Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.10.08

C.E.W. Steel, Cicero, Rhetoric, and Empire.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2001.  Pp. 250.  ISBN 0-19-924847-8.  $65.  

Reviewed by Christopher S. Mackay, University of Alberta (
Word count: 1728 words

In the broadest sense, "the aim of this book is to examine Cicero's analysis of imperial problems" (3-4). More specifically, S(teel)'s aim is to examine "the three different types of speeches that Cicero delivered about empire and offer interpretations which relate his strategies of persuasion to the attitudes and opinions of his audience" (162). S. argues that the simplistic understanding of the problems of provincial government that is evinced in these speeches is the result not of a lack of vision but of a conscious decision not to offend his audience by telling them the unvarnished truth about the negative aspects of the administration of their empire. While the overall argument is interesting, the evidence to support it is weak. In particular, the case for the fundamental premise that Cicero had some deeper understanding of imperial problems that he refrained from expressing in his speeches is not compelling.

S. lays out her understanding of Cicero's presentation of imperial topics in the first three chapters, which form something of a unity. Chapter One discusses "Romans in the provinces," or more specifically, "men behaving badly... in ways that can be presented in order to rouse hostile feelings in Cicero's audience" (21), focusing on three governors (Verres, L. Piso Caesoninus, A. Gabinius) and two prosecutors (Laelius and Decianus from the pro Flacco). The conclusion is that while the magistrates' provincial misbehavior is ascribed to their personal moral failings, all Romans who operated in the provinces were subject to having their "Romanness" questioned by Cicero as a result of their associations with the locals (in all these cases, Greeks). The argument would have been more focused if the topic of either Cicero's views about the behavior of governors or his presentation of foreigners (Greeks?) and the stance that Romans should adopt towards them had been treated independently.

Chapter Two deals with cases involving disputed Roman citizenship (Archias and Balbus). S. argues less than compellingly that in basing his case so much on Archias' supposed merits as the author of poems that praise Rome (merits which S. goes to unreasonable lengths to disparage), Cicero "glosses over entirely the fact that his enfranchisement is part of a mass enfranchisement of communities which were in many respects still Greek" (112). The phrase "gloss over" suggests the avoidance of a necessary but uncongenial topic, but I don't see the relevance of the circumstances of the grant to Cicero's case. S. argues more convincingly that in order to avoid the negative associations that might arise from Balbus' activities as Caesar's political agent, Cicero chooses to downplay the fact that Balbus had been granted citizenship by another one of the nabobs of the time (Pompey) and instead presents the grant as the sort of unobjectionable repayment for services to the state that the Roman People were in the habit of granting in the Late Republic.

Chapter Three concerns deliberative speeches (de imperio and de provinciis consularibus) concerning the huge provincial commands that played such a prominent role in the downfall of the Republic. Considering it to be problematical that the normally conservative Cicero should advocate these extraordinary commands, S. ascribes this position to career considerations, and analyzes how Cicero tries to thwart objections to the commands by portraying Caesar and Pompey as "dutiful servant of the Roman state" (114).

The remainder of the book attempts to explain the "moralizing view of empire" (4) that is laid out in the first three chapters. Chapter Four examines how Cicero's rhetorical choices were affected by career considerations. S. argues that because his standing as a consular was based exclusively on those oratorical skills and he lacked any other means to support this standing (e.g., famous ancestry or personal military glory), he was restricted in what he could say. He needed to continue to speak in order to maintain his position, yet a failed speech would have a disproportionately detrimental effect on such a career. This analysis leads to the conclusion that "the demands of his own persona forced him away from uncomfortable issues and towards the simpler demands of personalities [as a device for justifying the extraordinary commands in the speeches discussed in the preceding chapter]" (189). Finally, Chapter Five attempts to assess the analysis of provincial government that appears in the speeches previously examined against statements made elsewhere by Cicero (discussed below) and against the views of Cato, Caesar and Pompey. The attempt to ascribe principled views about provincial administration to the other three men is unconvincing.

The book is fundamentally an attempt to deal with a problem that S. has created for herself. S. repeatedly argues that Cicero ascribes the troubles in imperial government to the personal failings of individual magistrates. This is hardly surprising since he expresses his views in speeches dealing with the behavior of individuals. In S.'s view, however, Cicero's analysis represents a "failure to engage directly with what we might consider to be the fundamental issues in the republican government of its empire" (163), and she considers this failure to be deliberate: "the remainder of this study is an attempt to explain why Cicero's imperial analysis in the speeches is so unsatisfactory and unilluminating. I shall suggest that it is much more helpful to see the problem in terms of the functions of oratory rather than the limitations of Cicero's intellect: there are things which it is not useful to say" (199). Cicero's real (putatively more intelligent) views are to be recovered from works other than speeches: "comparison with Cicero's letters and philosophical work suggests that the presentation of the empire is the result of a conscious simplification to enable Cicero to avoid having to make public choices about the exploitation of imperial resources which could alienate many of his supporters" (4). Basically, the idea is that Cicero knew that there was an inherent contradiction between exploitation of the provinces (especially through the equestrian publicans whose support he needed) on the one hand and the good of the empire as a whole on the other, but he consciously chose to ignore such issues in order to avoid annoying his equestrian friends (e.g., 73-74).

But how do we know that he knew better? Two specific passages serve as the main evidence for his broader understanding of the problems of provincial government (ad Quint. 1.1 and de off. 2.26), but by S.'s own admission, "the importance of individual behavior is constantly emphasized throughout the letter" (197), and the same is true of Cicero's trite analysis in the philosophical passage (he attributes the Romans' fall from their supposedly selfless defence of their allies in the good old days to the example set by Sulla in his conquest of Italy and followed by the perditi homines who supported Caesar in the civil war of 49 B.C., an interpretation that is historically, temporally and logically erroneous). There is, then, no evidence that Cicero ever viewed the issue of imperial government in terms of anything but the behavior of individuals. It is also worth noting that what S. faults Cicero for is not engaging with "what we might consider to be the fundamental issues" (163): there is a general tendency throughout the work to confuse modern analysis of the "crisis" of the Late Republic with what was known in antiquity.

In terms of methodology in interpreting Cicero's speeches, S. divides previous scholarship on Cicero into two schools: the "rhetorical," which analyses the speeches in terms of how Cicero adapts the general principles of ancient rhetoric for his immediate purposes in a given speech (9-11), and the "biographical," which merely situates his speeches in the context of his career (11-13). S.'s own method is to concentrate on how Cicero suits his argument to his audience: "a recurrent theme of this book is that Cicero does not always argue as we might expect him to do on any crude and simplistic picture of his aims and methods as a public speaker, and that the unexpected twists and turns of his arguments spring from a much more complex and nuanced response to the problems which Rome faced as it extended as an imperial power than is often allowed. The first three chapters offer, therefore, readings of the imperial speeches which attempt to map their strategies of persuasion" (17).

But the task of examining the course of Cicero's argument in light of what he could have said but didn't is fraught with difficulties. Note that S. speaks of his deviation from what "we might expect." But how do we know what to expect him to have said apart from what he did? While it would certainly be desirable to set his discourse in the context of the arguments made in other speeches on the same topic, notoriously we have virtually no information about the other side of any case apart from what Cicero deigns to tell us. (The only real example of external information is Dio Cassius' statements about the opposing views regarding the rogatio Gabinia of 67 B.C., which S. uses to provide the view that Cicero was rebutting the following year in his de imperio. But as S. admits, Dio's own information may ultimately go back to Cicero, and arguments to the contrary notwithstanding, there is no good reason to set any store in the evidence from Dio's speeches.) The putative views of Cicero's audience are even harder to recover, unless one uses a circular argument based on Cicero's own words. In any case, the attempt to explain Cicero's rhetorical choices in terms of career considerations is simply a variant on the "biographical" method. Furthermore, in the absence of any external check on the rhetorical context for Cicero's choice of argument in a given speech, S.'s mode of analysis is simply literary close reading. Sometimes, such close reading can provide interesting results--for instance, S.'s discussion of how the person of Balbus is cast into the background in the pro Balbo (98-110). Other such readings are less convincing.

In summation, this book consists of a series of essays that serve to set up and resolve a problem that isn't there. While S. is to be commended for the ambitiousness of her undertaking, I think that the treatment of the material in the first three chapters is not deep enough to support the very broad conclusions that are reached in the last two chapters about the interaction of Cicero's political motivations and his rhetorical technique.

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