BMCR 2019.11.30

Cicero and Roman Education: The Reception of the Speeches and Ancient Scholarship

Giuseppe La Bua, Cicero and Roman Education: The Reception of the Speeches and Ancient Scholarship. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. xiii, 394. ISBN 9781107068582 $125.00.


Giuseppe La Bua’s book offers a detailed overview of Cicero’s afterlife in (mostly) imperial Latin writers and scholars. Special attention is paid to the scholiasts and Quintilian, although an impressive range of sources is brought in to round out the picture of how Cicero continued to appeal to teachers and students long after his proscription and eventual killing on December 7, 43 BCE.

Each of the book’s four chapters opens a different perspective onto the ways in which Cicero was studied, read, and transmitted, outlining why and how Cicero was elevated to the status of stylistic and moral model for students across centuries of Latin pedagogy. As the conclusion summarizes: “Cicero’s oratory was essential to the construction of an elite ideal of education, based on the transmission and replication of ethical, linguistic and oratorical values associated with upper-class culture” (p. 337).

In the first chapter we encounter Cicero the editor as he strives to fashion a legacy of texts with which to present himself in perpetuity to future readers. Cicero contrived to create a textualized version of himself for consumption by posterity and peers, in full awareness of “the key role played by writing in the process of canonization of oratory” (p. 21). Self-fashioning is the operative and familiar catchword throughout, but with constant attention paid to the educational possibilities offered by Cicero’s texts. The balancing act is delicate, and La Bua comes down squarely in the middle of a long-standing debate over Cicero’s designs in publishing his speeches during his lifetime: “in Cicero’s theory of publication there is no clear split between pedagogy and politics” (p. 31). Cicero’s self-editorializing practices focus on retractatio and emendatio, although the second term receives the bulk of elucidation: the factual or stylistic modification of a text to improve it for distribution.

The second chapter turns first to the minutiae of copying and editing Cicero’s speeches, all while ranging broadly from Cicero’s contemporaries to early medieval scholars, and by assessing the extent to which encyclopedists or commentators contributed to varying canons of Ciceronian speeches. Discussed at length are names and collections that some socio-cultural enthusiasts of Cicero might not immediately think to linger over: Statilius Maximus, Quintus Asconius Pedianus (though no one denies the contextual elucidation available in Asconius’ 1st-century CE commentaries), the Scholia Bobiensia, palimpsests, or several extracts from scraps of papyrus. Again, for La Bua the relationship to education is paramount: “It is not by chance that all the speeches preserved in the oldest extant manuscripts enjoyed a good reputation in the ancient school” (p. 94).

Chapter three turns from the textual to the conceptual afterlife of Cicero, perhaps best represented by Quintilian’s famous adage that “Cicero was the name not of a man but of eloquence” (Quint. Inst. 10.1.112). La Bua seeks to draw out the ways in which Cicero’s legacy as a politician was subject to several challenges and revisions and to consider how imperial authors used Cicero to think about the survival (or demise) of republican ideas and values. Discussion of the political and moral questions was, ultimately, inextricable from debates over style and Latinity. Quintilian becomes, in many respects, the nodal point for the competing strands of thought (with some help from Pliny): “Quintilian’s and Pliny’s Ciceronianism revitalized and consecrated the figure of Cicero as the greatest orator and advocate of Roman history” (p. 124). Historical and pedagogical conclusions can be drawn from the preferences of these two authors, who “redefined the public role of the orator, bringing into existence a new Cicero … in which mastery of the Latin language and excellence in oratory combined with political activism and engagement in Roman society, something in which the real Cicero was unanimously recognized as an unattainable model” (p. 125). The scholiasts resurface at length in this chapter, and La Bua valuably concludes that “the exegetical history of the speeches goes back to the end of Roman republic [sic], not long after the death of the republican orator and statesman. Interpretation of Cicero started as soon as the speeches acquired the status of standard schoolbooks” (p. 164). Among the most important things in Cicero’s legacy is his status as a repository for correct Latin usage, as he became a constant source of authority ( Tulliana auctoritas) for those wishing to understand (or to grind axes) when facing competing linguistic options.

Chapter four turns first to the teaching of Cicero’s texts (pp. 183-219). Quintilian is again central, first in his discussion of the praelectio (the reading out of an author in a class setting) and the consideration of which texts could or should be read by the student or budding orator. More attention is given to ennaratio (the introduction to texts by elucidating the circumstances in which they were produced). A broad range of Cicero’s speeches was taught in the schools, but La Bua emphasizes the centrality of, for example, the speeches on behalf of Milo and Archias, as well as the Verrine Orations.

The three Caesarian Speeches (On Behalf of Marcellus, Ligarius, and King Deiotarus) also receive special consideration. Here the narrative weaves back and forth between the contexts and contents of the speeches and modern disagreements about their author’s aims. One burning modern question, which can be traced back to ancient commentary, has been whether Cicero is being ironic or serious in his addresses to Caesar. Scholarly disagreements over the politics of these speeches are judiciously laid out, and it is possible to discern how subsequent readers would have approached them and thus Cicero’s political image: “Cicero’s literary work at that time brings out into the open a man negotiating political ambiguities, trying to come to terms with dictatorial power, exploring possibilities of cooperating in the new political environment of Caesar’s Rome and discussing relationships between free oratory and politics” (p. 213).

The chapter then moves on to a lengthy discussion of dissembling/dissimulation ( dissimulatio) in oratory (pp. 219-266), that is, the need for an orator to avoid being seen as overtly practicing the art of oratory for the purposes of self-interested persuasion. This section essentially surveys the various mechanisms by which an orator could deceive, instruct, entertain, or cajole his listeners into adopting a position or attitude. There follows another long section on the stylistic aspects of the orator’s art (pp. 267-298) and a section on the use of exempla (pp. 298-317).

A conclusion summarizes the main ideas discussed in the work, which, in summary, aims to show how elite young Romans would repeatedly refashion themselves as new versions of Cicero by consuming his texts and imitating the received image of the man.

Scholars of Cicero and imperial texts on rhetoric and oratory will find much familiar ground traversed in the book. La Bua has amassed an impressive amount of material and demonstrates a keen knowledge not only of Cicero’s texts but also of the subsequent stages of transmission and criticism. Quibbles with the book are largely to be directed at the structuring of the chapters and the abundance of citations and quotations. At nearly 140 pages and with 744 footnotes, chapter four is certainly remarkable for its erudition, but might have been better served by an editorial hand willing to excise what wasn’t crucially essential and to insert further divisions into the book’s structure. This may be to a large extent a matter of personal preference, of course, and criticism of the book’s over-inclusiveness should be balanced by recognition that the assembled material makes it easy to get up to speed on some of the scholarly debates. Thus the section on the Caesarian Speeches, for example, includes most of the essential bibliography and an overview of debates in the course of about a dozen pages (pp. 208-219). Graduate students or those approaching a new area of Ciceronian studies may benefit from consulting the indexes and scouring the sections relevant to a given text. Scholars of Cicero or imperial rhetoric will recognize the book’s affinities with Thomas J. Keeline’s recent study of Cicero in the early empire (BMCR 2019.04.29). Future scholars of Ciceronian reception now have valuable surveys to build on when further probing Cicero’s afterlife and his elevation to the status of a cultural and stylistic icon.