In this paper, I analyze Cicero’s impersonation of Cato in his De senectute to construct a new model for prosopopoeia in literary Latin prose.
Speaking in persona was a cornerstone of ancient rhetorical education and entertainment (cf. Quint. Inst. 3.8.49-54). Yet despite the proliferation of both prose and poetic pseudephigrapha (cf. Peirano), and the truism that a man’s style reflects his character, significant stylistic pastiche is rare in oratory and historiography: when Cicero invokes Appius Claudius Caecus to chastise Clodia (Cael. 33-34), there may be allusions to the famous speech against Pyrrhus, but the style and rhetoric are entirely Ciceronian (Osgood); the speeches of Caesar and Cato in Sallust’s Bellum Catilinae are stylistically undifferentiated from the style of the rest of the work; it is unclear whether there is any significant presence of Cato’s language in the speech that Livy puts into his mouth on the Oppian Law (34.2.1-4.20, with Tränkle 11-16, Briscoe 39-43). But unlike many modern critics, ancient readers evidently did not feel that this stylistic homogeneity -- usually ascribed to the strictures of aesthetic unity -- detracted from a vivid sense of distinct characters. Both Cicero and Livy are praised for their ability to adapt oratory to persona (Quint. 3.8.54, 10.1.101).
What does constitute oratorical verisimilitude, therefore, when impersonating a well-known speaker from the past? Cicero’s prosopopoeia of Cato the Elder in De senectute, I argue, can provide us with a kind of limit case. Not only is Cato’s language barely dissimilar from Cicero’s own (Bréguet 1964, Powell 22-23), but Cicero openly acknowledges that Cato serves as a proxy for himself. Yet, in the preface to the companion dialogue De amicitia, Cicero writes that the force and authority of his chosen personae are such that “I myself am sometimes so affected when reading my own words that I think it is Cato and not I who is speaking” (Amic. 4), as if the name alone can produce an effective impersonation (Amic. 3). This is an especially bold claim given that a few years previously, Cicero had dramatized in the Brutus an argument between himself and Atticus over Cato’s style, in which “Marcus” claims that Cato would need a little modern polish to make him a perfect orator (Brut. 61-68), and “Atticus” accuses his friend of exaggerating, and conflating Cato’s moral authority with rhetorical skill (Brut. 292-295). In De senectute, Cicero draws attention to the issue when he has Cato reflect on oratorical memory and prosopopoeia himself, citing the already century-old speech of Appius Claudius from the Annals of Ennius “although the speech itself is extant” (Sen. 16) -- a speech that Cicero himself seemed to regard with some disdain (Brut. 61).
From these passages, and several comments on style and historical oratory, I trace a Ciceronian theory of prosopopoeia in which reproducing the affective qualities of an orator on the reader takes precedence over the linguistic particulars of their style. Although Cicero’s dialogues in altera persona carefully avoid anachronistic references and inconsistency of character, his speakers display rhetorical virtues such as elegantia, Latinitas, and gravitas in terms that match Cicero’s rather than their own attested practice. Such a move, which associates Cato, Laelius, and other personae with Cicero himself, certainly serves Cicero’s own self-fashioning as a statesman and orator, as well as his position in the stylistic polemics of the 40’s BCE (see e.g. Dugan 2005, Stroup 2013). But Roman historians also use this deliberately modernizing approach to prosopopoeia, which we can analogize to the practice of “domesticating” translation (cf. Venuti 1995, McElduff 2013). This tacit acknowledgement of stylistic change over time, insists, paradoxically, on the continuity of social, moral, and rhetorical values, and the affective exemplary force of the past. If the sophisticated reader of the late first century BCE is unlikely to be sufficiently impressed by Cato’s transmitted speeches, then Cato must be given a more suitably Catonian voice.
Style and Stylistics