BMCR 2023.03.04

Cicero’s political personae

, Cicero's political personae. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pp. x, 274. ISBN 9781108839464.



Joanna Kenty’s book is the latest publication in the growing scholarly field which studies Cicero’s “self-fashioning” strategies, of which the author provides a useful summary. This work identifies and elucidates, mainly through an analysis of Cicero’s speeches, eight “political personae” which the orator assumed at various moments in the later stages of his career (57–43 BC). Three factors support the choice of time frame: the pragmatic necessity of making Cicero’s corpus more manageable, the relative lack of studies of his self-fashioning in this period, and the unique conditions that Cicero faced after his exile. While focusing on the speeches post reditum, Kenty also takes into account earlier Ciceronian orations that provide important antecedents and comparisons, thereby crafting a coherent and compelling narrative. For instance, the exordium of Pro Roscio Amerino constitutes a significant source for understanding the persona of the orator without authority (p. 105). It must be stressed that, while this book has a strong biographic aspect, it is not a study of Cicero’s role in the crisis of the Late Republic, but rather “a book about the stories he tells” (p. 10). Thus oratory, rhetoric and self-fashioning, rather than history or biography, are at the forefront.

The aims of this study are ambitious and wide-ranging. Kenty employs Cicero’s personae “as a framework within which to dissect, deconstruct, and interrogate particular arguments in the speeches, to reveal the inner workings and hidden foundations of Cicero’s strategies” (p. 14). In doing so, she also illuminates certain aspects of Cicero’s life and of the crisis of the Late Republic; in particular, she seeks to re-evaluate the role of oratory and orators in this complex historical period.

The theoretical framework is perhaps the most fascinating and innovative feature of this work. Kenty points out (pp. 17–18) that Cicero himself recognised the coexistence of “multiple personae” within a single individual (Off. 1.107, 115). However, she departs from Cicero’s Stoic theory of the “four personae” and adopts a modern framework centred on five “aspects or layers”: social role, identity, individual character, affect, relationship to others (p.18). Through these categories, Kenty is able to extract eight personae from Cicero’s speeches post reditum: the orator as attacker, friend, martyr, the orator without authority, the champion of the senate, the popular orator, the voice of a faction and a great man’s spokesman. The structure of the book is built around these characters: each chapter begins with a template for the persona under study, which is usually followed by the analysis of passages from Cicero’s speeches in which the persona is adopted and displayed.

Kenty’s research offers two main findings. First, she shows the flexibility of Cicero’s personae, which offered “a world of possibilities for improvisation and modification” (p. 223). In particular, she highlights Cicero’s ability to employ alternatives to traditional sources of auctoritas by interpreting and showcasing unusual personae in his speeches. Second, she demonstrates that these personae were not only ever shifting, but also constantly responding and adapting to the environment surrounding Cicero. It was partly through an apt use of these personae, she argues, that Cicero managed to stay relevant and exert influence in a difficult and fast-evolving political landscape (p. 225).

Some key themes run through various chapters. Kenty shows that Cicero employs irony and humour for multiple purposes: when adopting the role of attacker, irony serves to ridicule his enemies, but also to downplay his own aggression and keep it within acceptable social boundaries (see esp. pp. 35–46 on Cicero’s attacks on Clodius and Piso). As an orator without authority, Cicero uses humour to downplay his auctoritas, to release tension, or to make statements that could be dangerous if taken literally (see esp. pp. 106–120 on Pro Milone and the Caesarian orations). As a popular orator, he makes use of irony to distinguish between a “real” populus, which was backing him, and a “false” populus, comprised of a few bad individuals bribed or manipulated by his opponents (p. 162).

Another important theme to which Kenty devotes much space is Cicero’s relationship with the most powerful men in Rome, especially Pompey and Caesar. Cicero’s persona as a friend was essential to portray a relationship of parity with, rather than inferiority to, the triumvirs in the 50s (pp. 62–71). His persona as the champion of the Senate helped him to cast Caesar as a legitimate leader in the eyes of the senators (pp. 143–147). As an orator without authority, Cicero had to find alternative rhetorical strategies to stay relevant in a political and rhetorical arena dominated by the dynasts. Finally, he consciously avoided the persona of the great man’s spokesman, which other orators had enthusiastically assumed, trying instead to present himself as a friend or ally of the triumvirs, on a more equal footing. Kenty, discussing whether Cicero himself could have been considered a “dynast” in the same way as Caesar or Pompey, makes the point that “the lack of military command may disqualify him” (p. 208). But it may be worth recalling that Cicero obtained imperium in 51 through his proconsulship in Cilicia and retained it through the years of the Civil War, when he was even offered command over the Republican army after Pompey’s flight (Plut. Cic. 39.1).

Kenty’s arguments tend to be effective and persuasive. Some chapters, however, appear more innovative than others. Cicero’s personae as an attacker and as a friend are topics that have been already vastly explored in modern scholarship. Nevertheless, Kenty offers a valuable treatment and some further insights in the context of Cicero’s post reditum years. She is at her best in analysing Cicero’s persona as a martyr: she shows that he had authoritative role models (perhaps the pontifex maximus Q. Mucius Scaevola could have been mentioned too), but that he ultimately developed this character in a very personal, peculiar direction. This is especially apparent when Cicero’s behaviour and rhetoric are contrasted with the character of Cato the Younger, who eventually came to embody the perfect ideal of the Republican martyr (pp. 91–95). In the chapter on the orator without authority, Kenty discusses persuasive alternatives to traditional auctoritas. Her reading of Pro Milone (esp. Mil. 67–68), which attempts to refute the interpretations of A. M. Stone and D. H. Berry, may not convince everyone. In particular, she states that “in the absence of any hard evidence for which passages were added, subtracted, or changed, we can only speculate about what parts of the surviving text are ‘original’, based on our impressions of what Cicero ‘could have or ‘would have’ said” (p. 109). However, we do have hard evidence in the form of Asconius, who claims that Cicero did not make the argument that the killing of Clodius was pro re publica at the trial (Asc. 41C). The chapters on Cicero as champion of the senate, popular orator and voice of a faction demonstrate the degree to which Cicero could employ various sources of legitimacy in his speeches. So, the Senate is often misrepresented by Cicero as a compact group united in supporting him. Similarly, the Roman populus, and the term popularis, take on different connotations when applied to the people who supported Cicero or to those who supported his enemies. Factions like optimates and populares are also manipulated by Cicero to identify himself with the broad “company of good men”, and his opponents with “immoral and criminal citizens” (p.181). Importantly, Kenty demonstrates that Cicero’s partisan rhetoric was used to justify the violence of his friends and condemn the violence of his enemies (see esp. pp. 189–193 on Pro Sestio). Finally, the chapter on the persona of a great man’s spokesman focuses more on other individuals (“Clodius’ avengers” and “Caesar’s tribunes”) and less on Cicero himself. This is an interesting approach, and it is effective in displaying the differences between Cicero’s behaviour and that of other orators connected to the triumvirs.

A couple of minor mistakes do not detract from the overall quality of the argument.[1] This is an important book for anyone interested in Cicero’s speeches in the years after his return from exile, scholars and students alike. The author illuminates various aspects of Cicero’s life and oratory, as well as some broader trends in Late Republican politics, and makes a significant contribution to our understanding of Cicero’s rhetoric.



[1] The defendant who was alleged to have paid money to Cicero was Publius Sulla, not Faustus Sulla (p. 22, n.14). At Fam. 5.9.1, Vatinius was not asking Cicero to defend him again in court, but rather to support his request for a supplicatio (p. 34, n. 35).