BMCR 2022.04.17

The Roman republic of letters: scholarship, philosophy, and politics in the age of Cicero and Caesar

, The Roman republic of letters: scholarship, philosophy, and politics in the age of Cicero and Caesar. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2021. Pp. 400. ISBN 9780691193878 $35.00 / £28.00.


Katharina Volk’s The Roman Republic of Letters is an excellent history of late Republican intellectual life that surveys a wide range of Latin prose literature covering philosophy, antiquarianism, rhetoric, grammar, and religion, all of which she gathers under the heading of scholarship. At the same time Volk deeply scrutinizes her subjects in a way that is sensitive to prior studies yet free from their strictures. Her own scholarship tells lively stories, which are not digressive but structured around clear arguments. The result is a book that may be enjoyed by specialists and general readers alike.

In an introduction Volk cites Elizabeth Rawson and Claudia Moatti’s intellectual histories as her closest predecessors,[1] but she distinguishes herself from them by her methodological commitments and subsequent conclusions about Republican intellectual life. In methodology, Volk attends to individual ‘senator-scholars’ (like Cicero, Caesar, Varro, Nigidius Figulus, Cato, Brutus, and Cassius) and writes from their own perspectives. Regarding their scholarly activities, her driving questions are “What were they thinking?” and “What were they trying to do?” (10).[2] Since her subjects were members of a senatorial network that facilitated their scholarship (no less than their political careers), Volk treats their politics and scholarship as forming a co-dependent whole. She thus declines to use externalist modes of intellectual history: both any functionalism that cites impersonal explanatory mechanisms (because it will privilege political reality as the cause of scholarship) and Foucauldian discourse analysis (because scholarly discourse will come to construct a political reality). From this approach, no simple or easy narrative emerges. Volk explicitly argues against the story that the transition to the principate brought with it a cultural revolution marked by professionalization and outsourcing, for Republican senators had plenty of expertise they had already formalized and put to writing (13–14). By design, Volk allows her subjects to sit in their own uncertainty, free from historical inevitability. This tact may also leave us uncertain about what conclusions can be drawn from the lives of Republican senator-scholars. I return to this question at the end of the review.

Next (ch. 2) is a sociological survey of late Republican senatorial-scholarly knowledge production, identifying by what practices senators produced scholarship (viz., leisurely book-lending to, reading of, conversing with, and writing and book-dedicating to others) and how they described (as studia, litterae, philologia, artes, and doctrina) and understood (as modes of amicitia) those practices. Volk starts with the contentious premise that, contrary to what contemporary and modern scholars say—contrary even to what Cicero seems to say (especially in the preface to Fin. 1)—the senatorial class did not face widespread pressure to justify their scholarship due to a specifically Roman prejudice against studia (31–36). Rather, if senators did justify their scholarship, it was to excuse their limited role as amateur intellectuals relative to a class of Hellenized professionals. On her account it was Cicero, not his peers or the public, who put the most pressure on himself to explain why his philosophy was visibly distinct from his teachers’. But perhaps senators felt both anxieties (whether from within or also without), that they might be too bookish to be respectable statesmen and too busy to be productive intellectuals. Volk at least helps us to think that neither anxiety was culturally specific to Rome.

In the chapters on philosophy before and after Caesar’s victory at Pharsalus (chs. 3 and 4, respectively), Volk narrates several cases where senators’ philosophical views informed political action or their philosophical activity itself took on political force. The polemical target here (and elsewhere in the book) is Miriam Griffin, who in her influential Philosophia Togata chapter argued that Romans’ philosophical views did not determine their political decisions but only provided a language through which to deliberate about and justify those decisions.[3] The disagreement with Griffin turns on whether one is interested in merely the rationales or also the causes of individual actions: it does not matter to Volk—but did to Griffin—whether Cato’s statism did not counterfactually depend on his Stoicism (65–66) or if Atticus would have avoided political offices even were he not an Epicurean (105–108). For the two decades leading up to 48 BCE, Volk asks: how did Cato’s Stoic beliefs shape the expression of his conservatism? How did Cicero apply his conception of the ideal statesman to his own life in the 50s? And how did Roman Epicureans reconcile quietist guidelines with political careers?

For the period between Pharsalus and Cicero’s death, Volk discusses Roman uses of philosophy (and studia generally) to respond to new political realities from an impressive variety of angles: consolations among Pompeians (particularly in Cic. Fam. 4-6), expressions of political opposition (in eulogistic or calumniatory works like Cicero’s Brutus and the several works entitled Cato and Anticato), attempts to advise Caesar (Cicero’s Pro Marcello and a failed symbouleutic letter), creations of intellectual spaces free from Caesar’s presence (Cicero’s late dialogues), and, finally, justifications of and objections to Caesar’s murder (e.g., Cic. Fam. 11.27-28; Phil. 2; Laelius; Off.). Volk’s command of the dispersed evidence for multiple senatorial perspectives makes the chapter worthwhile reading for any of the topics above. At times, her intent to read specific philosophical motivations into her characters can mislead. On consolations, Volk overstates Cicero’s dependence on a “classic Stoic argument” (118) that since Pompeians did what was right they suffered nothing evil or, in other words, that “there is no malum other than culpa” (119). In the supposedly illustrative case Cicero in fact uses the weaker Peripatetic phrasing (Fam. 6.4.2 [italics added]: “…there is no great evil except for guilt.”).[4] Cicero, then, is preferring more inclusive arguments, in addition to keeping silent about whether virtue is the only good (119). And on Cassius’ possibly Epicurean justification for killing Caesar, Volk stresses that both his earlier complacency with Caesarian rule (Fam. 15.19.4) and his change of heart could have been grounded in hedonic calculation (167). Volk doesn’t say what we are to make of the imaginative exercise, but it suggests to me why Griffin demanded more from claims that philosophical outlooks drove individuals’ policies.

In the fifth chapter Volk addresses antiquarian studies of Roman culture in the late Republic, when settling questions of Roman identity could bring a sense of stability amidst political upheaval (or so many have thought). After introducing a taxonomy of antiquarian studies (which includes aetiologies like Varro’s De lingua Latina [‘DLL’] and cultural histories like Cicero’s De re publica [‘Rep.’] and Varro’s Antiquitates rerum divinarum [‘ARD’]), Volk examines the studies of Roman civic and religious institutions in Rep. and ARD and of the Latin language through the analogist-anomalist debate in Varro, Cicero, and Caesar. She argues that these inquiries were not as reactionary or chauvinistic as often characterized, that they did not conceive of Roman antiquity or Roman systems of thought as ideal sources for present-day norms. So, for instance, Scipio’s description of the creation of the tribunate implies that Roman history did not develop along ideally rational lines (Rep. 2.57), and according to Varro the introduction of cult images has inadvertently led to false beliefs about the gods’ form (ARD fr. 18). As for language, Varro concedes to the anomalist that individual speakers ought to cleave to common usage, even if a people at large ought to coin and inflect their words regularly (DLL 10.74). While each chapter can be read independently, the careful work of the preceding ones starts to find a kind of resolution in Volk’s discussion of the (anti-)analogist debate in Cicero and Caesar. Caesar’s political aim in De analogia, she argues, was not to advocate for public language reform or to set himself up as a leading intellectual but “to sever the traditional connection between political and intellectual activities, even if this meant that his own learned efforts had to take second place [to Cicero]” (235–6). Through flattery of Cicero’s eloquence and scholarship as a political achievement (found also in Anticato), Caesar sought to content Cicero with the role of public intellectual. Cicero, in turn, tried to make the most of his limited influence in works like Brutus and the late dialogues.

Volk’s final chapter investigates Republican religious studies in the light of four developments: elite factionalization, new cult practices catering to individuals, and the increasing popularity of antiquarian debate and natural philosophy. From these developments came decreasing trust in the theology implied by Roman civic religion and a tendency to sever private belief from religious orthopraxy, along with factional cooption of religious practice that could be defended or challenged by antiquarian and philosophical arguments. Her three case studies are Nigidius Figulus (whose divinations could forewarn his peers about concentrating political power further), Caesar (whose calendrical reform smartly depoliticized the problem of when to intercalate additional days in the year, while his divinization may have been accidental), and Cicero (whose doubt about the gods’ expression of their favor in right action did not shake his pretheoretical view that we ought to direct our actions by our sense of what is right).

For Volk, scholarship and politics are on a level as joint constituents of Republican senators’ lives, from whose perspectives she answers how scholarship responded to and aimed at political change. There is less discussion of how senators’ social and political realities made certain forms of study more or less attractive to them; when there arises the question of what external conditions made scholarship an appropriate thing to do, she stresses that oftentimes senators were engaged in research simply because it was fun or enjoyed its own ends (cf. 8, 52, 156–7, 190, 237–8). No doubt, but this kind of account ignores even her subjects’ own capacity to think more objectively about scholarship’s (dare I say, ultimately subordinate) relation to politics. Late Republican scholarship was political in that it operated through the same elite networks through which political friendships were cultivated (ch. 2). The closeness between the avenues for intellectual and political discourse gave senators additional means to express their political attitudes (chs. 2 & 3). This could be a comfort, as when Pompeians after Pharsalus wrote as though scholarship was still politics or when the conspirators justified their assassination of Caesar by their conceptions of the best constitution or the happy life (ch. 4). But, as soon as Caesar was dead, politics was politics again, and Cicero returned to the senate. Caesar himself fostered the impression that scholarship was a valuable political enterprise to placate his remaining opponents (ch. 5), and his death was prompted not by his scholarly innovations or even his extravagant divinization but by the threat of his control over offices and property (ch. 6). Volk avoids outsider narratives like the above summary because she aims to supplement depersonalized analyses of the period. The Roman Republic of Letters is a welcome intervention in this regard, but it can also remind readers of the obstacles facing scholarship to change, rather than reflect, the world.


[1] Elizabeth Rawson, Intellectual Life in the Late Roman Republic (London: Duckworth, 1985); Claudia Moatti, La Raison de Rome: naissance de l’esprit critique à la fin de la République (IIe–Ier siècle avant Jésus-Christ) (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1997).

[2] Volk takes these questions from Quentin Skinner and the Cambridge school of intellectual history.

[3] Miriam Griffin, “Philosophy, Politics, and Politicians at Rome,” in Philosophia Togata: Essays on Philosophy and Roman Society, ed. Miriam Griffin and Jonathan Barnes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 341–62.

[4] Volk later quotes from TD 3.75-76 where Cicero charts the difference (121). For the other examples cited at 118 n. 19, I do not find any instance where the argument requires that vice is the only evil. Volk slides from the commonplace that it is a comfort to have done nothing wrong to the further, Stoic claim that one who has done nothing wrong suffers no evil.