Sunday, May 31, 2015


Matthias Gelzer, Cicero: ein biographischer Versuch. 2., erweiterte Auflage mit einer forschungsgeschichtlichen Einleitung und einer Ergänzungsbibliographie von Werner Riess (first published 1969). Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2014. Pp. xxvii, 407. ISBN 9783515099035. €39.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Andrew R. Dyck, Los Angeles (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

The Foreword explains that this is the third of Gelzer's biographies to be issued in a new edition, the biographies of Pompey (2005, ed. E. Herrmann-Otto) and Caesar (2008, ed. E. Baltrusch) having preceded. The Intoduction places Gelzer within the history of scholarship, beginning with a biographical sketch from his birth as son of a Protestant pastor in Liestal, Switzerland, his studies in Basel and Leipzig, where he produced a dissertation on Byzantine administration in Egypt (1907), and Habilitation in Freiburg with the pioneering study of the Roman nobility.1 There followed his call to Greifswald and acceptance of German citizenship in 1915, his brief tenure of a professorship in Strasbourg prior to the end of the Great War, and his call to Frankfurt/M. (1919), where he taught until retirement in 1955 and died in 1974.

Biography is a genre of which readers (and therefore publishers) are fond, whereas historians are usually not keen on writing about the lives of individuals. Gelzer's shift to biography thus calls for explanation. Riess emphasizes that he made the move under the influence of the Pauly-Wissowa Realenzyklopädie, for which he wrote a series of important articles (p.XI). Christ, on the other hand, connects it with the political and intellectual caesura in Germany in the aftermath of the Great War.2 The change of genre conceals, however, a continuing interest in the social dimension. Thus Gelzer insists that such figures as Lucullus and Brutus need to be seen against the background of the noble families from which they sprang.

Gelzer's conception of history combined a rejection of moral judgments in the manner of Ranke3 with a Hegelian view that there were certain inevitable historical currents that individuals either promote or reject. In view of these premises, it is no surprise that Gelzer followed Mommsen in viewing Caesar as (to use Hegel's term) the "world-historical individual" of the late Republic, who saw the trend of history and sought to move events in that direction. Hence Gelzer chose Caesar as his first biographical subject (1921 and subsequent editions). For the RE article on Cicero of 1939, Gelzer was assigned to write the section on Cicero as a politician, and that remained the angle from which he primarily judged the man, whom he viewed as Caesar's inferior, particularly in insight into power relations and the adaptation of means to ends. Nor was Cicero the only biographical subject on whom Gelzer passed such judgment: he also denied the title "statesman," e.g., to M. Crassus and Cato Uticensis. Gelzer showed his appreciation of Cicero as a writer in the first edition of this biography (1969) by adding summaries and assessments of Cicero's literary works. Riess, however, makes this move seem bolder than it really was by placing it in the 30s, rather than the 60s (p.XXVII). Gelzer had, in fact, little choice but to do so if he was to claim this as a full biography and not merely a reissue of his RE article in monograph form with updated bibliography; and the summaries are, it must be said, dutiful rather than brilliant.

What distinguishes Gelzer's biography is: 1) the thoroughness with which the sources are mastered, assessed, and appropriately cited, so that this remains the first place to go to inform oneself about facts and evidence; 2) the maturity and independence of judgment based upon a wide and deep familiarity with the relevant history and institutions. Hence Gelzer's biography is still considered, alongside Shackleton Bailey's work on the letters, one of the twin peaks of postwar Ciceronian studies.4 That said, the book also has its limitations. The tacit premise is that one's views of Caesar and Cicero are reciprocally related. Moreover, Gelzer's view of the late Republic was essentially fixed by the time when the Caesar was first issued and was not revised to take account of the experience of totalitarianism (a point criticized by Gelzer's gifted student, H. Strasburger: pp.XII-XV), in light of which the figure of a "strong man," supposedly personifying and uniting his people, might appear less attractive than it had to Mommsen.5 In the meantime, other challenges have been mounted to the perspective of Mommsen and Gelzer: Was traditional Roman government incapable of reform from within?6 Did Caesar have something better to offer, or was he merely a military adventurer (he seemed to have no plan for reforming the government of Rome but was preparing a military expedition to Parthia at the time of his assassination), or indeed a war criminal, in light of the annihilation of some one million Gauls?

If Gelzer overestimated Caesar, did he also underestimate Cicero? Riess notes a tendency in subsequent scholarship to treat Cicero, even as a politician, more sympathetically than Gelzer did. There is, for instance, a recognition of the significance of speech-acts that helps explain why Cicero was considered a desirable political partner by both Caesar and Pompey. There is also an appreciation of Cicero's position as a highly successful networker. This is latent in Gelzer's many references to Cicero's contacts but not given as much weight by him as it is nowadays. Riess remarks that Gelzer reacts to Cicero's criticism of Caesar, especially in De officiis after Caesar's death, as if he himself had been attacked, citing p.329: "Ciceros Beschimpfung des toten Caesar ist wohl das Unedelste, was sein unermüdliche Griffel hinterlassen hat" ("Cicero's invective against the dead Caesar is surely the most ignoble legacy of his indefatigible pen"). Riess also points to recent research on exempla and memorial culture, both characteristically Roman (pp.XVII-XIX). From this perspective, though it may seem unfair at first glance, Cicero's criticism of the dead Caesar in De officiis, a work intended for his son Marcus and no doubt others of his generation (cf. Div. 2.5), is understandable: Caesar was by now an exemplum and had to be branded as wholly unacceptable.

It is a general problem that Gelzer cannot accept the validity of Cicero's point of view. Cicero had, in fact, a very different conception of statesmanship from that of Caesar. Gelzer thought it a capital mistake when Cicero declined Caesar's offer of a place on his team as the latter prepared for his consulate at the end of 60.7 But Cicero knew from Vatinius' speech at the beginning of his tribunate of the plebs that Caesar was prepared to override the auspices, a policy of which Cicero disapproved (Vat. 14, Sest. 114; Leg. 2.21). Cicero could not have participated if he was to remain true to his ideals (Att. 2.3[23].4). 114). Cicero again received overtures from Caesar in 49 during the early phase of the civil war. Gelzer loses patience with Cicero's deliberations, which could take the form of debating theses in the manner of a philosopher or rhetorician.8 But this was characteristic of Cicero as one trained in the methods of Academic philosophy with its careful weighing of alternatives against each other;9 to wish for him to have done otherwise is to wish him to be a different man. Again, Gelzer's notion that what Cicero found most painful under Caesar's dictatorship was that he could no longer give "big speeches" ("grosse Reden") in the senate10 amounts to a caricature. Perhaps the best answer to Gelzer's charge that Cicero lacked an "instinct for power" ("Machtinstinkt") is the fact that he was able to hold together the coalition against Mark Antony for eight months. Though Gelzer's criticisms of some of his limitations, especially Cicero's overestimate of his ability to influence events, retain their validity, his measuring of Cicero by standards that were alien to him blocks, rather than promotes, understanding of the biographical subject.

Riess devotes a section of the Introduction to trends in Ciceronian studies since 1969. This ought to be read in combination with Riess 1999, which offers detailed contextualization and comparison of Fuhrmann 1993 and Habicht 1990, which for that reason are not discussed in the present volume. The significance of Shackleton Bailey's commented editions of the letters — of which only the Letters to Atticus were available to Gelzer by 1969 — seems to have escaped Riess (for some reason, only the fifth volume is cited in the main bibliography, and the editions of Fam.,, and ad M. Brut. fail to appear in the supplementary bibliography). Mitchell's two-volume biography, the most substantial scholarly biography since Gelzer's, is listed in the supplemental bibliography but not discussed in the Introduction. Francophone scholarship is underrepresented: one might have expected reference, e.g., to Achard 1981, Boes 1990, Deniaux 1993, and Loutsch 1994. Among Italian scholars Narducci alone is discussed, and only briefly, with criticism for his reversion to Mommsen's position (p.XXVn79); Marinone 2004 finds no place in the Introduction or supplementary bibliography.

It is helpful that a bibliography now lists the literature cited by Gelzer. This clearly demonstrates the breadth of Gelzer's reading but also the fundamental importance of F. Münzer's articles in the RE. The supplemental bibliography is very selective, and no attempt is made to key the items to relevant passages of the text, e.g., by means of asterisks. A useful guidepost has been removed in that the topics that were formerly indicated in the running heads of the odd-numbered pages have been replaced by the chapter titles (and thus duplicate the headings on the even-numbered pages). I have noticed relatively few typos.

Despite its limitations, this book will prove to be useful if it introduces more readers to Gelzer's biography and prompts further thought about our picture of Cicero and how it has come about. It is, however, no replacement for a new biography, which is overdue (similarly Riess, p. XXVII)11

Table of Contents

Vorwort zur 2. Auflage
Forschungsgeschichtliche Einleitung
I Lehrjahre
II Die ersten Jahre öffentlicher Wirksamkeit
III Die Quaestur und der Beginn der senatorischen Laufbahn
IV Die Anklage des C. Verres
V Von der Aedilität bis zur Praetur
VI Der Kampf um das Konsulat
VII Das Consulat
VIII Die Verteidung der Consulatspolitik
IX Das Exil und die Rückkehr
X "Me status hic rei publicae non delectat"
XI Das Proconsulat
XII Im Bürgerkrieg
XIII Unter Caesars Dictatur
XIV Nach den Iden des März 44
XV Im letzten Kampf für die res publica
Bibliographie von Gelzer verwendeter Literatur


1.   Gelzer 1969.
2.   Christ 1982: 116.
3.   As a general rule. He passed such judgments on occasion, however; see below.
4.   Lintott 2008: vi.
5.   For Mommsen's portrait of Caesar in relation to Louis Napoléon Bonaparte cf. Rebenich 2002: 93-96.
6.   Cf. Welwei 1996.
7.   Pp.110-11; Gelzer 1968: 22 and 24.
8.   P.226: ". . . als ob er die Freiheit besessen hätte, wie ein weltfremder Privatgelehrter nach gesinnungsethischen Prinzipien zu wählen" ("as if he had been at liberty, like an ivory-tower scholar, to choose according to ethical principles").
9.   Cf. Luc. 7.
10.   Gelzer 1968: 14.
11.   References:

Achard, G. 1981. Pratique rhétorique et idéologie politique dans les discours"optimates" de Cicéron. Leiden.
Boes, J. 1990. La philosophie et l'action dans la correspondance de Cicéron. Nancy.
Christ, K. 1982. Römische Geschichte und deutsche Geschichtswissenschaft. Munich.
Deniaux, E. 1993. Clientèles et pouvoir à l'époque de Cicéron. Rome.
Fuhrmann, M. 1993. Cicero und die römische Republik. 3rd edn. Munich-Zurich.
Gelzer, M. 1968. Cicero und Caesar. Wiesbaden.
Idem. 1969. The Roman nobility. Tr. R. Seager. Oxford (orig. 1912).
Habicht, C. 1990. Cicero der Politiker. Munich (= Cicero the Politician, Baltimore, 1989).
Lintott, A. 2008. Cicero as evidence. Oxford.
Loutsch, C. 1994. L'exorde dans les discours de Cicéron. Brussels.
Marinone, N. 2004. Cronologia ciceroniana. 2nd edn. Ed. E. Malaspina. Rome and Bologna.
Rebenich, S. 2002. Theodor Mommsen. Eine Biographie. Munich.
Riess, W. 1999. "Die Cicero-Bilder Manfred Fuhrmanns und Christian Habichts vor dem Hintergrund der deutschen Cicero-Forschung," Zeitschrift für Religions- und Geistesgeschichte 51: 301-21.
Welwei, K.-W. 1996. "Caesars Diktatur, der Prinzipat des Augustus und die Fiktion der historischen Notwendigkeit," Gymnasium 103: 477-97.

No comments:

Post a Comment