BMCR 2005.04.18

Cicero rhetor. Die Partitiones Oratoriae und das Konzept des gelehrten Politikers. Untersuchungen zur antiken Literatur und Geschichte, 68

, Cicero rhetor : die Partitiones oratoriae und das Konzept des gelehrten Politikers. Untersuchungen zur antiken Literatur und Geschichte ; Bd. 68. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2003. 339 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 3110180960. €98.00.

The subtitle of this book, ‘The Partitiones Oratoriae and the concept of the learned politician,’ presents the reader with an accurate idea of its content. The first two of the book’s three parts constitute what is in effect a commentary on the Partitiones (part one functioning as an extensive introduction and part two as the commentary proper), while the last part engages with the question of the learned politician and the role it plays in Cicero’s theoretical writings. As a commentary, it makes a valuable contribution not only by explicating a work that has had little critical attention (the most recent scholarly commentary available was published in 1914,1 and directly relevant bibliography is stunningly short) but also by refocusing the discussion of the work’s goals and, consequently, its accomplishment, and firmly locating it within the context of Cicero’s rhetorica. Not every reader will agree with the claims that are made for its centrality within the rhetorical corpus, but most will come away with a new appreciation for this neglected and unusual dialogue. The success of the second, more theoretical and ambitious, portion is, despite many excellent observations, more questionable, as is the nature of the connection between the two portions, evidenced by the surprisingly low number of references to the Partitiones in the latter.

Arweiler (hereafter A.) begins with an introduction (section 0), itself divided into two sections. The first provides a concise overview of the work’s Nachleben, and the second states the goals and introduces the plan of the book. It is somewhat unusual to begin a discussion of a work by looking at its reception, but the decision seems well justified in this case. A fascinating account of the popularity of the Partitiones in the sixteenth century, when it was widely seen as a masterpiece, and its subsequent decline is used by A. to good effect as a starting point for a reevaluation of the work.

Part one deals with a variety of issues relating to the work’s background and composition, thus preparing the reader to encounter and appreciate the merits of the work when its contents are discussed in detail in part two. A. opens with a discussion (1.1) of the work’s dialogue form (minimal, in contrast with other Ciceronian dialogues) and, despite the absence of a preface to establish the dramatic context, assigns it to the genre of ‘villa dialogues’. A. argues that shaping the work as a dialogue allows Cicero to introduce the reader to the familiar environment of his household. It is, however, striking just how few those features are in the Partitiones in comparison with other dialogues, where much greater care is devoted to portraying the relationships among the interlocutors.

Next (1.2) A. takes up an important question of Cicero’s choice of his son as the interlocutor and what that choice implies about the work’s purpose and intended audience — an issue to which A. will return throughout the book. Setting aside the earlier view that considered the Partitiones an elementary introduction to rhetoric written by Cicero with the view to educating his son, A. points out that the work is in fact not suited to this purpose as its content is far too advanced and idiosyncratic, and the exchanges between the father and the son, as well as the initial set-up (namely, that young Marcus will question his father in Latin about what he had already been taught in Greek), indicate as high a level of knowledge on the part of the son as of the father. Rather, the use of the son allows Cicero to tap into the Roman tradition of authors’ addressing their works to sons. Another argument, that the choice is also motivated by a sense of decorum, i.e. unwillingness to portray a social equal in the position of a student, is not convincing. Whether we consider, e.g., Atticus and Trebatius Testa Cicero’s exact equals, his willingness to portray himself as educating them, in the Tusc. and the Top. respectively, indicates that other options were certainly available.

The following sections present the Partitiones at the intersection of two generic traditions: a schematic question and answer arrangement of material and a literary dialogue equipped with a dramatic backdrop and characters. A. provides parallels and presents an overview of later examples (1.3) and discusses the work’s language and style — in particular, the use of technical language (noting the important absence of Greek words), Cicero’s flexible use of terms for genus and pars, a feature that can add to reader’s confusion, and the use of parataxis and chiasmus as appropriate to the work’s concision and didactic intent (1.4). Next he explores how the work differs from a traditional rhetorical handbook: it is virtually free of examples, no authorities are cited, and Cicero does not present competing views or enter into polemic (1.5). This last part is where A. starts building toward his main goal in the first portion of the book, presenting Partitiones as a tour de force of systematization. (1.6) A. points to the interest in systematization in the intellectual milieu of late republican Rome and then goes on to outline how Partitiones functions as a systematizing dialogue. His analysis of how Cicero’s use of cross-referencing allows the linearity of the text to interact with the verticality of the divisions he is presenting (discussed mainly in 1.6.4) is one of the most significant parts of his contribution. The section is concluded by the discussion of yet another important generic influence, epitome. 1.7 is meant to present interim results and makes some broad claims about the rhetorica in general and Cicero’s striving after universal learning in his writings; the connection between this section and the rest of part one seems tenuous.

Part two functions as a detailed commentary on Partitiones. A. closely summarizes and explicates the work’s content (the Latin is provided in the footnotes for most important passages). The decision to provide a summary may well be justified by how little the work is known, as well as A.’s stated (and, in light of his argument, important) goal of illuminating the cross-referencing within it, yet this feature does inevitably result in a certain degree of monotony for a reader familiar with the text. In addition to illuminating internal cross-referencing, i.e. the relation of parts of the work to each other and its overall design, A’s commentary carefully locates the Partitiones within the rhetorical corpus. It is the connection to the ideas expressed in de orat. that comes through particularly strongly, as well as the stylistic and generic difference between the two treatises. Parallels from philosophical works and speeches are also provided where deemed relevant. Finally, Cicero’s treatments in the Partitiones are contextualized further through comparison with relevant Greek rhetorical theory. Smaller scale issues relevant to the individual passages, but having no larger implications, including textual problems, are covered in the footnotes.

In discussing the role of cross-referencing to combat the linearity of the text A. comments that what Cicero is trying to provide is a substitute for visual aids — tables and charts. One almost expects then to find charts to help us navigate the system that Cicero is building. A. does not in fact provide such visual help, but readers might find it useful to look at the ones provided in the Latin-German edition of the Partitiones by K. and G. Bayer in order to get a taste of what a visual systematization of this material would be like.2

One perplexing feature of A.’s discussion, that continues into part three, is his denial of the theoretical connection between rhetoric and philosophy in Cicero’s thought and, consequently, his unwillingness to see Partitiones as one of its products (the exact opposite is the argument of the other recent treatment of Partitiones by Gaines3). A. later argues that Cicero makes no attempt at theorizing and systematizing connections between individual disciplines and that his drive towards universality is focused exclusively on the individual. This argument seems to motivate his going against ample textual evidence in Cicero’s corpus. It has some peculiar results. Dialectic, which appears to be constructed by A. as something fully separable from both philosophy and rhetoric, is treated as the element that combines with rhetoric to produce synthesis of Partitiones. A. also attempts to discount Cicero’s explicit statement of the role of philosophy in the creation of Partitiones in ch. 139, which derives the work ‘e media illa nostra Academia’ by claiming (p.245) that it does not constitute a reference to a specific philosophical school but rather a general combination of dialectical, ethical, and rhetorical elements. This is not convincing, and the insistence on denying philosophy its special role significantly weakens A.’s work as a whole.

Part two is concluded by two general sections, on the work’s date and the relationship between theory and practice in Cicero’s presentation of rhetoric. The latter emphasizes the relative independence of theory and practice in the rhetorical tradition and the role of iudicium in the orator’s application of rhetorical precepts. The discussion of the date comes later in the book than the reader might want: it is assumed and hinted at throughout the discussion up to this point, and having A.’s views set out explicitly in part one together with other introductory matters would have been more useful. A. sensibly discards excessive reliance on younger Cicero’s age as the main basis for dating Partitiones. Having demonstrated the work’s close connection to de orat., he argues that the Partitiones were written shortly afterwards. But, given the unusual character of the work within Cicero’s corpus and the constraints of the genre and goals, it seems more justified to follow Gaines in opening up the date more broadly.4

Part three engages with the question of the learned politician, or the place of learned discourse in Cicero’s political activity and identity. Other overriding issues that interest A. in this part are the intended audience and Cicero’s general conception of rhetoric. In sections 3.1 and 3.2 A. portrays systematic learning and production of learned works as quickly detaching from their Greek roots and able to contribute to the author’s political persona, as expressed in alliances and amicitiae. (The issue of Greek influence receives surprisingly little attention, given that the starting point of the Partitiones is the desire to express Greek material in Latin, and that Cicero, as A. himself points out, studiously avoids Greek words in the work). His argument is convincing as long as A. stays with the limited definition of the political as constituted by personal relationships with particular elite individuals. When he argues further that learnedness is used by Cicero to compensate for his lack of accomplishment in the military sphere, with virtually no textual evidence, he fails to convince.

Section 3.3 discusses Cicero’s conception of rhetoric, with an emphasis on the importance of rules, and 3.4 argues for the learned individual as the locus where Cicero sees different disciplines united. In the latter A. rightly underlines Cicero’s insistence on the uniqueness and social importance of the learned individual and the implication that Cicero himself exemplifies such an individual best. The argument is weakened, however, by the denial of the connection between philosophy and rhetoric in Cicero’s thought that I referred to above. 3.5 begins the discussion of intended audience, and A. argues that the treatises are not addressed for professional philosophers or teachers of rhetoric. This is obviously correct, and is argued at greater length than is necessary. Cicero’s accounts of opposition to his writing of theoretical rhetoric are not taken seriously and are attributed to his desire to avoid the appearance of trying to teach his equals. As a reason to discount a large body of text, especially if self-justificatory passages from the philosophica are taken into account, this is not convincing, given the fact that Cicero does not present a perfunctory unified account but operates in a framework of distinct groups of critics with contradictory concerns.

The final section, 3.6, focuses on various cultural forces that contribute to the self-construction of the learned politician. A. discusses Cicero’s anachronistic assignment of scholarly interest to prominent figures from the past, the importance of otium as the space of preparation for political activity, and the villa library as its point of departure. The last two elements would have benefited from a lengthier discussion: the discussion of otium goes from de orat. to the Top. with little consideration given to the change in Cicero’s situation between the times of their composition and suffers once again from the omission of the relevant material in the philosophica. A. then proceeds to demonstrate that the concept of homo doctus as an ideal statesman appears throughout Cicero’s corpus regardless of genre. The section that follows, 3.6.5, argues that another feature contributing to the centrality of the learned politician is Cicero’s emphasis on the superiority of ordered thought. The argument seems quite plausible in itself, but A. supports it exclusively with examples from the speeches where opponents are criticized for their lack of consistency and logic, and such criticism in a forensic context (or in invective, as in the Philippics) need not imply any broader theoretical commitments. In 3.6.6 A. examines aemulatio at the intersection of learning and politics. He briefly discusses Cicero’s use of his aemulatio of Greek learning to show his contribution to the state and then focuses on the written ‘contest’ between Cicero and Caesar as seen in Caesar’s response to de orat. with De analogia and to Cato with Anticato. This is an argument that is difficult to make since only one of the four works survives. Thanks to external sources, we understand the dynamics surrounding the second pair much better, and A. naturally concentrates on that. Yet, given the clearly political and not ‘learned’ nature of the subject matter, a fact underlined by the production of other pro- and anti-Catonian works at this time, most notably a laudatio penned by Brutus (not discussed by A.), his argument is convincing for the role of writing, but not necessarily learned writing.

Lastly, in 3.6.7 conditions of circulation in Cicero’s time through the networks of personal relationships are discussed, with the conclusion that the author could easily envision his public (this cancels out the earlier argument about the treatises not being addressed to professionals but to Cicero’s social equals), but A. also recognizes that Cicero is trying to reach beyond the narrow circle of his equals (as his evidence, he focuses here on Cicero’s expressed desire to educate the young). The other side of the coin, what the expectations of the reading public may have been, is not addressed. A brief concluding section summarizes the book’s main claims.

The book is organized and presented in a way that makes it easy to use: each part is divided into smaller sections listed in the table of contents (in part two, indicating the relevant section of the Partitiones discussed). The bibliography and the index are subdivided as well: the first section of the bibliography lists works that deal specifically with each part; second, editions of other primary texts used, and finally all the other secondary literature cited. The index also consists of three separate sections: Names and Concepts, a selected list of passages of Cicero discussed, and a list of important Latin words.

As an analytic commentary on the Partitiones that successfully presents Cicero’s accomplishment in systematizing rhetoric A.’s book will be of much interest to any student of Cicero’s thought. The third part of the book, despite many insightful observations and intriguing suggestions, does not in the end come together and is weakened by the tenuous connection between the main work under consideration in the first portion of the book and the larger claims that are made in the concluding part.


1. Sternkopf, P. De M. Tulli Ciceronis Partitionibus Oratoriis Commentatio. Münster 1914.

2. Bayer, K. and G., eds., M. Tullius Cicero Partitiones Oratoriae: Rhetorik in Frage und Antwort. Zürich 1994.

3. Gaines, R. “Cicero’s Partitiones Oratoriae and Topica: Rhetorical Philosophy and Philosophical Rhetoric.” in J. M. May, ed., Brill’s Companion to Cicero: Oratory and Rhetoric. Leiden 2002.

4. Gaines pp.464-466.