Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.07.20 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.07.20

Pietro Li Causi, Rosanna Marino, Marco Formisano, Marco Tullio Cicerone. De oratore: traduzione e commento. Culture antiche. Studi e testi, 28.   Alessandria:  Edizioni dell'Orso, 2015.  Pp. xxxvi, 601.  ISBN 9788862745963.  €50.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Javier Gómez, Universidad de Zaragoza (

Over a decade ago Classical studies began to take a different view of the philological investigation of Cicero’s De oratore. The work under review here continues the same line as previous works by May-Wisse (2001), Fantham (2004) or Dugan (2005), all of whom took their lead, one way or another, from the colossal commentary undertaken by Leeman and Pinkster in 1981.1 In addition to progress made in understanding this work, it is also quite obvious that Cicero’s masterpiece still retains many aspects that need to be clarified. This recent reading on the subject should thus prove to be of great interest to specialists.

Li Causi, Marino and Formisano present their new edition and translation of De oratore along with a following commentary. The entire book is structured in the traditional manner beginning with an introduction (VII-XXXVI), by professor Elisa Romano and titled ‘Il De oratore: retorica, cultura e politica a Roma negli anni 50 a. C.’. Here the reader will find the core principles contained in the subsequent commentary. The book begins with the presentation of Cicero’s Latin text based on Kumaniecki’s edition of 1969 alongside a new Italian translation (2-375).2 It has to be pointed out that this translation lacks both notes to clarify some key concepts and epigraphs to differentiate the subjects tackled throughout the dialogue. All interpretative tasks are put aside until the third part of the book (377-583), where an analysis is undertaken of each passage of Cicero’s text. The study also includes an extensive bibliography (585-601) listing a large number of studies devoted to the interpretation of this particular work as well as Cicero's thought, dating from 1892—the year Wilkins’ commentary was first published—to 2014, the year one of the most recent papers by the authors of the book.3

Without diminishing the relevance of a new translation into Italian of De oratore, a task that has not been tackled since 1994,4 the pages devoted to the commentary ad locum are the most interesting part of the whole work. Its layout is as follows: an entry is dedicated to each and every one of the sections contemporary editions have customarily divided Cicero’s text into, although not all of them conform to the same pattern or share the same profile. Most, using the conventional division into sections, explain the line of argument of the dialogue and the development of the ideas expressed throughout, explaining their ideological relevance from the author’s point of view and the context. Other entries, however, seek to satisfy a totally different need by offering information about historical facts or characters that might be unknown to a reader who is new to or little acquainted with this work and its background. The two extremes appear unbalanced, as on the one hand we have highly specialized and theoretical entries that, positing arguments about some polemical aspects of the text, refer directly to other studies on De oratore, while in contrast, some entries are essentially aimed at occasional readers of Cicero or possibly young students coming to the Classics for the first time. Consequently, this structure will sometimes deprive one of these two kinds of potential readers of some valuable information, because whoever the reader of this book is, the presentation of the information in the commentary will be a burden and a cause of distraction for their reading of the text, as some of it will prove unnecessarily difficult or simplistic in one case or the other. In other words, the specialist on Cicero or ancient rhetoric will have no difficulty recognizing some of the people or facts mentioned by Cicero in his work, as in the case, for instance, with names such as Polykleitos or Rutilius Rufus (whose biographical details are explained on pages 473 and 442), but it is also true that in order to fully understand the text this information is essential to the reader who comes to De oratore for the first time. Of course, these data are genuinely useful to readers unaccustomed to reading classical literature, but they would better suit a different publication and translation accompanied by footnotes throughout the entire text.

This same factor might similarly deter specialists from making use of this new investigation into De oratore and might therefore miss the clear and well-researched contribution made by Li Causi, Marino and Formisano, not forgetting the valuable introduction made by Romano at the outset of the book. With De oratore Cicero, to summarize the accepted and agreed point of view of all four authors of this volume, is redefining the ideal education for upper-class Roman males of his time. This involves making oratory one of its most relevant aspects whilst also including encyclopaedic, humanistic Greek education as one of its foundations. Cicero gives Greek culture, which was quite widely accepted within the Roman elite at the time, a prominent place amongst the traditional requirements for achieving a successful public career, in tandem with the skills of war and the knowledge of law.

The commentators, throughout this part of their work, detail the way in which Cicero introduces Greek education into the mos maiorum, and the structure of the dialogue itself is a fine example. Here Greek culture can be taught to great elderly Roman men or to youngsters of the next generation, as happens in the scene Cicero is describing to us: Crassus and Antonius are bestowing some part of Greek rhetoric and philosophy on Cotta and Sulpicius and Romans in general. In this sense, it is really well observed in the commentary (see the entry to De Or. I 96, page 412) how speaking about the rhetorical τέχνη is permitted without violating the basis of the Roman tradition because of Cotta and Sulpicius’ insistence that the elders do this. Thus the seniores, Crassus and Antonius, although judging these kinds of Greek topics derisory, are compelled to tackle them because the younger noblemen consider them essential to their oratorical education and the Roman nobiles must therefore impart this knowledge to the junior members of the nobilitas, even if such knowledge happens to be Greek in origin. The aim of the dialogue is, therefore, to modernize the Roman nobilitas’ educational programme. Cicero’s goal in writing De oratore is carefully explained in the entry to De Or. I 101 (see p. 413): the authors of this commentary accept Dugan’s (2005) proposal, according to which De oratore is part of Cicero’s project of self-aggrandisement (BMCR 2006.09.03), but the commentary adds to this idea that Cicero has an interest in the expansion of the Roman intellectual heritage and that the instructions given for future generations will enable them to take full advantage of it.

The authors express their viewpoint throughout the whole commentary while contemplating the ideas of other specialists, which may not be fully in accordance with their own, additionally making a meticulous record of the bibliography. This feature allows the reader to gain access not only to Cicero’s work but also to a century of philological studies concerned with it: this is an incentive for the specialist reader I mentioned before. It is also highly praiseworthy that the authors do not demur from taking sides in controversies that are still open to debate. For instance, they lessen the influence of Aristotle’s Rhetoric on Antonius’ scheme docere, conciliare, movere, stressing the emotive profile of the second of these three kinds of rhetorical proof, which was lacking in the exclusively logical account of the Greek philosopher (see p. 484-485).

Although the comprehensive, up-to-date bibliography is one of the achievements of this work—in this sense this volume may prove to be a useful reference for specialists who want to delve deeper into their analysis—, I find one reference missing that could have been genuinely important to the global interpretation of this reading of Cicero’s De oratore. I am referring to the recent work on the key concept of persona in Cicero by Guérin (2009-2011).5 The ideas expressed by the French scholar would match the theories held by Romano and shared by the authors of the commentary as well. Guérin maintains that eloquence was a social patrimony in the hands of the Roman aristocracy for centuries, but he also explains the way in which changes in social and cultural paradigms in the early first century B.C. forced a change in the nobilitas and how its members had to retain their monopoly over public speech. The conflict which the nobilitas, on the edge of losing one of their distinguishing features, had to confront is what shapes De oratore, according to Guérin, and would be a complementary idea to the position of Li Causi, Marino and Formisano.

To sum up, this is a book with a lot to offer, because of its well-researched documentation and its own contribution to current discussions underway regarding Cicero’s De oratore. However, all the work invested herein is beyond the reach of the actual needs of most readers. We should question whether a meticulous commentary ad locum is the best approach in making a modern study of this sort about this or any other piece of classical literature. This type of commentary has been made almost completely obsolete due to modern computerised methods of text searching. Against this background, the readers of the work of Li Causi, Marino and Formisano will have to sift through large amounts of information that are not always relevant to them. And the result achieved is in fact two distinct books within the same volume: one is an introductory book addressed to students in the process of learning, and the other is a specialized work on De oratore. Anyone interested in reaching a deeper understanding of the title written by the author from Arpinum will inescapably need to go through the entire book—at times dealing with an excess of information irrelevant to what they may be seeking.


1.   Anton D. Leeman, Harm Pinkster, M. T. Cicero De Oratore libri III, vol. I (1, 1-165). Heilderberg: Carl Winter, 1981; James M. May, Jakob Wisse, Cicero, On the Ideal Orator. New York-Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. Elaine Fantham, The Roman World of Cicero’s De oratore. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. John Dugan, Making a New Man. Self-Fashioning in the Rhetorical Works. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
2.   Kazimierz F. Kumaniecki, M. T. Cicero De Oratore. Leipzig: Teubner, 1969.
3.   A.S.Wilkins, A. S., Marci Tulli Ciceronis De oratore libri tres. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Elisa Romano, ‘Eruditio libero digna: modelli educativi e formazione politica in Cicerone, Atti del V Simposio Ciceroniano. Cassino: Università degli Studi di Cassino e del Lazio Meridionale, 11-28.
4.   Cicerone, Dell’oratore, intro. E. Narducci, trad. M. Martina, M. Ogrin, I. Torzi, G. Cettuzzi. Milan: BUR, 1994.
5.   Charles Guérin, Persona. L’elaboration d’une notion rhétorique au Ier siècle av. J.-C., 2 vol. Paris: Vrin, 2009-2011. See also BMCR 2012.01.06.

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