BMCR 2006.09.03

Making a New Man: Ciceronian Self-Fashioning in the Rhetorical Works

, Making a new man : Ciceronian self-fashioning in the rhetorical works. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. x, 388 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 0199267804. $120.00.

A sense of detached wonderment pervades Henry Thoreau’s self-analysis on the shores of Walden: “I only know myself as a human entity; the scene, so to speak, of thoughts and affections,” he writes in his essay on solitude, “and am sensible of a certain doubleness by which I can stand as remote from myself as from another… When the play, it may be the tragedy, of life is over, the spectator goes his way. It was a kind of fiction, a work of the imagination only, so far as he was concerned.”1 John Dugan brings a Thoreau-like consciousness of the constructed aspects of selfhood to his detailed study of Cicero’s major rhetorical writings as well as the speeches Pro Archia and In Pisonem and (very briefly, in conclusion) the Philippics. The book’s main gambit is to approach each work as an act of self-fashioning, a literally self-contained stage upon which Cicero seeks to establish an image of “Cicero” for his contemporaries and beyond. The twist, as Dugan sees it, lies in the social and political struggles Cicero faced as a “new man” in the late republic, which pushed his theoretical elaborations of self-fashioning down ambitious and innovative paths. Dugan’s Cicero seeks above all to exploit the rich potential of the written text to ensure his fame. Transcending the mortal Cicero’s Arpinate background and the horrors of late republican politics, the Cicero-preserved-as-text promises more than a legacy, more than a set of trace memories: in potent combination with evolving notions of canonicity and the sublime, it can grant eternal life.

Rhetorical self-fashioning is familiar territory these days, after the small flood of influential work by classical scholars that began in the 1990s in the wake of New Historicism, cultural studies, and feminist theory.2 The literature in medieval, early modern, and American studies is even more daunting in size and scope.3 Dugan’s interpretation of Ciceronian eloquentia as a solution to the problems created by his pedigree opens welcome new ground, and his careful close readings remind us why writers like Baldessare Castiglione and Leonardo Bruni found so much to admire in Cicero’s polyphonic dialogues. His focus on dramatic interaction, a key concern of recent work on Plato, pays off with many nuanced readings.4 Tying the book together with the theme of novitas was an inspired choice. Dugan’s presentation of Cicero’s effort to transform himself into a new paradigm for Roman achievement by exploiting and reshaping his readers’ notions of tradition is learned and compelling. He prompts readerly reflection beyond the domain of Cicero and rhetoric—about what, for instance, Augustus (a “new man” in a very different sense) might have learned from the elder statesman’s example.

Few would deny that Cicero is intensely concerned with gloria and the standards by which it was won; in this he is typical of his milieu. Where Cicero stands out from his contemporaries, in Dugan’s view, is in his transformation of the characteristically Roman practice of imitating great exempla of the past. Rather than simply copying the Roman nobles whose glory he aimed to surpass, Cicero’s self-fashioning bends the rules of the game. His forensic speeches win over juries with dramatic techniques innovatively drawn from epideictic oratory (ch. 1); in De Oratore and his speeches he develops an aesthetic of self-conscious theatricality, gender play, and ludic excess (ch. 2). In his history of rhetoric, Brutus, he experiments with a new mode of self-memorialization through cultural history (ch. 3); and in Orator, he stakes a claim to sublimity by establishing his own speeches as an ideal corpus (ch. 4).

Two facets of Cicero’s project dominate Making a New Man : its scope as a “cultural programme” with important implications for late republican society and the place of Ciceronian thought in it; and its experimental, “transgressive” nature (13). Dugan’s exploration of the first of these is a significant addition to our understanding of Ciceronian rhetoric. The intertwining of oratorical training, literary education, knowledge of history and the law, and moral understanding in the rhetorica provided the core of the humanist model of education that continues to shape our own notions of schooling, and the texts in which Cicero worked out his ideas are tailor-made for Dugan’s fine-grained habits of reading. The second strand of argument—especially the claim that Cicero cultivated a transgressive aesthetic, and the stress laid on the written text and its future audience instead of performance and the present—is less consistently successful. In these sections, Dugan’s awkward use of terms drawn from literary theory and philosophy overstates key points. Inappropriate references to “intertexts” and the “haunting” of the text make for relatively minor distractions; but especially in a book that sets out to analyze Cicero’s work in historical situ, key controversial concepts like “subjectivity,” “textuality,” and “transgression,” by now associated with a range of contemporary thinkers from Butler to Deleuze to Derrida, demand substantially more explanation than they receive here. The shape of the argument, too, is rarely clarified: the long chapters offer few signposts or summaries.

The first two chapters spotlight the book’s most satisfying and frustrating aspects. In chapter 1, after an extended treatment of the history of epideictic and its presence in both speeches, Dugan deftly shows how the Pro Archia‘s epideictic flourishes buttress Cicero’s defense, not only of the Greek poet seeking to confirm his citizenship, but of Cicero himself, a self-professed lover of literature and expert in the arts of the voice (31-36). The connection Cicero creates between himself and his subject emerges as a key tactic in the orator’s self-fashioning. As Cicero enrolls Archias as a partner in his vision of culture, so he makes Piso his corrupt opposite in In Pisonem, an exercise in deferred invective (61). These and other illuminating points established, Dugan labors to fit the speeches into his larger arguments about the significance of Cicero’s stylistic artistry and his identification of textuality with immortal fame. The Pro Archia, in particular, is distorted by Dugan’s claims for its “failure” on the grounds that it falls short of goals—such as demonstrating that stylish writing may compete on the same political level as alliance-building and other crafts of politicking (46)—that are never persuasively established for the speech in the first place. But the main problem rests in Dugan’s implication that the subject, so to speak, ends there.

What drives Ciceronian self-fashioning? Dugan suggests that Cicero’s ambition is to gain eternal glory through “textual fixity” (52) and, along the way, to establish a new kind of exemplum for Roman culture, presumably to make a better fit with Cicero’s own aestheticized interests (on which, more below). But Cicero’s letters and speeches reveal the pressure he placed on himself to be more than a famous man: as Robert Hariman says in his shrewd Arendtian reading of Cicero, “he had to be the epitome of good government as well,” the embodiment of the republican vita activa.5 To Cicero, virtuous self-cultivation and its preservation in human memory goes hand in hand with the flourishing of the republic. His well-documented penchant for theater and theatrical metaphors, not to mention his own melodramatic style, derive from his acute grasp of the crucial role of the dramatic performance of virtue in republican politics. His admiring comment about Scipio Africanus (cited on p. 11), that “so deserving was he on behalf of the Roman people, that he ought to be entrusted not to a single family but to the whole of the state” ( In Verr. 2.5.181) vividly conveys how, in an important sense, he sees the self as public property. When Dugan insists that Cicero’s effort to establish himself as a successor to Scipio and his like produces a “self textually constituted and fabricated within literary discourse” (3), he skirts the question of whether the Roman’s notion of the fashioned self, so thoroughly embedded in its peculiar political context, must be distinguished from conceptions of selfhood prevailing today.

The second chapter surveys De Oratore, Cicero’s answer to Plato’s Phaedrus and Gorgias. In the first, largely persuasive, section, Dugan explores the dialogue’s setting and rich characterization, arguing that Cicero chooses Social War-era statesmen as his spokesmen in De Oratore not only to lend authority to his arguments, but to weave lines of filiation that tug him in from the social margins, and that bestow the stamp of elite approval on his own style. As these characters chew over the orator’s negotiation of artfulness and experimentation, tradition and authenticity, Cicero’s well-known brand of oratorical artifice comes to seem familiar and even natural. The Roman propensity to read oratorical style as an index of moral character, Dugan shows, means that De Oratore‘s redemption of Cicero’s style fortifies him against accusations of social “newness,” like the scornful slur that Catiline allegedly cast Cicero’s way ( inquilinus civis urbis Romae, Sallust BC 31.7). Throughout this section Dugan carefully tracks the characters’ subtle gradations of viewpoint, which he reads as expressing different aspects of Cicero’s persona (92).

And Cicero’s style, Dugan believes, needs a very strong defense. Ancient sources testify that Cicero was accused of being “an overly hellenized aesthete with a questionable fondness for theatricality whose oratory exceeded the strictures of decorum, particularly in the area of humour” (107). Dugan finds corroborative evidence for Cicero’s “aestheticized” attitude in his many references to theater and his critical standards for oratory: his embrace of ornamental rotundity in Orator, for example, and his admiration of styles like that of Marcus Calidius, whose “soft” and “tender” language “clothed his subtle, refined thoughts” ( Brut. 274)—a passage which Dugan correctly explains as twisting the terminology of gender invective into ambiguous words of praise (162-63). In sum, the novus homo intentionally blurs the line that distinguishes “orator” from “actor,” and tests the gendered conventions of Roman oratorical performance. Key to this step in the argument is Julius Caesar Strabo, a minor character whom Dugan sees as the smuggled-in sign of Cicero’s aestheticized view of rhetoric, the “clown in the closet” of De Oratore (117). Cicero’s subtle defense of Strabo is said to “sanitize and recuperate” his own transgressive style (106).

What does “transgressive” mean here? The word has been worrying scholars in history and cultural studies for some time—Alan Liu’s acid comment about the element of political fantasizing that underlies the postmodern scholarly infatuation with subversion comes to mind—and should be used with care.6 Cato the Elder did not write the official rulebook for Roman habitus, but at times Dugan’s talk of transgression implies as much. As many passages discussed in his book attest (the treatment of moral duty in De Officiis 1, for example), Cicero is thoroughly attuned to his community’s mores, from adherence to ancestral virtues to the small courtesies that defined elite Roman social life. Many of the behaviors Dugan describes as transgressive—speaking Greek, writing poetry, telling tasteless jokes, delivering stagey, highly emotional speeches, cultivating an unusual style ( novam, singulare)—seem better described as typical of the demanding culture of public competition in elite Rome: risky, but also familiar tactics for the attention-hungry few at the very top of the heap. Granted the unique pressures Cicero faced as a novus homo, Dugan’s claim that Cicero handled the problem by “eschewing usual Roman notions of manliness” through “a distinctly aestheticized identity” is too strong (13). It is not clear how Cicero’s transgressive aesthetic could also serve as “a defining element within late republican Roman culture” (20), or indeed, what a non-“aestheticized” rhetoric would look like.

The third and fourth chapters survey Cicero’s history of rhetoric, Brutus, and his last major contribution to rhetorical theory, Orator. Treating Brutus as a hybrid of history, philosophical dialogue, and funeral oration, Dugan delves deeply into its central irony, Cicero’s ambiguous presentation of the history of republican rhetoric as simultaneously reaching its peak and its end with his own life and work. The chapter on Orator returns to the theme of textuality introduced at the beginning, arguing that elocutio, normally understood as oratorical style, should be interpreted in terms of written composition. Reprising his approach to In Pisonem, Dugan reads Orator with his eyes fixed firmly on Cicero’s turn to “private teaching” and establishing his future reputation—though Cicero composed it the year he wrestled with the challenge of returning to public life and public speaking. Not every reader will agree with the specifics of Dugan’s treatment of Asianism and Atticism, or his interpretation of Caesar, which glosses over the dictator’s own gender play and imperial vision (177-189). Highlights are the account of Cicero’s representation of his relationship with Brutus and Brutus’ De Virtute (236-250) and his canny effort at self-canonization, read through Quintilian and Longinus (315-332). The length to which Dugan presses his provocative argument about the body in the text (303-309) is evidence of his ambition in these chapters.

Once the Julio-Claudians ushered in a new paradigm of politics at Rome, and provincials entered political life in greater numbers, Cicero’s model of how to be a new man under difficult and even dangerous conditions would take on fresh significance: Dugan concludes appropriately with a glance ahead to Cicero’s reception in the early empire. If he turns his attention next to Quintilian or Hermogenes, students of rhetoric should be pleased.


1. “Solitude,” in Walden, ed. Jeffrey S. Cramer (Yale 2004), 131.

2. For example: Peter Brown, Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity (1992); Maud Gleason, Making Men (1995); Martin Bloomer, “Schooling in persona: imagination and subordination in Roman education,” CA 16 (1997): 57-78; Emanuele Narducci, Cicerone e l’eloquenza romana (1997); Erik Gunderson, Staging Masculinity (2000); focusing on the importance of writing, Shane Butler, The Hand of Cicero (2002).

3. Stephen Greenblatt is cited as a key source (15-16); there is no engagement with key studies of gender and subjectivity in Renaissance by, say, Patricia Parker or Victoria Kahn.

4. E.g., Andrea Nightingale, Genres in Dialogue (2000) and Ruby Blondell, The Play of Character (2002).

5. Robert Hariman, Political Style, 118. Needless to say, rhetorical self-fashioning is implicated in many other elite practices—notably, keen competition for status—that have at least as much to do with maintaining the unequal status quo as with law or justice.

6. Alan Liu, “The power of formalism: the new historicism,” English Literary History 56 (1989), 751.