Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.04.50 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.04.50

Yelena Baraz, A Written Republic: Cicero's Philosophical Politics.   Princeton; Oxford:  Princeton University Press, 2012.  Pp. xi, 252.  ISBN 9780691153322.  $45.00.  

Reviewed by Walter Englert, Reed College (


In this thoughtful study, Yelena Baraz argues that in the philosophical works he wrote near the end of his life (45-43 BCE) Cicero attempted to establish a new place for philosophy in Roman culture and politics under the oppressive regime of Julius Caesar. This is a wide-ranging book, focusing primarily on the prefaces of the philosophical treatises of 45-43, but setting the discussion in the larger cultural currents of the late republic. Baraz makes a number of important observations about Cicero’s philosophical project and what he tried to accomplish with it. This is an excellent study, and will be of great use to those interested in Cicero, his philosophical works, and the intellectual and cultural currents in which he wrote.

In the Introduction, Baraz clearly sets out goals of her study. She argues that by looking at the prefaces of the philosophical treatises that Cicero wrote in the years 45 to 43, we can see him responding to the failure of the republic by appropriating a segment of Greek cultural capital, philosophy, and by trying to provide a new conceptual framework for interpreting the many historical exempla upon which the mos maiorum was founded. Baraz suggests that Cicero uses the prefaces for two primary purposes: to justify his philosophical project, and to create the right rhetorical setting for his discussions. Working from the prefaces, Baraz says she hopes to contribute to the understanding of Cicero’s philosophical works by setting them in their cultural and historical settings.

In the Introduction, Baraz also discusses her methodology. She takes Cicero’s prefaces as paratexts in Genette’s sense, as a “fringe” which is both a transition and a transaction, in which Cicero can gain a better reception for his work. Baraz also invokes the Hegelian conception of a preface as “an explanation of the author’s aim, why he wrote the book, and the relationship in which he believes it to stand to other earlier and contemporary treatises on the subject.” (7). Finally, Baraz argues that in focusing on the prefaces she follows not only Genette, but Cicero himself, who composed a separate “book of prefaces,” the volumen prohoemiorum. Instead of taking (as many have done) the fact that Cicero composed his prefaces separately as evidence that the prefaces were relatively unimportant, Baraz takes it as showing that Cicero thought of his philosophical project as a unified whole, and one in which prefaces would allow him to address important issues consistently. Thus, Baraz argues, the prefaces hold valuable information for the historical and cultural questions she is exploring, and are sites of explicit engagement between author and reader.

Baraz rounds out the Introduction by situating her study in the context of Cicero’s philosophical works as a whole. She argues that Cicero began his philosophical project in earnest with the Hortensius, his programmatic defense of philosophy. Thus the dialogues of the 50s (De Oratore, De Re Publica, and De Legibus) do not form part of her discussion. Baraz justifies excluding the prefaces of the works of the 50s by noting that Cicero was an active politician at the time he wrote them, while the situation in the 40s under Caesar was strikingly different, when writing became for Cicero an alternate way of doing politics. Baraz is correct in these observations, though here it might have made her case even stronger if she had briefly discussed the very different prefaces of the De Oratore, De Re Publica, and De Legibus and contrasted them with the prefaces of the philosophical works of the 40s.

In Chapter 1 (“Otiose Otium: The Status of Intellectual Activity in Late Republican Prefaces”) Baraz helpfully sets Cicero’s attempt to deal with Roman resistance to philosophy in the broader context of attempts by Roman writers to address prejudices against writing in other fields. She examines Sallust’s monographs and the anonymous Rhetorica ad Herennium to see what strategies two contemporary authors use to demonstrate that writing is a valuable activity for Roman elites. Baraz argues that these texts reveal options Cicero had for meeting Roman resistance to intellectual activities, and the even greater difficulties he faced in trying to present philosophy as a valuable cultural practice.

Chapter 2 (“On a More Personal Note: Philosophy in the Letters”) is a perceptive and valuable treatment of how Cicero presents philosophical themes in his letters and how he develops lines of approach that he later presents in the prefaces to his philosophical works. In this chapter, Baraz examines a number of issues, including Cicero’s belief in philosophy’s ability to improve character, Cicero’s hope that philosophy could function in political contexts, and Cicero’s portrayal of his philosophical activity in the letters. The chapter ends with Baraz’s view of a key interpretative problem: how to understand Cicero’s numerous statements in his letters and prefaces about philosophy’s important role in consoling people who have suffered great loss. Baraz rightly notes that in his prefaces Cicero lists a number of motivations for writing his philosophical works, including his need to serve the state and its citizens, his need to keep active even when he cannot directly take part in politics, and his desire to find consolation after the death of his daughter. Baraz tries to separate out these motivations, ultimately arguing that Cicero’s political motivations for writing were more important than his personal and consolatory ones. Her account is well-balanced overall, but there are times when she underplays Cicero’s consolatory motivations for both himself and his readers. To say that Cicero’s philosophical works have a strong political motivation does not necessarily mean that his talk of consolation is largely confined to the Consolatio (94-95) or that it is secondary to his political motivations. Almost all of Cicero’s late philosophical works can be seen as offering consolation to himself and his readers, helping to provide a larger philosophic framework on which to reconstruct their lives.

Chapter 3 (“The Gift of Philosophy: The Treatises as Translations”) examines the prefaces of the philosophical treatises of 46-43 BCE and explores Cicero’s claims about his philosophical writings and their potential benefit to the state. A major theme of the chapter is the centrality of the idea of Cicero’s philosophical works as translations, and to explore this topic Baraz looks at sections of the prefaces of the De Natura Deorum I, Tusculan Disputations I, and De Finibus I. The chapter raises a number of productive issues, including Cicero’s views on the relationship of Roman sapientia and Greek philosophia, the nature of Cicero’s project of “translation,” and the different audiences he was trying it reach with his philosophica. The chapter concludes with a thoughtful discussion of the difficult balancing act Cicero had to achieve in writing the works, and leaves open the important question of how Cicero thought Rome would benefit from his philosophical treatises written in Latin.

Chapter 4 (“With the Same Voice: Oratory as a Transitional Space”) explores Cicero’s use of rhetoric in the prefaces, both as an explicit topic of discussion and as embodied in the consciously rhetorical manner of his presentation. Baraz discusses the prefaces of the Paradoxa Stoicorum, De Natura Deorum I, and Tusculan Disputations I, showing how in each of these works Cicero, through the rhetorical style of the prefaces, the emphasis he puts on the similarities between rhetoric and philosophy, and his own claims to have joined rhetoric and philosophy throughout his own life, tries to create a place for philosophy in Roman culture.

Chapter 5 (“Reading a Ciceronian Preface: Strategies of Reader Management”) explores the means (including appeals to amicitia, selection of quotations and allusions, and choice of particular historical characters as speakers) that Cicero uses to draw his audience in and create an “ideal reader” (151) who is well disposed to his works. Discussing the preface and conclusion of the Topica, Baraz evaluates Cicero’s use of the work’s dedicatee (the jurist C. Trebatius Testa) to reach his audience, and how his appeals to different aspects of his ties of amicitia with Trebatius help create similar ties with his readers. This is followed by a perceptive analysis of the preface of the De Senectute that demonstrates persuasively how Cicero combined the theme of amicitia with an appeal to the authority of great Romans from the past, including Ennius and Cato the Elder. Baraz ends the chapter with a comparison of the ideal reader created by the prefaces of the Topica and De Senectute and what we know independently of Cicero’s readers, and says that the profile of Cicero’s intended reader is consistent: “He emerges as an elite Roman male well versed in Roman tradition and fairly familiar with Greek culture, a man who would appreciate the importance of a real translation and integration of Greek philosophical ideas with the Roman cultural tradition.” (186)

Chapter 6 (“Philosophy after Caesar: The New Direction”) concludes the book. Analyzing the preface of De Divinatione II, written after Caesar’s assassination, Baraz suggests that Cicero begins at this point to change the direction of his philosophical project, and that we can see him working out this new approach in the philosophical works that follow: the De Fato, De Amicitia, and De Officiis. As part of her discussion, Baraz pauses to explore another feature of Cicero’s philosophical works: his choice of dedicatee. The philosophical works of the 50s are dedicated to his brother Quintus, while the rhetorical and philosophical works written under Caesar are almost all dedicated to Brutus (the exceptions are the Consolatio and De Senectute, dedicated to Atticus, and the Academica, dedicated to Varro). After Caesar’s death, a different pattern emerges. The De Divinatione lacks a dedicatee, while the De Fato (which has not survived in its entirety) may have been dedicated to the younger politician Hirtius. The De Amicitia was dedicated to Atticus, the Topica to C. Trebatius Testa, and De Officiis to Cicero’s son Marcus. Baraz sees the differences in types of dedicatees during the three periods of his life as reflective of Cicero’s view of the relationship of politics and action during the same periods: in the 50s, the dedication of his philosophical works to his brother matched his view that philosophy was an activity that was a subject for and product of otium; in the 40s before Caesar’s death, his dedication of most of his philosophical works to Brutus (an active politician) signified that philosophy was now substituting for politics for Cicero; after Caesar’s death, Cicero returned to a more active engagement with politics, and began to see his philosophical writings as a legacy he could bequeath to a younger generation of Romans.

Baraz has thus demonstrated how a careful reading of the prefaces of Cicero’s philosophical works yields important information about Cicero’s attempt to Romanize Greek philosophy. My only criticisms are relatively minor. First, while Baraz rightly highlights and convincingly argues for the importance of the political aspects of Cicero’s philosophical works, she at times undervalues another aspect of them that Cicero also stressed: the value that philosophy had to console Romans for the private losses they suffered during a period of intense social turmoil. This causes her at times to interpret passages from the philosophic works and letters that read more naturally as referring largely to private losses as being primarily political. Second, it would have been helpful if she had taken the opportunity, if only briefly, to try to connect some of the themes of the prefaces with the discussions of the philosophical material contained in the works themselves. And third, it might have helped if there had been a separate conclusion that drew together the major strands that emerged from the perceptive discussions in each of the six chapters. Still, this is an excellent study, and will be valuable reading for anyone interested in Cicero’s philosophical works and the cultural and political environments from which they emerged.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010