Saturday, February 8, 2014


Vera Sauer, Religiöses in der politischen Argumentation der späten römischen Republik: Ciceros Erste Catilinarische Rede - eine Fallstudie. Potsdamer Altertumswissenschaftliche Beiträge, Bd 42. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2013. Pp. 299. ISBN 9783515103022. €58.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Isabel K. Köster, Washington and Lee University (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Vera Sauer's book, based on her 2011 dissertation, offers a novel and stimulating addition to the body of literature on Cicero's speeches against Catiline. It highlights a previously underappreciated aspect of the invective by examining the role of religious terminology in In Catilinam 1. The bulk of the work focuses on identifying and commenting on individual words and phrases that carry religious resonance.1 Overall, the book presents a significant new approach to the use of religion in Ciceronian oratory and not only highlights the various ways in which the orator appeals to Roman religious sensibilities, but also offers a reading of the speech that shows how Cicero paints Catiline as someone who has violated not just the laws of human society, but also those of the gods.

The introductory chapter provides a useful and accessible summary of current scholarly approaches to the intersection of religion and communication in the Greek and Roman world and lays the foundation for Sauer's approach to the topic. A special concern is the concept of "embedded religion," that is, religious sentiments that are expressed in a seemingly casual way and are therefore prone to be considered insignificant by modern readers. Sauer shows that, inter alia, the exclamatory appeals to the gods, the frequent use of the adjective sacer, and the religious vocabulary chosen to describe Catiline's mental state throughout In Catilinam 1 have coherent argumentative power. As she explains, Cicero's rich use of religious language makes it feasible to concentrate on a single speech, and the significance of the text makes In Catilinam 1 a particularly good candidate. Given Sauer's close focus on language, this narrow perspective makes sense, but it should be noted that the approach precludes treating the Catilinarians as an argumentative and thematic whole. The book is therefore an illustration of the rich role of "embedded religion" in a single speech, but leaves it to interested readers to ponder how best to apply its conclusions beyond this one text.

The second and third chapters introduce In Catilinam 1 itself, with Chapter 2 summarizing the historical background and Chapter 3 the goals of the speech. Both of these chapters will contain little that is new for Ciceronians, but they effectively set the scene for a broader audience, especially when it comes to the pivotal role of the speech in Cicero's career. In this regard, however, one wonders whether the book could not have productively engaged with recent work on Ciceronian self-presentation.2 The question of how the use of religion affects the orator's own status emerges at several points in the book and could have prompted a more consistent exploration. Nevertheless, Chapters 2 and 3 present a wide-ranging synthesis of previous scholarly discussions and establish a clear basis for the detailed analysis of language that follows.

The long fourth chapter forms the core of the book. Here Sauer switches to a commentary format and, in the order in which they occur in the speech, identifies and discusses 43 words, phrases or, in a few instances, longer passages that she identifies as having religious connotations. Her approach in this chapter is primarily philological, and the ample footnotes cite numerous scholarly discussions, parallels in other Latin texts, and, where applicable, analyses in the TLL. Though it is clear how the author goes about investigating the connotations of the various words and phrases that she examines, it is less clear how the list of headwords under consideration arose in the first place. Words and phrases with unquestionable religious associations, such as templum and sacer, stand alongside some whose inclusion is less convincing. As one example we may look at the case of latrocinium/latrones, which Sauer sees as connected to matters of religion because it is frequently used along with impius (190–195). This, however, suggests that it is the adjective that gives the words their religious overtones and not some previously unrecognized connection between latrocinium/latrones and the sphere of religion. To a reader working through Sauer's commentary in sequence, it is therefore surprising that these words receive their own discussion after already featuring in connection with impius under the heading for that word (188), especially since the two discussions overlap significantly; a thematic structure to this chapter might have avoided the repetitions dictated by a commentary format.

In other cases, Sauer is more successful at showing that a word not necessarily associated with the sphere of religion consistently carries religious connotations throughout the speech; the case of coniuratio may suffice as one example (102–108). And, in cases where the religious connotations are beyond doubt, she is generally excellent at drawing out the nuances in meaning. The discussion of Cicero's use of impius and nefarius is a particular highlight in this regard (188–190): Sauer shows that the two words are not effectively synonymous, as commonly assumed; instead, she argues, whereas nefarius marks a transgression of general behavioral standards, impius specifically indicates a failure to fulfill one's duties towards society. Though individual interpretations have much to offer, there is therefore some unevenness in the persuasive power of the readings in this chapter, and arrangement according to a hierarchy of criteria might have been a more rhetorically effective approach.

That the commentary structure poses problems for the author becomes most obvious in the final part of Chapter 4, where Sauer considers issues of prophecy and prayer in a more broadly thematic fashion. This is a sensible decision, since such features as the final invocation of Jupiter are best discussed as a whole and not by individual keywords. Such an approach likely could have been productively applied to the chapter as a whole, but as it stands it is chiefly left to the reader to work out how best to connect the various elements.

Help comes in the fifth chapter, which serves as the conclusion, and two useful appendices, which summarize much of the material from Chapter 4 in tabular form. This section gives Sauer an opportunity to look beyond philological detail to larger patterns of the use of religious vocabulary in In Catilinam 1. She shows that, although religion is important everywhere in the speech, the density of references builds up in the course of the work.3 Moreover, words with religious connotations tend to occur in clusters. This conclusion confirms what a reader may have already suspected in Chapter Four: some terms acquire their religious significance from the surrounding diction. Sauer's study therefore once more reminds us how carefully a Ciceronian speech is put together and offers a persuasive case study in how the orator shapes his audience's reaction and thoughts in one particular sphere. What emerges is a reading of In Catilinam 1 that shows how Cicero consistently paints his opponent as a figure who engages in a perverted form of Roman religion. The religious case against Catiline therefore goes far beyond the concluding prayer to Jupiter.

A review on this scale cannot do justice to the many nuances and details contained in Sauer's individual readings. This is a book that repays careful study by a variety of audiences. Regarding the interpretation of individual phrases, Sauer's exclusive focus on religion can lead her to conclusions that differ significantly from those found in Dyck's recent commentary. So, for example, the force of purga in Cicero's command purga urbem (Cat. 1.10) is seen as being primarily medical by Dyck and religious by Sauer. Both interpretations have their merits, and Sauer's study is a rich complement to a fuller commentary on the speech. Although its format will make it most immediately attractive to a scholar looking to consult it on a particular word, it also has much to offer those who are interested in how Cicero structures a rhetorical argument and, especially, those interested in a new approach to Roman religion in daily life. In addition to providing a new reading of the speech, Sauer's book shows that the seemingly scattered and casual references to religion throughout the text form a carefully structured part of the overall argument. This is certainly a work for specialists, but one that provides fertile ground for future research into how Cicero and others cast actions in a religious light and make things sacred with words.4


1.   Sauer's book is not the first to focus on religious themes in an individual Ciceronian speech: Claudia Bergemann's Politik und Religion im spätrepublikanischen Rom (Stuttgart, 1992), which focuses primarily on De Domo Sua, is an important precursor. With her close focus on the language of the speech, however, Sauer offers an entirely different approach to the role of religion in a Ciceronian speech and her study is unique in its methodology.
2.   For example, John Dugan, Making a New Man: Ciceronian Self-Fashioning in the Rhetorical Works (Oxford, 2005) and Henriette van der Blom, Cicero's Role Models: The Political Strategy of a Newcomer (Oxford, 2010).
3.   In Andrew Dyck's commentary on the Catilinarians (Cambridge, 2008), by contrast, religion is considered significant primarily in the speech's peroration.
4.   It should be noted that speech act theory makes a brief appearance as a theoretically relevant concept at the end of Sauer's study (229–230), but is not mentioned otherwise.

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