Princeton (2022) h/b 240pp £14.99 (ISBN 9780691220321)

This is a curiosity. Princeton UP has a series called ‘Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers’; pocket-sized books offering texts and translations with some modest explicatory material. The list contains the usual suspects: Seneca, Aristotle, Cicero, Thucydides among others. In the midst, apparently, is Cicero’s Consolatio—a work of which we have just a handful of fragments. It is with some interest, then, that the reader explores what a 250-page volume under this title might contain. 

The answer turns out to be an anonymous late-sixteenth century Latin work which was first published in Venice in 1583, purporting, indeed, to be the Consolatio, nunc primum repertus et in lucem editus. Its publication was followed by an inconclusive debate on its authenticity, and a number of translations into modern languages, and it was gradually forgotten by classicists. 

This history is set out lucidly by Michael Fontaine in his introduction (and also in the excellent pages on this project on his website, He has also demonstrated conclusively that the work must be a forgery: it contains a quotation which purports to be from Plato, but is in fact taken from Marsilio Ficino’s Life of Plato, which was published in 1477. F. further argues that the mistake was deliberate, a knowing attempt by the author to signal his work’s status as a learned reconstruction. Unfortunately, no-one earlier than F. noticed, leading F. to speculate that the work’s reception as a possibly genuine work by Cicero—and thus the likelihood that any revelation of its real authorship might lead to allegations of deliberate forgery—amazed the author and made him decide he would keep quiet. At any rate, we do not know who the author was. 

So much for the background. Is the work any good? As a Ciceronian pastiche, undoubtedly—particularly if one accepts that the points towards the end where pastiche teeters on the edge of parody are deliberate moves by an author keen to keep his audience engaged in a—rather long—project of creative reconstruction. (As F. notes, it seems improbable that a grieving Cicero would have wondered [176] whether the topic of consolation offered him a broad enough field in which his skills could exsultare, and then reproached himself for behaving impudenter).

As a work of consolation, opinions are likely to be more divided. Grief is not a process, here; it’s an almost wholly unwelcome manifestation of emotion, which we can repress by the application of reason, and more specifically, by recognising that death is a good thing. That forms the bulk of the work; it ends by reflecting on the immortality of the soul and the capacity for mortals to become gods through virtue. These latter points are driven by the content of some of the surviving fragments of Cicero’s work, which in turn seem to reflect his determination to dedicate some form of religious recognition to Tullia.  

One concludes that this anonymous Consolatio is much more interesting for what it says about Ciceronian studies in the later sixteenth century, and as a fascinating exhibit in the history of Cicero’s reception. F.’s translation will not be to everyone’s taste: colloquial and even bouncy, it reflects the modern genre of self-help rather than the measured pomp of Ciceronianism. But it offers an engaging read, not a negligible consideration in a repetitive work of 217 sections, and will certainly make this fascinating text easily accessible. The only error I spotted was the identification of 55 B.C. as the year of Cn. Servilius Caepio’s consulship (p. 113). It was probably 141 BC. 

Catherine Steel