Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.09.05 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.09.05

Rosa Rita Marchese, Uno sguardo che vede: l'idea di rispetto in Cicerone e in Seneca. Letteratura classica, 41.   Palermo:  Palumbo, 2016.  Pp. 184.  ISBN 9788868893354.  €25.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Giulia Fanti, University of Cambridge (

The topic of respectus is central to most of Cicero’s and Seneca’s philosophical works: more than any other Latin authors, they developed theoretical reflections on human behaviour. They are therefore a natural starting point for studying Roman ideas of respect. Scholarship on these authors has given special attention to the topics of officia and beneficia as the most significant processes governing social behaviour.1 Marchese’s monograph seeks to go beyond the surface of these processes, and to investigate their origin and development. This is an ambitious goal, and the results are compelling. Although she acknowledges (p.10) that a thorough survey is impossible, she aims to study how the two ancient authors understood and expressed the idea of respect, which was almost paradoxical in an ancient society such as Rome, alien to egalitarian notions of human rights. The question raised is a fascinating one: what exactly is Cicero’s and Seneca’s respectus to modern readers who have a modern concept of ‘respect’ in mind? The answer, however, remains disappointingly vague, as what Marchese stresses is the obvious divergence between Roman society and our own, claiming that, although the idea of respect is more crucial than ever today, translating the semantic implications that respectus had for the Romans can never wholly bridge the gulf between them and us.

The first chapter is intended to support the reader in understanding Cicero’s and Seneca’s linguistic choices for expressing their idea of respect. It stands as an etymological survey of respectare and respectus and their cognate words: the aim is to disclose what, if anything, of the original Roman idea of ‘respectus’ still remains in modern-language ‘respect’ and, through this acknowledgment, better understand both the ancients’ and our modern interpretations of respect. Marchese emphasises the relationship of respectare and respectus with the semantic field of ‘sight’ (species). This point is very convincingly supported by ample textual evidence chosen from a wide array of authors, from Catullus to Seneca. The original meaning of ‘looking back’, which we first encounter in Plautus and Terence, undergoes a semantic shift in Catullus, where respectare seems to be related with the idea of ‘trust’ (XI.21). From here, the change to an idea of reliance and respect is straightforward: if the act of looking back is voluntary, it necessarily implies the subject’s willingness to pay attention to the object in his/her visual field (and, from here, to respect it), and this is indeed the main use of the two words in Latin. The analysis then unfolds through a discussion of clusters of words that imply, more or less directly, an idea of ‘respect’: uereri/uerecundia/reuerentia, obseruare/ obseruantia/obseruatio, colere/cultus, uenerari/ueneratio, ratio/rationem ducere/rationem habere, honos/ honestus/honorare, religio/religious, pietas/pius, obsequio/obsequium. Marchese’s approach is here consistent with the first half of the chapter: examples from a variety of texts are supplied, and all contribute to demonstrating the point that the author wishes to raise, namely, that in the Roman world, the idea of ‘respect’ could be expressed in the most diverse ways. Although some of the nuances of the Latin expressions might get lost for us modern readers, it is still possibleas Marchese successfully demonstratesto identify the distinctive attitudes connected to the idea of ‘respect’: respect is not imposed by law but is a voluntary act of care for someone; there are different degrees of respect according to the different kinds of relationships; respect usually implies an upwards motion, i.e. ‘looking up to’ someone; to see and to be seen are crucial to the manifestation of any form of respect; respect is always intentional.

In Chapters 2 and 3, the reader is introduced to the context of Cicero’s idea of ‘justice’ as discussed in De officiis, a work that deals with the moral duties expected from a Roman citizen. officium is what ‘it is right to do’ and what allows anyone performing it to achieve the fullest self-realisation, both as an individual and as a member of the ciuitas. Marchese structures her treatment of the officia as a lexical analysis, following Cicero’s own categorisation of honestum (e.g. off. 1.15), and focusing her study on Cicero’s pervasive notion of iustitia as the crucial criterion for defining virtuous social behaviour, which is connected to the more concrete actions of non nocere and prodesse. The former action is not enough to guarantee justice in society, but what is necessary is the active willingness to act in defence (prodesse) of those who are victims of injustice and violence. Although Marchese’s survey flows smoothly, readers have to figure out for themselves what connection she might have in mind between the idea of respect and the Ciceronian argument on iustitia and its social implications, which will only be stated in the conclusion of chapter 3.

The analysis continues with a section on uerecundia and decorum, two other components of the honestum, closely intertwined and both associated with the idea of respect and sight. The latter is interpreted as a visible virtue, which finds expression in an attitude defined as uerecundia—the fear of a just reproach—and, at the same time, governs the individual’s public behaviour and generates consent. The connection with respect is clear, and the overview that Marchese offers of the Ciceronian nuances of respectus is captivating. However, the main weakness of her analysis in Chapter 3 may be described with the same words that she uses to describe Cicero’s discussion in the first book of the de officiis: ‘affanno sul piano della coerenza teorica e della lucidità della scrittura’ (p. 75). The lucidity of the discourse is at points blurred, and it is not always clear where the author is directing her analysis, which is often heavily repetitive, probably reflecting her concern for clarity. Inconsistency in the translation of uerecundia in this chapter does not help. First translated as ‘respect’ (p. 70), it is soon after defined as ‘self-control’ (p. 72), while, on p. 75, Marchese offers a different definition of both ‘respect’ and uerecundia: ‘il rispetto è reuerentia che scaturisce dall’esercizio della uerecundia’. Finding a coherent interpretation for these virtues would certainly help the reader to gain a better understanding of the overall argument. Chapter 3 is intended to be complementary to Chapter 2: moving to the second book of Cicero’s treatise, it considers the idea of respectus and honestum and how they relate to the public utile—a matter of high concern for someone as politically committed as Cicero. The conclusion that Marchese draws is that the dynamics of respect play an essential role in moral life and its effort at identifying what is utile for society: in other words, our attempt to be as the community expects us to be creates a balance between what is necessary for the individual and for the common good.

Seneca’s views are discussed in Chapters 4 and 5. Marchese focusses mainly on De beneficiis, where Seneca’s systematic treatment of ‘acts tending to the benefit of others’ necessarily touches upon the idea of respect as an aspect of human relationships. In her analysis, Marchese follows the structure of Seneca’s treatise, taking as the starting point for her reflections the mistakes that might occur in bestowing beneficia: most people do not know how to bene facere, but behave as if they did, expecting from the recipients of their beneficia something in return. As they do not obtain what they expected, they blame their beneficiaries as uitiosi. However, they themselves are responsible for the flawed process of beneficientia: the inability to evaluate the dignitas of the recipient, grauis exprobratio and leuitas are the main mistakes to be avoided, or else the benefactor incurs in the beneficiary’s rejection and rebellion against a perceived overwhelming power and arrogance. These attitudes represent, as Marchese argues, a lack of respect towards the recipient of the beneficium: therefore, any forms of ingratitude ought to be interpreted as the consequence of a lack of respect on the part of the benefactor. Introducing respect (‘vettore di uguaglianza’, to use Marchese’s phrase, p. 130) into the dynamics of beneficium would establish a more egalitarian relationship between the benefactor and the beneficiary. Marchese insists that Seneca advocated abandoning any personal interest when doing beneficia, focusing instead on the only action that can truly be controlled, that of tribuere. This makes possible a reduction of the beneficium to a more ethical way of giving, which takes place between equals respecting each other and mutually bound by honestum. In view of these conclusions, how should one impart beneficia? Verecundia is the correct attitude, and, at the same time, the only acceptable reason for delay (mora) in the process of bene facere (cf. ben. 2.1.3): uerecundia is the respect shown to the beneficiary by, for example, refraining from anticipating his request of help or from interrupting the request. But uerecundia is also—as Marchese persuasively concludes—pudor, the shame felt for being in a condition of dependence. uerecundia is therefore the starting point for reshaping the behaviour of all those involved in the process of bene facere and to amend any corrupted instance of it. The chapter closes with an overview of the meanings that uerecundia has in Seneca’s other works.

A very brief conclusion attempts to summarise the common and divergent traits of the idea of ‘respect’ both in Cicero and Seneca. This is the only place in the work where the two authors are measured against each other, although not systematically. Marchese stresses how, according to Cicero, respect plays a crucial role in giving credibility to an idea of justice that was far too compromised at the time of the Late Republic; by contrast, in Seneca’s works, respecting the public image of both benefactors and beneficiaries is probably the best way to deal with inequalities among the imperial community. Despite these differences, both authors consider respect as the outcome of a voluntary choice and of an intention to establish personal relationships that could preserve and improve the whole community.

Marchese presents very interesting observations on how Cicero and Seneca interpreted and expressed the idea of ‘respect’, regarding it (with the differences due to their historical backgrounds) as one of the few means of safeguarding their society during difficult times. The work is therefore an innovative treatment of a topic that has not been much studied, at least not with such a meticulous linguistic approach. However, it suffers at points from a certain provincialism—references to secondary literature are mainly to Italian scholarship; frequent use of the Italian equivalent of Latin words may create interference and preclude full understanding of the original Latin by a wider international audience. Regrettably Latin quotations are sometimes inaccurate and the Italian is affected by typographical errors. Nevertheless, the choice of the sources on which the author builds her argument is rich, and most passages are thoroughly discussed. The title is apt, as it summarises very effectively the core of the discussion: respect is an intentional act of mutual exchange that necessarily involves ‘sight’, i.e. consideration of another’s wishes and needs.


1.   E.g. A. Accardi, Teoria e prassi del beneficium da Cicerone a Seneca, Palermo 2015; G. Picone, L. Beltrami, L. Riccottilli, Benefattori e beneficati. La relazione asimmetrica nel ‘De beneficiis’ di Seneca, Palermo 2009; C.A. Barton, The Roman Honor. The Fire in Bones, Berkeley; Los Angeles; London 2001.

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