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Cicero’s Republic of Letters

Olivia Thompson

Oxford University

The origin of the idea of ‘Republic’ has until recently been taken for granted among classicists. New works are beginning to address the fact that debate cannot continue without a reassessment of the ‘problem of definition’ of the derivation respublica. However, this has not yet taken place from a classical perspective. Recent and impressive attempts to reinsert the ancient sources into the debate (Millar 2002; Wilkinson 2010; Connolly 2015), along with works analysing the reception of the Republic in later antiquity (Gowing 2005; Flower 2010; Kaldellis 2015), have not questioned the idea of the ‘Roman Republic’ even if they noted that it was not synonymous with respublica. In most scholarship, exemplified by Rosenstein and Morstein-Marx in their essay ‘The Transformation of the Republic’ (2010), the cognitive shifts between ‘Republic’, which can designate a geopolitical entity, and respublica, which cannot, are not explored.

Starting from the principle that this dissonance is of great significance for our understanding of Roman society and later evocations of it, this paper will explore the question through a type of source which exemplifies the mental challenge faced: correspondence. James Hankins in 2010 demonstrated that the meaning ‘non-monarchical government’ was attached to respublica only in the fifteenth century, within the epistolary culture of the Republic of Letters. However, returns to ancient sources have tended to focus on texts that might be considered ‘analytical’ in nature, such as the philosophy of Cicero and Seneca, and the histories of Sallust, Livy and Tacitus, and on such equations as ‘respublica’ and πολιτεῖα. This panel rightly notes the need to incorporate poetry. However, correspondence, public and private, offers another, unique perspective in that it is a source not inherently designed for publication and that creates geographical networks in itself, hence the respublica litteraria.

As part of an ongoing project to reconceptualise the correspondence of Cicero – which, though very well-known as a source, is not usually analysed by historians as a corpus in the same way as the speeches or philosophy – as a literary archive using digital technologies and to establish its historical influence on the Republic of Letters, this paper will take his letters, alongside later correspondents such as Petrarch and Grotius, as a starting point for an examination of how the for(u)m of the letter shaped the Republic of Letters and indeed the definition of respublica.

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Imagining the Future through the Past: Classical and Early Modern Political Thought

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