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Seeing the Whole in Cicero’s Brutus

Christopher S. van den Berg

This paper examines Cicero’s Brutus (46 BCE), arguing that Cicero there presents the most elaborate and sophisticated version in his writings of a trans-generic conception of literature. Cicero’s Brutus (46 B.C.E.) has largely been understood thus far in terms of its most salient feature, that is, as an evolutionary catalogue of orators culminating in Cicero’s own accomplishments. The collection and the teleology underlying it were a significant achievement and a methodological advance over the works of previous Hellenistic and Roman scholars (Douglas 1966a xxii; Bringmann 1971 22; Narducci 1997 103-4; Schwindt 2000 96-122). Yet the intense focus on oratory alone, and on Cicero’s justification of his own achievements, has overshadowed his intense interest in documenting the development and interrelationship of literary genres. Cicero’s musings on the so-called beginning of Latin literature also theorize literary adaptation more generally, as in his remarks that Ennius should acknowledge a debt to Naevius (a Naevio vel sumpsisti multa, si fateris, vel, si negas, surripuisti, 76). Such claims are central to his conception not just of poetry but also of literary adaptation and evolution across genres (cf. Barchiesi 1962, Welsh 2011). Cicero also assesses a remarkably broad range of different genres in the Brutus. He provides a brief genealogy of Greco-Roman biography in his discussions of Xenophon, Scaurus, and Catulus (112, 132). The famous debate with Caesar over analogy and anomaly is itself a larger inquiry into the applications of language within specific generic contexts, to oratory, to poetry, and in technical treatises (cf. Garcea 2012). Cicero throughout considers the relationship of oratory and philosophy for the acquisition of eloquence, frequently noting the importance of philosophy for crafting arguments, but also the shortcomings of philosophy in guaranteeing forceful speech (as in the example of Demetrius of Phalerum, 37-8). The Brutus, in its numerous metatextual moments, also reveals a great deal about the genre of dialogue, as when Cicero criticizes factual inaccuracies in Curio’s dialogue on the conduct of Julius Caesar (218-19). He further muses on the latitude granted to rhetoricians (concessum est rhetoribus ementiri in historiis, 42) and the possibilities for embellishment of historical events through poetic and rhetorical techniques, as in the case of the parallel deaths of Themistocles and Coriolanus (hanc enim mortem rhetorice et tragice ornare potuerunt, 43). These are all moments of intense reflection on different genres’ claims to reliability and verisimilitude. And of course Cicero characterizes the Brutus itself as an epistolary exchange between the three interlocutors (11-19; epistula 11, 12), a touch of the real that also points us to Cicero’s correspondence with Brutus and Calvus on oratorical style (now largely lost, but cf. Tac. Dial. 18, with Hendrickson 1926). Epistles are yet another important source of information about the pedagogical role of sermo (“speech,” but also “dialogue”), as in the letters of Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi (legimus epistulas Corneliae matris Gracchorum: apparet filios non tam in gremio educatos quam in sermone matris, 211). Important in all these cases is the mutually informing nature of the genres as Cicero conceives them. Throughout the Brutus genres are rarely considered in isolation, but rather each can be brought to bear on the others in order to elucidate the often obscure natures of generic definition and literary evolution (cf. Farrell 2003). In short, Cicero’s Brutus is a capacious theorization of generic production at Rome and a key to understanding Cicero’s whole conception of literature.

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Cicero across Genres

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