THE RECEPTION OF CICERO IN THE EARLY ROMAN EMPIRE: The Rhetorical Schoolroom and the Creation of a Cultural Legend

Thomas J. Keeline

CUP (2018) h/b 375pp £90 (ISBN 9781108426237)

K.’s scholarly tome, derived from a dissertation, examines the role of Cicero’s life and works in the rhetorical classroom of the early Roman Empire and their influence on writers of that period. It shows how their use for teaching declamation stripped Cicero’s life and works of all problems and nuance, and in the process created for future generations a legendary figure of spotless virtue. It contains much close textual analysis with extensive quotations in both Latin and Greek which are translated, but some Latin words and short extracts within the main text are not. K. includes a vast number of footnotes, an extensive list of all the modern works he cites, a general index and an index locorum of ancient writers. 

The first chapter is an in-depth analysis of how the Pro Milone was used for teaching the art of rhetoric in the classroom, not only in Rome but also throughout the Romanised Mediterranean world. K. scrutinises the instructions and notes contained in Quintilian, Asconius and the Bobbio Scholia and offers detailed analysis of Cicero’s text itself and how it would have been taught. As a result, the man became nothing but a rhetorical exemplar, to be studied and imitated for no other purpose. Chapter 2 looks at the wider use of Cicero’s works in the teaching of declamatio. Certain key points in Cicero’s life were selected, their effect on his place in history debated, and the lesson drummed home that no one could match him for eloquence. As a result K. argues that Cicero was ‘canonised’ at this time and compared with Demosthenes who was agreed to have paved the way for him. 

In his third chapter, K. discusses how the death of Cicero became a standard classroom topic, a regular subject for trainee orators. Gradually, the embroidery of these student declaimers infiltrated the historical account. K. meticulously explores the versions of later writers including Valerius Maximus, Velleius Paterculus, Livy and Seneca. In the fourth chapter, he moves on to consider how a body of pseudo-Ciceroniana arose from classroom exercises, that is, from declamations written in the persona of Cicero and his contemporaries. So they may be pseudo-, but they are invaluable evidence for the influence of the classroom. Popular topics included ‘Should Cicero burn his books in return for his life?’, and imaginary speeches delivered on the day before he went to exile. Another frequent debate centred on whether his consulship was a triumph or a disgrace, since it culminated in the execution of citizens without trial. Here K. also brings the Philippics of Appian and Dio into the argument, Appian rhetorically muted, Dio far more expansive, taking bits and pieces from the schoolroom versions of Cicero’s and working them up into another schoolroom version.

Chapter 5 is devoted to Seneca the Younger who argues that the orator does not need the broad education that Cicero advocates, but just philosophical precepts for life: hence the striking absence of Cicero from his works. A detailed exposition on Tacitus’ Dialogus de Cicerone is the focus of Chapter 6. K. explains how it is ‘a delicious specimen of Tacitean irony’ because, on the one hand, it appears to argue that oratory has declined since Cicero’s day, but on the other, is a brilliant and eloquent exercise in taking oratory in a new direction himself. Tacitus, like Seneca, does it his way. Chapter 7 concentrates on Pliny the Younger, a pupil of Quintilian who was a great admirer of Cicero. Pliny found himself as a letter-writer constantly looking over his shoulders at Cicero, but K. suggests that Pliny was aware that he could not live up to his model, lacking the ingenium but also living under political circumstances quite different from Cicero’s. 

In his Epilogue K. notes how the rise of Christianity led to a revived interest in Cicero’s philosophical writings, which had no place in the rhetorical classroom. He ruefully comments that Cicero’s works were part of the basis of education for young gentlemen throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, but that this is no longer the case today.

This is a hugely detailed and scholarly work, full of fascinating insights.

Marion Gibbs

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