Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2012.12.44 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.12.44

Elisabeth Begemann, Schicksal als Argument: Ciceros Rede vom 'fatum' in der späten Republik. Potsdamer Altertumswissenschaftliche Beiträge, Bd 37​.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2012.  Pp. 397.  ISBN 9783515101097.  €68.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by William H. F. Altman, E.C. Glass High School (

Table of Contents

Despite its formidable length and apparently intimidating rigor, it has been a refreshing, humbling, and deeply moving experience to read, study, and ponder Elisabeth Begemann’s study of Cicero. Having just read and reviewed two other doctoral dissertations recently published as first books by promising young Anglophone scholars from Cambridge and Berkeley, I am obliged to report that there is simply no comparison: as a student of the colossally erudite Jörg Rupke, Begemann proves that German classical scholarship—despite an Anglo-American hegemony that has scarcely left untouched even the values of post-war academic publishing—once again has what it takes to lead the world. Lest this remark be taken to confirm the nationalistic opinions of those who never doubted their own superiority, what makes Begemann’s book so moving is that the traditional excellence of her nation’s scholarship has now placed itself unequivocally where it has all too seldom been found: in the service of Cicero’s humanitarian republicanism. The result is not only a brilliant book, but also an important landmark in the 21st century reception of the novus homo of Arpinum, and of his German reception in particular.

Begemann’s subject is Cicero’s conception of fate, and admirers of Alexis de Tocqueville’s splendid chapter “Characteristics of Historians in Democratic Ages” will discover here the classical origin of the Frenchman’s modern insights: it is in the name of freedom, excellence, and the Republic that Cicero rejects fatum as a necessary causal nexus. But despite the philosophical acumen Cicero demonstrates when considering fatum from a theoretical perspective, he knows full well how to remind his auditors that it is the fate of all Romans to be free, just as he was born to give his life for Roman liberty. It is the juxtaposition of Cicero’s philosophical rejection of fatalism with his brilliant use of a freely chosen destiny for republican ends that justifies Begemann’s splendid title: Schicksal als Argument. What makes her book a landmark is not simply that she surveys all of Cicero’s writings—the number and variety of which has encouraged, to his detriment, the specialized fragmentation wrought in the wake of the Ph.D.—but that in doing so, she brings to light the complex unity between the philosopher, the politician, and the man. And what makes her book so brilliant is that the reader gradually comes to realize that the apparent specificity of her subject was somehow fated to be the proper vehicle for bringing a fully integrated Cicero back to life.

If Begemann’s book consisted of only of its second chapter, it would still be an extremely important contribution to the better understanding of Cicero’s philosophica. Beginning with de Fato—naturally enough, given her theme—she then moves backwards to consider the two books of de Divinatione and finally the three book of de Natura Deorum. Bringing philosophical acumen and analytical rigor to the consideration of de Fato, literary sensitivity to the context and surprisingly dialogic complexity of de Diviniatione, and then a combination of both of these—each rare in itself but almost never found combined in one scholar—in her brilliant treatment of de Natura Deorum, Begemann leaves the reader in no doubt that the three works Cicero grouped together in the catalogue of his writings in de Divinatione 2.3, when read in the proper order (de Natura Deorum, de Divinatione, and de Fato), constitute a “a theological triad.” I should emphasize that she achieves a profound sense of their logical order by considering them first in reverse order; only at the end does one realize that she has never lost sight of the fated τέλος of the trilogy as a whole. All students interested in these works will hereafter need to reckon with Begemann’s insights and her scholarly apparatus. And it perhaps deserves mention that she is in fruitful dialogue with the appropriate Anglophone scholars, from Malcolm Schofield’s breakthrough article on de Divinatione to Susanne Bobzien’s careful monograph on Stoicism.

In form and structure, Schicksal als Argument appears to be a typically German Habilitationsschrift, examining in meticulous detail a particular author’s use of a particular word. A methodological introduction quickly gives way to the second chapter on Cicero’s theological triad that includes, for example, a sub-section numbered 2.3.4 analyzing “Die stoische Philosophie in der Darstellung des Balbus” in the section (2.3) devoted to de Natura Deorum; what she calls “2.1” is devoted to de Fato. The third chapter, devoted to the use of fatum in Cicero’s speeches, is then divided into sections on the political speeches (3.1), the judicial speeches (3.2), and the speeches before Caesar (3.3). The first of these sections is divided into chronological sub- sections covering the speeches of the 60s, 50’s, and 40’s respectively. It is here that Begemann reaches the cumbersome specificity of a sub-sub-section: for example, she devotes to the thirteenth Philippic (6-9 and 11-12 are considered together) because it belongs to the political speeches (3.1) of the 40s (3.1.3). The fourth chapter deals with Cicero’s letters and is divided by addressees. Because the views of his correspondents naturally affects what Cicero writes to them, this chapter leads seamlessly into another on the way his contemporaries use fatum. In addition to giving her a chance to make some useful observation about other important authors, this thoughtful chapter concludes with what makes Cicero’s conception unique: it is tied to the Republic. A sixth and final chapter presents her conclusions.

Begemann’s book is not, of course, perfect: “Rawson 1983” (295 n. 76) appears only as “Rawson 1975” at 373 (cf. 132 n. 728), and Kaster 2006 should have been cited at 245 n. 525. There are typographical errors at 216 (vicuts for victus), 209 n. 369 (“in” for “on”), and even a mistranslation of cum at 208 (note cumtum construction). On a more subjective basis, there are several places where a bit more humor or imagination would have been appreciated (178 n. 197, 244, and 292); on the level of interpretation, I do not think that she was well served by her reliance on Krostenko 2000 on 347-48. She certainly should have cited Plato’s Ninth Letter (cf. de Finibus 2.45) at 268-69. But even on the microcosmic level, there are more than enough minor felicities to overshadow any such petty flaws: useful observations appear en passant about de Legibus (349), Caesar (330, 241 n. 509, and 133), Catullus (317-21), Lucretius and Darwinism (316), Varro (313), Terentia’s piety (296-97, especially 296 n. 80), irony in pro Marcello (265-66), Cicero’s use of inversion (217), the Philippics (“Ciceros Meisterwerk” at 189), and nineteenth-century German Quellenforschung (105 n. 534). Along the way, she also finds time to demonstrate mastery of explication de texte (e.g., 155-58), textual criticism (294 and 327), and even the judicious use of word- counts (294); a memorable Auseinandersetzung with Gesine Manuwald (197-99) reveals her skill in interpretive debate, while her filial piety toward her Doktorvater is consistently as tasteful (207 n. 363 and 220 n. 413) as it is sincere (9). There are also a number of stylistic masterstrokes, of which my favorite by far is her perfect riff on cedant arma togae, concedat laurea linguae (de Officiis 1.77) while describing post- Ciceronian Rome: “Die Toga mußte der Macht der Waffen weichen, die Zunge den Lorbeer des Siegers preisen” (354). But the point that deserves emphasis is that beyond its many particular excellences, despite her weighty book’s Germanic rigor and completeness, and below the surface of its numbered sections and sub-sections, Begemann demonstrates a keen sense of order that is anything but mechanical. Just as she deals with the three parts of the “theological triad” in reverse order before explaining how they were always already united by Cicero’s deeply principled and well-argued rejection of fatum as causal nexus, her decision to begin with Cicero’s philosophica gradually shows, as the argument unfolds, the deep and pre-established harmony between his theory and practice, between the philosopher and the politician, between the man and the republican liberty that he knew had made his own achievements possible, achievements that may yet point his readers forward to their own obligations toward liberty, the self-chosen destiny of the West.

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