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Pythagoreanising Tendencies in Cicero’s Translation of the Timaeus

Georgina Frances White

Scholarly approaches to Cicero’s translation technique in his Timaeus have often focused on perceived inadequacies, either in the Latin language’s ability to articulate complex philosophical thought (Poncelet, 1957), or in Cicero’s grasp of his Platonic subject matter (Levy, 2003). Some works have challenged this perception, showing how Cicero’s adaptation of Platonic syntax and vocabulary work to produce a new text that exhibits Cicero’s elegant, Latin prose style (Lambardi, 1982). With the notable exception of a recent article by Sedley (2013), however, there has been little work carried out on the philosophical and literary motivations for Cicero’s adaptation of his Platonic source text. The aim of this paper will be to re-examine Cicero’s translation of the Timaeus, suggesting that a number of important, and philosophically significant, translation decisions can be explained by Cicero’s choice of speaker – Nigidius Figulus – and by this character’s adherence to the philosophical position of Pythagoreanism.

Firstly, I will argue that the prologue of the Ciceronian Timaeus is neither spurious nor unimportant, but introduces us to the speakers of a projected dialogue on Physics - one of whom is Nigidius Figulus, who is described as the man who “revived” (renovaret) the teachings of the “noble Pythagoreans” (nobiles Pythagorei) in Italy (Cic. Tim. 2). In doing this, I will consider a number of key Ciceronian vocabulary choices (laresglobosussempiternus, andperpetuus) and show how their use in this text relate to and reflect Nigidius Figulus’ scientific interests and linguistic theories, often in stark contrast to common Ciceronian usage. This is, I will argue, good evidence both for identifying the speaker of the translated speech as Nigidius Figulus, and for Cicero’s interest in maintaining the realistic characterisation of his speaker throughout his translation.

Next I will discuss a number of moments at which Cicero interprets controversial passages of the Platonic text, arguing that they are translated in such a way as to conform to the Pythagorean views on cosmology advocated by his speaker, Nigidius Figulus. In particular, I will focus on two passages. In the first (Cic. Tim. 5), Cicero resolves an ambiguity in the Platonic text by describing the cosmos as being created in time, following the Pythagorean position of Aristotle Metaphysics N, rather than the Academic readings of Xenocrates and Speusippus. In the second (Cic. Tim. 37), Cicero words his translation in such a way to conform to the uniquely Pythagorean doctrine of the central fire. In each of these examples, then, Cicero adapts the Platonic original in order to maintain the Pythagorean philosophical position of his speaker.

Consequently, I will conclude, Cicero’s translation of the Timaeus can be more fruitfully read as bearing marks of a Pythagoreanising interpretation of the Platonic text, reflecting the philosophical beliefs of its speaker, Nigidius Figulus, than as a misunderstanding or mistranslation of the Platonic original.

Session/Panel Title

Nec converti ut interpres: New Approaches to Cicero’s Translation of Greek Philosophy

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