BMCR 2022.03.16

Le grec et la philosophie dans la correspondance de Cicéron

, Le grec et la philosophie dans la correspondance de Cicéron. Philosophie hellénistique et romaine, 12. Turnhout: Brepols, 2021. Pp. 696. ISBN 9782503591551 €120,00.

There has been increasing reassessment of Cicero as a significant philosophical figure, and one of the most challenging, due to the extent and variety of his writings in different literary genres, his copious epistolary output, his creative engagement with Classical and Hellenistic philosophy, and the massive reception of his work in the Western intellectual and political tradition, just to start with. There are also methodological questions that everyone who deals with Cicero’s work must be attentive to, for example the links between, on the one hand, the world of philosophical ideas, intellectual debates, and literary production and, on the other, the world of political practice. The integrated study of Cicero’s philosophica and his correspondence provides essential clues for understanding the construction of knowledge in the Late Roman Republic, its circulation and transmission. Cicero’s letters are being explored in illuminating approaches to how he addresses philosophical doctrines and themes, without losing sight of his theoretical writings, the political context, and his political actions. How should we understand the transition of ideas from one sphere to another? How should we measure the relationship or overlap between the world of ideas and political or judicial practice? These familiar methodological issues become urgent when the focus is on Cicero’s immense and multifaceted literary work. In order for research on questions like these to be successful, one needs not merely to engage with the evidence but to organise a detailed dossier allowing the creation of indexes.

Sophie Aubert-Baillot (Université Grenoble Alpes) brings us a meticulous survey of Cicero’s thinking based on the vocabulary of his correspondence, combining linguistic and philosophical studies. The work is impressive in its rigour and in its attention to methodological issues, including those involved in the transmission of the text, and even to differences between editions of the letters. Derived from Aubert-Baillot’s Habilitation (2019 – Université Paris IV Sorbonne), the volume is deeply rooted in current scholarly interest in Graeco-Latin bilingualism, in the epistolary genre, and in Cicero’s philosophy. The key terms in the title – Greek, philosophy, and letters – perfectly express the main lines of a study that begins with defining and discussing Graeco-Roman bilingualism and that seeks to overcome the traditional notion that bilingualism was a simple effect of Rome’s “Hellenization”. Even more noteworthy, Aubert-Baillot never loses sight of Cicero’s sophisticated sense of humour, which creates passages full of irony and refined jokes. So, this monograph belongs to an outstanding set of recent studies on Cicero’s correspondence, such as those of John Hall, Sean McConnell, Nathan Gilbert, Yelena Baraz and, in a broader sense, Katharina Volk.[1]

The theme of code-switching stands out in the volume, with reference especially to the proposals of James Adams.[2] These lead the author to restrict her dossier of letters allowing a philosophical reading exclusively to those that cite Greek terms in Greek. Almost all of these letters belong to the genus familiare et iocosum, one of the three categories of letters presented by Cicero himself (Fam. 2.4.1). This volume makes clear the deep relationship that Cicero, whose education was marked by his familiarity with Greek philosophers, had with Greek language and thought. Cicero’s mastery of Greek is reflected, for example, in his explanations for his own translations of Greek notions and concepts into Latin – the Ciceronian theory of translation, as it were. Aubert-Baillot contextualises Cicero’s choices, including their social dimension, his use of early Greek epistolary models, and the rules of the genre in his own time. In his philosophica, Cicero broadly translates the Greek terms he requires into Latin to make his point. This is not the case in his letters, in which the use of Greek is modulated in accordance with the character of the interlocutor. In this regard Aubert-Baillot’s analysis makes use of Cicero’s theory of the four personae (Off. 1.107-115), a theory inspired by Panaetius, and of the Ciceronian theme of the decorum that should govern effective and aesthetic use of language.

This comprehensive volume is divided into two parts. The first, Le grec et la philosophie dans la correspondence de Cicerón: analyse formelle et prosopographique du corpus, is subdivided into three chapters. In this part, Aubert-Baillot makes clear her interpretative point: in the letters, the use of Greek in passages with a philosophical dimension makes it possible

de retracer peu ou prou l’intinéraire jusqu’à Cicéron, tous les mot grecs étudies disposent par principe d’une auctoritas issue du philosophe ou de l’école qui leur ont donner naissance ou leur ont conféré une légitimité philosophique. Les citer dans une lettre revient à donner du poids à son propos et à convoquer l’appui de philosophes dont la noblesse, va de pair, dans l’esprit de Cicéron, avec l’antiquité” (p. 178).

The first chapter precisely defines the evidence, arranging the Greek words and expressions selected by the author in four tables (pp. 37-92), presenting: (a) the list of the selected Greek terms and quotations; (b) those terms and quotations that appear exclusively in Cicero’s dialogues and treatises; (c) those that appear only in the letters; (d) those that appear both in letters and theoretical works. At the close of the section, Aubert-Baillot provides an outline of the characteristics and nuances of Cicero’s use of Greek in different genres. This chapter is one of the significant contributions of the volume, offering the reader a consistent dossier and, in the case of beginners, a methodological guide to organising research material and consistently justifying choices when dealing with a voluminous corpus. In the second chapter, the dossier is analysed in terms of grammar, syntactic and stylistics, including a survey of the modalities of access to philosophical knowledge in Cicero’s time (oral teaching, libraries, books, and compilations), which broadens the framework of the intellectual life in his time. Finally, the third chapter shifts the focus to the thirteen interlocutors of the selected letters in prosopographic, political, linguistic, and philosophical terms, providing the reader with information to better understand Aubert-Baillot’s argument about the changes and modulations of Cicero’s use of Greek according to his addressee’s persona.

The second part, Les sources philosophiques du grec dans la correspondance de Cicéron, is organised in four chapters focusing on Cicero’s sources, in which the dossier presented in the first part is intensively explored. The first and most extensive chapter deals with Plato and the Academics as sources for the letters, analysing Cicero’s choices both in direct Greek quotations and translations and in indirect mentions and quotations of other Greek writers influenced by Plato. Aubert-Baillot succeeds in demonstrating the soundness of Cicero’s knowledge of Platonic and Academic sources. Cicero’s use of Greek in the correspondence with Atticus, himself an editor of Plato’s works, appears often in trivial or humorous contexts, yet is instructive for understanding his creative use of quotations, including semantic changes and stylistic choices. In addition to Plato (and Socrates), direct and indirect mentions of Xenophon, Antisthenes, Arcesilaus, Carneades, and Philo of Larissa are subsections of this chapter, revealing mid-first-century BCE intellectual practices and philosophical authorities. Moreover, they reveal Cicero’s Academic reading, often marked by the success of Stoic ethical ideas, and the nuances of the political situation and Cicero’s relationships at each moment.

The second chapter focuses on Aristotelian and Peripatetic sources. Here Aubert-Baillot continues her thorough examination of Cicero’s vocabulary, noting the question of what was known and how Aristotle’s texts were read in the first century BCE in general, and by Cicero in particular. The influence of Antiochus of Ascalon is consistently highlighted in Cicero’s reading of Aristotle. In the sections on Theophrastus and Dicaearchus, the dichotomy between practical life and contemplative life, a controversy only attested to by Cicero, but mediated through other philosophers such as Chrysippus, Cratippus, Epicurus, and Antiochus, stands out in a reading that does not neglect Cicero’s political concerns.

The third chapter analyses references to Epicurus and Epicurean vocabulary in Cicero’s letters. Aubert-Baillot explains convincingly the sparseness of direct mentions of Epicureanism in the letters relative to the philosophica and even some speeches. Then, taking into account Cicero’s complex relationship with Epicureanism, as well as his deep knowledge of this doctrine, she explores the nuances and ambivalence of Cicero’s references to Epicurean notions in the philosophica and the letters. Building on Carlos Lévy’s point about Cicero’s “paradoxical praise” of Epicurus, she argues that the Greek philosopher was a paradoxical figure for Cicero.[3] Through an accurate handling of the evidence, she explores the specific choices he makes for the translation of Epicurean terms, often as compared with those of Lucretius. She also considers the mentions of Amafinius, Rabirius, and especially Catius, in passages related to the theory of vision and ethical issues rooted in the philosophical debates of the time. The chapter concludes with a consistent reading of what Aubert-Baillot calls “l’ombre de Philodème” (p. 522).

The fourth and last chapter turns to the Stoic sources, noting first explicit mentions in the letters, in which the figures of Diodorus and Antiochus’ Old Academy are strong influences on Cicero. Aubert-Baillot maintains the vigorous path of her argument, always distinguishing between types of mentions and relating them to those different addressees who were sensitive to Stoic issues, namely Brutus, Varro, Ap. Claudius, and Atticus. Analysing Cicero’s treatment of Stoic concepts in the domains of logic, physics and especially ethics, she demonstrates that references to Chrysippus, Panaetius and Posidonius are generally complimentary. She then turns to questions concerning the translation of Stoic vocabulary and exposes the code-switching that relates mentions of Stoicism in the letters and the philosophica to the crisis within the Roman political arena. The chapter concludes with two compelling case studies that touch on the issue of the “intraduisibles,”[4] in which Aubert-Baillot reveals the acuteness of Cicero’s choices. The volume, then, is a fine piece on the bilingualism of Cicero and his peers, providing the reader with a key to understanding the philosophical dimension of their intellectual, political, and personal life.

In short, the book is deeply grounded in a careful reading of Cicero and other ancient sources, including an up-to-date bibliography of thirty pages, mostly of works in French and English but also Italian and German, achieving a good level of fruitful international debate. However, the recurrent and pervasive reference is Carlos Lévy, Aubert-Baillot’s former PhD supervisor and an authoritative presence in her argument. Brepols’s PHR series is notable for hosting high-quality monographs that take Roman philosophy seriously, and this volume is carefully edited, with only minor and rare typos. The footnotes are robust and instructive, including plenty of information and references, and deserving thorough study. Yet there is only an index locorum, and that limited to Cicero’s letters. In such an extensive monograph, an index including the many Greek and Roman authors who support Aubert-Baillot’s argument would be desirable, as well as a general index. Nevertheless, this monograph is praiseworthy, rewarding its readers with an in-depth study of Cicero’s letters, vocabulary, and philosophy.


[1] J. Hall (2009). Politeness and Politics in Cicero’s Letters. Oxford-New York: Oxford University Press; Y. Baraz (2012). A Written Republic: Cicero’s Philosophical Politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press; S. McConnell (2014). Philosophical Life in Cicero’s Letters. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; N. Gilbert (2015). “Among Friends: Cicero and the Epicureans.” Diss. Toronto; K. Volk (2021). The Roman Republic of Letters. Princeton-Oxford: Princeton University Press.

[2] J. N. Adams (2003). Bilingualism and the Latin Language. Cambridge-New York: Cambridge University Press.

[3] C. Lévy (2001), “Cicerón et l’épicurisme: la problématique de l’éloge paradoxal”, in C. Auvray-Assayas & D. Delattre (eds.). Cicerón et Philodème. Paris: Presses de l’École Normale Supérieure, 61-75.

[4] B. Cassin (dir.) (2004) Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionnaire des intraduisibles. Paris: Le Seuil.