Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.07.49
Henriette van der Blom, Cicero’s Role Models. The Political Strategy of a Newcomer. Oxford Classic Monographs. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. xi, 388. ISBN 9780199582938. $150.00.
Reviewed by Sarah Culpepper Stroup, University of Washington, Seattle (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Table of Contents
Van der Blom’s well-written and engaging book is a welcome addition to the growing resurgence in Ciceronian studies and, most particularly, those studies that choose to investigate the intersections of Cicero’s political and literary motivations. The book is divided into an Introduction and four Parts, comprising a total of eleven chapters of varying lengths. Each of these chapters builds more or less sequentially upon the previous (within the Parts, at least) and investigates the ways in which Cicero’s personal and political status both influenced his use of exempla and role models, and guided his efforts to create himself as an exemplum, and indeed role model, for the future.
A brief Introduction to the text lays out the issue at hand: Cicero, as a novus homo, faced unusual challenges in his creation of social and political auctoritas. The observation is not in and of itself either a remarkable or novel one; indeed, Cicero’s various challenges in “creating himself” have been the topic of several recent studies (cf. esp. Dugan 2005). Van der Blom’s particular contribution, a closer analysis of Cicero’s use of historical exempla and “role models” (that is, summi uiri types to whom Cicero held no convincing claim), will add profitably to the ongoing discussion.
Chapters 1 and 2, which are appended to the Introduction and presented as a pair of sorts, examine the complex and important role of mos and maiores with respect to both historical exempla in Roman culture (Chapter 1) and, building off this, to historical exempla in Cicero’s writings (Chapter 2). Van der Blom’s observation of the sociopolitical complexity of these terms is spot on; and these relatively brief, but certainly engaging, chapters do much to problematize terms that are too casually thrown about in discussions of “what really mattered” to the Romans of the late Republic (or, worse yet, to Cicero himself). Van der Blom’s decision not to tarry on an analysis of these terms (and their relation to historical exempla in Cicero) is a good one. And yet, these somewhat “introductory” chapters would have benefited from both an analysis of the frequency and use of the terms in this period (especially outside Cicero) and a questioning of their overarching importance in the first place. These are very good discussions, but rather too much is taken for granted, and greater philological rigor would have strengthened the author’s case.
Part I, “Cicero the Homo Novus, comprises Chapters 3 and 4. Chapter 3 provides a brief overview of Cicero’s background and education. The overview is helpful and does much to contextualize van der Blom’s subsequent discussions. The relative brevity of the chapter (five and a half pages), however, and the lack of significantly novel material here (not that any is needed) might have recommended rather that it serve as either an introduction to Part I as a whole, or to Chapter 4 in particular. Chapter 4 moves into the meat of van der Blom’s investigation, offering a thoughtful examination of the semantic register—and social signification—of the terms nobilis and homo novus as they functioned in the late Republic. The discussion here is a lively and good one, offering first a review of recent scholarship and then an analysis of Cicero’s own use of the terms, and it gets to the crux of the matter: that it is very difficult indeed to discover what exactly Cicero, or anyone else in this period, meant by these terms (especially homo novus), as clearly important as they were to those engaged in the political sphere in general—and to Cicero, in particular.
Part II, “Cicero’s Use of Historical Exempla,” comprising Chapters 5 and 6, is prefaced by the brief introduction lacking in Part I. Chapter 5 endeavors to provide definitions of historical and personal exempla, while Chapter 6 narrows the focus to the nature and functions of historical exempla in Cicero’s works. The latter chapter is especially helpful, addressing problems of credibility, stock uses of exempla in Cicero’s works, and the (rightly emphasized) importance of considering literary genre—speeches, letters, and treatises—in our analysis of Cicero’s use of exempla in his construction of personal and political authority. Although a slightly more rigorous delineation of the categories of “personal” and “historical” exempla would have been useful (at times the two categories seem nearly indistinguishable), the discussions of these chapters do much to advance van der Blom’s overall thesis.
Part III, “Cicero’s Role Models,” comprising Chapters 7 and 8, delves into Cicero’s use of claims other than those of ancestry (as a homo novus, van der Blom argues, he had no official claims to the august past traditionally required for the production and maintenance of auctoritas) and, returning to the subject of Part II, Cicero’s use of personal exempla. Chapter 7 revisits Cicero’s use of personal exempla in his claims to an ancestry to which had no direct access, and very profitably addresses his choice of interlocutor in his treatises (an aspect of the treatises that deserves more attention than it has yet received ). Chapter 8 builds on Chapter 7, and returns to—or develops—the material presented in Chapter 3. The discussion here is lively and engaging, and moves from Cicero’s background as a homo novus to his florescence as one of the most powerful voices, and forces, of the late Republic. This chapter is a good and meaty one, if perhaps the two “preliminary conclusions” (pages 234 and 263) distract a bit from the flow of argument; the final conclusion (pages 271-286) is, if undoubtedly useful, perhaps a bit long.
Part IV, again prefaced by an introduction, comprises (the very brief) Chapters 9, 10, and 11, and broaches the subject of Cicero’s creation of himself as an exemplum for future generations. Everything about these chapters is good and interesting. Although they appear somewhat appended to the work as a whole, it is here that van der Blom moves into one of her most original, and to my mind important, contributions to modern Ciceronian studies. I’d have liked to have seen more time given to these final considerations (perhaps a longer Part IV could have been balanced with slightly briefer central chapters), as it seems she has more to say on this matter, and I, for one, should like to hear it.
In sum, van der Blom’s book jibes well with, and contributes significantly to, current Ciceronian studies. Although I feel that the author spends rather too much time getting to the meat of the (very worthwhile) argument, and occasionally posits problems that are not productively resolved, and could have used a bit more linguistic subtlety at places in which she engages in linguistic arguments, Cicero is a notoriously difficult author to deal with, especially in expansive studies, and van der Blom has done a fine job. The project gives the impression of being not entirely developed at places, and I sense that a bit more work would only have made it a finer book. Then again, and as Cicero himself knew too well, there is a time for rewriting, and a time for publication: as it stands van der Blom’s book is an engaging, interesting, and satisfying read, and one that will contribute significantly to the ongoing Ciceronian project.