The Roman Republic of Letters: Scholarship, Philosophy and Politics in the Age of Cicero and Caesar 
by Katharina Volk.
Princeton, 400 pp., £28, January, 978 0 691 19387 8
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In Lucan’sBellum Civile (the epic also known as Pharsalia), Nigidius Figulus predicts the outcome of the struggle between Julius Caesar and Pompey through a series of learned observations of the heavens. He notes Mars’s dominant position in the sky and the brightness of Orion’s sword. The upshot is grim. Rome is about to succumb to harrowing civil war: ‘The power of the sword will violently confound all justice and unspeakable criminality will be called virtue.’ Worse still, ‘when peace comes, a tyrant will come with it.’

Lucan was writing during the reign of Nero a century later, and Nigidius was a useful mouthpiece for more contemporary concerns. But in his own time, Nigidius was a significant figure in Roman political and intellectual life. Admitted to the senate in 63 BCE, he served as praetor in 58 and fought on the losing side in the civil war. Unlike Cicero, who was pardoned by Caesar after the Battle of Pharsalus in 48, Nigidius was bundled off into exile, where he died three years later.

According to Aulus Gellius, Nigidius was one of ‘the most learned men of the Roman race’, second only to Marcus Terentius Varro. His enormous scholarly output, of which only around 130 fragments survive, many just a few words long, included thirty volumes of ‘Grammatical Notes’, treatises On Entrails and On Winds, a study of the spheres (details of which may inform his speech in Lucan) and a brontoscopic calendar, detailing what thunder would portend on any given day of the year. St Jerome later called Nigidius ‘a Pythagorean and a sorcerer’, and the occult turn of his intellectual pursuits and his habit of divination has gained him a reputation as the Harry Potter of Ancient Rome (figulus is Latin for ‘potter’).

The late Republic was a period of intense cultural production as well as political turmoil. ‘These so learned times’, as Cicero described them, produced an unprecedented number of works on philosophy, linguistics, rhetoric and antiquarianism. The political and intellectual heavy lifting was often done by the same people. Julius Caesar described himself as a ‘military man’, but he sidelined as a historian, grammarian, playwright, poet and astronomer. The memoirs of his military campaigns formed part of a larger body of work that included De Analogia (‘the most careful and precise treatise on the principles of correct Latinity’, according to Cicero), a polemical pamphlet (the Anticato), a tragedy on the theme of Oedipus, a poem called Iter (‘The Journey’) and an astronomical treatise, De Astris, probably written with the Alexandrian astronomer Sosigenes to support the reform of the Roman calendar.

Marcus Junius Brutus was not only a politician (and an assassin) but composed at least three philosophical works, including De Virtute, a treatise that seems to have dealt with the question of whether virtue is a sufficient condition for happiness. Cicero, whose active political life included a stint as consul in 63, left behind an extensive corpus of works of oratory, philosophy and political theory as well as several collections of letters; he also translated Aratus’ Phaenomena (a poem with detailed information about the constellations) from Greek and dashed out hexameters, including a poem on Caesar’s invasion of Britain and an epic on his own consulship, which contained the notorious line, later mocked by Juvenal: ‘O fortunatam natam me consule Romam’ (‘O lucky Rome, born in my consulship’). Varro, the most learned Roman of them all, was a senator and praetor, who fought against Caesar on the Pompeian side and narrowly escaped the proscriptions that followed Caesar’s death, though he did lose his library and aviary.

For the Roman senatorial elite, networks of knowledge production were also social networks. They read each other’s work, lent each other books and discussed philological and philosophical matters. Caesar dedicated De Analogia to Cicero; Varro dedicated a book on Roman antiquities to Caesar; Brutus dedicated De Virtute to Cicero; and Cicero dedicated work to friends including Brutus and Varro. These writings reflect the relations of socio-political obligation, or amicitia, that were a part of everyday life, but they were also a space in which communities of knowledge could be created. Intellectual comrades could be cast as implicit interlocutors (as Caesar does with Varro, Cicero and Nigidius in De Analogia) or as speaking characters in works written as dialogues, responding in ways that they may never have done in real life (Cicero did this with several of his friends including Brutus and Nigidius). The result was an idealised ‘society of studies’ (societas studiorum), played out in a network of texts that were often written in response to one another.

Unlike its later counterpart, the ‘Roman republic of letters’ – in Katharina Volk’s phrase – wasn’t removed from political and institutional contexts. What Cicero (adapting a line from Homer) calls ‘works of the word’ were bound up with the work of state. But pinning down the ways in which the two were connected isn’t straightforward. As Paul Zanker pointed out in The Mask of Socrates (1996), neither the Greeks nor the Romans recognised ‘intellectuals’ as a defined social group. In Rome, academic and philosophical enterprises were generally coded Greek. There were no professional Roman philosophers, and the grammatici (who taught language and literature) and rhetores (who taught rhetoric) tended to be Greek or Hellenised professionals, often slaves or freedmen. There were exceptions: Aelius Stilo (‘The Pen’), who taught both Cicero and Varro, was a property-owning Roman citizen who held the rank of eques – one below senator. Quintus Sextius, who influenced Seneca, was said to have turned down Caesar’s offer of a political career in order to ‘philosophise in the Greek language, but according to Roman morality’. Cicero’s father and his close friend Atticus both devoted themselves to scholarship. Cicero himself may have fretted about the appropriateness of scholarly activities for a statesman, but, as Volk points out, not everyone felt the same degree of socio-cultural anxiety.

Finding time for both politics and scholarship wasn’t always easy, however, even for the polymathic senators of the late Republic. Cato the Younger was a binge-reader and would read in the senate while his colleagues were assembling, hiding his book with his toga – though Cicero assures us he never ‘neglected public business’. Caesar’s intellectual agility was as legendary as his skills in battle (he is said to have simultaneously dictated up to seven letters at a time). Pliny the Elder described Caesar’s brain as if it were a kind of missile, ‘winged with fire’. The two books of De Analogia were said to have been written while he was travelling over the Alps to Gaul, or possibly even during the fighting. Iter was supposedly written to pass the time between Rome and Further Spain.

After the defeat at Pharsalus, things became more complicated for Caesar’s contemporaries. The senatorial habit of studia was subject to new pressures. Following his suicide at Utica, Cato the Younger became a martyr to the Republican cause, and Cicero, Caesar, Brutus and others produced a flurry of pamphlets debating his merits and shortcomings. This exchange is sometimes seen as the last open public debate over the way Rome should be governed, but it’s hard to glean much from the few surviving fragments. In Volk’s reading, Cicero and Caesar avoided the most loaded political issues, ‘managing to cross swords without actually injuring the other party’.

Established networks of scholarly amicitia were taken up again in real life. Cicero was glad to return to his ‘old friends’, his books, after Pharsalus, but he also saw other old friends: Caesar came to his villa to discuss Latin poetry. Varro, who, according to Caesar, had expressed an equal closeness to both leaders at the beginning of the war, was enlisted to help set up an ambitious public library containing all accessible Greek and Latin literature. It was probably around this time that he dedicated his Antiquitates to Caesar.

The works of the word could also turn inwards. With the res publica in crisis and the liberty to speak freely in the forum curtailed, those who had fought on the losing side turned to the republic of letters. For Cicero and his friends (some of whom were still abroad), philosophical endeavour became a form of consolation – Volk calls it ‘Pompeian group therapy’ – and a way of shunting Caesar into exile, creating a ‘Caesar-free zone’ that omitted any mention of his name.

Intellectual activity was not only a retreat for losers: it could be a stand-in for political action. ‘If no one calls on our help,’ Cicero wrote to Varro, ‘let us nevertheless read and write “Republics” and – if not in the senate or the forum then in writing and books – let us serve the Republic as the learned men of old once did and inquire about customs and laws.’ Works on Roman subjects suddenly proliferated. Investigations into the history of religious and political institutions, urban topography, family genealogies and the Latin language became popular in part because, like jurisprudence, this kind of achronological antiquarianism (which had more to do with old documents than material culture) could be welcomed as a specifically Roman activity.

Cicero praised Varro for using his knowledge of the past to galvanise Roman identity in the present: ‘When we were wandering like strangers in our own city, your books led us home, so that we were finally able to understand who and where we were.’ Varro’s interests stretched from agricultural practice to the mythical origins of the Roman alphabet. Apart from Antiquitates, most of his prose works were written after Pharsalus, when he had retired from politics. (The contents and date of a pamphlet about Pompey are unknown.) Since almost all the prefaces are lost, it is unclear whether, like Cicero, Varro presented antiquarian scholarship as a form of public service, but what survives of his work (including six of the twenty-five books of De Lingua Latina) is usually read as politically inflected.

Volk’sargument – that the story of the Roman republic of letters is messier and more variable than it has generally been presented – is a compelling one. She sees herself as looking under individual stones for ‘thoughts and intentions’ rather than telling overarching narratives. But the problem, as she acknowledges, is that whichever stone we turn, we almost always uncover Cicero. Very few works produced during the late Republic have survived intact. For the most part, what remains is fragments quoted in the works of other, often much later authors. The major exceptions are Caesar’s commentarii, Varro’s treatise on agriculture and, above all, the works of Cicero.

As a result, we are dependent on Cicero for our understanding of the scholarly culture of the late Republic and for preserving (and therefore selectively mediating) the extant fragments of his colleagues’ works. Brutus’ De Virtute, for example, is reconstructed substantially from Cicero, as is the preface to Caesar’s De Analogia. Extricating the ‘thoughts and intentions’ of these authors is a lot to ask. The fragments of De Analogia that survive (32 in total, most of them brief paraphrases from later grammarians) have been interpreted to give politically opposing meanings. And while we have some of Nigidius’ words (including the brontoscopic calendar, which survives in a Byzantine Greek translation of Nigidius’ version of the original Etruscan), it is difficult to disentangle anything we might say about him from later writers such as Lucan or Jerome. It gets even more complicated for someone like Cato, who was a committed Stoic but left behind little except the legend he helped create.

Self-conscious over-reading of sources comes with the territory, of course. Varro, in a fragment from the Menippean Satires whose original context is lost, seems to speak for the Roman republic of letters when he tells his audience to ‘fashion your life by reading and writing.’ He lived to the age of 89, long enough to find favour with the emperor Augustus, whose reconstruction of Rome was underpinned by Varro’s antiquarian research. But exactly what Varro or Nigidius, or even less Cato or Brutus, thought or intended is destined to remain elusive.

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Vol. 44 No. 20 · 20 October 2022

Nora Goldschmidt translates Cicero’s self-glorifying line ‘O fortunatam natam me consule Romam’ as ‘O lucky Rome, born in my consulship’ (LRB, 22 September). Sixty years ago, our class thought it caught the style and sentiment best as ‘O fortunate the Roman state, its natal date my consulate.’

Mark Mildred
London SW11

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