BMCR 2000.04.20

Cicero: On the Commonwealth and On the Laws

, Cicero: On the Commonwealth and On the Laws. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. xlviii, 207. $19.95 (pb).

The series ‘Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought’ has made available a large number of texts important to its own mandate in reliable and up-to-date translations. In so doing, it has also published some of the best translations ever of ancient texts in Latin which are important for ancient philosophy. In 1991 M. T. Griffin and E.M. Atkins produced Cicero’s On Duties; in 1995 J.M. Cooper and the late J.F. PropcopĂ© published a selection of Seneca’s Moral and Political Essays; and now Zetzel has continued the tradition with an equally fine translation of two of Cicero’s important yet somewhat neglected works, On the Commonwealth and On the Laws.

Students of ancient philosophy should be grateful for the recent upsurge of interest in the history of political thought. Anyone who tried teaching a serious course on Cicero or Seneca before these translations became available knows how challenging that can be. The various ageing Loebs, the popularizing Penguins, and the belle-lettristic translations from assorted presses were never able to sustain the kind of careful reading and analysis demanded even when teaching in translation. When one considers how many ancient philosophy specialists haven’t had the time or patience to master Latin on top of Greek and the fact that classicists with a strong interest in the history of philosophy are scarce, it is obvious that up-to-date and accurate translations of Latin philosophical texts are desperately needed.

On the Commonwealth ( De Re Publica) and On the Laws ( De Legibus) are two of Cicero’s least-known works. The product of his early period of philosophical writing, they reveal his Platonic allegiance with stark clarity, alongside his wide-ranging and independent-minded interest in every aspect of Greek thought that he could turn to his own purposes. On the Commonwealth was an elegant, fully finished work, very influential in the ancient world; it then lost its impact on the history of thought until the recovery of a partial text from a palimpsest in the nineteenth century. By contrast, On the Laws, designed apparently as a companion piece to On the Commonwealth, was apparently never finished by its author and was not influential in the ancient world. But the accident of its survival gave it an importance for the history of modern thought out of all reasonable proportion to its intrinsic literary and philosophical merits. It is history’s disservice to Cicero that a masterpiece was lost while an uncompleted experiment survived to win favour.

Zetzel’s introduction documents this ironic textual history along with brief but well-judged sketches of Cicero’s life, of his character as a philosopher and Platonist, and of the surviving parts of the two works he translates. A chronological chart, an excellent bibliographical essay, a short discussion of his own strategy for translating Cicero, and notes on particularly difficult terminology complete the front-matter of the book. At the back of the book one finds substantial biographical notes on ancient figures, an index of the fragments translated, and a general index. Along with the footnotes, this apparatus should suffice to make Cicero’s early essays in political thought as available as they can be to the Latinless. Even those who read Latin but have somehow not managed to become experts on the more arcane aspects of Ciceronian studies will learn a great deal and save a tremendous amount of time by properly exploiting the resources Zetzel marshalls so economically.

I resist the temptation to dilate upon the aspects of these treatises that make them worth reading. It is the translation that is under review. It needs to be compared with that of C.W. Keyes (in the Loeb series) and that of Niall Rudd in a recent Oxford World’s Classics volume (1998).

For scholarly apparatus, Zetzel is, as might be expected, far superior to Keyes, which was first printed in 1928. Similarly, the less scholarly character of the Oxford series hampers Rudd. Furthermore, Zetzel has edited with commentary the major fragments of On the Commonwealth (Cambridge 1995). The result is that if one is working towards a full and scholarly understanding of the texts, Zetzel is by far the best choice. Even at little more than half the price in paperback (my copy of Rudd cost US$10.95) the Oxford series is no bargain.

With respect to the translation, the evidence must speak for itself. I quote the three available versions of a difficult passage which combines philosophical technicality with antiquarian and legal allusion (a mixture typical of these challenging works): On the Laws 1.55.


If Zeno, like Aristo of Chios, had said that what is honourable is the sole good, and what is disgraceful the sole evil, and that everything else is on an absolutely equal plane, its presence or absence being entirely a matter of indifference, then he would differ widely from Xenocrates, Aristotle and the whole Platonic school, and there would be a disagreement between them in regard to a most important matter which involves the whole philosophy of human life. As it is, however, the Old Academy held that honour is the highest good, while Zeno considers it the sole good, and likewise dishonour is the greatest evil according to the Academy, but the sole evil according to him; for he calls wealth, health, and beauty advantages instead of goods, and poverty, ill-health, and pain disadvantages instead of evils. Therefore Zeno holds the same belief as Xenocrates and Aristotle, but states it in a different way. Yet, out of this disagreement, which is one of words, not of things, a controversy about the ends of conduct has arisen. Now since the Twelve Tables have provided that ownership of a five-foot strip along a boundary line can never be acquired by possession, we shall not allow the exclusive rights to the ancient estate of the Academy to be acquired by this astute person, but in fixing the boundaries we shall follow the prescription of the Twelve Tables, which require three arbiters, instead of those of the Mamilian Law, which calls for only one.


If, like Aristo of Chios, Zeno had said that only the honourable was good and only the base bad, and that all other things were entirely neutral, and that it didn’t make the slightest difference whether they were present or not, then he would have been in serious dispute with Xenocrates, Aristotle, and the whole Platonic school; and they would have differed on a crucial issue affecting the whole theory of ethics. But as it is, while the Old Academy called what is honourable the highest good, Zeno calls it the only good. Likewise they called disgrace the worst evil, he calls it the only one. He classifies riches, health, and beauty as advantageous things, not as good things, and poverty, ill-health, and pain as disadvantageous things, not as evils. In this he believes the same as Xenocrates and Aristotle but uses different terms. Yet from this disagreement (which is one of words, not of substance) a dispute has arisen about ultimate ends. In this dispute, since the Twelve Tables do not permit squatters to obtain the rights of possessors within five feet of a boundary, we will not allow the ancient possessions of the Academy to be grazed on by this clever man, and we shall determine the ends in question not as a single judge according to the Mamilian Law but a a Board of Three in accordance with the Twelve Tables.


If, like Aristo of Chios, Zeno had said that the only good is what is honourable, and that only what is dishonourable is bad, and that all other things are quite equal, and that it made no difference at all whether they are present or absent, then he would have a serious difference from Xenocrates and Aristotle and the disciples of Plato, and there would be a disagreement among them about the most important thing and the whole basis of life. But since Zeno said that virtue was the sole good, while the Old Academy said it was the highest good; and he said that vice was the only evil, and they said it was the greatest evil; he calls wealth, health, and beauty convenient rather than good, and poverty, weakness, and pain inconvenient rather than evil, he has the same ideas as Xenocrates and Aristotle but uses different language. From this difference in words rather than substance arose the controversy about ends, and since the Twelve Tables forbade ownership to be obtained by possession within five feet of a boundary line, we will not allow the ancient possession of the Academy to be displaced by this clever man; and we will serve as a board of three arbitrators to settle the boundary according to the Twelve Tables rather than assigning a single arbitrator by the Mamilian law.

The philosophical material and antiquarian land law call for footnotes as well as tactful translation. My students would need explanation and clarification of at least the following: 1. the process of usucapio; and 2. the difference between the arbitration procedures of the Twelve Tables and the Lex Mamilia. And any reader needs clear renderings of the key philosophical terms: 3. goods vs. indifferents; 4. finis as the goal of life (here with a pun on finis as a boundary). And 5. ideally the Antiochian theme (philosophers differing in words not substance) would be flagged and cross-references to relevant parallels would be supplied. Let me compare the three translations on these five points.

Keyes handles 1 well in a footnote but assumes that 2 is self-explanatory. 3. The terminology of ‘good, evil, advantage, disadvantage’ is clear enough, but the point is normally lost on readers without some reference to the Stoic doctrine of indifferents or at least to other Ciceronian works where it is discussed. On 4 he explains the pun, not the doctrine. 5 is ignored.

Rudd’s notes nicely explain 1 and amply discuss 2. His terminology ( 3. ‘good, bad, advantageous, disadvantageous’) is adequate, but the explanation in the notes is not, though it is fuller than Keyes’. Finis is well handled, both the technical meaning and the pun, but there is not a word about Antiochus ( 5).

Zetzel does not explain 1 but gives us a note on 2. On 3, the terms ‘good, evil, convenient, inconvenient’ are merely adequate. ‘Evil’ is regrettable, and the language of convenience is less widely used in translating this doctrine than that of advantage. There is no note on the doctrine; but with 4 finis the pun is explained briefly while the doctrine is merely alluded to. 5 is ignored.

It is also worth observing that Zetzel translates decus and dedecus as ‘virtue’ and ‘vice’. This liberty obscures the social overtones which typically impinge on Cicero’s discussion of the virtues, a more serious problem than the puzzlement sometimes left in readers’ minds by the less adventurous translations of Keyes and Rudd (‘honour’, ‘disgrace’, etc.) Even the best translators of Cicero’s philosophical works are still not sensitive enough to the nuances of his philosophical language and the issues lurking in the background. Zetzel has, to some extent, missed the opportunity to improve the situation as much as he might have done.

This slight detachment from philosophically important issues comes out in one other detail of translation worth noting. In studying these works everyone must eventually grapple with questions about the influence of various schools on Cicero’s thought. Is the content (as opposed to the setting and literary inspiration) more Platonist than Aristotelian in these works? Is this detail or that specifically Stoic in its inspiration or is it part of the common Socratic tradition? These questions are well discussed in Zetzel’s introduction, in an appropriately general way. After all, specialists still disagree about where to draw the lines here. Indeed, I would suggest that much of the basic work on sorting out such questions is still to be done. In this situation, it makes no sense to ask that a translator reflect some scholarly consensus on the problem. But translators can inadvertently make the issue harder to see, and Zetzel, I fear, has followed his predecessors in doing that very thing. For he is too prone, generally, to attribute specific aspects of Cicero’s text to Stoics when the issue might well be more complex. Here is an example.

In book one of On the Laws Cicero refers repeatedly to the views of certain learned men. These are called doctissimi at 1.18 (where the definition which follows is an unannounced translation of Chrysippus), docti at 1.41, and doctissimi again at 1.52. Keyes renders the terms ‘most learned men’ (with no reference to the Stoics), ‘philosopher’, and ‘most learned men’ respectively. Rudd gives us ‘most learned men’ at 1.18 and a footnote pointing to the Stoics, ‘philosopher’ at 1.41, and ‘the best thinkers’ at 1.52. Zetzel translates ‘philosophers’ (with a footnote pointing to Chrysippus and an apt reference to Long and Sedley 67R, ‘philosophers’, and ‘philosophers’ respectively.

It is, of course, hard to know how best to handle this situation, and Zetzel’s consistency is admirable, though the loss of the distinction between docti and doctissimi is an unfortunate price to have to pay. Keyes should not have missed the reference to the proem of Chrysippus’s treatise On Law, an intentional signal to the alert reader that Cicero is inspired by more than Platonism. But should the translator not stop to ask why Cicero refers to his source so indirectly here? He is certainly capable of referring to the Stoics as a school and to individual Stoics by name. Evidently he has a reason for calling them ‘the learned’ rather than ‘Stoics’ or ‘philosophers’. Just what that motivation might be is obscure, but a reader interested in Cicero’s delicate negotiation among the Greek schools he draws on will certainly miss a good deal of subtlety as a result of the translator’s boldness on this point.

In the end, though, such carping is inappropriate. Zetzel’s translation and the rich scholarly apparatus which support it represent a substantial leap forward for the philosophical study of Cicero. The responsibility for any small defects in philosophical nuance which may remain is better laid at the door of ancient philosophers, who ought themselves to have been more aggressive in claiming such a rich and influential part of their inheritance for themselves. Students of ancient philosophy, as well as specialists in political thought, along with the Latinists and Roman historians who more commonly regard Cicero as their own, will be grateful for the new tools Zetzel has put in our hands.