BMCR 2013.05.44

Marcus Tullius Cicero. How to Run a Country: An Ancient Guide for Modern Leaders

, Marcus Tullius Cicero. How to Run a Country: An Ancient Guide for Modern Leaders. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2013. xix, 132. ISBN 9780691156576. $12.95.


The playful title of this book suggests a kind of political handbook, perhaps a sequel to Freeman’s 2012 volume How to Win an Election, a translation of Quintus Cicero’s Commentariolum Petitionis. This is not exactly what the book contains: instead, the reader will find an anthology of passages translated from Cicero’s works – including speeches, philosophical works, and letters – related to various political themes, such as corruption or tyranny. In his introduction, Freeman highlights ten lessons which modern readers can take from Cicero: “There are universal laws that govern the conduct of human affairs,” “Intelligence is not a dirty word,” “Compromise is the key to getting things done,” and so on. As these precepts suggest, Freeman has tried to find quotations which have particular relevance for today’s political debates; while he does provide a brief biographical sketch of Cicero in the introduction, it is Cicero’s ideas and not his life and times which Freeman emphasizes.

Many translations of Cicero’s works can be found in the average bookstore, and although some of Cicero’s works are generally considered more canonical than others, there seem to be as many methods of selecting representative samples of the Ciceronian corpus as there are translators of it. Today, the most widely available volumes seem to focus mainly or exclusively on the speeches, as “Cicero the Orator” (or Advocate) has come to overshadow “Cicero the Philosopher” in modern approaches. If the philosopher appears, it is as a political philosopher only. Citizens of the American Republic, at least, find much that is relevant in Cicero as a political thinker and actor, and as a master of rhetoric and the art of spin. This approach to Cicero also fits comfortably into surveys of Roman history and courses on political thought at the college level, courses which probably account for much if not most of the readership of Cicero’s works in translation.

Freeman seems to imagine a different audience for his volume, one outside the university with a general interest in Rome, political philosophy, or both, and perhaps some nostalgia for the Latin classes of their youth. He includes the Latin text of his selected passages at the end of the volume, a useful reference for the general reader with some knowledge of Latin. Freeman arranges his excerpts – some no more than a few sentences, others a few pages – thematically rather than chronologically, and allows them to stand alone with little or no historical context; sometimes the larger work to which the excerpt belongs is described or identified, sometimes not (an index with full citations of each passage can be found at the end of the book). The passages themselves provide an interesting mix of approaches: some are quite abstract or general, while others show Cicero’s interactions with specific people and events; some passages will be well-known to readers familiar with Cicero, and others are more obscure.

It may be useful to compare Freeman’s approach to that of another translator, Michael Grant, in his volume Cicero On Government (Penguin, 1994). Both translators focus on Cicero’s political thought; both include material from the philosophica and orations; and several excerpts appear in both. Where the selections overlap, the translations are not dissimilar, although Freeman tends to be slightly more colloquial in his language. The main difference is the length of the passages: Grant’s shortest selection is from the Pro Balbo, about ten pages, while Freeman’s longest is only a few pages, and short ones at that. Grant emphasizes historical context and gives the reader more of a sense of each work as a whole, while Freeman frees the material from its context, selecting excerpts whose content is thought-provoking on its own terms, and which demonstrate Cicero’s outlook as a thinker in general. Freeman’s book is an entry-point, an introduction; while it is simply too short (the translations occupy 67 pp.) to provide much traction for students in a typical college course, I certainly hope it will be successful in introducing Cicero to a wider audience.

Typographical error: “Manlian” for “Manilian” on pp. 99, 118.