By any metric, Cicero wrote across an astonishing range of genres. Quickly canonized as the master of Roman prose, he did indeed master almost all its ancient facets: oratory, rhetoric, dialogues, treatises, letters. For ancient readers, trained to believe that authors were naturally disposed towards a single genre (Rep. 394e-395b; Farrell 2003), Cicero’s movement between prose genres was unusual enough, but his composition of—and pride in—works of poetry was far more unsettling. For Cicero, this fluidity was a way to maximize the avenues for publicizing his political and literary message (Steel 2005), but later readers were not inclined to such generic experiments. In this paper, I will demonstrate that ancient animus against Cicero’s poetry owed much to his transgression against genre boundaries, and that its effects only began to be widely felt when his canonization as Rome’s primary prose author began.
First I will show that much Julio-Claudian criticism against Cicero’s poetry explicitly draws attention to its generic unsuitability. Seneca in the Controversiae notes that while “his own eloquence failed Cicero in poetry,” this was the result of transgressing one’s natural genre; after all, “the fertility of Vergil’s genius abandoned him in prose” (3.pr.8). Tacitus in the Dialogus recalls two other bad poets—the prose writers Caesar and Brutus—whose fortune lay in their genre transgressions being less known than Cicero’s (21). And Juvenal juxtaposes the triviality of the poetry with the gravity of the prose: he prefers Cicero’s poetry to the Philippics, since the former did not get him killed (10.122).
This was a far cry from the situation a few generations earlier, when Cicero’s poetry was the object of widespread poetic interest. Lucretius’ engagement has been well-documented (Gee 2013b, Volk 2013), and Vergil’s use was also considerable (Gee 2013a): one notable borrowing is Ec. 3.60, which adapts the opening line of Cicero’s Aratea in a window reference to Theocritus 17.1 (then thought to be a translation of Aratus’ opening). Ovid too contains Ciceronian echoes, including nearly an entire line at Met. 15.577 (~Cons. 2.34). Other Augustan poets, like Horace and Propertius, also reveal their awareness of the poetry (Buescu 1941, Soubiran 1972). For these authors, I argue, Cicero’s poetry was just as worthy of emulation as his prose.
But as I will demonstrate, by the end of Augustus’ reign, this respect was fading; Germanicus’ Phaenomena is premised upon improving Cicero’s version, and allusions to his poetic works declined, despite a few spikes in Seneca the Younger and Lucan—though the former notes contemporary mockery of Cicero’s poetry (De Ira 3.37.5). After this, most mentions to it are insulting references to the two most infamous lines, o fortunatam natam and cedant arma togae.
Cicero’s poetic fortunes, in other words, ebbed right as his prose began to be canonized, a process that began in earnest in the early Julio-Claudian period (Roller 1997, Kaster 1998, Gowing 2013). For authors of this generation, it was Cicero’s oratory that made him, in Quintilian’s phrase, “not the name of a man but of eloquence itself” (10.1.112). Throughout the declamations preserved by Seneca the Elder, praise is lavished on Cicero’s political and oratorical career at the expense of all else. In Cornelius Severus’ account Cicero is “that defender of the senate and the forum, of laws and rights and the toga, a public voice” (6.26). Severus’ insistent focus on Cicero’s public activities is typical of praise in this period, and had the result of leaving even non-rhetorical prose like philosophy largely dormant until the high empire (Bishop 2015). The disassociation of Cicero from such a divergent experiment in genre as poetry was, I conclude, inevitable given the lines along which his canonization proceeded. While Cicero certainly planned his self-fashioning in every genre to maximize positive reception, for later Romans, to be Roman prose’s greatest success story required poetic failure.