Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.09.22

Emanuele Narducci, Cicerone: la parola e la politica. Storia e Società.   Roma:  Editori Laterza, 2009.  Pp. xviii, 450.  ISBN 9788842088301.  €30.00.  

Reviewed by Yasmina Benferhat, University of Nancy 2, France (
Word count: 2899 words

So, which one do you prefer? The political loser, or the great father of humanitas? The angry old man (as R. Syme saw him), ready to go to war to get rid of Antony, or the exceptional man in an exceptional time? E. Narducci proposes a portrait of Cicero, in a book that death prevented him from finishing (it was completed by some of his colleagues such as M. Citroni): he also presents a synthesis on the late Republic's political and intellectual culture. This study will be of interest for students even if those who are in a hurry for exams may find it too long ; for a larger audience, it should also be worth reading it because it's a clear and well-written presentation of Cicero's "short century". As for scholars, we probably all have our own view of Cicero, and some won't be completely convinced by a very classic and positive picture that Narducci makes very long by summarising and commenting on almost all Cicero's works. Narducci is obviously much more interested in la parola than in la politica, and makes of Cicero almost an intellectual lost in politics.

The book is organized in 24 chapters. It starts just like Billy Wilder's movie Sunset Boulevard, i.e., with the hero's corpse. Narducci begins by quoting and analysing two descriptions of Cicero's tragic end, in Plutarch's Life of Cicero and in the Periochae. This allows him to underline the violence of the late Republic, but also August's ambiguous attitude to Cicero. Narducci makes his narration richer with reminiscences of other major Roman writers like Vergil and Tacitus, though the final comment on the historian's political preferences might sound a bit light. Narducci was no absolute beginner when he wrote this book, so it's hard to suggest omissions in the bibliography: nevertheless, there are some choices which are too restrictive (especially about Atticus, see p. 231). In this first chapter (p. 3-18, 'Cacciatori di teste') Hinard's book (Les proscriptions de la Rome républicaine, Rome, 1983) could certainly have been quoted.

The second chapter (p. 19-26, 'La piccola patria') is very short and deals with Cicero's social origins: Narducci uses J.M. David's works on the Romanization of Italy to present the general background. In the third chapter (p. 27-40, 'L'apprendistato') Narducci focuses on Cicero's youth: it starts with a presentation of eloquence in Rome, and one would have expected E. Rawson's analyses (Intellectual Life in the late Roman Republic, London, 1985) to be mentioned. Narducci slips softly over Cicero's time in the army: obviously he's not interested in it, nor in Pompey's beginnings (vendetta for the exile from a fan of Cicero?). But Strabo's camp was probably like Scipio's around Numantia: the place to be then, and where many ambitious young men were. It also certainly explains some of Cicero's choices: when the army was so important to cover oneself with glory, when others like Pompey were already much more brillant, when Cicero's bad health did not help, obviously for a fine young cannibal like him there was nothing left but eloquence to have his place in the sun.

And the strategy proved very soon to be right with Cicero's first successes: this is shown in the fourth chapter (p. 41-56, 'Primi successi di un oratore'). Narducci is probably a bit too faithful to Cicero's presentation of Sextus Roscius'situation, and he does take into account another point of view: was the attitude of the noble families who were supposed to help the son of a good client not a sign that Roscius was guilty? Whatever we believe, the main point is to accept the idea that the great father of humanitas was ready to use any argument to win his case: as a barrister he wanted and needed efficiency, so he did not hesitate to add a touch of politics when the case was anything but a matter of politics, and vice versa (in the Pro Caelio he reduces it all to a comedy between an adulescens and a meretrix) or to use what we would call racist arguments (see the Pro Fonteio about the Gauls or the Pro Flacco about the Greeks). It seems to us that Narducci can't help drawing Cicero with pastel colours, which he does need to be a great man. Do we need to fill with flowers the gap (or what we take for a gap) between humanitas and the barrister's tricks, not to mention the violence that is present in many speeches? Probably not. To watch Richard Gere as a barrister in Rob Marshall's movie Chicago would be more helpful.

The fifth chapter (p. 57-82,' Lo spettacolo dell'eloquenza') is a general presentation of eloquence in the Late Republic: Narducci uses J.M. David's works again to describe the trials. The barrister was to put on a performance just like an actor, which explains the ties between Cicero and Roscius for exemple. Narducci points out the fact Cicero was probably the first to be so interested in publishing his speeches (perhaps 50% of them), because he wanted his political ideas to be known and his reputation to grow.

Then Narducci offers a short description of what the 70s brought to Cicero: a 'beau mariage' and a first step in the cursus honorum. The presentation of Terentia will make think some of Xanthippe... Isn't something of a caricature to describe her as the stubborn wife of a great thinker? Whatever she really was (and Cicero would certainly not like to read that she took good care of their common patrimony, see p. 85), matrimony for a man like Cicero was not a matter of intellectual harmony, but a question of clientelism and money- what was required to help a career.

The long seventh chapter (p. 91-130, 'Il processo di Verr') is about Verres: one would have hoped to see Badian's name when Narducci reminds us of the difference of attitudes towards Greek people or barbarous Spanish tribes. Narducci rightly underlines that at this trial Cicero was for the first time the accuser and not the defender he chose to be before then in order to get clients. He could have added that was the difference between a homo novus and a noble who would feel able to prosecute a consular at twenty years old.

The following chapter (p. 131-145, 'gli anni di ascesa politica') concerns the years between aedileship and the election to the consulate. Pompey still suffers from Narducci' pietas: B. Rawson's fine book (The Politics of Friendship: Pompey and Cicero, Sidney, 1978) would certainly have been useful to offer a less reductive presentation. Why did Cicero chose to help him about the lex Manilia? Admiration? Not precisely: these two men had known each other since they were twenty, Cicero was aware he could never beat Pompey on a battlefield, while Pompey needed brillant minds to praise him. When you can't beat someone, the best thing is to attempt to enjoy the other's advantages while neutralizing him: that's what Cicero offered to Pompey who disdained it, but he was caught later by Caesar's similar strategy.

The famous year 63 is studied in the ninth chapter (p. 146-176, 'Il consolato'): it starts with a quotation of the Commentariolum, but what follows is less convincing. To use some of Cicero's remarks to make him an intellectual ready to leave the political stage to live a life more in accordance with his gifts won't convince anyone (p. 148-149): Cicero lived for glory, which he could get with eloquence better than others could. Would it be a heresy to imagine others at the same time might have been as brillant as Cicero in eloquence if they had needed to use it as an approach to power? Cicero knew he had no better weapon to fight with people who were very good generals, so he took it more seriously than others. To paraphrase Freud, a young ambitious man with some brainpower is a kind of polymorphous pervert: he will choose the church, or the army, or the law in order to get a place in the sun. Another point of contestation is the use of young Romans to explain Catilina's plot: it has a taste of P. Veyne (La société romaine, Paris, 1991, p. 89-90) with the accent put on parricide (which could have been interesting for Sex. Roscius Amerinus) but without mentioning him. Narducci gives the impression he considers young people are no good (see the chapter on Caelius) because there is not enough distance from Cicero's arguments. The bibliography is a bit light on Sallust's Catilina: La Penna is not the only one to have studied it (this remark is to be repeated for the bibliography p. 256).

After some pages (p. 177-181, 'Gli inizi del declino politico') on the beginnings of Cicero's disillusions, Narducci concentrates on the Pro Archia (which he had already studied) in a quite long chapter (p. 182-196, 'Gli orrizonti dell'eloquenza'). Cicero looks like a scholar in the 'tranquillo e sereno mondo di otium e di studio' and Narducci appears to prefer the parola to the politica.

Chapter XII is about the years immediately before the exile (p. 197-208, 'Verso il prezipizio'): constant reference to G. Boissier's fine but quite old study (Les amis de Cicéron, Paris, 1905) is somewaht misleading about some major figures among Cicero's friends, especially Pompey (see p. 198). Without being an addict to prosopography nor systematically throwing old books out of the window, one might have expected some more recent references. The chapter seems unbalanced between the long passage on Cicero's poem and the short remarks on political life. Clodius is the main victim of this after Pompey.

The following section deals with the exile (p. 209-217, 'L'esilio'): it's curious not to see Cato's similar fate at the same time mentioned by Narducci because it helps to understand Cicero's situation. And it is perhaps too easy to talk about a pact sealed between Clodius and the two consulars (see p. 211): once more Narducci is too faithful to Cicero.

Then Narducci choses to focus on Atticus (p. 218-232, 'Attico. Cicerone e il suo amico'): but the bibliography here, reduced to a few studies, mainly Boissier's as usual and Narducci's own contributions, clearly shows the limits of this exercise. The picture of Atticus is as old-fashioned as possible: no, Atticus was not neutral in politics, no his fortune was not only based on property, no he was not only a spectator. To trust Cornelius Nepos so much is not cautious when one wants to write a whole chapter on Atticus.

Chapter XV (p. 233-242, 'Dopo il ritorno') is mainly an opportunity for Narducci to return to the De Domo sua he had already studied, while in the following chapter (p. 243-256, ''ottimati' e 'Popolari'. Il processo di Publio Sestio') he concentrates on the Pro Sestio. Maybe Vatinius could have been better treated, because he's an interesting figure.

Then we arrive at 56 BC with the Pro Caelio (p. 257-276, 'Le trasgressioni della gioventu. Il processo di Marco Celio'): Caelius is very briefly presented, without any mention of his problems with Ap. Claudius Pulcher and other narrow-minded Optimates, which certainly played a part in his choice to join Caesar. Instead of Boissier's analyses one could have used P. Cordier's presentation (M. Caelius Rufus, le préteur récalcitrant, MEFRA 106, 1994, p. 533-577): it may not be fully convincing to see in Caelius a true Republican, but at least it's a stimulating hypothesis. Narducci sums up the speech with some stylistic remarks as he does in most chapters, but then he seems to stay too close to Cicero's arguments. The remark about Caesar's sexuality (see p. 274) sounds a bit naive: he was probably no worse than others, and bisexuality was not exceptional then.

Chapter XVIII (p. 277-293, 'Sotto l'ala dei triumviri') deals of course with the famous palinode: Narducci tries to find a honourable solution for Cicero, but the latter really had no choice. One reason was probably Caesar's great seductiveness, especially since these two men were the most brilliant of their time, while a Pompey was not much away from a battlefield. But Narducci does not take it into account. Piso's treatment is also very light. S. Koster's study (Die Invektive in der griechischen und römischen Literatur, Meisenheim, 1980) might have been useful then to comment on one the most violent speeches of Cicero.

Chapter XIX is a long presentation of the De Oratore (p. 294-320, 'Il 'De Oratore'') where Narducci comes back to some points he had previously studied. Chapter XX deals with the events of 52 BC, especially Milo's trial (p. 321-327): Narducci presents first the murder of Clodius and underlines the sensitiveness of Cicero in hard circumstances (see p. 323), to try to explain his inability to defend seriously his client against Pompey, but what would Milo have said? We then have a long abstract of the Pro Milone.

Chapter XXI (p. 328-356, 'Platone a Roma. I dialoghi politici') is about the De Republica (around 20 pages) and the De Legibus (p. 351-55): after some remarks on the fragmentary state of the treatises, Narducci focuses first on the somnium Scipionis, then on the Roman constitution, underlining the differences between Cicero and Polybius whose severe biological point of view was too hard for the Roman thinker. This part ends with the question of the princeps: curiously Narducci does not quote the words moderator rei publicae (see p. 342). On the De Legibus, which does not appeal much to Narducci, one could consider the difference of point of view on the tribunate between Cicero and his brother as a literary device, a fictitious opposition rather than a real one (see p. 355).

The last part of Narducci's book is an alternation of very short chapters on the political circumstances with long chapters on Cicero's major works, as if the balance Narducci tried to respect at the beginning could no longer be prolonged: the 'parola' definitely has advantage of politics. Chapter XXII (p. 357-364, 'La fine della Repubblica') deals first with the proconsulate in Cilicia: obviously Narducci does not like Cicero in the army, even as an imperator, so this is quickly treated though it certainly deserves something better. Then Narducci evokes the beginnings of the civil war with Cicero's impatience and incapacity (or refusal?) to understand Pompey's strategy. The battle of Pharsalus is explained by Caesar's tactical genius, but the difference between veterans and young soldiers with auxiliaries from Asia who had actually nothing to fight for was also an important factor. Narducci forgets to mention the altercation between Cicero and the young Pompey after Pharsalus, though it allows us to understand Cicero's bad situation at that time. He also does not mention the efforts of Atticus and of some Caesarians like Balbus and Oppius to help Cicero to be forgiven by Caesar.

Chapter XXIII (p. 365-382, 'Storia dell'eloquenza e polemiche di stile') focuses on the Orator and also on the Brutus which Narducci quotes in the first pages, i.e., two treatises written in 46 BC. Both were dedicated to M. Junius Brutus, who, as Narducci writes, was indeed influenced by Thucydides'style against Cicero's preferences. But Narducci could have added that it was certainly not only a matter of stylistics: Brutus was to be the leader of the Republicans after Cato's death (which might have led Narducci to reconsider the Brutus'date, see p. 366), and Atticus who had probably foreseen it did his best to convince Cicero to be a friend of the young man. Narducci also neglects the political side of the treatise: Cicero allows himself to say an official goodbye to dead friends who fought for Pompey and apart from melancholy there is also a polemic intention and a political criticism. Narducci is obviously more interested in the Orator, which he presents with more details (p. 373-380).

Chapter XXIV (p. 383-388, 'Tra Cesare e Catone') actually deals with the Caesarian speeches after Cato's death. Considering that it's almost impossible to study separately the speeches, treatises and letters of that time because they are all united by a growing exasperation against Caesar with a kind of modulation according to the circumstances (private letter, public speech), the choice Narducci made to study the three Caesarian speeches by themselves is not fully convincing. On the Pro Marcello, he does not take in account all the allusions to Caesar's murder, though at that time Ciceromay already be hoping for it. The year 46 BC is also known as the year of Tullia's death and Cicero's second divorce: since Narducci is not fond of prosopography, he does not feel interested in Cicero's choices concerning his daughter's husbands, though it's noteworthy that he always tried to find a nobilis (Calpurnius Piso, Crassipes, Claudius Nero who finally did not marry her, Sulpicius'son) while Atticus tried to bring him back to the equites.

Chapter XXV (p. 389-416, 'Terapia dell'anima e rinnovamento sociale. La filosofia di Cicerone') and chapter XXVI (p. 417-425, 'La lotta contro Antonio') were not finished when Narducci died: so, I will only mention that the first is about Cicero's philosophical works of the years 45-44 and the second describes his last fight against Antony.

All in all, this is a well-written book with a positive view of Cicero, maybe too positive to really honour him, and maybe a bit too long. The presentation is perfect (on p. 275 we should read 'probabilmente' instead of 'probabimente').

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