BMCR 2021.10.46

Cicero als philosophischer Schriftsteller: Kommentar zu ausgewählten Briefen aus den Jahren 45-44

, Cicero als philosophischer Schriftsteller: Kommentar zu ausgewählten Briefen aus den Jahren 45-44. Wissenschaftliche Kommentare zu griechischen und lateinischen Schriftstellern. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2019. Pp. 251. ISBN 9783825369705 €58,00.

In the current renaissance of Ciceronian studies, both Cicero’s philosophy and his letters are receiving ample attention, while scholars have also begun to explore the intersections of their author’s philosophical thought and epistolary practice. Following the lead of Miriam Griffin’s seminal 1995 article on philosophical badinage in Cicero’s letters, recent work by Sean McConnell, Nathan Gilbert, Sophie Aubert-Baillot, and others has shown how in his correspondence Cicero develops significant philosophical points, reflects on his philosophical writings, and applies philosophical doctrine to the political situation and his own political actions.[1] The extent to which the letters are saturated in philosophy attests to the currency of philosophical ideas among the Roman elite and to the ways in which philosophical references had become part of urbane discourse.

Caecilia-Désirée Hein’s monograph, based on a Munich dissertation, is part of the same scholarly trend. The book’s title and subtitle, however, are misleading: this is not (as one might surmise from the title) a sustained discussion of Cicero as a philosophical writer, but (as the subtitle makes clear) an actual commentary on select letters—yet these are not, as advertised, from the years 45-44 BCE, but instead from 46-45! Hein is interested in what the letters can tell us about Cicero’s self-presentation as an author of philosophical works and, after a brisk introductory chapter, comments on four sets of letters, chosen to represent four different aspects of Cicero’s philosophically inflected epistolography. Chapter II concerns what Hein dubs philosophia in praxi, that is, actual philosophical beliefs and philosophically inspired actions; the letters chosen are Fam. 15.16-19, three letters by Cicero to Cassius followed by Cassius’ reply (as it happens, these letters, while very philosophical, have little to do with Cicero’s philosophical writing[2]). Chapters III, IV, and V cover various aspects of the genesis of Cicero’s Academica, a topic much discussed in scholarship[3]: the author’s decision to change the interlocutors of the dialogue from Lucullus and Catulus to Varro and himself (Att. 13.12, 13.13/14, 13.16, 13.19); the dedication or, as Hein prefers, presentation of the work to Varro (Fam. 9.8); and the problems Cicero encountered in rendering Greek philosophical terms in Latin (Att. 13.21 on the translation of ἐποχή). Each chapter contains a short introduction followed by the commentary on the individual letters; there, Hein discusses not only the philosophical aspects but also grammar, style, historical background, and realia. Far more detailed than Shackleton Bailey’s laconic notes, the commentary is thus a useful addition to the Ciceronian bibliography.

Caveat lector, however. The interpretations put forth by Hein are often doubtful, to say the least, and marred by the author’s insufficient understanding of both Roman politics and ancient philosophy. Her reading of the Cassius correspondence is especially baffling. This is a highly entertaining exchange, which provides precious testimony not only for the personality of Cassius but also for Roman Epicureanism.[4] Shakespeare’s man of the “lean and hungry look” comes across as both simpatico and sophisticated, providing a well-reasoned defense of public service on the part of hedonistic Epicureans: it is through the pursuit of virtue that pleasure is generated (something denied by Cicero, in whose opinion τὸ καλόν must be the final good and can’t be instrumental for anything else). Hein, however, has little interest in these philosophical details. She maintains that we cannot in fact know whether Cassius really was an Epicurean (both Cicero and Plutarch beg to differ!) and suggests that the two correspondents are adopting their philosophical positions simply for the sake of argument. In reality, the debate concerns politics: Cicero equates Epicureanism with Caesarianism, and in criticizing Epicurean doctrine covertly challenges Cassius’ having gone over to Caesar.[5]

Hein finds a similar political subtext in Cicero’s choice to feature Varro in the Academica: one reason to give the famous polymath a speaking role is that he is close to Caesar, and Cicero is generally courting such “Caesarians” as Varro, Cassius, and Brutus, even if this may lay him open to criticism on the part of the opposing faction. This frankly bizarre interpretation appears to rest on a misunderstanding of the political situation of Rome. If Varro, Cassius, and Brutus were Caesarians, then so was Cicero: all four men had taken sides against Caesar in the Civil War, all four had obtained his pardon, and all four were now in some shape and form collaborating with the regime. From the perspective of Pompey’s son, for example (whose possible victory in Spain Cassius contemplates with horror in Fam. 15.19.4), they would have equally qualified as traitors to the Republican cause At the same time (and as subsequent events would make only too clear), all four continued to harbor reservations or down-right resentment about Caesar’s rule. The traditional view rejected by Hein is thus far more likely to be true: Cicero pointedly chose as his real or imaginary co-philosophizers those who had opposed Caesar in the past and/or might be imagined to do so in the future.

If Hein were presenting a bold revisionist reading based on meticulous study of the sources, this would be one thing. Instead, the numerous factual errors in the book erode all confidence one might have had in the larger points the author seeks to make. Thus, for example, even if Varro, this long-time friend of Pompey’s, would have wanted to be an “intimate” (“Vertraute[r],” 137) of Caesar’s, he would hardly have been able to do so, given that Caesar was away from Italy for nearly the entire period in question. Cicero and Varro did not, once they joined the Pompeian camp at Dyrrhachium, decide not to participate in the war (“verzichten sie auf eine Kriegsteilnahme,” 182); it was only after Pharsalus that they did not join the younger Pompeius and Cato in continuing the fight. Brutus is not an interlocutor in the Orator (as claimed on 111, 124), which at any rate is not a dialogue (Does Hein mean the Brutus?), nor is Caecina in Fam. 6.7.4 referring to such a role for Brutus; what he means is that in the treatise (Orat. 35), Cicero is using Brutus’ encouragement as an excusatio for having written the Cato.

Hein appears to be equally unsure about the philosophical issues at stake in the Academica, using terminology loosely and describing the positions assigned to the dialogue’s actual or envisaged interlocutors in vague or misleading terms. It makes no sense, for example, to suggest that if Cicero had made Cato and Brutus his speakers (as he briefly contemplated: Att. 13.16.1), they would both have represented the Stoic view (103). Not only does the dialogue format call for the interlocutors to take different positions, but Brutus would obviously have taken the Antiochean part against his Stoic uncle, in keeping with Cicero’s striving for realism: we know that Brutus was an Antiochean, as was Varro, the speaker finally chosen. Just as in the case of Cassius, though, Hein declares herself agnostic as to whether the historical Varro ever was a follower of Antiochus. Again, this seems needlessly skeptical: Varro need not have been a declared Antiochean all his life, but Cicero obviously believes him to approve of Antiochus’ teaching, and Varro’s De philosophia (which postdates the Academica) openly espouses the Antiochean view of the summum bonum, as reported by Augustine (De civ. D. 19.1-3) This is not simply a matter, as Hein seems to think, of Augustine randomly claiming that Varro was of a certain philosophical opinion: instead, Augustine gives a detailed paraphrase of the work, which appears to be influenced by Antiochus in its purpose and structure throughout.[6] Antiochean elements have been found in other Varronian works as well,[7] so Hein would have to make a rather stronger case for her claim that Varro’s putative Antiocheanism “can hardly be verified” (“lässt sich kaum verifizieren,” 133; cf. 109).

A final problem with Hein’s readings—and this is a characteristic her book shares, sad to say, with much other Ciceronian scholarship—is her underestimation and misunderstanding of Cicero’s sense of humor. The letters chosen are very funny: those to Atticus abound in in-jokes and self-deprecating irony; in the correspondence with Cassius, the writers not only wittily parade their philosophical know-how but explicitly use humor as a way of coping with the dark times (Fam.15.18.1); and the letter to Varro (much labored over by Cicero: 13.25.3) is a masterpiece of jocular urbanity. While Hein occasionally diagnoses humor and irony, she still shows an overall tendency to take what Cicero says literally, which not only kills the joke but also leads to mistaken readings. Take Cicero’s remark to Atticus, Ligarianam praeclare uendidisti. posthac quid scripsero, tibi praeconium deferam (Att. 13.12.2), which Shackleton Bailey aptly translates, “You have given my speech for Ligarius a splendid puff. Whatever I write in future, I’ll leave the advertising to you.”  Hein realizes that this is “phrased in a humorous manner” (“humorvoll formuliert,” 122), but then goes on earnestly to consider the question whether with the second sentence, Cicero is, as it were, granting Atticus a monopoly for the publication of his work, or whether he wishes to entrust to his friend only some of his future writings. Not only is this idea of book publication anachronistic (as Hein elsewhere shows herself aware), but when one man jokingly says to another that he will hire him as his P.R. guy, it is pointless to speculate about the exact conditions of this fictive business arrangement. By including this consideration in her commentary, Hein has created an “issue,” and unsuspecting readers may well come away with the impression that the extent of Atticus’ praeconium is a real scholarly problem to be pondered.

In sum, Hein’s commentary does not provide a reliable guide to these letters and cannot be recommended as the first port of call for novice readers. Seasoned Ciceronians, by contrast, who know the texts and the issues that surround them, should certainly refer to it. As long as they keep mentally emending errors and inexactitudes, they will still be able to find in it much that is of use.


[1] M. Griffin (1995). “Philosophical Badinage in Cicero’s Letters to his Friends.” In J. G. F. Powell (ed.), Cicero the Philosopher: Twelve Papers. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 325-46; S. McConnell (2014). Philosophical Life in Cicero’s Letters. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; N. Gilbert (2015). “Among Friends: Cicero and the Epicureans.” Diss. Toronto; S. Aubert-Baillot (2021). Le grec et la philosophie dans la correspondance de Cicéron. Turnhout: Brepols.

[2] Hein notes parallels to the Epicurean books of De finibus (60), but does not suggest that Cicero was influenced by his epistolary discussion with Cassius in writing the dialogue; for this attractive idea, see Gilbert 2015 (n. 1): 243-83 and G. Roskam (2019). “Cicero against Cassius on Pleasure and Virtue: A Complicated Passage from De finibus (1.25).” CQ 69: 725-33.

[3] The classic treatment is M. Griffin (1997). “The Composition of the Academica: Motives and Versions.” In B. Inwood and J. Mansfeld (eds.), Assent and Argument: Studies in Cicero’s Academic Books. Leiden: Brill, 1-35; see now esp. Cappello, O. (2019). The School of Doubt: Skepticism, History and Politics in Cicero’s Academica. Leiden: Brill, 11-81.

[4] See the brilliant interpretation by Gilbert 2015 (n. 1): 163-283.

[5] Here Hein partly follows the interpretation of M. H. Dettenhofer (1990). “Cicero und C. Cassius Longinus: Politische Korrespondenz ein Jahr vor Caesars Ermordung (Cic. fam. 15,16-19).” Historia 39: 249-56a.

[6] See T. Tarver (1997). “Varro and the Antiquarianism of Philosophy.” In J. Barnes and M. Griffin (eds.), Philosophia Togata II: Plato and Aristotle at Rome. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 130-64, and D. Blank, (2012). “Varro und Antiochus.” In D. Sedley (ed.), The Philosophy of Antiochus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 250-89, at 253-62.

[7] See Blank 2012 (n. 6).