BMCR 2020.04.14

Cicero, Greek learning, and the making of a Roman classic

, Cicero, Greek learning, and the making of a Roman classic. . Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. x, 359 p.. ISBN 9780198829423 $99.00.


[Disclaimer: the reviewer was a participant in the Organizer Refereed Panel, “Cicero Across Genres,” which the book’s author co-organized for the 2016 annual meeting of the SCS; we have not collaborated professionally.]

Caroline Bishop has written an incisive and well-researched book about how Cicero adapted Greek texts and traditions in order to make himself into a towering canonical figure. This study of Cicero’s literary endeavors and innovations ably handles an impressive range of works: poetry, letters, and above all else, dialogues. A welcome resource for scholars (and teachers—see below), it will garner a place among the several studies of Cicero that came to dominate the scholarship soon after the turn of the last millennium. Bishop adds another perspective on Cicero the Constructivist, the manifold ways in which Cicero midwifed his social, political, and literary afterlives, which then became so naturalized in later accounts of him.

Conceptually, Bishop’s work shares much with the self-fashioning Cicero of Dugan, Connolly, or van der Blom,[1] and with broad-ranging or cross-textual approaches of Stroup, Baraz,[2] and Catherine Steel’s seminal Reading Cicero (Duckworth, 2005). In distinction from studies that tend to emphasize the immediate Roman contexts for Cicero’s self-canonization, Bishop peers back to Greek models as they developed in the intervening years since the demise of classical Athens. She assesses not only what a given text or author may have meant as a textual artifact (the practice typical of intertextual or doctrinal readings), but also how the intervening Hellenistic mediation and Roman reception of Greek classics determined Cicero’s understanding of earlier authors in his lifelong efforts to achieve classical status.

Across six chapters, Bishop isolates key moments in the productive appropriation of Aratus, Plato, Aristotle, Demosthenes, letter writing, and, coming full circle, of Cicero’s own poetry in De Natura Deorum and De Divinatione. A common approach guides each chapter: to examine first the legacy of authors or traditions, including how they may have been explained to Cicero by his Greek teachers, and then to consider how Cicero drew on a given intellectual and textual tradition in one or more of his own texts. Particularly valuable is the judicious assessment of Cicero’s adaptation of Greek philosophical schools. The book is not billed as a philosophical study, but elucidates this intellectual background with admirable clarity. Several handbooks, introductions, overviews, and general studies in recent years have examined the philosophical underpinnings of Cicero’s works, detailing the philosophical forerunners to his activities in the first century BCE. The book’s survey and synthesis of Stoic, Peripatetic, and Academic tendencies rival these other efforts in their clarity and concision. I could well imagine assigning the sections on Cicero’s Plato and Cicero’s Aristotle (in Chapters Two and Three, respectively) in a course on Roman intellectual culture or Cicero’s philosophy. Scholars are also given a stern (if only implicit) reminder of the extent to which two contemporary Academics, Philo of Larissa and his onetime disciple Antiochus of Ascalon, were instrumental in shaping (some would say “distorting”) Cicero’s views of the Stoa, the Lyceum, and the Academy.

The Introduction lays out the work’s emphasis on how Cicero “largely set the parameters in which he is still remembered today” (p. 1). Chapter one begins with poetry: Cicero’s early Aratea, the translation/adaptation of Aratus’ Phaenomena and the best-preserved of Cicero’s corpus of poetry. The nearly-immediate classical status of Aratus is emphasized, along with Stoic interpretations of the text (producing, in Cicero’s case, the “increased Stoicism in the cosmos of the Aratea,” p. 81). Cicero attempted to outdo Aratus by reframing key aspects of his philosophical worldview (skyview?) and by acknowledging and responding to the commentary tradition in his Romanized version. If Bishop’s reading is right (and if we can be certain of 90-89 BCE as the date of the poem’s composition, p. 42), then it is sobering to imagine that Cicero was taking on and brazenly challenging such an important text of Hellenistic literature at the tender age of sixteen or seventeen—a bit like trying to imagine a modern high-school junior penning a compelling poetic revision of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.

Chapters Two and Three take us to the philosophical core of the study: Plato and Aristotle. Cicero’s Plato was not merely the representative of a school or body of texts, but the authoritative Urfigur of a philosophical tradition conceived of in literary terms: Plato was the Homer of the philosophers, an idea traced back to Panaetius (Tusc. 1.79): “by the end of the second century Plato had begun to be regarded as the originary philosopher from whom all other philosophical schools had arisen, much like all other poetry was thought in antiquity to have sprung forth from Homer” (p. 90). Plato’s legacy is examined in light of crucial developments in the Academy that occurred in his lifetime: the New or Skeptical Academy, stretching from the scholarchate of Arcesilaus in the third century to that of Philo at the beginning of the first, was challenged by the more dogmatic and eclectic Antiochus of Ascalon and his claims to return to the Old Academy, embodied, as he seems to have thought, by Plato, his more immediate inheritors (Speusippus, Xenocrates, etc.), and even thinkers from other philosophical sects.

Cicero’s choice to emphasize Plato over Aristotle in his dialogues of the 50s thus reflects not simply Cicero’s obvious desire to establish himself as a Roman Plato, but to assume the Platonic mantle in a way calculated to appeal to Romans of wide-ranging philosophical leanings: “His drawing together of these many sources mirrored the approach of one of his teachers, Antiochus, while his focus on the aporetic qualities in the dialogues and his corresponding interest in Plato’s style was the result of his studies with another, Philo. Cicero’s obvious awareness of the breadth of philosophical responses to Plato and his willingness to use such material was inextricable from his decision to claim Plato as a model for these works” (pp. 126-7). Cicero’s translation of Timaeus in the last half of 45 BCE deftly interweaves Cicero’s reliance on Antiochus’ syncretism and Philo’s skepticism (pp. 118-26).

Yet Aristotle would remain central to Cicero’s thought and self-portrayal, above all else as “an eminently rhetorical philosopher” (p. 143) of the kind championed in De Oratore. Bishop emphasizes the extent to which Cicero credited Aristotle with the invention (or crucial refinement) of arguing both sides of an issue, in utramque partem, which, alongside the New Academy’s penchant for arguing against any given proposition, would play a crucial role in Cicero’s intellectual training. Philo again crucially influenced Cicero’s view of Aristotle, and Bishop considers the interwoven, or at least parallel, argumentative traditions that relied on doxography, loci/topoi, and theses/hypotheses. Cicero’s Aristotle emerges as a figure who capably combined rhetorical and philosophical argument: Aristotle was, no less than Plato, an intellectual exemplum for the force and fullness of the ideal orator.

Chapter Four turns to Cicero’s Greek oratorical hero, Demosthenes. After considering Demosthenes’ Hellenistic afterlife, including his alleged connection to philosophy through studying with Plato (p. 185), and his portrayal in Cicero’s earlier works, the chapter focuses on three key texts of 46 BCE, Brutus, Orator, and De Optimo Genere Oratorum (pp. 197-211).[3] All were written in the midst of the so-called Atticism debate, each with a slightly different take on the content and nature of this stylistic disagreement, whose origins and ultimate purpose continue to elude scholars. Bishop focuses on how Atticism and the heroization of Demosthenes reflect Cicero’s response to Caesarian autocracy. Demosthenes’ “opposition to Philip and Alexander … drove his reception in the rhetorical schools, where he became a symbol of democratic free speech and its end” (p. 186). Demosthenes’ importance to the theoretical works of 46 BCE paves the way for the acutely political Philippics in the aftermath of Caesar’s assassination.

Bishop makes a strong case for the political significance of Demosthenes as a stylistic exemplum. The argument that Cicero may have modelled his own physical weaknesses on those of Demosthenes in order to equate their persons and careers is compelling (pp. 204-5). Some demurrals are worth noting. It is far from clear that the Brutus unequivocally signals Cicero’s retreat from the life of the forum, or what his attitudes towards Caesar exactly were in (April or thereabouts of) 46 BCE. Touches of optimism emerge from Cicero as well: like the pro Marcello from later in that same year, the dialogue also signals some hope for the renewal of traditional public life, which may have included coaxing, cajoling, and convincing Caesar to restore (Cicero’s version of) the Republic. The Brutus also encapsulates a markedly “Periclean” moment in Cicero’s thought: Pericles is elevated to an importance found in no other work of Cicero’s to the same degree.[4] He is the beginning of Greek oratory’s textual tradition and a Greek parallel for the first Roman orator, Cethegus, in a work in which parallels are crucial bearers of greater meaning. However important Demosthenes may be as a stylistic exemplum, or more pointedly, as a stylistic countermodel to Lysianic simplicity (or Thucydidean obscurity), any direct path to his anti-Caesarian portrayal is hard to trace out in these three works of 46 BCE (essentially acknowledged on p. 246). Despite these possible objections, I generally remain in sympathy with Bishop’s underscoring of Demosthenes’ political resonances, including his representative value as a possible figure of resistance.

Chapter Five examines the tradition of letters and how Cicero drew on productive tensions in Greco-Roman epistolography: the highly constructed nature of letters that nonetheless purport to reveal an unvarnished truth, and the mediation of relationships through the epistolary themes of absence and presence. Bishop explores the various ways in which Cicero’s letters repeatedly present his political decisions in the best possible light, and how, in consonance with Greek forerunners, “a collection of his letters would have served as a prized addition to his more formal literary works” (p. 257).

Chapter Six brings us to the thing that Cicero most loved to discuss (or have others discuss): himself. Bishop examines the citations of his poetry in the theological treatises of 45/44 BCE, arguing that Cicero provides a template for his own self-canonization as a Roman author looking back to Greek classics. He instructs readers in how to interpret his literary productions as canonical texts, crafting “a model of classical reception, one that Cicero realized could provide a guide as he set about creating a set of parallel Roman classics” (p. 260). Bishop shows how Cicero modeled his own citations of poetry on the poetic predilections of the philosophical schools (rejection at the hands of Epicureans, lavish citation at the hands of the Stoics). Cicero’s (self-)citations are carefully engineered to enhance his poetic and authorial persona even as he feigns literary modesty and dialogic deference.

Learned, insightful, and wide-ranging, Bishop has produced a study of Ciceronian literary classicism that is sure to enjoy a long afterlife on scholars’ bookshelves and bibliographies. Even Cicero would have asked for little else.


[1] J. R. Dugan, Making a New Man (Oxford University Press, 2005); J. Connolly, The State of Speech (Princeton University Press, 2007); H. van der Blom, Cicero’s Role Models (Oxford University Press, 2010).

[2] S. C. Stroup, Catullus, Cicero, and a Society of Patrons (Cambridge University Press, 2010; Y. Baraz, A Written Republic (Princeton University Press, 2012).

[3] The dating of the last, fragmentary work remains uncertain, but modern scholars typically place it in the same productive orbit as the other two; most now accept its authenticity.

[4] The arguments may have been assisted by reference to the individual studies in the easy-to-overlook volume: S. Aubert-Baillot, C. Guérin (edd.). Le Brutus de Cicéron. Rhétorique, politique et histoire culturelle (Brill, 2014). It bears noting, however, how impressively full Bishop’s bibliography is (my guesstimate puts it at nearly 700 items), and how admirably she handles the secondary literature on a vast range of topics and genres throughout the book.