Thursday, August 4, 2011


Ingo Gildenhard, Creative Eloquence: The Construction of Reality in Cicero's Speeches. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. vii, 454. ISBN 9780199291557. $135.00.

Reviewed by James Zetzel, Columbia University in the City of New York (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

The great Theodor Mommsen long ago told us what to think about Cicero's speeches: "The dreadful barrenness of thought in the Ciceronian orations must revolt every reader of feeling and judgment" [History of Rome, translated by W. Dickson (New York, 1911) 5: 506]. After long being in the sole domain of students of rhetoric and history, the speeches have emerged, in the last generation, as texts worthy of study as literature, philosophy, and, more generally, as a major part of the intellectual world of the mid-first century BCE. And while, like Mommsen, one need not admire or agree with Cicero's political actions and social beliefs, he has become ever more complicated, his writings ever more sophisticated. One need not list all the recent works of criticism that have contributed to this revival; its seeds were planted some years ago by such scholars as Elizabeth Rawson and T. P. Wiseman; some of the more recent important works in this vein (and in more post-modern veins as well) are John Dugan's Making a New Man (2005), Jill Harries' Cicero and the Jurists (2006), and Catherine Steel's brief but excellent Reading Cicero (2005).

In this flood of Ciceronian studies, Ingo Gildenhard's Creative Eloquence represents a distinctly new stream: his basic premise is that Ciceronian oratory, or at least much of it, is anything but barren of thought. It displays and employs a range of ideas about human nature, society, and the divine; not only are these concepts rhetorically effective and mobilized in particular circumstances to reach particular results, but they constitute a large and substantial body of original thinking on Cicero's part. Hence the title: 'creative' in that Cicero is strikingly original in his views of the world and its constituents; 'eloquence' because these views are expressed and revealed in Cicero's speeches, not (or not just) in his philosophical works.

Gildenhard's book is ambitious, detailed, and impressively learned, not just in Ciceronian material but in a wide array of secondary literature in both Roman studies and modern social theory. His argument, broadly speaking, is that Cicero is both inventive and unusual in deploying non-traditional (that is to say, not traditionally Roman) ideas about a range of topics, which Gildenhard divides into three groups which he names 'anthropology,' 'sociology,' and 'theology.' Under the first rubric, Gildenhard considers aspects of Cicero's ideas about human nature and humanity at large; under the second, his views of law, civilization, and the moral interaction of individuals and groups; under the third, his ideas about divine intervention in human (Roman) affairs, about theodicy, about divine justice, and about the immortality of the soul. Throughout, Gildenhard's method is to blend, often in very striking ways, lexical studies of particular words, close readings of particular speeches, and broader analysis of Cicero's views of events or individuals.

Gildenhard's analyses are lucid and closely grounded in the texts, if not exactly succinct: one of the drawbacks of his writing is that he never uses one word when five will do. In that, he is perhaps imitating Cicero himself; but it is not one of Cicero's more appealing characteristics for the modern reader. But Gildenhard is capable of very precise analysis of texts and language and he is very fond of charts to make his points even clearer. His dissection of the various meanings of humanitas (201-16) is a model of clarity on a murky subject; his analyses of the constructions of villainy in the Verrines, the Catilinarians, or the Philippics are essential reading for anyone interested in late-republican invective or ideas of good and bad behavior. He offers a fine reading of Pro Sestio, as of other speeches. His particular interest—one he returns to over and over—is the difficulty posed for Cicero by Caesar and the changed world of the republic after the civil war: it required a different rhetoric and different beliefs, and Gildenhard is at his very best in showing Cicero's ambivalence about Caesar himself and his dismay at the collapse of his own form of republicanism.

Gildenhard's formidable control of the Ciceronian corpus, his sharp analyses of passages and concepts, his impressive knowledge of the secondary literature, and his general willingness (not shared by some other recent critics) to recognize Cicero's own intellectual range and talents make Creative Eloquence necessary reading for any student of the late republic. On the other hand, Gildenhard's account is not unproblematic. Space and time do not permit the exhaustive analysis which the book deserves; I concentrate on a few, central issues.

The greatest difficulty Gildenhard faces is that, if one is to display Cicero's originality, then it needs to have some background against which to see it. As Gildenhard knows very well, Cicero's speeches are in something of a vacuum: we have a lot of Greek oratory; we have a few fragments of earlier Roman oratory; we know something about the general intellectual life of Rome from 81-43 BCE (the period of the speeches); but we are often simply not in a position to know just when Cicero is being 'original'. Gildenhard's short section on methodology in his introduction (11-15), in which he tries to get around this fundamental problem, is remarkably unconvincing; and one of the (unintentionally, I assume) humorous aspects of this book is the number of times that Gildenhard has to backtrack and qualify his assertions—and then continue as if there had been no problem at all.

Gildenhard compounds the basic problem of the lack of comparanda in several ways. In the first place, what little material there is (except for Cicero's own philosophical and rhetorical writings), is ignored. Lucretius barely appears in the index, Varro not at all. There were other people in the late Republic with ideas about human nature and society; Varro wrote a great deal of popular philosophy, and to talk about the development of culture without using Book 5 of De Rerum Natura is distinctly odd. But Gildenhard is remarkably uninterested in ancient theories of culture (Thomas Cole's important Democritus and the Sources of Greek Anthropology (ed. 2, 1990) is notably absent from Gildenhard's massive bibliography), just as he has very little interest in the debates going on in Cicero's time about the relationship of law, society, and justice. He cites Jill Harries' Cicero and the Jurists only once (unless I have missed something)—as he cites many important secondary works only once, although making much more use of them than that—but in fact she anticipated a great deal of what he has to say about Cicero's use of principles of natural law, particularly in the last years of his life, to override customary practice and positive law. Gildenhard's analysis of how this works in the post reditum speeches and the Philippics is more detailed than Harries', but Gildenhard writes as if in a scholarly vacuum.

Instead of looking at how Cicero fits into contemporary debates about culture or society, Gildenhard resolutely looks at modern theories, and the divisions of his book (anthropology, sociology, theology) follows modern academic structures, not ancient ones. Not infrequently, he begins a section with a quotation from a modern theorist (N. Luhmann, at least twice) to set the tone, but then in fact ignores the modern theorists as much as the ancient ones. His strength is in close reading of texts; it is, despite the goals of his book, not in the world of social theory. Nor, indeed, does he make nearly enough use of Plato and Aristotle, who in fact supplied Cicero with many of the intellectual tools that he employs in his speeches.

Gildenhard's anachronism deserves closer attention. This appears not in his application of modern theory to ancient practice; rather, the serious anachronisms come in his analyses of Cicero's language. Thus, we find him saying (273) that "the key concept that Cicero marshals to connect himself with the supernatural sphere is providentia, namely the ability to see into the future." But providentia (a.k.a. prudentia) is no more than Aristotelian phronesis; not supernatural visions, but the application of experience to make reasoned predictions. A different error mars Gildenhard's discussion of conscientia (esp. 116-124): he persists in seeing it as a sense of guilt—when all it (or conscience, in English until the eighteenth century) means, much of the time, is consciousness. Not "inborn awareness of right and wrong" (116), but simply self-awareness—as, indeed, Gildenhard correctly translates it in passages that he then proceeds to moralize. Much of Gildenhard's discussion of Cicero's views of inner guilt is valuable, particularly of Cicero's repeated use of the Furies and tragic references in this connection; but here, as elsewhere, there is a certain amount of over-interpretation.

It is perhaps indicative of the strengths and weaknesses of Gildenhard's approach to Cicero that although he has a great deal to say about Cicero's villains and his manner of invective, he has little to say about many of the lighter moments in the speeches. Pro Archia and Pro Caelio are scarcely mentioned, nor are the comic portions of In Pisonem or Pro Murena. Gildenhard is serious, and his Cicero even more so. And yet, Cicero was just as renowned in antiquity for his wit as for his philosophy, and much of the brilliance of some of his greatest speeches—and I would include the four just named as among the most brilliant—lies in the way in which Cicero toys with the intellectual and moral assumptions of the jury.

A speech like Pro Caelio—which Gildenhard briefly discusses in examining concepts of human nature—ought to give more pause than it does. Gildenhard constructs his creative and original Cicero by making the Roman audience more gloomy, narrow, and unimaginative than the speeches themselves suggest. His long—and ultimately rather disappointing—discussion of theological aspects of the speeches is based on the assumption that the formal civic religion of Rome was all that any Roman senator took seriously, and Gildenhard seems shocked, shocked that Cicero plays with other concepts of divine intervention or psychic immortality. He shows very clearly that Cicero extends, distorts, and at times contradicts Roman social values, or at least the norms to which the average Roman public figure would claim to admire if asked (anachronistically) by a voter or a reporter—but social values are not remotely the same as intellectual values. Cicero, like the audience he often constructs, appreciates wit; he does his job as an augur, but his theology and philosophical beliefs are far more complex than those of Roman civic religion. What Gildenhard shows us is Cicero's intellectual creativity, but he pays much too little attention to Cicero's ability to play with ideas, to mock even himself (at times), to deploy wit as well as learning. Gildenhard's version of Cicero the orator is far more appealing than the narrow rhetorical and historical analysis that prevailed until recently; his discussions of Cicero's ideas and his presentation of them are necessary reading for any student of the orations; but his approach, finally, is too rigid and too humorless to capture the variety of Ciceronian creativity.

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