Villas for Cicero functioned as much more than passive backdrops to his activities: they provided a key means to fashioning his political image both in the real world described in his letters and in literature as illustrated in his dialogues. This paper considers Cicero’s representation of two villas in Tusculum, firstly the record in his letters of his own villa there and secondly the estate of Lucius Crassus used as the fictional setting for De Oratore, in order to explore how Cicero employed these residences to pursue his political agenda. A close reading of these two villas, especially as spaces for visual communication, not only reveals their underlying relationship but also shows that, taking on board the lessons learned from his own failed Tusculan villa, Cicero reinvented a more effective vehicle for advancing his political persona in the form of Crassus’ villa in De Oratore.
In the mid-60s BC Cicero wrote several letters to Atticus detailing his plans and hopes for the decoration of his Tusculan villa which included the re-creation of an ‘Academy’ (Att. 1.4.3, 1.9.2 and 1.11.3) and gymnasium (Att. 1.1.5, 1.4.3, 1.6.2, 1.8.2, 1.9.2 and 1.10.3). The Greek-themed retreat, full of allusions to his intellectual interests and expertise, was geared in part to enable Cicero to fit in among refined elite society. This decoration project continued for over two years but what came of it is unknown. Nearly a decade passed before Cicero’s Tusculan villa was mentioned again, this time as he decided to sell the residence which had been damaged during his exile (Att. 4.2.7). Moreover by this point Cicero sensed envy from certain quarters of elite society regarding his ownership of a villa in Tusculum and noted the barely latent disapproval of contemporaries who could hardly stand the thought that he possessed an estate once belonging to Catulus (Att. 4.2.5 and 4.5.2). With Cicero’s Tusculan villa now acting as a source of rejection from the elite milieu rather than as a door for entry into that community it is striking that in 55 Cicero selected an almost identical residence, Crassus’ villa in Tusculum, as the imagined scenery for his first major dialogue, De Oratore. Indeed Catulus himself, cast as an interlocutor in De Oratore, strolled through Crassus’ estate pointing out to his companions its various Greek features (De Or. 2.20). Cicero thus recycled his own Tusculan villa’s Greek environment in his depiction of Crassus’ villa in another attempt to style himself as a sophisticated intellectual. In this dialogue, however, Cicero sought to produce a more effective version of the Tusculan villa through the presence of elite peers who could recognize and affirm the refinement on display there. A comparison between the Tusculan villas of the letters and of De Oratore thus suggests that the depictions of these residences did not exist or operate in a vacuum. On the contrary, Cicero’s experience of the inadequacy of his Tusculan villa’s image informed his portrayal of Crassus’ estate in De Oratore.
This paper takes as its starting point the idea that Cicero’s lifelong drive to be involved in politics pervaded his literary output (Steel). Through a careful reading of Cicero’s letters and De Oratore in tandem, a method successfully employed by Hall, it offers new perspectives on Cicero’s use of villas in both texts. Furthermore, building on Bergmann’s work regarding the importance of visualization and memory in the reception of Roman domestic art ensembles and Jauss’ theory on the relationship between author, text and audience, this paper demonstrates that Cicero’s Tusculan villa, discussed in his letters, and Crassus’ Tusculan villa, depicted in De Oratore, were both constructs whose meaning and effect relied on the presence of an engaged viewer. Above all, what emerges from this analysis is that the simulated reality of the villa setting in De Oratore was designed to compensate for the failure of Cicero’s own Tusculan villa to win him admission into elite circles.