Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.08.49

John Murrell, Cicero and the Roman Republic. Greece and Rome: Texts and Contexts.   Cambridge/New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2008.  Pp. vi, 184.  ISBN 9780521691161.  $26.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Ayelet Haimson Lushkov, Yale University and Dartmouth College (
Word count: 1165 words

Table of Contents

Cicero and the Roman Republic is part of the Cambridge Learning Greece & Rome: Texts and Contexts series, which aims to "provide students with direct access to the ancient world by offering new translations of extracts from the key texts of its literature, history and civilization, and by setting them in their historical, social and cultural contexts" (back cover). This volume, edited by John Murrell (M.) offers a view on Cicero's life and political career, with the historical turbulences of the Late Republic seen in the main through the various speeches, treatises, and letters of the Ciceronian corpus. The volume is pitched at the difficult-to-capture range of advanced high-school students and undergraduates, and while the volume nowhere specifies, it seems especially geared for a British audience. Still, students of all stripes should find this selection from Cicero an engaging entry into the study of the ancient world.

Following a very brief introduction, the book proceeds chronologically. Twelve chapters follow Cicero from his youth in Arpinum through to his death (here described via the Livian fragment preserved in Seneca the Elder), with chapters dedicated to all the important phases of Cicero's life, from conspiracy to exile and back again. Some chapters treat particular episodes (e.g., 6 on the consulship; 10 on the Cilician governorship), while others deal with a space of a few years at a time (e.g., 3, which runs from 79-71). The sections at the end of Chapter 10 (Cilicia), and 11-12 (Civil War and Dictatorship and Antonius and Octavian, respectively) are especially successful: the former integrates correspondence from Caelius which students rarely get to see, and might enjoy side-by-side with the Pro Caelio, and the latter highlights the uncertainties and confusion which dominated the period.1

Each chapter is made up of a collection of Ciceronian extracts in translation, printed in standard black type, with words highlighted in blue glossed in notes at the bottom of each page. The segments are connected with light blue boxes in which M. provides some historical narrative and explanation and introduces some of the segments. Several blue boxes offer an alternative version to the main narrative through an ancient source, or use Cicero himself to highlight another facet of the story. Thus, for example, Cicero's descriptions of his quaestorship are offset on p. 33 by his discovery that the Roman people did not feel his absence (Tusc. Disp. 5.64-6). Yellow boxes offer discussion questions, on which more below. High quality color illustrations are scattered throughout. The back matter includes Further Reading and references, a list of the Greek and Roman authors cited, and a Glossary of ancient terms. It is not clear, however, how this excellent Glossary is keyed to the book, and there are no references to it within. Instructors will be well-advised to draw their students' attention to this useful feature.

The press advertises this book as "suitable for both advanced secondary school and undergraduate study" (back cover), both groups which will benefit from this broader than usual spectrum of Ciceronian writings. It is more difficult, however, to imagine how this book might be integrated into undergraduate curricula. It is, on the one hand, too detailed for a survey of Roman history, while not expansive enough for a more focused class on the Late Republic (the kind of class that features less regularly on curricula than in the past). Still, combined with a series of lectures to provide some historical background and a broader perspective on the period, Cicero and the Late Republic can be productively used as a pedagogical tool to encourage critical thinking about a central figure of Roman history.

The discussion questions provided throughout will doubtless be useful, though individual instructors will vary in their preferences. An especially prominent theme for these questions is the engagement of ancient texts and modern concerns, and these could certainly lead to lively debate. On the extract from the de Legibus, for example, we find the following (q.3, p.9): "Can you imagine any circumstances in which your loyalty to your locality could come into conflict with your duty to your country?" For American students in particular, who might have more to say about the relationship between the federal government and state/town authorities, this will be a fruitful subject for thought. Other questions offer an opportunity to think more specifically about the modern world in the light of ancient evidence (e.g. 1. p. 55, on elections and the UN). The balance of strict historicism versus presentist relevance is left to the discretion of the teacher, but M. offers plenty of fertile material from which to choose.

On the whole, the selection of extracts is varied and interesting, and M. has done a good job mixing together all manners of Ciceronian writing, the better to exemplify to the student how no aspect of Cicero's life can be separated from another. He also adds a judiciously selected amount of non-Ciceronian material to round out the lacunae in Cicero's corpus. Still, some problems remain.2 For instance, the first chapter naturally relies on Cicero's own recollections in his later treatises, but this fact is nowhere explicitly mentioned in the chapter, nor are the literary conceits underlying Cicero's use of his own persona in those texts. Roman dating conventions are never explained, and the dates are throughout converted to modern dating, leaving the impression that Cicero might have dated his letters "first half of 66 BC" (49) vel sim. Nor does M. always take the opportunity to signal good topics for discussion when they arise. Thus, on p. 46 the phrase "one law, one man, one year" (una lex, unus vir, unus annus, De Lege Manilia 56), offers an excellent opportunity to introduce stylistics, especially since the phrase is already glossed and the student's attention drawn to it; likewise the concept of political amicitia on p. 53 or the publication of speeches on p. 38. The relentless focus on Cicero's life also makes for the occasional odd gloss. Athens is glossed as "the cultural center which elite young Romans regularly visited at this time to further their studies in rhetoric and philosophy" (31), without reference to any of its past glories or role in history; and Marcus Antonius is introduced as having "played a major role in the history of Rome in the 40s and 30s" (131), but not as the famous triumvir.

Despite these flaws, this is a useful volume, which brings together a set of sources not often accessible to undergraduate and high-school students in a solid English translation, accessible format, and affordable price. The omissions as a rule leave ample room for the instructor to generate and supplement discussion with more historical background, and M.'s distinctive personal tone will help students engage more enthusiastically than they might with a more detached academic style. The view that a biography of Cicero constitutes also a history of the Late Republic now seems old-fashioned, but this collection, at least, shows how useful a tool the biographical lens still remains.


1.   Although the book's focus is very much on Cicero's personal experience, this is nevertheless a political history. Cicero's private and domestic affairs get intermittent attention, with Atticus and Quintus Cicero getting much more prominent billing than Terentia and Tullia. As a rule the treatment of Roman women here doesn't always integrate recent trends in scholarship on the experiences of Roman women or the Roman family, though students are referred to S. Treggiari. (2007), Terentia, Tullia, and Publilia. Routledge.
2.   Some more technical quibbles: p. 1: the letters SPQR visible today in Rome are not ancient, as the text may lead one to believe; the phrase 'first time senators' on p. 4 isn't clear, especially since a senatorial position was held for life; the discussion of optimates and populares on p. 4 is old-fashioned at best; 'the augur' on 11.1.2 ought to be in blue type; the Plutarch quotation on p. 21 needs better connection, or risks the pronoun 'he' being misunderstood; the note on Cicero and Sulla "Cicero does not say much about Sulla and his times. He clearly hated the violence and cruelty" (22) sits at odds with the one on p. 23 "Cicero was clearly ambivalent in his attitude towards Sulla..."; in the blurb on p.23, a space is missing between dictator and for; on p. 36, the arch of Fabius was not dedicated "to" him, but by his descendants, in his honor; the blurb on p. 56 might lead a student to believe that Cicero's declaration of his popularis credentials rather than the defamation of Rullus was the purpose of the de Leg. Agr. II ; on pp. 62-3, In Cat. 2 is cited before In Cat. 1. The purpose is clear, but no heads-up to the reader is given, nor an indication of the larger sequence; 'at' is missing from the beginning of the blurb on p. 74; on p. 92, Clodius is a member of the nobility, but not of the optimates; imperator on p. 125 should be in blue type; why is good citizen on p. 156 italicised?

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