aimed at self-deprecation but they do so by presenting Fronto from various angles as “savage” or beast-like (e.g. like a hyena). This leads naturally into his tongue-in-cheek autobiographical sketch in which he downplays his literarly skills in Attic Greek (he usually delivered his speeches in Latin, of course) and claims himself not only as a “barbarian” like Anacharsis but also a “Libyan nomad.” On the Anacharsis comparison, compare both Apuleius, also from Africa, (link) and Lucian from Syria (link). As Claassen notices, there is no evidence of others putting Fronto down for his African origins.

Despite such an identification as a “barbarian,” at other times Fronto engages in quite stereotypical Roman ethnographic slander of other “barbarian” peoples in dealing with those who engaged in non-Roman customs. Minucius Felix’s dialogue refers to a speech in which Fronto detailed a story about the supposedly incestuous meal practices of devotees of the Judean god and Jesus: “Their form of banqueting is notorious as far and wide everyone talks about it, as our fellow citizen of Cirta witnesses in his speech. On the appointed day, they assemble for their banquets with all their children, sisters, and mothers—people of both sexes and every age. After many sumptuous dishes, when the company at table has grown warm and the passion of incestuous lust has been fired by drunkenness, a dog which has been tied to a lamp stand is tempted by throwing a morsel beyond the length of the leash by which it is bound” (Octavius 9.6; see also 31.1; trans. R. Arbesmann et. al., Apologetical Works and Minucius Felix Octavius [Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1950], 337).

Works consulted: Jo-Marie Claassen, “Cornelius Fronto: A ‘Libyan Nomad’ at Rome,” Acta Classica 52 (2009): 47–71 (link).


[Reestablishing connection through self-deprecation: Fronto “savage” like a hyena and a snake]

To the mother [Domitia Lucilla] of Caesar [Marcus Aurelius]. (1) What excuse can I make to win your pardon for not writing to you all this time, if it is not by my stating the true cause of my lack of leisure: that I had composed a speech about our great emperor? The Roman proverb calls us to “not hate a friend’s ways but know them.” What mine are I will tell you, and not hide them. From my great natural incapacity and worthlessness I labour under much the same defect as the animal that the Romans call a hyena, whose neck, they say, can be stretched out straight forward but cannot be bent to either side. So, when I am putting together anything with more than usual care, I am in some way immovable and, giving up everything else, aim at that alone, like the hyena not turning to the right hand or to the left. Again, they say that the snakes called “darters” in much the same way project themselves straight forwards, but never move sideways. Spears and arrows are most likely to hit the mark when they are propelled straight, neither made to swerve by the wind, nor foiled by the hand of Athena or Apollo, as were the arrows shot by Teucer or the suitors.

(2) These three similes, then, have I applied to myself, two of them fierce (agriai) and savage (thēriōdeis), that of the hyena and that of the snake, and a third drawn from missiles, it, too, non-human and harsh. And if, indeed, I were to say that winds at the stern were especially to be commended because they take a ship straight forward and do not let it drift off course, this would be a fourth simile, and that a forcible one. And if I added this also about a line, that the straight line is the best of all lines, I should produce a fifth simile, not only inanimate like that of the spears, but this one also incorporeal.

(3) What simile, then, can be found convincing? One above all that is human, better still if it be also associated with the Muses, and if it partake, too, of friendship and love, the simile would be all the more a similitude. They say that Orpheus regreted turning to look back: he would not have regreted it if he had looked and walked straight ahead. Enough of similes. For this, too, is somewhat unconvincing, this simile of Orpheus fetched up from Hades.

(4) But I will now for the rest of the letter present an apology that will most easily win me pardon. What, then, is this? That in writing a speech of praise for the emperor I was doing, in the first place, what was especially gratifying to you and your son; in the next I remembered and mentioned both of you in the composition, just as lovers name their darlings over every cup. But, indeed, the craftmanship of similes is an insinuating thing and grows on us. This one, at any rate, has occurred to me, which I add to all the others, and in fact it can most fairly be called a simile (or likeness), being taken from a painter. Protogenes the painter is said to have taken eleven years to paint his Ialysos, painting nothing but the Ialysos all those eleven years. But, as for me, I painted not one but two Ialysoses at once, being no ordinary ones either of them, nor easy to depict, not only in respect of their faces and figures, but also of their characters and qualities, for the one is the great emperor of all land and sea, and the other the great emperor’s son, his child in the same way as Athena is a child of Zeus, but your son as Hephaestos is a child of Hera. But let there be no “halting” in this simile from Hephaistos. This defence of mine, then, would seem to be wholly realistic and picturesque, full as it is in itself of similes entirely.

[Fronto self-identifies as a “barbarian” for the self-deprecating purposes of the letter]

(5) It remains that I should, like land-measurers, ask . . . what? If any word in this letter is improper or barbarous, or in any other way unsatisfactory, or not entirely Attic Greek [Fronto, who usually writes in Latin is writing this letter in Greek], do not look at that but only, I request, at the intrinsic meaning of the word. For you know that I do spend time on mere words or mere idiom. And, in fact, it is said that the famous Scythian Anacharsis was by no means perfect in Atticizing, but was praised for his meaning and his conceptions. So I will compare myself with Anacharsis, not, by Zeus, in wisdom, but as being like him a barbarian. For he was a Scythian of the nomad Scythians, and I am a Libyan of the Libyan nomads. Like Anacharsis, I may graze fresh pastures, bleat like a sheep as well as he could while grazing, just as one wants to bleat. See, I have assimilated barbarism to bleating [i.e. being a barbarian in speech is like being an animal]. So will I stop writing nothing but similes.


Source of the translation: C.R. Haines, Marcus Cornelius Fronto, volume 1, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1919), public domain, adapted by Harland.

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