Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.08.12

Emanuele Narducci (ed.), Aspetti della fortuna di Cicerone nella cultura latina. Atti del III Symposium Ciceronianum Arpinas.   Florence:  Felice Le Monnier, 2003.  Pp. 111.  ISBN 88-00-81503-0.  EUR 11.50.  

Contributors: Rita Degl'Innocenti Pierini, Emanuele Narducci, Elisa Romano, Aldo Setaioli

Reviewed by William Stull, Colgate University (
Word count: 2540 words

The urge to pass judgment on Cicero's life, death, political career, and style of writing has always been exceptionally strong -- in some periods, nigh irresistible. Augustus actually gave into it twice, once when his shabby betrayal condemned Cicero to execution, then again, in later years, when he issued a revised verdict, with studied blandness and an untroubled conscience: "An eloquent man, and a lover of his country." Asinius Pollio, happy in the role of hanging judge, was less magnanimous: "Yet I would not deem his demise to have been at all pitiable, had he himself not thought death so wretched." Quintilian, like many a schoolmaster since, preferred to let his pupils adjudicate -- so long, of course, as they arrived at the desired conclusion: "For there is so much authority in everything Cicero says that one is ashamed to disagree with him." The list could go on, and extend across the centuries. We might wonder why so many have felt the need to heap so much praise and blame on the head of a man whose political influence was, in the final analysis, so sadly limited.

The book under review does not offer any explicit solution to that puzzle, but it does bring us closer to understanding the complexities of Cicero-reception by taking us back to the formative stages. The four essays contained within, written by various hands but all delivered originally at the 3rd Symposium Ciceronianum Arpinas, treat the "fortuna" of Cicero in the century after his death, from the age of Augustus through the age of Nero.1 While the coverage is not comprehensive, it is in particular areas more detailed than what Zielinski gave us a century ago, and each of the essays provides both accurate factual detail and well-considered argumentation. The volume's only notable shortcoming is its lack of overarching perspective, of the sort that might have been supplied by a substantial editorial introduction; the absence is felt all the more sharply given how well the individual pieces fit together to build a larger whole. A few paragraphs to place the enterprise in a larger scholarly context (that of reception-history in general, or of Cicero-reception in particular) would also have been useful.

The first three essays, by Rita Degl'Innocenti Pierini, Aldo Setaioli, and Emanuele Narducci, make an obvious grouping, for they deal, in order, with how successive generations of the Annaei -- Seneca the Elder, Seneca the Younger, and Lucan -- dealt with the Ciceronian inheritance. They also depend upon broadly similar types of philological analysis. All three scholars tend to describe "fortuna" by breaking it down into discrete written units (or stages of development), each appropriately identified, quoted, and discussed. The world they recreate is thus a resolutely textual one, self-contained and logical in its interrelations. Even the reception of Cicero's personality and character -- often a much more lively business than the response to his writings per se -- turns out to have been a text-centered affair, dependent in some cases on a careful reading of his letters and speeches, in other cases on cross-fertilization and allusiveness within the developing tradition of writing about Cicero. The advantage of this method is that it keeps the arguments very closely tied to the available evidence -- not for these scholars the generalizations of broad intellectual history, or vague talk of "influence." But such strict formalism is not without its drawbacks. The evolution of Cicero's posthumous career cannot on the whole have been quite so tidy, so controlled, so much confined to the sphere of the cultured elite as these closely-reasoned essays inevitably, if perhaps unintentionally, suggest.

The first essay, by Degl'Innocenti Pierini, is also the longest, with the longest title, "Cicerone nella prima età imperiale: Luci ed ombre su un martire della repubblica." It has no easily identifiable thesis, but its purpose is to isolate and discuss a handful of common themes (especially those related to Cicero's death) that emerge in the first several decades of the Nachleben, up through the time of Tiberius. The evidence from this period is in one sense unusually rich, since the Elder Seneca gives us access to what a whole community of literary men thought, said, and wrote about Cicero. Yet in other respects it is frustratingly thin since it comes packaged in brief and one-sided excerpts. Thus we know a fair amount about how declaimers and historians used Cicero's life and writings to give point to a moral or a mot, but we know next to nothing about how Cicero fared among the ordinary run of readers. Degl'Innocenti Pierini is, in any case, an able guide to the material we have, and one of her merits is that she lingers in some of the dustier alcoves of literary history, pausing over such authors as Velleius Paterculus, Valerius Maximus, and Manilius. The seven-page bibliography that concludes the piece is further testimony to thoroughness; those interested in Cicero-reception would be well-advised to slip a photocopy into their files.

The texts assembled by Degl'Innocenti Pierini make it clear that the Cicero who flourished under Augustus and Tiberius was (so far as we can tell) preeminently the dead and decapitated Cicero, contemplated with a kind of morbid fascination by persons unable to turn away from the spectacle of oratory's demise. His eloquence serves as a talisman, continually held up as an outstanding attribute but never analyzed in any depth. There is no attempt to come to grips with his philosophical activities or principles, and even his political career is reduced to a few particular and dramatic incidents, namely the suppression of Catiline and the resistance to Antony. Despite many expressions of fervent admiration, there is no question of actually imitating Cicero and surprisingly little desire to carry on his legacy. Thus Cornelius Nepos, in a fragment that Degl'Innocenti Pierini nicely compares to a laudatio funebris, can simultaneously praise Cicero's contribution to the evolution of Roman culture and claim that Cicero's death closes off the possibility of further progress. Cicero's value lies, in short, not in what he taught, but in what he can symbolize: he marks the boundary between republic and empire, and he serves as a reminder of what was lost in the transition.

The real contribution here lies in Degl'Innocenti Pierini's decision not to develop her account in accordance with any strict generic or chronological framework. She moves freely from declamation to historiography to poetry, and in so doing she demonstrates, in concrete detail, how generic barriers fell away before the allure of moralizing pathos and the desire to use Cicero as an icon.2 This was an era in which a clever turn of phrase or a striking conceit could take on a life of its own and rapidly pass from author to author -- in observing the process one is reminded not so much of intertextuality as of a spreading infection. Indeed, it would not be unjust to remark that this corner of the Rezeptionsgeschichte contains more than its share of contagious silliness.3 Yet it may be that later, more sophisticated responses to Cicero needed the foundation laid during this initial period, which for better or worse turned Cicero into the inevitable point of reference for a significant group of Roman literati.

Aldo Setaioli, writing on "Seneca e Cicerone," claims to have identified the earliest moments when Cicero began to come to life as more than just a symbol. The works of the Younger Seneca, he argues, show an involvement with Cicero that is noticeably deeper than anything that survives from previous decades. While Seneca occasionally uses Cicero in the familiar way, as a stereotypical and rather colorless exemplum, he more frequently treats Cicero as a distinctly individual historical presence. Unlike the men of his father's generation, Seneca shows signs of having read broadly in the Ciceronian corpus. With knowledge comes the ability to criticize, and then the desire to rival or surpass Cicero's personal and literary achievements.

Of particular interest to Setaioli is Seneca's aggressive reading of Cicero's letters, undertaken in order to censure Cicero's (very un-Stoic) lack of "constantia" and, by the by, to show the superiority of Seneca's own epistolary project. Seneca's handling of Cicero's philosophical works is more distanced and indirect, but Setaioli makes some smart observations on the subject, concentrating especially on how Seneca uses and modifies the Latin philosophical terminology that Cicero had coined. The paper concludes with remarks about Seneca's theory of style, which Setaioli praises for its awareness of history, its openness to change, and its refusal to elevate Cicero to a position of normative authority. On the whole the reconstruction here is a plausible one. Everyone knows that Seneca's style marks a definitive break with the Ciceronian model, but it is good to be reminded that his independence, like that of Erasmus many centuries later, was accompanied by an unusually thorough familiarity with Cicero's work.

The presence of Cicero is much more closely circumscribed in the work of Seneca's nephew Lucan. Emanuele Narducci's essay, "Cicerone nella 'Pharsalia' di Lucano," is therefore the most tightly focused in the volume, being essentially an explication of Bellum Civile 7.62-85. The episode described in those twenty-four lines is a curious one and certainly worthy of attention. Set just before the battle at Pharsalus, it is a sort of walk-on cameo for Cicero, who makes his appearance (for the first and only time in the epic) in order to goad Pompey into combat. Narducci notes that Cicero's attendance at the scene of battle runs counter to the historical record, which has Cicero remaining behind at Dyrrachium while Pompey moves the army into Thessaly. Lucan frames the episode, furthermore, in such a way as to undercut Cicero's character, turning the orator, who in his own writings appears opposed to the use of arms ("cedant arma togae," and so on), into an advocate of war. The address to Pompey is itself virtually a parody of the rhetorical arts. Instead of appealing to prudence or strategy, Cicero tries to excite shame by asking a series of questions totally irrelevant to the exigencies of the situation. Such tactics are sharply condemned by the narrator, who counteracts the bombast with a dose of his own sententiousness: "addidit invalidae robur facundia causae."

In his informative reading of the passage Narducci concentrates on the way Lucan uses topoi and language from Cicero and other writers to rework themes of war and peace. Thus, when Lucan introduces Cicero as "Tullius ... cuius sub iure togaque pacificas saevus tremuit Catilina securis," he is not only (with "toga") echoing the infamous line from De consulatu suo, but also alluding to two passages in Vergil (Aen. 6.819 and 6.824) where "saevus" and "securis" appear in proximity: in each of these latter instances the focus is on an episode in history where republican ideals were asserted by extraordinary force. The Vergilian locution, Narducci believes, is itself derived from Lucretius, where the pursuit of governmental power, signified by the possession of "saevae secures," is exposed as a hollow undertaking. Narducci is surely right to use these parallels as evidence that Lucan wants to stress the inappropriate character of Cicero's eventual bellicosity -- though not every reader, given the widespread disagreement about how to evaluate Lucan's heroes, will be ready to accede to Narducci's further claim that the devaluation of Cicero is accompanied by an exaltation of Pompey. The position is worth considering, however, especially in light of Cato's eulogy of Pompey at 9.199: "praetulit arma togae, sed pacem armatus amavit." Whatever significance we assign to the allusion (Narducci is inclined to give it quite a lot), it does indicate Lucan's continuing, and perhaps unexpected, interest in old Ciceronian terminology, here seen through an additional filter of paradox and inversion.

Elisa Romano's essay, "Il ruolo di Cicerone nella formazione di una cultura tecnica," stands somewhat apart from the others in the volume, not only because it falls out of chronological sequence (dealing as it does largely with Vitruvius), but also because it is concerned less with detailed textual interpretation than with broader movements in intellectual history. At issue are large questions relating to the organization of knowledge. How does one branch of study relate to another? How can general rules and categories coexist with empirical details? How much does a person need to know in order to attain real excellence in any particular field of endeavor?

Romano argues that such problems came to be of pressing importance during the late republic, as knowledge increased and traditional political and social patterns faded. Cicero's response to the situation, best laid out in De oratore, was to advocate a combination of dialectical and encyclopedic methods. Knowledge had to be structured in such a way that carefully identified general principles would encompass the growing aggregate of information. A particular field of study would rise to the dignity of an "ars" only when it could be understood and represented as a coherent framework, with its parts fitted systematically into the whole.

Romano's contention is that Vitruvius took Cicero's model and shaped his presentation of architecture in accordance with it. The idea is certainly plausible, but it should be admitted from the outset that direct Vitruvian allusions to Cicero are thin on the ground. In fact, Vitruvius names Cicero only once in De architectura, and in that instance Cicero appears in an undifferentiated list alongside Lucretius and Varro as only one among several predecessors in the writing of technical literature. In the absence of explicit reference, Romano has to rely on similarities in thought and terminology. She does demonstrate convincingly that Cicero and Vitruvius share some "points of contact," but she seems to want to use these similarities to prove the existence of a direct chain of influence, running from Cicero the originator to Vitruvius the imitator. Surely it would be safer to frame the relationship between the two authors in a less rigid manner and to acknowledge that both Cicero and Vitruvius were wont to draw eclectically on a number of sources and authorities. The essay as a whole could only have benefited from a more flexible portrayal of the history of ideas (leaving room not only for individual innovation but also for larger, culture-wide shifts in approach and assumptions) and from greater attention to the full complement of possible influences on Vitruvius' thought. That said, there are some worthwhile observations here, especially concerning the interaction of political and intellectual developments in the late republic and, on the last two pages of the piece, about the later fate of Cicero's principles, which seem not to have survived very far into the imperial age.

The entire volume is, in short, a fine addition to the literature, containing material that should be useful to a wide range of Ciceronians and intellectual historians. The well-defined scope of its subject matter, not to mention the high quality of production, the reasonableness of its price, and its pleasing brevity, ought to make it a model for the genre of conference proceedings. Those who organize the Symposium Ciceronianum, perhaps heeding Cicero's own advice about seeking the "vestigia" of the great in the towns of their birth, have promised that matters of reception and influence will play an ongoing role in their Arpinate gatherings. Let us hope that the setting continues to inspire.


1.   The sole exception to these temporal limits is the second appendix to Degl'Innocenti Pierini's piece. It deals with the presence of Cicero in two epigrams of Martial (3.66 and 5.69), though even here the emphasis rests on Martial's relationship to earlier writers.
2.   This approach complements recent work on how declamatory themes shaped historians' accounts of Cicero's death. See M. Roller, "Color-Blindness: Cicero's Death, Declamation, and the Production of History," CP 92 (1997): 109-130 and A. Wright, "The Death of Cicero, Forming a Tradition: The Contamination of History," Historia 50 (2001): 436-452.
3.   See R. A. Kaster, "Becoming 'Cicero'," in P. Knox and C. Foss, eds., Style and Tradition: Studies in Honor of Wendell Clausen. Stuttgart and Leipzig, 1998. 248-63.

Read Latest
Index for 2003
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:28:47, Friday, 03 April 2009