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Tacitus' Dialogus de ... Re Publica

Brandon Jones

Since 1898 the affinities between Tacitus’ Dialogus de Oratoribus and Ciceronian dialogue on oratory, De Oratore, Brutus or Orator, have been taken for granted (See Gudeman, Güngerich, Hass-von Reitzenstein, Leo, Syme). By 1993 T.J. Luce could state blankly that “since Cicero was Tacitus’ model for a dialogue by historical personages on an oratorical topic, a Ciceronian style was clearly appropriate, if not obligatory” (11).  Indeed, Tacitus’ work is a dialogue on oratory and indeed it displays many Ciceronian features.  Not all these Ciceronian echoes are of the strictly oratorical ilk either: Hass-von Reitzenstein (27) and Luce (18) have both pointed out similarities between Tacitus’ Aper and Cicero’s Philus of De Re Publica (3.8 especially).  Thus Tacitus is updating not only the discussion on the state of oratory, but also the discussion on the state of the state.

In addition to Cicero, however, Tacitus has another writer of dialogue on the state in his arsenal—Plato (See Allison).  This paper aims to illustrate the various points of engagement between the Dialogus de Oratoribus and Plato’s Republic. Such Platonic elements in the Tacitean dialogue include aporetic and ironic features—many of which stem from the difficulty in understanding Aper, who has been deemed a devil’s advocate, a Ciceronian Philus or Antonius (See Luce 17, Dressler 20ff).  Along with these Ciceronian predecessors, Aper shares a number of similarities with Plato’s main interlocutor of the potentially aporetic first book of the Republic—Aper’s argument for expediency over morality (5.5) and his beast-like attacks (11.1, 24.1) are reminiscent of Thrasymachus (see Pl. Resp. 338b-c). Another point of common interest between Tacitus and Plato is their literary criticism and the discussion of the place of poetry in the state (Dial. 5.3-13.6, Pl. Resp. 376e-383c, 386a-398b, 595a-608b.)  Intertwined is the discussion on the “correct” method of education (Dial. 28.1-35.5; Plat. Rep. passim, especially 376e).  And finally for Tacitus’ Maternus, like Plato’s Socrates, a state run by unus sapientissiumus (Dial. 41.4, Pl. Resp. 473d) seems ideal.

Tacitus calls upon and displays knowledge of not only a Ciceronian Republic, but a Platonic one as well. He may have disagreed with Quintilian concerning the place of the Greek rhetorician in Rome (see Mayer 149, Winterbottom 83ff), but he could not escape the education Quintilian gave him—one that was certainly Ciceronian, but likewise Greek.  And in his Dialogus de Oratoribus, Tacitus places himself in each tradition.

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Ancient Receptions of Classical Literature

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