BMCR 2019.04.29

The Reception of Cicero in the Early Roman Empire: The Rhetorical Schoolroom and the Creation of a Cultural Legend

, The Reception of Cicero in the Early Roman Empire: The Rhetorical Schoolroom and the Creation of a Cultural Legend. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018. xi, 375. ISBN 9781108426237. £90.00 (hb).


This insightful study will be of interest not just to Ciceronian scholars but to those in several other fields as well, including students of Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Seneca the Younger, Quintilian, Roman declamation and Late Republican historiography. The study also takes a place in the field of reception studies, although, as the title implies, it focuses not on the reinterpretation of Ciceronian material in the modern world, but on the reception of Cicero in the first couple of centuries following his death.

The first chapter (“Pro Milone: Reading Cicero in the Schoolroom”) takes an engagingly fresh approach to the reception of Cicero by trying to reconstruct the Roman student’s first encounters with a Ciceronian speech at school. This is a challenging task, given the paucity of available evidence, but Keeline puts together a useful collage of observations on Pro Milone drawn from three texts associated with schoolroom explication: Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria, the commentaries of Asconius and the Scholia Bobiensia. As Keeline notes, these discussions primarily draw attention to Cicero’s skill in practical rhetorical strategy, and are especially clear-eyed about the speech’s mendacious aspects. This emphasis is not particularly surprising, seeing that the main purpose of such training was to produce smart, effective orators. But the repeated stress on Cicero’s rhetorical brilliance naturally shaped his reputation in the decades following his death. As Keeline observes, this is the first stage in the reduction of the man’s historical complexity as an orator, politician, letter-writer, student of philosophy and family man, to a “partial” Cicero: a model of oratorical excellence to be studied and revered—but not much else.

Overall, the chapter offers a perceptive window onto the Roman schoolroom, and many modern students will find it a useful introduction to the Scholia Bobiensia, a text that can be difficult to handle. Keeline is more willing than many scholars to regard Cicero’s performance on the final day of Milo’s trial as an embarrassing calamity, although he glides too easily perhaps over the question of the authorship and intentions of the first circulated version of the speech.

Chapters 2, 3 and 4 work together as a unit, examining the practice of declamation in the Roman schools and its influence on Cicero’s reputation. As Keeline notes (p. 79): “This classroom tradition lies at the heart of post-mortem evaluations of Cicero by those who had never known him or heard him speak.” The topic is not a new one, with various aspects already explored by scholars in the last couple of decades. But Keeline examines the evidence in greater depth, focusing in particular on the way in which certain details of the orator’s life and works end up receiving greater emphasis than others. In Chapter 2, for example, Keeline discusses the portrayal of Cicero in the later tradition as the vox publica. This aspect is given a distinctive twist: Cicero is not used as a symbol of Republican resistance to encroaching tyranny; rather, his eloquence is “reappropriated to champion a redefined cause of popular freedom, namely freedom from Mark Antony. This simplified rhetoric neatly aligned with the interests of Octavian and his successors” (pp. 88-89). The point is developed further in Chapter 3, as Keeline demonstrates the way in which school declamations on the theme of Cicero and Antony (and the Philippics) helped to consolidate the fiction that Antony alone was responsible for the orator’s murder. Octavian’s complicity in the deed is ignored entirely or deftly minimized (pp. 105-10; 121).

Chapter 3 also discusses in detail the ways in which declamatory inventions influenced historical accounts of Cicero’s life. Even the version of his death in Valerius Maximus operates in a declamatory mode, with almost every phrase chosen to sharpen the audience’s indignation at the wretched character of the murderer, Popillius—himself a fictional figure invented by declaimers in order to offer extra rhetorical color to the scene (pp. 125-27). As a foil to these inventions, Keeline presents an astute analysis of the (relatively early) accounts of Cicero’s death by Livy and Asinius Pollio. As he shows, these versions are far more ambiguous regarding the orator’s virtues than the elder Seneca (and some modern scholars) would have us believe. For later declaimers, however, there is no room for nuance or ironic subtlety. They “amplify what they found attractive and … ignore any complicating factors” (p. 137), thus helping to consolidate a schematic and misleading version of Cicero. Finally, Keeline identifies similar elements in Greek writers of Late Republican history and biography (Cassius Dio, Appian and Plutarch). The analysis is justifiably cautious about the origins of their rhetorical distortions: Dio and Appian may just be reproducing their sources, with no additional inventions of their own. Nevertheless, these sources “had already been thoroughly dyed in declamation” (p. 146).

Chapter 4 concludes the focus on declamation with a study of six pseudepigraphic sources: In M. Tullium Ciceronem invectiva (Pseudo-Sallust); In C. Sallustium Crispum invectiva, Oratio pridie quam in exilium iret and Epistula ad Octavianum (Pseudo-Cicero); Epistula ad Ciceronem and Epistula ad Atticum (Pseudo-Brutus, preserved as Cicero ad Brut. 1.16 and 1.17). These texts are often marginalized in Ciceronian studies, briskly dismissed as annoying imposters that have little to contribute to a serious understanding of the orator or Late Republican history. Keeline, however, makes a good case for viewing them as “precious artifacts of cultural memory” (p. 194), vital to the study of Cicero’s reception. Although they can strike us today as barren exercises, they may have garnered considerable credit within the “intertextual declamatory aesthetic” of their day (pp. 188-195). More importantly, they “give us direct insight into how a later age thought and wrote about [Cicero]” (p. 194). In particular, the invectives reveal the development of tropes through which a declaimer might criticize Cicero and his career. (These include the orator’s cruelty in executing citizens without trial, his venality as advocate, his inconstancy in character, his boasting, his status as novus homo, and the occasional sexual misdemeanor.) Again, these themes leave their mark on the historiographical tradition, as is clear in the speech of Calenus in Cassius Dio 46.1-29. (See also Keeline’s nuanced analysis of the “consolation” offered to Cicero by the fictional character Philiscus in Cassius Dio 38.18-29.)

The remaining three chapters address the reception of Cicero in the works of Seneca, Tacitus and Pliny. As Keeline notes, Cicero in Seneca “is conspicuous by his absence” (p. 196), but this absence is probably strategic: “If you spend much of your time and energy engaging with Cicero, even if you consistently strive to refute him, you are inevitably playing the game on his terms rather than your own” (p. 207). Indeed, Seneca clearly knew the Ciceronian oeuvre very well and in places expresses his admiration for it. (Keeline professes doubts about Seneca’s sincerity in this regard, but does not argue the point in detail; see pp. 201-2.) Overall, Cicero’s most significant influence on Seneca (Keeline suggests) was the one-sided form of his decades-long correspondence with Atticus, which may well have served as a model for Seneca’s own philosophizing letters to Lucilius (p. 215):

From reading Cicero’s letters to Atticus he [ sc. Seneca] must have understood the possibilities of the genre, but he rejects letters in a Ciceronian vein. He instead chooses to create a mosaic of philosophical conversations in epistolary form, which, when put together, create an all-encompassing philosophical dialogue tending toward the complete conversion of its interlocutor.

Tacitus’ Dialogus provides more substantial material for close analysis: the speeches by Aper, Maternus and Messalla all discuss Cicero directly, a fact that by itself indicates the orator’s continued influence upon succeeding generations (p. 273). Indeed, Keeline illustrates well the elements of Ciceronian style that Tacitus effortlessly adopts, especially in the speech of Messalla, with reminiscences of De Oratore extending to specific words and phrases (p. 265). But it is in Maternus’ speech (also “shot through with Ciceronian tags”, p. 269) that the key to Tacitus’ view of oratory is to be found (p. 274): “it is Maternus who has identified the correct cause of the disease and issued the authoritative prognosis—oratory is dead and cannot be revived.” The logical consequence of such a conclusion is to write history instead. Tacitus thus “engages in a sophisticated game of intertextual imitatio and aemulatio with Cicero and his followers, and after trouncing them on their own turf, he calmly picks up the ball and says that he will not play the game ever again” (p. 239).

Chapter 7 explores Pliny’s reception of Cicero and, following the lead of Stanley Hoffer ( The Anxieties of Pliny the Younger, OUP 1999), sees elements of unease in Pliny’s relationship with his predecessor. Pliny’s prose style, like that of Quintilian, represents a form of neo-Ciceronianism, and in general he views Cicero as a model to be revered. (Quintilian’s own neo-Ciceronianism is discussed in some detail at the start of Chapter 6, pp. 225-32.) But Pliny’s various observations in his letters betray a concern that he lacks the natural talent to attain such mastery. Moreover, changes in the political system have limited the opportunities to engage in the most vigorous forms of oratory on which Cicero built his reputation (pp. 282-84). Nevertheless, Pliny’s publication of his own letters represents both “an act of homage to and rivalry with his most famous epistolary antecedent” (p. 280).

Ultimately, Pliny emerges in this analysis as something of a conflicted, dissatisfied figure who “vacillates between humility and boasting, keen both to follow behind ‘Cicero the unsurpassable example’ and to surpass him” (p. 292). From a methodological perspective, Keeline applies astute caution when identifying intertextual Ciceronian echoes in Pliny’s correspondence, raising polite doubts regarding some of the patterns of allusion identified in previous scholarship (pp. 289, 318, 333).

This study, then, is a rewarding read. It identifies clearly the main interpretative issues pertinent to each author discussed and notes the most relevant associated scholarship; it engages closely with the texts themselves and constructs clear arguments from these analyses; and, as noted above, it examines several works that tend to be passed over in Ciceronian studies. From a practical perspective too, it will serve as a useful scholarly resource for those investigating Ciceronian verbal echoes in later authors: many such allusions are listed and discussed directly, or references given to works that provide the necessary basic details. The writing style is brisk and precise; there is even a decent joke or two. The book is well produced, with only a handful of typographical errors.