Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.10.42 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.10.42

Vincenzo Merolle, Mommsen and Cicero: ‘vindiciae Ciceronianae’. With a Section on Ciceronianism, Newtonianism and Eighteenth-Century Cosmology.   Berlin:  Logos Verlag, 2015.  Pp. 225.  ISBN 9783832539450.  €36.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Andrew R. Dyck, Los Angeles

Table of Contents

The first sentence of the Introduction informs the reader that this book ‘represents the answer of the city of Arpino to the unfair critical judgment’ passed on Cicero by Theodor Mommsen (p. 13). The author, it emerges, is a native of Arpino and, though not a classicist,1 is moved to take up the cudgels on behalf of the town’s most famous son. Not only that, but one of the author’s ideas is that a statue of Cicero should be erected in front of the site of the Curia (in place of Caesar’s statue, installed by Mussolini: pp. 82-83). So although this book has been printed by an academic publisher,2 there is clearly more at stake for the author than just questions of historical assessment.

The book offers disparate materials under three headings: Chapter I.1, Mommsen and Cicero; Chapter I.2, Cicero’s influence on Isaac Newton and eighteenth-century cosmology; and Chapter II, an essay on recent Ciceronian bibliography. The volume concludes with three Appendices, the first two reprinting defenses of Cicero by various hands, the third arguing that Arpinum (and not Sora) was Cicero’s birthplace.

In spite of the prominence given to Mommsen in the book’s title, Chapter I.1 is ineffective. Merolle quotes Mommsen’s major criticisms of Cicero (pp. 23-27) but does not attempt to rebut them. He thinks the work of refutation was performed by the texts reprinted in Appendix A (p. 23 and n33). But, unfortunately, this is not the case. Montesquieu’s youthful encomium of Cicero was written well before Mommsen’s History and so is of doubtful relevance. The same is true of H. H. Milman’s review of the work of Drumann, Mommsen’s predecessor in anti-Ciceronianism. The essay quoted from the University of Wisconsin Latinist M. S. Slaughter, reprinted from Classical Journal 1921-22, at least discusses Mommsen directly, but it deals in general political and cultural values, more than with Mommsen’s specific points. Similarly unhelpful are the polemics quoted in Appendix B.

Merolle essentially takes over the interpretation of Mommsen offered by Rebenich 2002. He parts company with Rebenich merely in his strictures on Mommsen’s ‘liberalism’, which, he emphasizes, was narrowly circumscribed by his time and place—no surprise. Merolle distinguishes between philosophical and political liberalism and demands that the historian set aside political views when he writes his work (p. 47). But this is an unrealistic postulate, and the reversal of judgment among Cicero’s recent biographers, which Merolle approves in Chapter II, is no less informed by political premisses than was Mommsen’s. Merolle concludes that ‘A wider knowledge of history, of what society and human beings are, is gained through anthropology, and is necessary before setting out to judge Cicero’ (p. 101). Perhaps, but if so, it is unhistorical, in effect, to take Mommsen to task for being unacquainted with a discipline that was just emerging in his day.3

The leading idea of Chapter I.2 is that Western intellectual history remained essentially Ciceronian through the end of the eighteenth century, when Kantian, Hegelian, and Romantic ideas came to the fore. This is documented with various quotations, principally from Newton, Hume, and Adam Smith. Again, there is nothing particularly surprising here, and not enough space is devoted to analysis of the cited texts, or to discussion of the views of previous interpreters, to yield new insights.

Chapter II is a rapid, mostly descriptive survey of recent work on Cicero.4 Merolle finds, rightly, that even in Germany biographers are now freeing themselves of Mommsen’s influence. But there is insufficient discrimination between what is important and what is less so or insight into trends of scholarship.

The most useful part of the book is Appendix C, which collects the evidence about Arpinum from Cicero’s writings and discusses the local topography; and the plates at the end provide a good orientation on the site.

There are various mistakes in transcribing German texts and translating from German to English (e.g. on p. 26 ‘Rezept’ becomes ‘receipt’ instead of ‘recipe’), as well as other misunderstandings. Thus Mommsen’s reference (quoted p. 26) to Cicero as imitating Aristotle’s dialogue technique is evidently based on Att. 13.19(326).4, not 4.16(89).2, as Merolle thinks (p. 26n30). And it is surprising to see no reference to Polybius apropos of the mixed constitution (pp. 38-43).

In sum, even if one agrees that Cicero has been much maligned in the past, not least thanks to Mommsen and others under his influence, one may nonetheless find this book’s dichotomy between Cicero, a ‘noble soul’, and Mommsen, a ‘dwarf in politics’ (pp. 27 and 33), overdrawn. Elsewhere Merolle is more candid in admitting that Cicero was ‘a terribly human being’ (p.105). One must turn to Rebenich’s biography for a deeper understanding of Mommsen’s History of Rome and its historical context.

As to Cicero, scholarship has reoriented itself and is evolving new approaches that show the inadequacy of Mommsen’s. This is not the place to offer a full account; I can merely throw out some hints regarding the main categories of Mommsen’s critique.

(1) The speeches. Mommsen (quoted p. 25) uncritically repeats the hardly impartial strictures on Cicero’s style by such rivals as Calvus, Brutus, and Seneca, but ignores the appreciation of better qualified critics, such as Caesar and Quintilian. In addition, the autobiographical element in his speeches is hardly ‘egotism forgetful of its duty’, as Mommsen thought (quoted ibid.). Rather, this can be shown, even at its most expansive, strictly to subserve the needs of his case.5 In general, the speeches need to be judged not by such general considerations as ‘political discernment’ or handling of ‘constitutional questions’ (Mommsen, ibid.), but in relation to the persuasive goals in each case.

(2) The theoretical works. We are now beginning to achieve a better appreciation of Cicero’s contribution, which he ironically downplayed at Att. 12.32(294).3 as merely a supplying of words.6 In fact, he applied his own judgment, as he said (Off. 1.6). And the subtle interplay between characterization and argument in his dialogues is gradually coming to light.7

(3) The political career. Here Fuhrmann’s observations on the antipathy to rhetoric in nineteenth-century Germany are relevant (cited p. 23n29). Cicero’s rhetorical ability was valued by his contemporaries, powered his rise to consul at the date of his earliest eligibility, and made him a desirable political partner for Caesar and Pompey. He was also what we would call an excellent networker, with a highly ramified set of contacts known to us through his correspondence. These were his far from negligible political skills. Mommsen reproaches him for carrying out forensic tasks on behalf of the dynasts in the latter half of the 50s. But he was not so insensitive as to be indifferent to ‘which field he ploughed’, as Mommsen claimed.8 Rather, as his letters show, he went into a kind of ‘internal exile’ during this period.9 If we may believe Cicero, he tolerated such circumstances in the hope that liberty might one day be recovered (Phil. 3.29). No one who has read the Philippics will recognize in their author the man described by Mommsen as ‘without conviction and without passion’.10

Cicero certainly had his flaws, but no one, so far as I know, criticizes him these days on Mommsen’s grounds.

Scholarship and political discourse promoting national symbols make strange bedfellows, the one pulling toward, the other away from greater nuance and subtlety. It will be interesting to see whether Cicero will now finally rate a statue at the site of his former activity. In the meantime, we may suppose that, frustrated in his bid for a triumph during his lifetime and aware of the fragility of such monuments (Catil. 3.26), he might smile at the irony of it all.11


1.   P. 27n32; he is known as the author of books on Gramsci (1974) and Adam Ferguson and John Millar (1994).
2.   Logos Verlag styles itself on its website as ‘Verlag für wissenschaftliche Publikationen’.
3.   Waitz 1859-64 was groundbreaking.
4.   Apropos of Carcopino on Cicero’s letters (p. 100n47) Merolle might have referred to Lévy 2015, who illuminates the political background.
5.   Cf. e.g. apropos of Sest., Kaster 2006: 25-31. In general, May 1988; Kurczyk 2006 (discussed by Merolle p. 96, though it is not so much the literary as the forensic context that she brings to bear on self-presentation in the speeches).
6.   Mommsen, cited p. 27, takes the remark at face value.
7.   On Ciceronian dialogue, cf. Schofield 2008.
8.   Mommsen 1976: III 619. That he was an advocate for various clients in court and thus engaged in constructing probable arguments that might be different (or contradictory) in different cases was a fact of which Cicero was aware (Clu. 138-42) and would not be held against him nowadays, especially since he acknowledges ethical limits (Off. 2.50-51).
9.   Cf. Herescu 1961, applying the concept to the post-civil war period; I extend it to the later 50s in my biography (forthcoming), chapter 8.
10.   Mommsen 1976: III 620.
11.   References:

Herescu, N. 1961. ‘Les trois exils de Cicéron’, Atti del I Congresso Internazionale di Studi Ciceroniani, I (Rome) 137-56.
Kaster, R. A. 2006, tr., comm. Cicero. Speech on Behalf of Publius Sestius. Oxford.
Kurczyk, S. 2006. Cicero und die Inszenierung der eigenen Vergangenheit. Cologne-Weimar-Vienna.
Lévy, C. 2015. “J. Carcopino as Reader of Cicero’s Letters,” in W. H. F. Altman, ed., Brill’s Companion to the Reception of Cicero (Leiden-Boston) 198-212 (orig. in French, 2006).
May, J. M. 1988. Trials of Character: The Eloquence of Ciceronian Ethos. Chapel Hill.
Mommsen, T. 1976. Römische Geschichte. 8 vols. Munich (cited from indicated pagination of 6th edn., 1874; quoted translations are mine).
Rebenich, S. 2002. Theodor Mommsen. Eine Biographie. Munich.
Schofield, M. 2008. ‘Ciceronian Dialogue’, in S. Goldhill, ed., The End of Dialogue in Antiquity (Cambridge) 63-84.
Waitz, T. 1859-64. Die Anthropologie der Naturvölker. 6 vols. Leipzig.
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