Scholia Reviews 15 (2006) 26.
Catherine Steel, Reading Cicero: Genre and Performance in Late Republican Rome. Duckworth Classical Essays. London: Duckworth, 2005. Pp. 176. ISBN 1-7156-3279-5. UK£11.99.
Classics, University of Otago, Dunedin
This relatively slim book is a contribution to the Duckworth Classical Essays series, edited by Thomas Harrison. Its main aim is to examine the ways in which Cicero employed different forms of writing as a means of shaping his public profile within Roman politics. As Steel notes, the use of writing among the elite at Rome underwent enormous changes during the fifty years or so of Cicero's creative life. The orator's remarkable literary output (Steel suggests, p. 149) was instrumental in stimulating an awareness among his peers of the political potential of the written word. Steel constructs her argument cogently, although it is worth noting that its two main planks -- that Cicero was innovative in his use of literary form and that his composition and circulation of these texts often had political aims -- have long been acknowledged by scholars. The strength of Steel's discussion lies in its many astute observations on specific instances where Cicero engages in this process of shaping public opinion.
The book consists of four chapters: (1) 'Genre' (pp. 21-48); (2) 'Cicero as a Public Figure' (pp. 49-82); (3) 'Ciceronian Communities' (pp. 83-114); and (4) 'Failure' (pp. 115-146). The first presents an excellent survey of Cicero's literary output across his career and examines in brief his various motives for the composition and circulation of these works. The discussion is organised logically enough according to the genres of oratory, poetry, treatises, and letters, and Steel stresses Cicero's uniqueness in operating across such a wide range of literary forms. This range gave him the opportunity to state and restate his achievements in a variety of ways.
This survey prepares the ground for Chapter 2, in which Steel examines in greater detail how Cicero used these literary works to promote his public image at crucial stages in his career. Steel begins with Cicero's problems following the execution of the Catilinarian conspirators in 63 BC. Especially useful here is the succinct analysis of Cicero's poem De Consulatu Suo and the way that it attempted to mould the public perception of his actions. Steel goes on to consider Cicero's composition of the treatises De Oratore, De Republica, and De Legibus in the years following his return from exile. The general conclusion here is also well-judged and persuasive: Cicero depicts in these works a civilian model designed to rival the military commanders who had come to exert so much power over Roman politics in recent years (p. 70).
Chapter 3 examines the ways in which Cicero's writings depict communities of which he is seen to be an active and significant member. Thus his speeches demonstrate the network of powerful friends that he has cultivated through his forensic activity (pp. 84-88). The letters, especially those of recommendation, serve a similar function (pp. 88-105). But perhaps the most stimulating aspect of the discussion concerns Cicero's dialogues: here Steel neatly suggests that his use of prominent figures from the past as interlocutors (primarily in De Oratore and De Republica) allows Cicero to construct for himself a prestigious intellectual lineage that helps to compensate for his lack of high-ranking familial ancestry (pp. 106-10).
The final chapter investigates Cicero's literary response to various setbacks or failures in his career. The main focus here is the Pro Milone and Cicero's attempts to manipulate the public's view of various aspects of the trial (for example, his support of Milo and his relationship with Pompey), as well as the general perception of Clodius as politician. Steel shrewdly suggests that one reason for the circulation of the speech was to exert an influence on the related political trials that took place in the following months (pp. 118f.). Briefer discussions follow of the treatises Brutus and Orator, Cicero's motives for writing his philosophical dialogues, and the background to his publication of the Philippics.
If the range of Cicero's literary output is impressive, then Steel's engagement with its full extent is no less so. And there are many sharp observations on individual points: see, for example, Steel's comments on the composition of the De Inventione and Cicero's motives for its circulation (pp. 38-40); her remarks on the limits of his early military career (pp. 36f.); and the deft discussion of the publication of the Catilinarian speeches (pp. 51f.). Overall the book provides a clear and engaging introduction to Cicero as writer and politician, and would certainly work well as a supplementary text to any course on Cicero and the Late Republic, offering a useful bridge between the literary and historical. (In fact the publisher's intended readership is not entirely clear: the accompanying blurb stresses the volume's utility to the more general reader and school student, highlighting its status as the first attempt in over thirty years to discuss the full range of Cicero's writing in a form other than biography; on the other hand, according to the back cover of the book, the Duckworth Classical Essays series is intended to 'unsettle received wisdom' and 'provoke debate and controversy'. These two disparate aims seem difficult to reconcile.)
Inevitably, a few points of disagreement arise. In Chapter 4, the steps by which Steel argues that the Orator represents a narrowing of oratorical discussion are contentious (pp. 131-36). Cicero does in fact demonstrate a self-consciousness about technical discussion in the earlier De Oratore (see, for example, 1.99; 1.102-105; 1.111; 1.137-38; 2.17-18; 2.364; 3.148; 3.208-209), so there is a continuity in this respect rather than a significant change. And given the ambitious scope of both De Oratore and Brutus, the more specialised focus of the Orator need not cause too much surprise in itself. Similarly, some modification is needed perhaps of the claim that Cicero eschewed using contemporary interlocutors in many of his philosophical dialogues because he felt that Caesar's political transformations 'had had profound reverberations in the intellectual sphere' (p. 140). In fact his comments on the subject in a letter to Atticus suggest that choosing one contemporary acquaintance over another could quickly become an awkward and invidious business (see Att. 12.12.2; also Att. 13.19.3); in this respect it was simply easier to employ characters who were safely dead. It may well be that Cicero also had little inclination to memorialise some of the men who were prominent in Caesar's dicatorship; but this is not the same as casting a judgement on the intellectual achievements of the time.
On a more general level, given that much of the book is concerned with Cicero's attempts to shape his 'public' profile, it would be useful to address the question of how widely Cicero's speeches were circulated. The subject is a certainly a difficult one and precision is probably impossible; but some idea of the likely degree of magnitude would be helpful, not least because the general reader is likely to bring to the subject anachronistic concepts of what publication involved. (These misconceptions could in fact be unwittingly fostered by some of the phrasing that Steel uses: 'Cicero's first decade as an orator is, then, presented to the world . . .', p. 25; and 'written texts were essential too, both in reaching a wider audience . . .', p. 23.) Are we to imagine twenty members of the elite eagerly reading Cicero's speeches? Or fifty? Or five hundred? This is a significant point for our understanding of Cicero's aims in his programme of self-promotion: just how 'public' is his 'public profile'?
There are a few minor errors.[] A reference in Chapter 3 to Deniaux's work on Cicero's letters of recommendation would be useful.[] The book's sub-title too is rather curious, and possibly misleading; the notion of 'performance' does not really inform the book's critical approach in any significant way. For the most part, however, Steel provides a reliable, lucid, and sane account of Cicero's literary and political career, to which students at all levels can be confidently referred.
[] Typographical errors: p. 26, 'charged' required for 'charge'; p. 35, 'indicate' required for 'indicated'; p. 40, reduplication of 'a' before 'guide for Pompeius'; p. 77, inconsistency in the spelling of 'Massinissa'; p. 81, 'cast' required for 'case' and 'is' for 'it' (in 'if that is how it should be read'); p. 90, 'what' required for 'was'; p. 91, 'rely on any' required for 'rely any'; p. 128, 'can also be taken as imposing closure' required for 'can be also be taken is imposing closure'; p. 139, 'overwhelmingly' required for 'overwhelming'.
[] E. Deniaux, Clientèles et Pouvoir à l'Époque de Cicéron (Rome 1993).