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Plutarch and Cassius Dio on Cicero: Flawed Philosopher-Ruler or Unscrupulous Megalomaniac?

David West

Boston University

Aside from Cicero’s own works, the extant ancient sources that provide us with the most vivid picture of Cicero—the man and the politician—are Plutarch’s Life and the portion of Cassius Dio’s Roman History that deals with the late Republic.  In this paper, I contrast the two authors’ distinct conceptions of Cicero’s personality, identity, and political aims. 

I argue that Plutarch conceives of Cicero as a flawed philosopher (32.6-7, 45-46, Comp. 2), a psychologically conflicted man torn between love of the honorable (philotimia; cf. Lintott 2013: 4-6, 5.3n.)—Cicero’s Platonic side—and love of the good opinion of others (doxa)—“honor” or “glory” in the conventional sense.  For Plutarch, Cicero’s oratory, when used well, took on the character of an instrument (32.6; cf. 3.1) for the pursuit of a Platonic ideal of combining a philosophic-based wisdom and justice with politics while remaining detached from earthly honors (the true meaning of the Delphic oracle at 5.1, initially misunderstood by the young Cicero at 5.2; cf. Cicero’s “return to the Cave” at his friends’ request at 5.3 and 43.3-5; cf. 6.1, 19.5-7, Comp. 3.4, Plato Republic 473d and Republic 7 passim).  Dio, on the other hand, views Cicero as an utterly vain and unscrupulous pragmatist intent only on self-aggrandizement; he employed his oratorical skills to achieve maximum personal power and glory (36.43-44, 38.12) at the expense of concord within the state (46.28-29, 46.34).  Dio also inverts Plutarch’s philosopher-politician paradigm: Cicero’s philosophic and literary activity is presented as a sham, a mere tool for increasing Cicero’s own reputation for wisdom and eloquence (38.12, 38.22, 46.21; pace Fechner 1986: 48-58), and the glory-obsessed Cicero fails to heed the philosophic advice offered by Philiscus (38.30 with Gowing 1998).

This paper gives greater due to Plutarch’s status as a Platonist who cherishes the ideal of philosophical politics (Bonazzi 2012).  It thus differs with Hägg’s (2012) more general conception of Plutarch’s biography as “ethical”.  My focus on Plutarch’s Platonism in the Cicero (cf. Pelling 1979 and 1997, Swain 1990) leads me to differ with Moles’ (1988) view that Plutarch criticizes Cicero as a philosopher for failing to exercise rational control over his passion for glory.  By contrast, I build on Lintott’s (2013: 5-6) identification of a subtle distinction in Plutarch’s thought between the ambitious lover of fame (philodoxos) and the noble-minded lover of honor (philotimos) to argue that Plutarch sees Cicero’s career as a good inasmuch as it is aimed at the Platonic ideal of uniting justice and political power for the good of the community.  My understanding of Dio’s Cicero is more conventional (see e.g. Millar 1964, Gowing 1992 and 1998, Lintott 1997).  However, my comparison of Dio’s Cicero with Plutarch’s is original, basing itself on Hägg’s (2012) cross-generic method and extending Claassen’s (1996) juxtaposition of the two authors’ discussion of Cicero’s exile.  Dio forms a nice point of comparison with Plutarch because Cicero is one of the few figures of the late Republic about whom Dio freely editorializes (see esp. 38.12); his special fascination with Cicero is also revealed by the lengthy speeches attributed to Philiscus, Cicero, and Calenus (cf. Gowing 1992).

After demonstrating my thesis by carefully analyzing the passages referenced above, I conclude by attempting to account for the two authors’ different understandings of Cicero.  Plutarch’s Platonism, I suggest, made him capable of recognizing and taking seriously Cicero’s autobiographical Platonic self-presentation (pace Moles and Lintott; cf. Cic. Q. Fr. 1.28-29, Leg. 1.62-63, Orator 11-12).  Dio, however, was blind to the importance of philosophy for Cicero due to his ignorance of Cicero’s philosophic works, his preference for historiography as a better teacher of human nature than philosophy, and his own experience as a politician living under tyranny.  As a pragmatist who believes it is human nature to seek power (cf. Gowing 1992, Rees 2011), Dio cannot conceive of Cicero as a political idealist, not even the failed idealist described by Plutarch.

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The Art of Biography in Antiquity

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