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Greek Philosophy and Roman Politics in Cicero’s De consulatu suo

Jovan Cvjetičanin

University of Virginia

In a recent work on genre in Cicero’s De consulatu suo, Katharina Volk points out the important fact that the hero of this epic was also an intellectual. The uniqueness of Cicero’s position in the poem is reflected in the uniqueness of the poem itself, as it offers us an insight into Cicero’s early intellectual interests. The idea of an early period of Cicero’s philosophical writing in the late 60s in which he and his brother figure as embodiments of the Platonic ideal of the philosopher-ruler has been proposed by Plezia. This period includes De consulatu suo, and other scholars (Alfonsi, Gaillard) have pointed out Cicero’s attempt to reconcile the philosophical otium and the political negotium in the poem. In this paper, I will expand upon previous scholarship by proposing that Cicero’s poetry is anticipating his intellectual project of integrating Greek philosophical thought and Roman political practice. I intend to show this through a close reading of the conclusion of Urania’s speech, the longest extant fragment of De consulatu suo.

Urania’s speech (Cons. fr. 2 Soubiran) deals with the omens preceding the Catilinarian conspiracy and Cicero’s actions as consul. The speech concludes with a general observation that the gods favor those who worship them properly, showing their favor through warnings in form of omens. Already here a parallel is drawn between Greek and Roman rulers (fr. 2.66: veteres and 68: vestri) in terms of politics and religion. The emphasis, however, is placed on the sapientia, or practical wisdom in matters of government, of the Romans. In the following verses, Cicero turns his attention to the Greek philosophers, describing them as performing their activities in the Lyceum and Academia. These philosophers may have the otium to pursue more noble things (72: otia...studiis...decoris), but their idleness is in opposition with the active life necessary both for a political career and proper worship of the vigens numen (70), the active deity that the Romans worship. This seeming tension between politics, religion and philosophy is diffused in the final verses of the poem with the introduction of Cicero. Urania singles Cicero out as someone who has been educated in Greece in his youth, but removed from this world of philosophical otium and thrown straight into the eye of the Roman political storm (76: in media virtutum mole) where he must compete for the highest rank in the cursus honorum. Even in this tumultuous vita activa, however, Cicero will have time to devote himself to the arts of the Muses and, I would argue, even philosophy. This entire final passage can be read as a defense of a Roman politician’s engagement with art and philosophy and an attempt to show that these activities would not be detrimental to his political ambitions. Using himself as a prime example, Cicero demonstrates what some would consider contradictory: that a Roman enriched with Greek learning will not only be successful in the political arena, but that he can also obtain the highest honor Rome can bestow, the title of pater patriae.

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Greek Culture in the Roman World

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