Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.08.44 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.08.44

Anabelle Thurn, Rufmord in der späten römischen Republik: Charakterbezogene Diffamierungsstrategien in Ciceros Reden und Briefen. Philologus. Supplemente, 11.   Berlin; Boston:  De Gruyter, 2018.  Pp. x, 321.  ISBN 9783110598483.  €99,95.  

Reviewed by Anthony Corbeill, University of Virginia (


Character assassination can be an effective tool; this held true especially for ancient politics, when a critic was allowed more than 280 characters to express disapproval. In this revision of a 2015 Darmstadt dissertation, Anabelle Thurn analyzes the modes of defamation practiced by its most notorious practitioner from Roman antiquity, Cicero. While recent studies have approached Ciceronian invective from various angles, Thurn wishes to interrogate the truth-value of Cicero's characterizations of those figures upon whom he unleashed some of his most abrasive attacks: Catiline, Piso, Clodius, and Marc Antony. Two particular issues interest her: what traits typify Ciceronian character sketches, and what do these traits say about Roman republican society? Since independent evidence for these figures is limited, one of her innovations is to compare the "biographical" details in the orations with the characterization of these same figures in the different genre of Cicero's correspondence.

An opening chapter distinguishes Thurn's approach (12-42). She proposes to apply to Cicero's text the tools of discourse analysis and narratology. An intriguing passage supports her claim that Cicero, as both orator and letter-writer, employs established tropes that allow him to construct a reality that can persuade his audience, by assembling a factitious ("fingierten") account in which truth is not so important as that the account resembles truth (Font. 37). Following another lead of Cicero pursued in recent scholarship, she considers the influence of emotions of equal importance to the manufacture of believability (fides; cf. part. or. 71). This attention to constructed truths drives the book's main arguments. Chapter 2 (43-57), after reviewing recent scholarly work, treats three specific areas: how Cicero's status as homo novus influenced his invective against members of the established elite; the role of ethos, of both speaker and opponent, in defamation; and lastly the "rhetoric of crisis" that Cicero adopted during the fall of 44.

"Diffamierungen in der griechischen und römischen Literatur" is the professed theme of Chapter 3 (58-85), but the treatment is fortunately more narrowly circumscribed. After cursory treatment of the limits on poetic invective prescribed in Plato's Laws and of the allegedly independent tradition of mockery in early Rome, Thurn discusses a passage from Rhetorica ad Herennium essential to the book's argument: regardless of whether an orator treats a feigned or factual set of circumstances, he must adhere to audience expectations (1.16). In other words, it is the probable, not the true, that the rhetorical schools encourage a speaker to use to win over hearers. Thurn relies on this notion for her claim throughout the book that the similar catalogues of vices found in invective passages are unreliable for reconstructing the biographies of the individuals that Cicero attacks. The chapter closes with an excellent discussion of a set of passages from Cicero's correspondence composed twenty years apart from each other. A tense exchange with Q. Metellus Celer in early 62 allows Thurn to trace the limits of verbal abuse—one should consider, for example, a family's dignitas and the service offered the state (fam. 5.1-2)—, while a letter to Caecina in 46 discusses how variable have become the boundaries of verbal attacks allowed under a dictatorship (fam. 6.8, mistakenly ascribed to Caecina).

Three central chapters supply the meat of the book, at last turning to analyze Cicero's defamatory language at work. Thurn's divisions correspond roughly to those recommended in ancient treatises that outline the categories toward which praise and blame are directed (e.g., inv. 2.177): character (in animum; Chapter 4); personal behavior (in corpus: Chapter 5); and a target's social or political associates (in extraneas res: Chapter 6). Analysis in Chapter 4 principally involves isolating categories of vices—audacia, turpitudo, etc.—and listing where these charges are applied to her chosen individuals. This can lead to interesting observations—e.g., that charges of audacia and amentia/furor are applied more to Clodius and Catiline than to the others—but it can also lead to peculiar misstatements, such as that libido plays only a peripheral role in the attacks on Clodius in the 50s (95 n. 45; seemingly contradicted by 123-129). Perhaps the actual word libido and its cognates occur rarely (but at har. resp. 42 libido describes the young Clodius's submission to Cilician pirates and rich Roman layabouts); nevertheless, charges of inappropriate sexual behavior concerning Clodius's conduct at the Bona Dea festival, his alleged incest, and cunnilingus proliferate. The chapter concludes with accusations against Piso and Antony, where Thurn does not point out that charges of bibulousness and stupidity seem particularly appropriate to Antony, indicating that Cicero's invective can serve to individualize opponents. The chapter closes by showing that the same basic vocabulary of abuse occurs in the letters, although, given the genre, its application is more concise.

The following Chapter 5 constitutes by far the longest chapter (115-235), and aims to isolate the cultural dimensions underlying five common topics of abuse: 1) sexual practices; 2) financial mismanagement; 3) banqueting behavior, including excessive drinking; 4) clothing and other aspects of external appearance; and 5) the use of violence, in both personal and political interactions. As elsewhere, Thurn's professed goal is to show that these elements are determined by convention and do not characterize the historical targets. In the first part she devotes many pages to the impugning of an opponent's sexuality, marshaling examples drawn predominantly from Anglophone scholarship, with emphasis on the opponent playing the passive role in a male-male relationship and its implications for that person's lack of self-control. Here again Thurn's interest in (non-)historicity can cause her to ignore possible rhetorical effects, as in her treatment of Cicero's reference to Tongilius, an otherwise unknown associate of Catiline, "whom Catiline, while still a boy, had begun to love" (Catil. 2.4). Thurn highlights well the ambiguity. Do they remain lovers? Is Tongilius freeborn, making the relationship particularly problematic? Are they coevals? She cannot decide among these options, but in all likelihood the lack of specificity is precisely the point. Hearing this provocative innuendo involving the seemingly insignificant Tongilius, the senators must choose among the options that Thurn has presented, thereby allowing all to occupy their thoughts. Thurn nicely links similar attacks on Clodius (involving incest in particular) and Antony (as passive partner to elite men, wives, and actresses) to show how nonconforming sexual behavior reveals danger to the state. But she then proceeds to cite Cicero's alleged incest with his daughter Tullia from a late declamation (Ps. Sall. in Tull. 2) and the clearly fictional speech of Calenus in Dio (46.18.6) to support the claim that the charges against Clodius and Clodia are not to be trusted (123 n. 39). The nature of the primary sources in Cicero's case militates against using them as evidence, and she would have done well to consider the more balanced assessments for the historicity of the charges against Clodius offered by Kaster.1

The chapter's second section outlines the implicit connection between managing affairs of home and state, a connection that becomes particularly clear in Thurn's discussion of Cicero's allegation that debt motivated Catiline and his co- conspirators. Antony, particularly in the Second Philippic, emerges as another suitable subject for this form of defamation. The subsequent section on drunkenness and banqueting has the analogous task of showing how these activities, often mentioned in tandem, mark a target as unfit for government. Antony again provides the best example, notoriously described as vomiting in public in an official capacity (Phil. 2.63). Of special note is Clodius's seeming immunity to this charge, save for an elliptical posthumous reference (Mil. 56). The section concludes by analyzing the motif in the letters where, in addition to attacks on Antony, Thurn discusses Cicero's playful reflections on his often problematic relationship with the elite-centered banquet.

The third section notes that the topos concerning clothing and other external adornment, frequent in the speeches, seems absent from the letters. Instances could carry different connotations: for Catiline, new fashion in dress and facial hair threaten traditional values; for Clodius, sartorial deviance indicates religious impropriety; Antony's dress characterizes him as a Greekling. Piso's unassuming appearance, by contrast, presents a problem. Thurn suggests that the orator's emphasis on the foppish appearance of Gabinius, Piso's co-consul, acts as a kind of proxy, since Cicero feared attacking directly a member of the Calpurnian gens. She does not consider a more economical solution: that perhaps Piso really did sport a dour demeanor, thereby offering a challenge to Cicero's reliance upon the external to reveal internal character.

Chapter 5's final section begins from Lintott's observation that Romans deemed most reprehensible that violence driven by libido. The form varies according to the target: Catiline and his adherents are typically branded as violent lawbreakers (latro, gladiator), as is Clodius in the final stages of his life (earlier invective emphasizes his inhumanity, as beast and prodigy); Piso's physical impressiveness recalls animals, his consulship tyranny; finally, for Antonius violence emerges as a dominant motif, with accusations of being a bandit (latro) and gladiator occurring more than a dozen times each. In the letters, by contrast, this category of invective is uncommon; when it does occur it has a wider range, denoting, in addition to Clodius and Antony, figures such as Julius Caesar and Dolabella (in a letter of Lentulus). There remains open the issue of how wide a public would have been privy to these epistolary remarks.

A series of chapter-length summations follow, with Chapter 6 considering oratorical invective against the allies of the figures under consideration, a subject treated previously only piecemeal (236-248). There is much repetition from previous chapters, both in the passages considered and conclusions drawn. Nevertheless, Thurn makes new points, such as in Cicero's description in pro Milone of the makeup of Clodius's band on the night of his murder where, in a kind of praeteritio, the orator lists the types of deviants who normally accompanied him but could not on that particular night (243-246; Thurn misses earlier instances, such as the maidservants who helped Clodius violate the Bona Dea, or Sextus Cloelius of the notorious os impurum). By contrast, the concluding section on the letters has a number of interesting observations about invective-style language in the Atticus collection that touches upon how adherents of Cicero's enemies display a complete spectrum of those negative characteristics analyzed in the previous three chapters.

In Chapter 7 Thurn briefly reviews three factors that may have driven Cicero to adopt differing defamation strategies for different opponents (258-263). First is the audience of the speech (jury, senate, people, readers); the contio should contain the flashiest rhetorical displays (de orat. 2.334), whereas senatorial speeches tend toward harsher invective. A second consideration is the immediate historical context regarding the figure being attacked; the third factor takes into account his family and individual auctoritas, which she deems the most important. Once again Thurn's emphasis is on the orator finding a plausible argument, with actual facts being secondary. In such a situation, the internal character of an alleged evildoer constitutes crucial evidence of guilt or innocence.

The brief Chapter 8 (264-268) promises to review the later development of these personae, but, in fact, Thurn restricts herself to Antony. Although such a brief survey can hardly cover much, there is surprisingly no mention of the declamatory tradition pitting Cicero against Antony (Sen. suas. 6-7), always to the latter's disadvantage, a tradition likely to have influenced perceptions of Antony more than Vergil's depiction of Aeneas in Aeneid 4. A concluding Chapter 9 offers a detailed summary of the book (269-280), and the end matter includes a helpful index locorum.

Rufmord in der späten römischen Republik offers a select discussion of the types of abuse directed toward four of Cicero's most prominent enemies. Although there is a limited amount of close textual exegesis, much repetition between chapters, and the notes with frustrating frequency cite not primary texts but secondary works or handbook discussions, nevertheless, Thurn does accumulate parallels to show that Cicero orients invective motifs not toward the circumstances of each individual, but toward the cultural and social concerns of late-republican society, and that the abuse arises from an Italic tradition about public shaming. The difficult question of "why", although occasionally broached (e.g., 278), remains unanswered. That is, what is gained for a society when abuse is dictated largely by generic considerations, rules in handbooks, and some aberration in the Italian psyche? Much of the scholarship until the late twentieth century imagines an arena of public discourse entirely separate from the version of reality that it claims to represent. If Romans were indeed insensitive to concerns of truth, what was it in their given audiences that not only tolerated but welcomed claims that we judge as irrelevant or even demonstrably false? The abundant evidence presented by Thurn about Romans exercising rhetorical topoi suggests that they serve to pinpoint ethical concerns. Certain behaviors and appearances, she has amply shown, receive repeated attention in schools, the courtroom, personal correspondence, and the public stage. The ubiquity of the charges marks certain behaviors as potentially dangerous to the state. In such a situation, I would argue, Cicero equips himself not simply with a powerful rhetorical tool, but with guidance in determining moral behaviors in a quickly collapsing world.


1.   R. Kaster, Cicero: Speech on behalf of Publius Sestius (Oxford 2006) 409-411, absent from bibliography.

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