Write from the top

In December 45 BCE, Julius Caesar dined with Cicero. Cicero was dreading it: not only was the visit a logistical nightmare, given the size of Caesar’s entourage and military escort, but politically they were fundamentally opposed. The solution was to discuss literary matters and, according to Cicero, it worked: “he was pleased, and enjoyed himself”. After all, the two men were among Rome’s most important authors. Cicero was a prolific orator, a poet and a political theorist, who at this point was producing in Latin a comprehensive survey of philosophy; Caesar had recorded his campaigns in Gaul in peerless prose and written a theoretical justification of his approach to the Latin language in the lost De Analogia (On Regularity).

Cicero and Caesar were not, however, unusual in combining literary and political pre-eminence. The antiquarians Varro and Nigidius Figulus were also senators; Caesar’s assassin Brutus wrote a treatise De Virtute (On Virtue); his accomplice Cassius was an adherent of Epicurean philosophy, and proficient enough to discuss the Epicurean theory of vision when writing to Cicero. In The Roman Republic of LettersKatharina Volk takes this world of politically engaged intellectuals and intellectually engaged politicians, and shows that the overlap between cultural and political milieux is key to understanding the extraordinary productivity of this brief period.

The leaders of the Republic were also writing its literature, not simply as a diversion, or as a source of cultural capital, or as mutual entertainment – ​​though it was also all those things – but as a means to understand what the res publica, the “public thing”, actually was. Most of them were committed to the Republic, and thus implacably opposed to Caesar’s autocracy; and perhaps the most significant concrete problem they faced was justifying killing Caesar. Cicero applied philosophy: Caesar was a tyrant, and thus incompatible with Rome’s freedom; and Rome’s leaders must study philosophy to ensure their proper understanding of the nature of human glory.

Rome itself, and its customs, institutions, topography and language, was also a preoccupation. Volk is an excellent guide to the appallingly complicated field of late Republican antiquarian studies: Varro dominated, but she explores the interests and relationships of a large number of writers. These studies, rather than philosophy or cosmology, were perhaps what really interested the Roman elite, raising such questions as: who were the Romans? Why had they been so successful? How knowledge of the past could help the current situation? Volk is bracingly sceptical of simplistic explanations as to why these writers gathered data about the past, and she draws attention to the importance of custom and practice in their analyses. Rome’s history was complicated, and much was the result of messy and unplanned developments; but somehow it worked, until it didn’t. Even Caesar based his linguistic theory on consuetudopractice, though practice modified by rationality.

Caesar was nonetheless something of an outlier, politically and intellectually. Volk has fun unpacking quite how irritated he should have been by Cicero’s airy dismissal in his dialogue On the Orator of the relative importance of clarity and correctness as elements of style – aspects in which Caesar excelled. And she draws attention to one striking gap in the flurry of dedication and counter-dedication that features these works: Cicero never dedicated anything to Caesar, though Caesar did to Cicero (including the De Analogia). But Caesar had his own victories. He consigned Varro and Cicero to intellectual activity alone during his dictatorship; and in the end Brutus, Cassius and Cicero lost the argument about the legitimacy of Caesar’s death, though they themselves were allly dead by that point.

One of the most intriguing parts of the book concerns a man who did not write: the younger Cato, one of Caesar’s main opponents, who through his death by suicide turned himself into a lasting example of Stoic defiance of tyrannical power. Volk is primarily interested in Cato as someone whose philosophical convictions demonstrably affected their political behaviour. Stoic insistence on consistency, “the dogged pursuit of the perceived good regardless of public opinion or chance of success”, underpinned his fixity of purpose and indifference to electoral defeat or other setbacks. But she also argues that Cato knew perfectly well what he was doing when he went about Rome in eccentric dress, or filibustered a debate, or left the theater so the audience could enjoy the public display of female nudity without his repressive presence – he was being “Cato”. If so, “Cato” was an extreme solution to a problem that faced all Roman politicians: how to create name recognition on ballots when there were no external affiliations, such as political parties, to guide the voters’ choice.

It is difficult to write about late Republican literary culture without effectively writing a book about Cicero, and one of Volk’s many strengths is that she manages to do so. Among the “minor” characters who get full due here is Nigidius, who wrote on language, astronomy and biology, theology and divination. Later ancient writers put him just below Varro as a polymath, though little now survives. Katharina Volk considers what is known of Nigidius both as a writer and as an practitioner, offering his divinatory and astrological services to his senatorial peers. As she drily observes, “A scenario in which, at the behest of one Roman senator, another casts a spell on children and then tries to discern their utterances as, in their trance, they stare into a bowl may strike us as unexpected and not quite in keeping with how we have come to imagine the genteel learned sociability of the late Republican elite.” Knowledge came in many different forms; but it all mattered.

Catherine Steel is Professor of Classics at the University of Glasgow

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