BMCR 2015.01.05

Cicero’s Ideal Statesman in Theory and Practice

, Cicero's Ideal Statesman in Theory and Practice. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014. xi, 212. ISBN 9781780932958. $104.00.


The last twenty years or so have seen sustained and renewed interest in Cicero’s political thought. Works by Schofield, Gildenhard, and Zetzel are just few of the numerous studies that have revitalised this scholarly trend, and to which, most recently, one should add monographs by Baraz and Atkins (the latter covering partially some of the same ground as Zarecki’s work, but unfortunately had come out too late to be taken into account). Zarecki’s book is an interesting, thought-provoking, and refreshing contribution to this trend of studies.

This is the first book-length discussion in English of Cicero’s ideal statesman, which follows Ettore Lepore’s Il principe ciceroniano e gli ideali politici della tarda repubblica (in Italian) and Per Kraup’s Rector rei publicae: bidrag til fortolkningen of Cicero’s de re publica (in Danish). The main aim of the book is to provide a new interpretation for one specific aspect of the de re publica, the role of the rector rei publicae and, by doing so, to re-establish the ideal statesman as an integral part of Cicero’s political philosophy.

The book makes three main claims: first, that Academic scepticism played an essential role in informing Cicero’s political philosophy and, in particular, in elaborating the concept of the ideal statesman; secondly, that the ideal statesman is not only, and not primarily, a philosophical archetype of solely literary use detached from its political context, but rather a template for political behaviour that was designed to be useful; and thirdly, that the rector-ideal functioned as a rubric both to assess the actions of Pompey, Caesar, and Anthony and to spur Cicero himself into action in the 40s.

The book has a very clear and sensible structure: by adopting a broadly diachronic arrangement, Chapter 1 deals with the philosophical influences that informed the elaboration of the rector-ideal; Chapter 2 moves on to consider the political influences and historical contexts that functioned as almost an inspiration for Cicero’s elaboration of the rector-ideal. Chapter 3, the heart of the book, presents the author’s interpretation of the rector-ideal and the role it fulfilled for Cicero during the civil war between Pompey and Caesar. The final two chapters are devoted, respectively, to the practical application of the rector-ideal in Cicero’s writings of the 40s and to his political activities during Caesar’s dictatorship and during Cicero’s fight with Anthony.

Throughout the work, the de re publica is interpreted not as a handbook for statesmen, nor as a pragmatic solution to the turmoil of the 50s, but primarily as an academic philosophical exercise that Cicero produced for his own benefit. By adopting Philo’s dialectical method, Zarecki argues, Cicero finds himself in the position to be able to defend monarchy as the best form of commonwealth once the ideal mixed and balanced constitution has failed. By employing the academic dialogue format, Cicero could explore the advantages of monarchy without renouncing his Republican conviction. By doing so, he could formulate a template for himself on how to behave in such turbulent times and, at the same time, position himself in favourable terms with the future winner of the civil war, in case the victorious party turned out to behave tyrannically. In the analysis of the socio-political context in which this notion of the rector-ideal came to be formulated (that takes into account the breakdown of the concordia ordinum and the pro Sestio, the de oratore, where the first sketches of the rector-ideal are found, and the late 50s, when the de re publica was composed), the year 52 BC is singled out as Pompey’s annus mirabilis, and its function in shaping Cicero’s ideal of the rector is much emphasised. Pompey is not interpreted as the model for the rector-ideal, but almost as its inspiration, to the extent that, Zarecki argues, much of the apology of monarchy in the de re publica might be convincingly read as a reflection of Pompey’s sole consulship: ‘it was the idea of Pompey as general-statesman par excellence that inspired Cicero, not Pompey the man’ (72).

If, in itself, this conclusion is not entirely new, having its most illustrious antecedent in Meyer, Zarecki’s analysis allows for a different kind of emphasis: it is not Pompey that Cicero has in mind, but rather an individual who would behave as the leader who is able to combine leadership with philosophical morality to ensure the preservation of the res publica. Accepting the view first put forward by Heinze, but then very successfully re-proposed by Powell, that the rector rei publicae represents a type, a category, rather than a specific office or individual, Zarecki emphasises the influence exercised by Pompey on the elaboration of this type. In his opinion, the rector-ideal (the term adopted throughout the work to designate this figure) is an ideal of the best citizen, whose main duty is statesmanship, but who simultaneously encompasses a moral and philosophical dimension. Most importantly, he is not a monarch, but ‘he assuredly embodies some of the characteristics and duties of one’ (11). It is in this analysis that lies the most original and thought-provoking contribution of the book: Cicero’s rector is a single individual, not a group. Indeed, Zarecki argues, a group of people with the attributes of the rector can co-exist, but only one man could and should qualify as a rector. He is an aristocratic figure with the sole responsibility of maintaining the res publica and the rights of the citizens in the turmoil of the 50s; hence, paradoxically it seems, he is the only figure who is able to ensure, and in charge of ensuring, that a new Sulla or a new Clodius will not rise again to power.

Once Cicero has elaborated the rector-ideal, Zarecki carries on to argue, this notion becomes the sine qua non of his political activities and relationships. Thus, the rector-ideal is set against Caesar’s dictatorship in Cicero’s speeches and philosophical treatises of the time as well as against Anthony in the works of 44 BC, with particular emphasis on the de officiis and Philippics. Reiterating the principal qualities of the rector-ideal, Zarecki argues, Cicero attempts to live up to his ideal. Octavian’s defection to Anthony, however, proved that the rector-ideal was ultimately flawed, as it was unable to withstand the military demagogues.

There is much that is interesting here. The overarching idea is genuinely refreshing and the impact that the literary and philosophical tropes of the genre have on the exegesis of the text is stimulating. The development of Cicero’s thought is, however, at times too linear, and the reader has the perception that evidence has to be forced to show the affirmation of a monarchical figure in Cicero’s thought. This is especially evident in the analysis of the political events of the 40s and in Zarecki’s effort to find a reference to the rector in every treatment of the cardinal virtues.

There is no doubt that, as Zarecki argues, in 44 BC Cicero moves beyond institutional procedures as pivotal strongholds of the Republican system and assigns unchecked power to individuals who, guided by their virtus, should defend the dying Republic. Nonetheless, Zarecki’s intriguing attempt to situate this Ciceronian move within the context of the de re publica and the development of the rector-ideal already in the late 50s is not consistently persuasive. It is not entirely clear in what way the de re publica — a theoretical treatise that is about the optimus status civitatis as much as it is about the optimus civis, and where Cicero presents the mixed and balanced constitution as the best form of government — identifies the rule of a single individual as the best means of preservation for the res publica. Under a monarch, Scipio argues (2.43), there is no liberty, no matter how benevolent the monarch might be. He cannot be considered as the guarantor of the citizens’ rights solely by virtue of his moral standing. As Cicero/Scipio claims, governments change their forms primarily because of an alteration of the character of those in charge. If Cicero was thinking that a strong individual leader was necessary for the preservation of the res publica already at the end of the 50s, it remains unclear what, in his opinion, could prevent such a figure from going astray and destroying the Republic. This exploration of the relation between the rector-ideal and the mixed constitution should have been developed further, as this would also shed light on the later developments of this concern in the 40s (which are discussed in regard to the notion of libertas). To appreciate Cicero’s originality in his support for the power of one individual as well as the significance of his intervention in the political world of his time more fully, it would have been interesting to set this analysis within the intellectual context of the late Republic, especially in regard to the traditional Roman hatred of kingship.

The book is very clearly written, its exposition is linear, and the development of the argument is repeatedly signposted throughout the work. This is one of the aspects, coupled with extensive narrative accounts, which makes the book very accessible also to advanced undergraduate students (I have already suggested it to mine) without, however, losing its penetrating intelligence. However, at some points a more nuanced phrasing of concepts and definitions would have enhanced the analysis. At times, the argument is so compactly expressed that it loses precision. For example, the definition of res publica as res populi ( Rep. 1.39) does not take into account the nature of the genitive iuris nor the possible interpretations of communis utilitas. I am not too sure that libertas as such appears in the XII Tables, and the quoted passage in Livy (7.17) does not say precisely that it does (although no doubt the concept expressed there is clearly related to the notion of liberty). It would have been important, given the role of the rector in this field, to unpack the sentence ‘it [ libertas ] meant that the role played in the government by each social class was protected, and that the law was upheld and applied equally’ (7). However, as the good discussion of the notion of constitution shows, these apparent imprecisions are mainly the result of a compressed style, rather than errors or lack of conceptual subtlety. Equally, the use of terms such as ‘mixed constitution’ or ‘popular sovereignty’ in the narrative of events is misleading. Cicero, as far as I know, never claims to have been the victim of popular sovereignty that had overthrown the balance of mixed constitution (47), nor does he argue in favour of or against certain policies in the name of restoring the mixed constitution as such. The analysis of the attributes of the rectorsapientia, prudentia, and auctoritas — is not as subtle as one might have liked, and does not take into account the fact that these attributes may have been subject to change over time and in different contexts (as is certainly the case with prudentia). More discussion is needed also to justify the understanding of aequabilitas as ‘impartiality’ (85-6). Furthermore, at times the account of the historical events is far too close to Cicero’s narrative and does not take into account current revisions of certain episodes, such as, for example, Catiline’s conspiracy or the re-assessment of the historical figure of Caesar. Although this might be because ultimately Cicero’s thought is at the centre of the book, the reader would have benefitted from being directed to further discussion in a footnote.

Despite this, much here will be of relevance for those interested not only in Cicero’s political thought, but also in the political events that punctuated the end of the Roman Republic. Zarecki has fully achieved his aim of providing ‘a re-examination of this important concept which has added to our understanding of Cicero’s ideal statesman’ (162).