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Herodotum cur veraciorem ducam Ennio? Epic and history in Cicero’s De consulatu suo

Thomas Biggs

University of Georgia

This paper reexamines Cicero’s De consulatu suo from the contemporary critical understanding that the poetic works “gave Cicero the opportunity to write and disseminate a public persona” (Steel 1995, 19) and, in turn, forever reshaped Roman epic poetry through their innovative generic qualities (Gee 2013; Volk 2013). I contend, however, that the focus on finding innovation within Cicero’s epic poetry has also obscured some of the more “traditional” features of his verse, features he highlights and even privileges throughout his writings to construct authority and appeal to the power of history (Van der Blom 2010; Elliott 2013, esp. 152-95, 198-210). Accordingly, this paper considers what Cicero says about the form and function of epic at Rome, and, perhaps more importantly, about “history” and its relationship with epic. I focus on Ennius as both a literary character who populates many of Cicero’s works (e.g. Baraz 2012, 15-21, 173-9) and as the author of the Annales. In conclusion, I argue that the DCS actually fulfills in one work the desired “epic” and “history” Cicero so fervently requested from Archias and Lucceius (Arch. 28-30; Fam. 5.12).

Without returning to the naïve understanding of Cicero’s poetry as situated somewhere between Ennian and neoteric, this paper suggests that Ennius’ epic eschews conventional characterizations, thus destabilizing certain comparisons often made between Cicero’s verse and the “traditional” features of the Annales (Gee 2013, 89). Indeed, it is Cicero’s complex understanding of “history” that truly complicates matters. At De inventione 1.27, he famously defines historia by quoting from the Annales: historia est gesta res, ab aetatis nostrae memoria remota; quod genus: Appius indixit Carthaginiensibus bellum (Ann. 216). The notion that historia can be hexameter for Cicero is far too rarely brought to bear on the appreciation of his literary self-construction.

Scholars have also long grappled with the “oddity” of Cicero’s meetings with the divine in the DCS, as did ancient critics, but such interactions appear more typical in light of Ennius’ encounter with Homer at the opening of the Annales and that scene’s cosmic rerum natura. Moreover, if prose historia on the recent past failed to countenance interactions between mortals and gods (cf. Liv. Praef. 6-8), might Cicero have expected its hexameter congeners to allow for such conventions? In a similar fashion, I will also explore Volk’s contention that the “De consulatu suo, by contrast [to other Latin poems on contemporary events], treats the achievement of a civil magistrate who defends the state by vigilance and eloquence, without any recourse to military might” (Volk 2013, 105). I compare the famous “good companion” (Ann. 268-286), who is praised in the Annales not for his martial prowess, but for virtues that align with Cicero’s elevation of the toga over arma (cf. Fabrizi 2012, 11-12; Elliott 2013, 228-32). In fact, the Annales offer substantial evidence for the value placed on the political and cultural arts, those not often cited when constructing an idea of the “traditional” shape of Republican epic, but lauded by Cicero throughout his corpus (Ann. 247-9): <proelia promulgata> / pellitur e medio sapientia, ui geritur res; / spernitur orator bonus, horridus miles amatur.

In sum, this paper will show that Cicero draws upon his varied readings of the Annales in crafting the DCS as simultaneously historia and epos. In the Annales he found an authoritative representation of the Roman past, praise of civil and intellectual virtues in addition to martial valor, and a nexus of genres put to service in a narrative of the Roman people. Viewed as historia, the DCS, whatever its ancient reception, was not all that divergent from the most “traditional” of Republican epics, the Annales. In the end, Cicero did not need Archias or Lucceius to write distinct histories and poems on his deeds, he could turn to Ennius, simultaneously the summum epicum poetam (Opt. Gen. 1.2) and the author of historia, to inform his own singular work of “historical epic.”

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Cicero Poeta

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