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Marcus Cornelius Fronto

Marcus Cornelius Fronto (c. AD 100-170), Roman grammarian, rhetorician and advocate, was born of an Italian family at Cirta in Numidia.

He came to Rome in the reign of Hadrian, and soon gained such renown as an advocate and orator as to be reckoned inferior only to Cicero. He amassed a large fortune, erected magnificent buildings and purchased the famous gardens of Maecenas. Antoninus Pius, hearing of his fame, appointed him tutor to his adopted sons Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus.

In 143 he was consul for two months, but declined the proconsulship of Asia on the ground of ill-health. His latter years were embittered by the loss of all his children except one daughter. His talents as an orator and rhetorician were greatly admired by his contemporaries, a number of whom formed themselves into a school called after him Frontoniani, whose avowed object it was to restore the ancient purity and simplicity of the Latin language in place of the exaggerations of the Greek sophistical school.

However praiseworthy the intention may have been, the list of authors specially recommended does not speak well for Fronto's literary taste. The authors of the Augustan age are unduly depreciated, while Ennius, Plautus, Laberius, and Sallust (of all people) are held up as models of imitation.

Until 1815, the only extant works ascribed (erroneously) to Fronto were two grammatical treatises, De nominum verborumque differentiis and Exempla elocutionum (the last being really by Arusianus Messius). In that year, however, Angelo Mai discovered in the Ambrosian library at Milan a palimpsest manuscript (and, later, some additional sheets of it in the Vatican), on which had been originally written some of Fronto's letters to his imperial pupils and their replies. These palimpsests had originally belonged to the famous convent of St Columba at Bobbio, and had been written over by the monks with the acts of the First Council of Chalcedon.

The letters, together with the other fragments in the palimpsest, were published at Rome in 1823. Their contents do not match the writer's great reputation. The letters consist of correspondence with Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, in which the character of Fronto's pupils appears in a very favourable light, especially in the affection they both seem to have retained for their old master; and letters to friends, chiefly letters of recommendation. The collection also contains treatises on eloquence, some historical fragments, and literary trifles on such subjects as the praise of smoke and dust, of negligence, and a dissertation on Anon. "His style is a laborious mixture of archaisms, a motley cento, with the aid of which he conceals the poverty of his knowledge and ideas."

His chief merit consists in having preserved extracts from ancient writers which would otherwise have been lost.

This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.