BMCR 2020.11.04

Cicero and Roman religion: eight studies

, , Cicero and Roman religion: eight studies. Potsdamer Alterumswissenschaftliche Beitrage, Band 72. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2020. Pp. 154. ISBN 9783515126434 €39,00.

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

Each generation of scholars constructs its own version of Cicero and, in the process, reassesses his proper place in the history of Roman religion. When Cicero has appeared conservative, committed to his Stoic principles and to defending traditional Roman values, the orator has been taken as a reliable reporter on religious matters. A more critical Cicero is harder to pin down, and as the editors of this slender volume note in their introduction, the Cicero of the early twenty-first century “is more ironic, more committed to scepticism, and more preoccupied with problems of status and self-representation” than the Cicero of earlier ages (10). Whereas, traditionally, work on Cicero and Roman religion has attended only to his philosophical and theological writings, this collection of studies, which began as papers presented at a conference in Rio de Janeiro in 2017, shows the value of exploiting the full sweep of Cicero’s oeuvre and pays careful attention to its historical context. An added benefit of this collection is that, as the final product of a joint venture between Newcastle University and the Universidade Federal do Estado do Rio de Janeiro, funded by a Newton Advanced Fellowship from the British Academy, the volume introduces several Brazilian scholars to a wider Anglophone readership. In what follows, I have treated the contributions slightly out of order to emphasize certain themes that I see running across parts of the volume. Authors and titles are listed in order at the end of the review.

Two contributions set Cicero’s treatment of religious themes in De Legibus in the context of contemporary intellectual debates. First, Valentina Arena’s “Cicero, the Augures, and the Commonwealth in De Legibus” tackles the received wisdom that Cicero’s attention to the augurs in the second and third books of Leg. is a result of his pride in his membership in the college. Arena instead makes a persuasive case that Cicero is taking part in a political debate that was live in the early 50s: the use and abuse of auspicia. He is responding to a law put forward by Clodius. Elsewhere, Cicero claimed that the lex Clodia de obnuntiatione aimed to destroy the auspicia. It is more likely, however, that it required only that the announcement of auspicia by magistrates be done in person—not a particularly revolutionary nor subversive move. Recognizing this as part of the backdrop to the writing of Leg. helps to make sense of Cicero’s particular focus on the augurs’ role in popular assemblies, both legislative and electoral. When Cicero asserts that augural auctoritas, derived from Jupiter, is supreme over the merely terrestrial auctoritas of magistrates, he argues against Clodius and for the primacy of the augurs’ ius obnuntiandi over the ius obnuntiandi and ius auspicandi of the magistrates.

Maria Eichler sets Cicero’s De Legibus against Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura in “Epicurean pietas and Political Action in Lucretius and Cicero.” She demonstrates that for both thinkers, politics and piety are intertwined, and thus challenges the idea that there was a rupture between law and religion in the late Republic. For Cicero, the initial bond between men and gods forms the foundation of written law; the social order holds together explicitly because people believe in the gods and observe traditional forms of worship. For Lucretius, written law develops instead from deliberation and agreement among men, and for him, belief in the gods can be destructive of social cohesion.

Other contributions examine how Cicero makes the gods present for his audiences in the Forum and how he uses religious themes to create a sense of identity. Claudia Beltrão da Rosa’s “The God and the Consul in Cicero’s Third Catilinarian” looks at Cicero’s exploitation of the slippery ontological status of statues of divinities: they can be both offerings to the gods and the gods themselves. As Cicero repeatedly draws his audience’s attention to the newly erected statue of Jupiter overlooking the Forum from his perch on the Capitoline, the orator creates a sense that it is Jupiter himself who is there above the crowd, defending the city and all who dwell in it. The statue ceases to be a statue and becomes the deus praesens. Taking a different approach to the question of presentification, Patricia Horvat and Alexandre Lima (“The Ontophanies of Diana in Segesta [Cicero, Verrines 2.4.72-81) offer a psychoanalytical reading of how Cicero uses an intricate series of identifications to elicit sympathy from his audience. He persuades his readers to identify with the Segestans, who mourned the loss of their goddess when her statue was carried off by Verres. The Segestans identify with Artemis: her fate is their fate. The same is true for the Romans and Diana, whose own identification with Segestan Artemis is, in turn, facilitated by Cicero’s careful omission of any detailed a description of the Segestan statue’s appearance. In “A Reading of Cicero’s De Haruspicum Responso. Some Reflections on Roman Identity”, María Cairo details how Cicero encourages his audience to see themselves as a community that upholds religious norms and respects the traditions of earlier generations. This allows him to cast Clodius as an outsider, marginally Roman or even un-Roman.

The last three contributions are more varied in scope. In “Cicero on Divine and Human Foresight,” Federico Santangelo turns again to a topic on which he has written extensively and, taking a cue from Spencer Cole’s work, explores the “improvisational quality” (106) of Cicero’s use of providentia, prudentia, and related terms across the corpus. Context and argument shape the meaning of specific appearances of the words, but in every case, Cicero takes part in a long-lived debate about the relationship between divine providence and human foresight, which engages a past, a present, and a future that cannot be dissociated from one another.

Greg Woolf’s article, “Foreign Gods in the Age of Cicero”, steps back from looking closely at Cicero himself to a much broader question: are the hardening of boundaries one sees in Roman religious thought (especially on the acceptability of foreign deities) over the course of the second and first centuries BCE, and the subsequent softening of those boundaries in the early Empire, tied to changes in Roman thought on the expansion of their hegemony? Woolf points out that the third century was a period of both rapid expansion and of acceptance of new gods. The two centuries that followed, however, saw a cessation in the importation of foreign deities, an increase in the policing of private religious behavior (e. g., the Bacchic crisis), and a growing intolerance of foreign religious groups like Jews and Chaldeans. The late Republic and the Augustan age in particular were marked by a religious chauvinism undergirt by a belief in a divine mandate for Roman expansion that is visible in the works of not only Cicero, but also Caesar, Varro, and Livy. When Rome was again accepting of foreign religious influence, in the mid-first century CE, emperors had largely lost interest in wars of expansion, but at the same time they continued to promote Roman dominion as an ideal. Bringing foreign gods to Rome became, once again, a way to assert Roman hegemony.

The volume concludes with a bit of reception. In the opening of her contribution, “Editing Ciceronian Religion in the Enlightenment”, Katherine East suggests that an underappreciated element in the reception of Cicero’s philosophical works is the actual editing of his texts – a tantalizing proposition one would like to see explored in greater depth. Given space constraints, however, she focuses on the role of the final paragraph of De Natura Deorum in theological debates of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, particular the debate between the radical Freethinker Anthony Collins and the classical scholar Richard Bentley. There is not much here about editing Latin: the passage in question is fairly stable.  Yet East’s work reveals how little our reading of that last paragraph has advanced in the intervening centuries. We still debate, albeit perhaps in less stark terms, whether Marcus’s apparent endorsement of Balbus’s Stoic argument – Haec cum essent dicta, ita discessimus, ut Velleio Cottae disputatio verior, mihi Balbi ad veritatis similitudinem videretur esse propensior — reveals Cicero to be a Stoic at heart (so Bentley) or an Academic Sceptic, as Collins would have him. East’s careful accounting of Collins’ personal library suggests how other scholars’ internal references, published translations, and representations of Academic methodology shaped his understanding of Cicero’s philosophical allegiance.

In general, the book is well produced and edited, although there are occasional opaque sentences and at least one factual gaffe: there is confusion (61-2) between the two famous men named P. Cornelius Scipio. If we are talking about the Scipio who sacked Carthage, we must be talking about Aemilianus in the Third Carthaginian War and not his adoptive grandfather in the Second.  Even so, the volume offers rewards for specialists in the field.

Table of Contents

Claudia Beltrão da Roma and Federico Santangelo, Introduction (p. 9-22)
Valentina Arena, Cicero, the Augures, and the Commonwealth in De Legibus (p. 23-44)
Patricia Horvat and Alexandre Carneiro C. Lima, The Ontophanies of Diana in Segesta (Cicero, Verrines 2.4.72-82) (p. 45-58)
María Emilia Cairo, A Reading of Cicero’s De Haruspicum Responso. Some Reflections on Roman Identity (p. 73-86)
Maria Eichler, Epicurean pietas and Political Action in Lucretius and Cicero (p. 87-104)
Federico Santangelo, Cicero on Divine and Human Foresight (p. 105-116)
Greg Woolf, Foreign Gods in the Age of Cicero (p. 117-134)
Katherine A. East, Editing Ciceronian Religion in the Enlightenment (p. 135-146)