Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.05.22

Irene Oppermann, Zur Funktion historischer Beispiele in Ciceros Briefen.   Leipzig:  K.G. Sauer, 2000.  Pp. 338.  ISBN 3-598-77687-X.  DM 136.00.  

Reviewed by Andrew R. Dyck, University of California, Los Angeles
Word count: 1814 words

M. Tullius Cicero was, among other things, a remarkably well read student of history, both Greek and Roman; and he put this knowledge to work very efficiently in the form of examples judiciously distilled so as to make his argument of the moment seem to have the backing of precedent or authority or indeed to make a given course of action seem inevitable in light of past history. If the use of examples was a powerful weapon memorably deployed in his public speeches and theoretical writings, less well known and analyzed is its role in his private discourse; this forms the subject of O(ppermann)'s book, which is the revised version of a Göttingen dissertation supervised by C.J. Classen. Not that the subject had been altogether neglected: O. cites, in fact, and disagrees with a predecessor, H. Schoenberger.1 It is clear that, while Schoenberger's study had value as an initial (albeit incomplete) collection of passages, his conclusions were faulty in various ways and a new study a definite desideratum (see below).

In the Introduction (ch. 1) O. defines what she means by an example and establishes a framework based upon ancient rhetorical doctrine; the limitation to historical examples is justified as being the only type Cicero himself recognized (p.15); she might have discussed possible relations of her work to modern communications theory (R. Jacobson, for instance). Some other preliminaries are also handled in this chapter, such as the date of publication, O. clinging to 60 C.E. as the terminus post quem for Ad Atticum; one wonders whether A. Setaioli's study,2 which she does not cite, would have given rise to second thoughts. O. then gives a chapter to each of the various uses of examples recognized by ancient rhetoricians (2: characterization; 3: aid to argumentation; 4: aid in dealing with the future). It was good idea to add a chapter (5) on the examples used by Cicero's correspondents, for this sets Cicero's own practice into relief (he proves to have a remarkably large stock of Greek examples, perhaps connected with the fact that his rhetorical education was in Greek, rather than Latin). A further chapter (6) discusses Cicero's use of examples in letters to each of the different addressees (a good, brief survey of Cicero's relations with his principal correspondents, by the way), whereby some interesting patterns emerge (see below). The volume concludes with a "Zusammenfassung" (7), an appendix on Fam. 1.9 (8), a set of tables (9), and a bibliography (10). The lack of indices of proper names and of passages discussed is an unfortunate defect only partially compensated by cross-references. The volume is generally well printed, though in the Greek font the grave and circumflex accents seem to be sliding off of iota and the footnote number stands on top of the last letter of an italicized word rather than following after it; misprints are few.3

As private communications closely tied to specific situations, Cicero's letters pose a particularly difficult challenge at the level of basic understanding and interpretation. In the last generation philological work on this corpus has achieved a plateau in the work of D.R. Shackleton Bailey, on the foundation of which recent studies, including O.'s, are based.4 There is a problem, however, at p.100 n.9, where O. claims against Shackleton Bailey that ille perhibendus is sound at Fam. 5.12.7: see TLL (Delhey), not cited by O.

O.'s study represents an advance over Schoenberger in the use of a better text, newer interpretive tools (e.g., the RE; Shackleton Bailey's commentaries; Adams' study of Ciceronian naming conventions),5 and the application of simple common sense. Thus chapter 6 usefully rebuts Schoenberger's too simple thesis (p.31) that the use of examples increases in proportion to Cicero's degree of familiarity with the recipient. In fact, O. is able to show that in the most familiar relations (Quintus, Tiro) Cicero hardly uses examples at all, and with Atticus he uses a moderate number but in more varied functions than with other addressees. O. is right to observe that for a Quintus or a Tiro the persuasive example was unnecessary; here Cicero's auctoritas is ordinarily sufficient to carry the point. I would add that the number of examples may be related not only to Cicero's agenda and tactics but also to the "literariness" of the relationship in general, i.e., the degree to which it is played out in the realm of shared literary interests. Hence the greatest proportion of examples to text is in the correspondence with L. Lucceius, in particular in the letter (Fam. 5.12) in which he asks him to take on a literary project (viz., the composition of a monograph on his consulate). Now O. contends (p.295, ll. 10-12) that the brevity with which an example is elaborated depends on Cicero's familiarity with the recipient; that may be a factor, but the "learnedness" of the recipient may also play a role, as well as, for persuasive examples, how high the stakes are (as O. points out, p.295, n.5). Perhaps O. is a bit too apodictic in denying (p.296, ll. 10-11) that the examples are a stylistic ornament ("Stilmittel") in the letters; surely they can be that, especially in letters that are virtually mini-orations, such as the aforementioned letter to Lucceius or the one to Lentulus Spinther (Fam. 1.9) justifying his political volte-face after the Council of Luca.

There are occasions when O.'s position seems to be less clearly thought through and/or articulated than it might be. This is the case, for instance, when she asserts (p.73) a comic effect of the example of Ti. Gracchus at 2.2.1; she claims that this is so "gerade wegen des ernsten Tenors des Briefes und des behandelten Themas"; but the example is not comic in itself, and she really needed to explain how these factors contribute (if they do) to making it comic. Similarly, she needed to explain (p.225 n.1) how she believes Cicero met Sallustius' objection ( 3.5.1) by means of a different strategy. Again, Cicero's wish to share the fate of Q. Mucius Scaevola (Att. 9.12.1) is not so much a justification of his hesitation in taking sides (so O., p.211, ll. 26-29) as a desire to die unstained by participation in a civil war (cf. Fam. 2.16.3 of Hortensius, discussed p.201). The possibility raised by O. (p.200) that the C. Marius of Att. 10.8.7 is the younger Marius seems very unlikely: his placement among the clarissimi homines in re publica excellentes tells against it, and in this context, in opposition to ille dies Sullanus, one would more naturally think of the elder Marius unless the younger man had been explicitly indicated (cf. his distinction as alter Marius at Phil. 13.1); ille dies Sullanus will presumably be the day Sulla marched on Rome, much on Cicero's mind in this year (49). Pace O., p.54, n.6, and Scullard6, it is hard to see how Lucilius apud Cic. Fin. 2.24 can be taken to confirm Cicero's interpretation of Laelius' epithet sapiens (as referring to scholarly interests) against the political interpretation at Plut. Ti. Gracch. 8. O.'s discussion of this is in the context of Cicero's famous offer to play Laelius to Pompey's Scipio (Fam. 5.7.3): it looks as though Laelius is being reshaped in Cicero's image rather than vice-versa; Lucilius' verse shows awareness of the epithet (which he cites in Greek) but nothing about its origin.

Such a book must inevitably cover a wide range of topics in ancient culture in general and Roman history in particular, and keeping up with the secondary literature on all phases is no easy task. O. is often good at finding relevant literature, but there are occasions when one feels the lack particularly of more recent bibliography. In general it is surprising that no reference is made to Marinone for Ciceronian chronology7 or to D.R. Shackleton Bailey's Onomasticon to Cicero's Letters.8 For the interpretation of Latin words, in the absence of the TLL she relies on Forcellini, but sometimes nuance is lost, as the desiderative force of the nonce-word sullaturio (Att. 9.10.6, discussed at p.180 n.3), though the OLD, never cited by O., could have helped. Some other gaps: on Aemilius Paulus (p.87 n.5) one might have expected a reference to Reiter,9 for the date of the governorship of Asia by Q. Mucius Scaevola Pontifex (p.106 n.5) a reference to Kallet-Marx,10 on the composition of the Academici libri (p.117) to Griffin,11 for the fragment of Aristophanes of Byzantium cited on pp.144-45 an indication that this is no. 367 in Slater's edition,12 for the "Wahldiktator" (p.174 n.5) a reference to Jahn,13 for Heraclides Ponticus (p.224 n.3) a reference to Gottschalk,14 on the danger of offending enemies at 3.5.2 (p.224 n.9) a reference to Zetzel (with literature);15 an oddity is that she regularly cites Gelzer on Cicero >from the 1939 RE article rather than the 1969 biography.16 Similarly, she sometimes opts not to use better and more recent editions of the texts she cites: thus she cites Ross, rather than Kassel, for Aristotle's Rhetoric; Atzert, rather than Winterbottom, for De officiis; Kurfess, rather than Reynolds, for Sallust; Brugnoli, rather than Kaster, for Suetonius De grammaticis et rhetoribus, etc. (pp.336-38). To give just one example of a consequence of reliance on out-of-date bibliography: on p. 123 O., following Tyrrell and Purser, asserts that Cicero's statement that Homer calls only Ulysses πτολιπόρθιον (Fam. 10.13.2) shows that he read Homer's text in Aristarchus' edition, since we know that Aristarchus disputed the application of the epithet to Achilles (sch. AT on O 77); however, the current view is that Aristarchus' "edition" merely presented the vulgate text equipped with critical signs referring the reader to his commentary,17 so Cicero would have had to be familiar with the commentary, not just the edition. On other occasions O. omits references to bibliography that would have been more helpful: thus on the lex Valeria establishing Sulla as dictator one might have expected reference to Rotondi,18 not the Orelli-Baiter Onomasticon (p.188 n.1); and on the date of M. Livius Drusus' consulship (p.141 n.2) one would have expected a reference to MRR (1, 538).19

Cicero puts it very succinctly: quod exemplo fit id etiam iure fieri putant (Fam. 4.3.1). The basic function of examples being to lend authority to a view or course of action, Cicero shows himself a virtuoso in the deployment of this as of other means of persuasion (cf. O., p.300). A particular strength of O.'s work lies in bringing out Cicero's modulation of examples to fit the given addressee; a telling example is the same decision justified in different terms to Atticus and to M. Caelius Rufus (Att. 6.6.3-4 and Fam. 2.15.4, discussed by O., pp.127-36). On balance it should be emphasized that O. has shed much light on Cicero and his often subtle relations to his contemporaries and for that students of the man and of the rich legacy of his correspondence should be very grateful.


1.   H. Schoenberger, Ueber die Quellen und die Verwendung der geschichtlichen Beispiele in Ciceros Briefen (Ingolstadt, 1914), summarized by O. pp. 21-22; see her criticisms at 22-23, 280, 293 n.1, and 296 n.1.
2.   A. Setaioli, "On the Date of Publication of Cicero's Letters to Atticus," SO 51 (1976): 105-20.
3.   P.42, n.2 read "LIV. 21" not "11"; p.154, l. 19 read "Cicero"; p.181, l. 27 delete apostrophe after "Pompeius"; p.215, l. 13 read "caesos," not "casos"; p.216, l. 1 read "hat Balbus einen Schauspieler," not "hat einen Balbus Schauspieler"; p. 249, l. 14 add apostrophe after "Clodius"; p. 250, l. 1 read "1", not "13"; in the bibliography p.326 read "G.L. Cawkwell," not "C.L."
4.   Cf. p.31 (place and date of composition) and 336 (text).
5.   J.N. Adams, "Conventions of Naming in Cicero," CQ 72 (1978): 145-66; O. is good (against Adams) on Cicero's uniquely formal address to Atticus on the latter's coming into his uncle's inheritance (p. 247, n.2).
6.   H.H. Scullard, "Scipio Aemilianus and Roman Politics," JRS 50 (1960), 59-74 at 62 n.12.
7.   N. Marinone, Cronologia ciceroniana (Rome, 1997).
8.   D.R. Shackleton Bailey, Onomasticon to Cicero's Letters (Stuttgart, 1995).
9.   W. Reiter, Aemilius Paullus: Conqueror of Greece (London, 1988).
10.   R.M. Kallet-Marx, "The Trial of Rutilius Rufus," Phoenix 44 (1990): 122-39.
11.   M. Griffin, "The Composition of the Academica: Motives and Versions" in Assent and Argument: Studies in Cicero's Academic Books, ed. B. Inwood and J. Mansfeld (Leiden, 1997), 1-35.
12.   Berlin, 1986.
13.   J. Jahn, Interregnum und Wahldiktatur (Kallmünz, 1970), pp. 32ff.
14.   H.B. Gottschalk, Heraclides of Pontus (Oxford, 1980).
15.   Cicero, De re publica: Selections, ed. J.E.G. Zetzel (Cambridge, 1995), p.4 n.11.
16.   M. Gelzer, Cicero. Ein biographischer Versuch (Wiesbaden, 1969).
17.   Cf. D. Lührs, Untersuchungen zu den Athetesen Aristarchs in der Ilias und zu ihrer Behandlung im Corpus der exegetischen Scholien (Hildesheim, 1992), 6-13.
18.   G. Rotondi, Leges publicae populi Romani (Milan, 1922), 348-49; cf. also Jahn (n. 13 above), 162-64.
19.   On the subject of odd omissions: at p.162 n.6 O. omits the obvious objection to the view that C. Sulpicius Galus' loss of a son during his lifetime is based on pure speculation, namely that it would be malapropos to speculate on such a matter in a letter to Servius Sulpicius, a relative of the persons mentioned.

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