BMCR 2008.09.34

Imperio legítimo. El pensamiento político en tiempos de Cicerón. Colección Teoría y Crítica, 20

, Imperio legítimo : el pensamiento político romano en tiempos de Cicerón. Mínimo tránsito. Teoría y crítica ; 20. Madrid: Mínimo Tránsito, A. Machado Libros, 2007. 374 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 9788477747758 €21.00 (pb).

López Barja de Quiroga (hereafter L.) has written an interesting book on Roman Republican political thinking, especially Ciceronian political thought. His previous books, an essay about relations of dependency on Gaius and a translation of Aristotle’s Politics, provide a hint of the directions of his new work: a combination of Roman law and political philosophy.1

The first important question is: who owns Rome? What should one do with goods which belong to everybody (p. 31)? In legal terms, who is the legitimate owner of Rome: the Senate or the people? Cicero’s answer is the people, not the aristocrats.

Chapter 1, On good government (pp. 37-98). The key to this chapter is the use of concepts and reasoning of civil law and their application to public law and political theory. This trend is not new in the Late Republic; it appears for the first time in Cato the Elder. However, it is basic for an understanding of Cicero’s political ideas. This chapter traces the evolution of Roman political regime through its political constitution. L. warns in the introduction that this explanation is most suited for those new to the subject, although it is quite elaborate. He concludes that Roman politics were an ideological battle, not only a battle of power between individuals.

Chapter 2, The two bodies of the Republic (pp. 99-150). Catiline’s metaphor about the two bodies of the Republic (Cic. Mur. 51) provides a guideline for this chapter. L. traces the different origins of the metaphor: physiological, political, etc. L. devotes a long chapter to the analyses of Cicero’s De re publica (Chapter 3, pp. 151-246). He points out clearly that Cicero’s treaty studies first of all which is the best city, and afterwards, who is the best citizen.

The main question is: what is a res publica (pp. 182ff)? Following a survey of some definitions, L. proposes that res publica should be considered all things not private and whose ownership relies on the Roman people. “Commonwealth”, the ancient English translation of the term, is still quite appropriate. Finally, when a constitution leads itself astray, people no longer own the res publica.

This definition allows Cicero to question the hereditary right of the Roman aristocracy to power. In line with this legal trend, the goal of the polis and of the good life (p. 221) is to keep your possessions and your ownership rights. If someone proposes to distribute them, they are attacking the res publica. This provides the basis of Cicero’s attacks against land distribution. However, we should not translate res publica as State, since res publica is passive. No ancient thinker talks about controlling the State to preserve individual liberties (p. 249). Polybius’ checks and balances are linked to the stability of the constitution, not to its control. In Chapter 4 (Cicero: natural law; pp. 247-300), Cicero is shown to demonstrate that the Roman empire was firmly rooted in justice to in order to derail Rome’s critics. Therefore, in his view, the Roman empire was based on just wars (p. 275). Cato had already criticised unjust wars; so did Posidonius, who was deeply critical of Roman imperialism (pp. 288ff). This chapter, which opens with some verses from the US national anthem, stems clearly from 9/11 and the Iraq war. Cicero’s war on terrorism was clearly the Catilinarian conspiracy, with the senatus consultum romanum and the declaration of hostis, which allowed the execution of Roman citizens without trial.

Chapter 5 (pp. 301-42) concludes the book with a study of princeps. L. studies what is a princeps, what is a tyrant and concludes (pp. 337-338) with the assertion that Cicero’s fight against tyranny (in the form of Caesar and Anthony) takes the form of a defence of private property (of the Roman people: that is, the ager, the provinces, and the aerarium).

In sum, the book is well written and in an engaging manner. It illuminates many legal aspects of Roman (Cicero’s) political thought. Roman law was pervasive during the Republic, as new research regularly confirms. The bibliography is fairly exhaustive. The subject of the book will appeal to political historians and historians of Roman law as well. This reviewer cannot but recommend it.


1. New books have been published in the past years, trying to present other aspects of Cicero, e.g., J. G. F. Powell (ed.), Cicero the Philosopher (Oxford, 1995) and J. G. F. Powell and J. Patterson (eds.), Cicero the Advocate (Oxford, 2004). One might rename L’s book Cicero the Political Thinker-cum-Jurist.