BMCR 2021.01.14

The deaths of the Republic: imagery of the body politic in Ciceronian Rome

, The deaths of the Republic: imagery of the body politic in Ciceronian Rome. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. 176. ISBN 9780198839576 $80.00.

Brian Walters’s The deaths of the Republic: imagery of the body politic in Ciceronian Rome is the first comprehensive, book-length treatment and catalogue of ‘body-political images’ in Roman republican letters. It is a successful, engaging one. It comes in the midst of a decades-long renaissance in the study of Cicero’s rhetorical, philosophical, and political significance. It also resonates with recent rich, evocative studies of imagery of the Roman body politic and violence done to it, largely not among republican writers themselves, but in Lucan’s Bellum Civile (which of course dramatizes the very struggles of which the republican authors were a part).[1] In just 120 pages it is complete and accurate as a catalogue, and breaks new ground in a busy literature. In this review I will introduce and motivate this study, consider some of its strongest contributions, and end with a few constructive critical notes.

Walters’s main aim in this book is impressive in its scope. He aims to provide a complete catalogue of ‘body-political images and imagery’ in Roman republican letters, the first of its kind. The study thereby spans from early fragmentary Latin oratory to the intense competing political messaging in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Caesar in 44 BCE. The main author of concern (as suggested by the title) is Cicero, though Walters marshals wide-ranging evidence from the fragmentary pre-Ciceronian Roman literary tradition and the Latin and Greek historians, and makes effective use of Cicero’s letters to reconstruct the contemporary oratorical scene with precision and novelty. The book is exceedingly well-researched, brimming with references to Cicero’s entire corpus and displaying an excellent command of recent scholarly literature on Cicero and the Late Republic, in particular.

Before I continue with a summary of the book’s chapters, I begin with a word on Walters’s conception of body political imagery. Body-political images, for Walters, are ones which describe the state (not exhaustively) as “endowed with nervi, blood, breath, limbs, and organs; a body beaten, wounded, disfigured, and infected; one with scars, hopes, desires, and fears; that can die, be killed, or kill in turn.” (1-2) This list is but a small sampling of the rich, evocative bodily metaphors he catalogues of republican imagery of the res publica and its varied afflictions, debilitations, and deaths, but gives something of a sense of the scope of the metaphors he here considers. The stomach, the limbs (membra, partes), the belly, the teeth, the tongue, the hands, the head, decapitation, gangrene (gangraena mala), cancer, phlegm, health/well-being (salus), plague, blood, disease, dysentery, gout, malaria, anemia, discoloration, bloodletting, surgery, ulcers, amputation, poison, violence, mutilation, medicine, butchery (carnificina), the gut, beatings, debilitation, disfiguration, wounds, scars, torture, whipping, laceration, murder, and death all find application as corporeal imagery for the res publica and its suffering in republican Latin. Republican authors continually pitch the health and well-being of the res publica against these dangers (imagined as the acts of political rivals), nearly universally envisioning the res publica to be in decline and aging, if not near death itself, and in need of saving.

Walters divides his study into five chapters, beginning with the genesis of the body-political metaphor in Latin letters in the famous fable of Menenius Agrippa and ending with the fierce debates over parricide in the aftermath of the assassination of Caesar. Below I provide a succinct summary of each chapter before I continue with critical commentary.

In the first chapter, “The Republican Body Politic”, Walters begins his study of body-political imagery in republican Latin with the Menenius Agrippa fable (most famously recounted at Livy 2.32.8-12), traditionally set in 494 BCE. The fable shows Agrippa winning over rebellious plebeians by means of a parable: In it, the hands, mouth, and teeth of a body (angry over the perceived laziness and selfishness of the stomach) join together and refuse to do their part in acquiring food for the ever-hungry organ. The entire body is as a result malnourished, and the seditious body parts realize that the stomach was in fact providing vitality to the entire body through its functions. Through this myth the plebs is convinced of their folly, and so return to civic life in harmony with the patricians.

The myth and its political implications have been a favorite topic in both republican Latin and contemporary scholarly literature. Cicero and his contemporaries continually stress the importance of concordia ordinum (harmony among the classes of the Roman res publica) and point to the Menenius fable as a sort of locus classicus for continual inspiration and reinvention. Amid this corporeal backdrop, Walters makes a powerful connection and novel contribution: Walters connects Cicero’s use of, and familiarity with, the Menenius fable and the corporealization of the res publica with Cicero’s discussion of the optimus status civitatis in his De re publica 1, eliciting the often-ignored bodily sense of status—the “condition or comportment” of the body. (18) That Cicero’s characters are highly desirous of an enlivened civitas in the De re publica is well-known, but the new reading of status brings embodiment to the fore in a new and suggestive way.

In the second chapter, “Healing the State with Violence”, Walters focuses on the images of healing and disease, and produces abundant sources for pre-Ciceronian and Ciceronian justifications for violence through cliches of disease, medicine, healing, health, and wellbeing. A particularly rich discussion is found in Walters’s section on the salus rei publicae (‘wellbeing of the republic’).

Chapter 3, “Butchering the Body Politic”, lists various abuses levelled on the republic from enemies within, and provides some of the most memorable and arresting corporealizations of the ‘wounded’ Roman republic in Cicero: res publica debilitata (Sest. 79), res publica afflicta (Sest. 1, 5, 31), omnia membra rei publicae quae notissima sunt…; nullum reperies… quod non fractum debilitatumve sit (Fam. 5.13.3). Walters connects these political fears for the wellbeing of the res publica with the deep-seated cultural fears of ‘deformity’, ‘mutilation’, and ‘disability’, helping to elicit the ableist framework in which these metaphors operate and motivate Roman readers and political actors.

Chapter 4, “Outliving the Republic”, explores references to the death of the body politic and the fate of those who live on after its passing. Walters’s discussions of consolations in the face of the death of the state and the hoped-for immortality for the res publica are particularly rewarding.

Chapter 5, “Murdering the Fatherland”, aims to ‘historicize’ the above catalogued body-political imagery through the means of one example from the late republican period. In it, Walters provides an excellent overview of the liberatores-Caesarian debate surrounding the correct application of parricidium (both arguing, on different grounds, for the other side’s having committed parricide either exclusively or first). Walters concludes his study noting that this debate is the last of the oratorical contests openly debate the death of the republic, such rhetoric, apparently, dying out (or being prohibited) in the transition to Augustus’s singular authority.

As mentioned above, the present study is rich, thought-provoking, well-researched, and novel. It often treads passages well-worn, but does so with novelty and nuance that make it a welcome and refreshing read—its dynamic, sumptuous vocabulary and prose style do so as well. Still, I conclude with a few notes of constructive criticism.

First, the study would have benefitted from a clearer statement of its principal aims in the introduction. By my count, there are up to 5 aims listed in the introduction (often in indirect or qualified language). This reader would have appreciated a more succinct statement of these goals, especially as some (e.g., that the present study would aid scholars of the early modern era) give the book broader appeal and could have been given more prominence.

Next, the book’s impressive copiousness with respect to its catalogue of body-political imagery at times leaves certain theoretical points less fully treated. The discussion of the optimus status civitatis in Chapter 1, for example, was novel and extremely interesting, but receives just about two pages of sustained discussion. Discussion of harmony and the theory of the mixed constitution, similarly, receives a very brief treatment. (Chapter 1) The idea that the state ought to be immortal (as in Rep. 3.34)—a fascinating discussion on its own but especially so in the context of the present study (namely, death of and harm done to the republic)—is introduced and passed over briskly. (Chapter 4)

Last, discussion of Caesar remains relatively indirect throughout. Walters provides ample Ciceronian/optimate evidence of republican body political imagery, and, to be sure, notes body-political imagery arising out of the popular faction. Nevertheless, Caesar himself receives little mention. I was anticipating more on him, even if it had to be slightly conjectural. But perhaps this is intentional. After all, Caesar is reported to have said ‘the res publica is nothing, a mere name without body or form’. (Suet. Jul. 77)

In sum, this is an excellent, engaging book of high scholarship of the republican period. It also achieves what it sets out to do, providing an authoritative catalogue and discussion of most (if not all) of the extant republican use of body-political imagery. It will amplify some discussions and provoke other new ones. It will be of interest to anyone interested in Cicero’s rhetoric, philosophy, or politics; scholars and students of the late republican era; and early modernists and comparativists interested in the use of body-political imagery in Latin speeches, poems, philosophica, and history of the 1st century BCE.


[1] The introduction to Martin Dinter’s Anatomizing Civil War: Studies in Lucan’s Epic Technique (Michigan 2012), provides a helpful list of some of the most influential figures. Walters himself has translated Lucan’s Civil War for Hackett (2015). The cover features Francisco Goya’s A Butcher’s Counter, an apt image for this volume as well.