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Gastronomy and Slavery under Caesar: the Politics of an Epicurean Cliché (Ad Fam. 15.18)

Nathan Gilbert

Panelist #1

In December 46 BCE Cicero wrote to C. Cassius Longinus; both men were politically marginalized due to their former Pompeian allegiance.  In his letter Cicero employs a well-worn stereotype of Epicurean dining indulgence to describe his situation: “You will say, ‘where then is philosophy?’  Yours is in the kitchen, mine is troublesome; for I’m ashamed to be a slave.  And so I pretend to keep busy with other matters, lest I hear the reproach of Plato” (Ad Familiares 15.18: "Ubi igitur," inquies, "philosophia?" Tua quidem in culina, mea molesta est; pudet enim servire: itaque facio me alias res agere, ne convicium Platonis audiam).    

This passage and the allusions to Epicureanism in the letters which follow (Fam. 15.16-19) have frequently been written off as superficial jokes at a time when frank political discussion was potentially dangerous (Castner 1988: 29-31; Lintott 2008: 324; White 2010: 55).  When the philosophical content of these letters has been taken seriously, Cicero’s political critique of Epicurus in 15.17 and Cassius’ response in 15.19 have dominated the scholarly discussion (Griffin 1995: 42-6; Sedley 1997; Benferhat 2005: 261-6; Armstrong 2011: 109-13; Gordon 2012: 129-32).  But, as Gordon herself has shown, tendentious clichés about Epicureanism can illuminate the attitudes and rhetorical strategies of ancient authors who deploy them.  In contrast to Gordon’s focus on the gendered dynamics of Cicero’s representation of Epicureans, my reading of the gastronomic cliché in 15.18 underlines its value for our understanding of Cicero’s political self-presentation under Caesar’s dictatorship.  I claim that Cicero’s admiration for Plato and his fundamental opposition to Epicureanism structured the way he analyzed his political and social obligations, and shaped the way he communicated these issues to his peers.

Fam. 15.18 was written when Cicero’s political activities were largely limited to making pleas for exiled Pompeians and others who had incurred Caesar’s disapproval.  This included public speeches such as Pro Marcello and more informal cultivation of politically influential Caesarians (on this period see Dyer 1990; Hutchinson 1998: 192-8; Gildenhard 2007: 39-45; Baraz 2012: 61-2).  Such cultivation often took place in the context of dining, which Cicero habitually links with slavery.  In May 46 Cicero tells Varro, “I go dining every night with our present masters (qui nunc dominantur)… One must serve the times (tempori serviendum)” (Fam. 9.7.2).  We see the same combination of dining, slavery, and Epicureanism in two letters to his Epicurean friend Paetus (Fam. 9.20, 9.26), including the striking conclusion, “I have thrown myself into the camp of my old enemy Epicurus” (in Epicuri nos adversarii nostri castra coniecimus).  These two factors—Cicero’s cozying up to prominent Caesarians and his life of leisurely dining—explain the Epicurean cliché and provide the background against which to read 15.18.

I claim that far from criticizing his Epicurean friends, Cicero uses the cliché to express distaste for his life under Caesar by contrasting his own philosophical ideals with a stereotype of the apolitical and self-absorbed gastronomic goals of the Garden.  Indeed, at one point Paetus is explicitly assured that Cicero knows very well that the stereotype does not apply to his Epicurean friend (Fam. 9.20.1; cf. 15.16.3).  Cicero is aware of the tendentiousness of the cliché; he is not trying to be aggressively polemical (as he often is in his philosophical works).  Instead, he deploys it as a contrast for his own ideals of selfless public service to the patria, in which he sees himself as failing.  He has no appetite for food (minimum mihi est in cena) but hungers to play a role in politics.  By contrast, his strawmen Epicureans are depicted as slaves to their bellies and to Caesar.  Cicero suggests with horror that his own life is teetering toward this stereotype.  My reading of the culinary stereotype in Fam. 15.18 enriches our understanding of Cicero’ political self-presentation under Caesar’s dictatorship and underlines the complexity of the role Epicureanism played in his political analysis.    

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New Frontiers in the Study of Roman Epicureanism

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