Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.07.26

Robert A. Kaster, Cicero: Speech on behalf of Publius Sestius.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2006.  Pp. xvi, 493.  ISBN 978-0-19-928303-3.  £70.00 (hb).  ISBN 978-0-19-928302-6.  £29.99 (pb).  

Reviewed by Catherine Steel, University of Glasgow (
Word count: 1801 words

Table of Contents

There has long been a need for a detailed commentary on the pro Sestio: as Kaster points out, the most recent commentary, in any language and on any scale, until the publication of his own was Holden's, whose third edition was published in 1889. K.'s excellent volume, in the Clarendon Ancient History series, amply fulfils most expectations; any reservations one may have are related to the constraints of the series.

The volume contains an introduction; a translation of the speech (based on Maslowski's Teubner, with a small number of divergences [listed in an appendix]); a very substantial commentary (285 pages on 62 pages of translation); further appendices on chronology, on the likely nature of Clodius' incest with his sister or sisters, and on the location of Cicero's exile; a glossary of English terms used in the translation and a list of key Latin words with the translation of each which K. consistently uses; an index of persons mentioned in the translation; three maps (of the Mediterranean, of Italy, and of the centre of Rome in 56 B.C.E); a bibliography; and a general index.

The introduction gives a summary of the historical background and an illuminating analysis of the speech's strategy, showing how Cicero uses the definition of uis as violent activity contra rem publicam to create a chain of reasoning which places Sestius' actions on the side of the res publica: Cicero's return from exile is in the interests of the state and, therefore, so are those things which Sestius has done in order to secure his recall. If this understanding of Cicero's exile can be established, it then becomes impossible for Sestius to be guilty of uis; and this understanding is precisely what Cicero is attempting to do in the central section of the speech, with its relentless focus on Cicero's own career and sufferings. Particularly useful is K.'s enumeration (28-29) of the public signs of support for Cicero which Cicero refers to during the course of the speech: the adoption of mourning dress by some as a sign of support in the spring of 58; letters from the consuls of 57, implementing a senatorial decree, to Rome's allies and to communities throughout Italy, on Cicero's behalf; the bestowal of the title pater patriae; Cotta's speech on January 1st 57; and a speech of Pompeius in the Senate delivered in July 57. As K. points out (29-30), there are no grounds for doubting that each of these honorific gestures were made; and by recording them Cicero is simply reminding his audience that his own safety has been identified with that of the state. The resources which Cicero is drawing upon to defend Sestius are not, therefore, merely the product of his linguistic brilliance; they are events of record, even if their use for these ends in this case involves a transfiguration of the original context of praise.

Equally helpful is K.'s discussion of the famous excursus in sections 96 to 135 of the speech, in which Cicero gives an account of the Roman state as a conflict between optimates and populares, defining as he does so the optimates as the broadest possible coalition of all who are neither insane, criminal nor bankrupt. For K., this is not a serious piece of political analysis, nor is it supposed to be; rather, it is 'a tendentious and deceptive part of a tendentious and deceptive speech, aiming to achieve a practical goal' (35). Cicero is offering a comfort blanket to his wealthy jurors according to which the dangers facing the state arise from a small number of individuals and can be countered by the simple task of trusting Cicero and following his advice. It is refreshing to find this section's pretensions shown up so briskly; though one can wonder whether a dichotomy can really be drawn between it and 'a serious exercise in political thought' (33). There is little sign that Cicero did regard the pro Sestio excursus, in its essentials, as tendentious: on the contrary, its fragile and futile optimism seems entirely characteristic of Cicero's attempts to understand and articulate what was going wrong with Rome in the fifties.

K. spells out in the final section of his introduction (40-41) two principles he follows in his translation. One is 'to make the translation maximally readable -- by which I mean, able to be read aloud in a comprehensible and even pleasing way -- while still retaining Cicero's sentence structure as much as possible'. The other is to translate key Latin terms consistently into the same English word or phrase, whenever it recurs. So, for example, dignitas is always 'worthy standing'; imperium is always 'dominion'; nobilitas is always 'notability'.

This latter principle is important in a work which will be used by Latinless students -- and particularly in a work in which a small number of recurrent terms do a great deal of ideological work. The advantage for the reader of knowing that 'worthy standing' always reflects an original dignitas, and, just as importantly, that an original dignitas will be translated by 'worthy standing', is a substantial counterweight to any awkwardness in the use of the phrase in specific contexts. Furthermore, the student can then use K.'s glossary to establish more about the original word; in this instance, a description of the connotations of dignitas, an etymological note, and a substantial amount of bibliography. K.'s translation here clearly has an advantage over its only serious rival in English, that of Shackleton Bailey, which does not attempt a similar consistency: his, for example, translates dignitas by a range of terms, including, in addition to 'dignity' and 'standing', 'majesty', 'honour', 'prestige', 'high place', 'status' and 'good name'.

It is less clear that K. always fulfils his first aim, of combining readability with a reflection of Cicero's sentence structure. Consider the first sentences of section 110 -- the opening of a brief, unheralded and vicious piece of invective against the otherwise obscure Gellius. Cicero has An sicubi aderit Gellius, homo et fratre indignus, uiro clarissimo atque optimo consule, et ordine equestri, cuius ille ordinis nomen retinet, ornamenta confecit, id erit populare? 'Est enim homo iste populo Romano deditus.' Nihil uidi magis; qui, cum eius adulescentia in amplissimis honoribus summi uiri, L. Philippi uitrici, florere potuisset, usque eo non fuit popularis ut bona solus comesset; deinde ex impuro adulescente et petulante, postea quam rem paternam ab idiotarum diuitiis ad philosophorum reculam perduxit, Graeculum se atque otiosum putari uoluit, studio litterarum se subito dedidit.'

K. translates, 'Or is it the case that whatever side Gellius happens to take -- a person unworthy of his brother, a most distinguished man and excellent consul, and of the equestrian order, of which he retains the title, though he's squandered its trappings -- will be 'popular'? 'Yes, for the fellow's devoted to the Roman people.' Oh yes, in a quite unprecedented way: though as a youth he could have prospered amid the most substantial offices of Lucius Philippus, his stepfather and a man of the highest calibre, he was so far from being a 'man of the people' that all by himself he wasted his entire estate in gluttony; then passing from his coarse and filthy youth, in which he had reduced his patrimony from a fortune (as laymen reckon such things) to a pittance worthy of philosophers, he wanted to be thought a proper Greekling of leisure and of a sudden devoted himself to literary studies.'

Shackleton Bailey has, 'Or are we to say that everything is "popular" in which Gellius is concerned, a fellow unworthy of his brother, our excellent and distinguished Consul and of the order of Knights, of which he retains the name after having liquidated its appurtenances? To be sure we are, for the man is devoted to the Roman People. I never saw anybody more so! As a young man he could have thriven in the high honors of his illustrious stepfather, Lucius Philippus, but he was so little of a people's man that he squandered his property all by himself. His was a debauched and truculent youth; but after he had brought his inheritance down from the riches such as laymen enjoy to the philosopher's pittance, he took a fancy to be thought of as a Greekling, a man of leisure, and suddenly plunged into literary study.'

K.'s translation does indeed reflect closely the structure of Cicero's Latin, including the long paranthesis in the first sentence and the enormous sentence 'Oh yes. . .studies'. But it is difficult to claim that this is a readable translation. One hundred and two word sentences sit uneasily in the idiom of modern English, even in works intended solely for silent reading (and in the original, the sentence is only fifty four words long). Moreover, the faithful reflection of sentence structure can sometimes stand in the way of comprehension: in the first sentence the reference of the parenthesis in the Latin is completely clear but K.'s version leads the reader to expect an expansion about the side which Gellius takes. SB's translation is undoubtedly more readable, even with its startling 'thriven'.

Translation is hard and criticising translations easy: there is always a road not taken to point to. K., like any good commentator, is expecting multiple audiences and trying to meet their needs. I expect I'll still suggest to my Latinless Roman history students that they read Shackleton Bailey for their first encounter with the speech, and continue to wish that Berry had included it in his recent World's Classics volume for ease and affordability. But K., unlike S.B., does provide a translation which can sustain detailed scrutiny by the Latinless; and he has found a way of offering a serious commentary on a translated text which has room to discuss language and idiom. (Consider, for example, the super note (141) on Cicero's mixed metaphors in section 13). Indeed, K.'s commentary as a whole is constantly enlightening and extremely broad in its scope; and he does not assume that Cicero always gets things right. Consider his acute dissection of what might be going on at the end of the excursus on the state of Rome (359-360), where there are two abrupt and apparently unnecessary transitions in the argument: K. demonstrates that a neater structure was perfectly possible and concludes that what Cicero does 'perhaps suggests that the taunt had got under his skin, as something that simply had to be answered, even at the cost of formal awkwardness'.

Commentaries are difficult to review; their value is appreciated over time, as one refers to them repeatedly and comes away with one's questions answered and problems resolved. K.'s pro Sestio is turning out to be in that category; that it achieves these ends through the medium of translation without compromising its value is an incidental cause for congratulation.

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