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Defamiliarizing Cicero's De Re Publica

Laura Viidebaum

In recent studies Cicero has emerged as a much more interesting and intelligent philosopher than has been granted for a long time, and the Ciceronian dialogue form has recently begun to receive the attention that it deserves (Schofield 2008). In this paper, I will address one specific element in Cicero’s dialogues which characterises his particular take on this form of writing: the political and philosophical underpinnings of the dialogue form. It has already been demonstrated how Cicero’s use of historical or philosophical figures is based on ‘his changing argumentative needs, which are closely related to the condition of the Roman commonwealth’ (Gildenhard 2012: 275), but in this paper I will explore the agonistic approach to the dialogue form that Cicero uses to express his views from a literary-philosophical as well as from a political point of view. I will argue that Cicero’s writings consciously set up tensions and oppositions that reflect on the one hand his Academic scepticism (Vasaly (1993) and Schofield (1986)), but on the other manifest his commitment to the Republic – a political system which itself, in its Ciceronian interpretation, stems from antagonism, competition and rivalry (Morstein-Marx (2004)).

This paper will take a closer look at Cicero’s De re publica, and focus in particular on the prefaces and their interaction with the dialogical sections, which (as I will argue) highlight Cicero’s agonistic philosophy on a meta-textual level, by drawing attention to the form of writing. De re publica, written between 54 and 51 BCE, must have been one of Cicero’s most ambitious attempts to find a balance between the contemplative/philosophical and the active/political life in Rome. We see Cicero carefully planning and considering the format of the work through his correspondence, and there is one letter that is of particular importance for the present enquiry: in late October/early November 54 BCE Cicero writes a long and quite remarkable letter to his brother (ad Q. F. 3.5.1) in which he describes in some detail the composition history of the work. In this letter Cicero describes his encounter with Sallust, who encourages Cicero to abandon the fictitious historical setting and incorporate more of the contemporary politics in his De re publica. Indeed, what really seems to trigger Cicero’s change of heart about the composition of De re publica is Sallust’s emphasis on ficta: it is the accusation of having written an entirely fictional piece that irritates Cicero and eventually pushes him to rethink the work as a whole. This might explain Cicero’s decision to add the prefaces (assuming that they were added in the first place) to fix the dialogue more into its contemporary surroundings, but what exactly is the relationship of these prefaces, written from Cicero’s own historical moment and emphasising his authorial view point, to the dialogical sections that follow? How did Cicero conceive of the work as a whole? How did he mitigate the authoritative voice of the prefaces to the polyphony of the dialogues? 

I will look at some of the ways in which the text appears to create a sense of antagonism and tension. For example, Cicero’s adoption of his own authorial voice in the preface is explicitly contrasted to the dialogical passages that follow; the contemporary political moment is contrasted to a historical moment. Cicero is clearly preoccupied with the ‘assertion of Rome against Greece’, and, by the same token, with the contrasts between politics and philosophy, between active/pragmatic and the contemplative life, between culture and military, between the new and the old (and so on). Compared to Cicero’s later dialogues, where, as has been recently argued by Baraz (2012), the prefaces do not explicitly engage with the main themes of the dialogues themselves, I see in Cicero’s prefaces to De re publica an explicit engagement with the philosophical content discussed in the dialogues, thus making the work more proactive, politically engaging and ambitious than the Academica some ten years later.

Session/Panel Title:

Republican Literature

Session/Paper Number

2.3

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