Wednesday, February 10, 2016


Jean Pierre De Giorgio, L'écriture de soi à Rome. Autour de la correspondence de Cicéron. Collection Latomus 347. Bruxelles: Éditions Latomus, 2015. Pp. 305. ISBN 9789042932388. €51.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Christian Rollinger, Universität Trier (

Version at BMCR home site

There is no shortage of books on the topic of Cicero or his philosophical or rhetorical treatises, nor, indeed, his invaluable Letters. The reader of Jean-Pierre De Giorgio's PhD thesis, presented here in a reworked fashion, nevertheless comes away from this work with a novel appreciation of the depth of thought of Cicero's epistolary work and the way he utilised the epistolary medium not only as a means of self-reflection and self-presentation, but also as an instrument of both social communication and philosophical introspection.

De Giorgio, who has already published on several individual aspects of this study (which are nevertheless here integrated in a wider context),1 concerns himself with the presentation and construction of a notion of "self" within the corpus of extant Ciceronian letters. The persona that Cicero thus carefully establishes in his writing is adapted to specific discoursive circumstances and finely crafted to present the "self" that is appropriate (aptus) on any given occasion. As a consequence, Cicero adopts different personae at different times, changes them, and subtly adapts them.2 It is this process of adaptation that De Giorgio attempts to show in the Letters.

He begins with a general introduction (13-40), in which he lays out his fundamental epistemological interest (30-38), gives a concise summary of recent scholarship on Cicero's letters, and sketches out the structure of his study.

In Part One (41-156), De Giorgio places Cicero's Letters in their social context, dealing first with the genre of epistolary writing (ch. 1), the Roman concept of amicitia, in which letter-writing was itself inscribed (ch. 2), Roman society as a "face-to-face"-society (ch. 3), and finally the Roman notions of urbanitas and humanitas (ch. 4). These chapters serve to characterize letter-writing as a quintessentially aristocratic and Roman occupation, which was firmly established and integrated into the general social framework of amicitia. Letters served (among other things) to compensate for the physical absence of an amicus by attempting to function as a "portrait de son âme", a portrait of the friend's soul (61). They were also the preferred means of constructing and expressing a persona, a "face" of one's self, which was presented to one's peers for their approval (63). De Giorgio competently describes and analyses the subtle expectations and requirements of amicitia and the "friendly" dialogue that is to be found in the letters, pointing out, for instance, that the precise form of greeting chosen for any given letter was loaded with meaning, as it was part of the construction of a specific epistolary "self" (and, it might be added, also of the addressee, at least for the purpose of a specific epistle) and was liable to change with each individual letter (73-77). Adapting both the epistolary style (or genre) and a public persona was an expression of recognizing what was appropriate (aptum) (80-85, see p. 82: "écrire, c'est choisir ce qui convient"). Any given situation, as well as any given correspondent, required a specific type of persona, "à la croisée entre l'individuel et le general. Cet art de régulation de son êthos (son caractère) et de sa persona (le personnage social) constitue la loi suprême de l'écriture épistolaire." (84) In this, letter-writing followed the same rules as personal interaction: the adaptation of a specific persona was closely connected to the notion of "face" and "saving face" (87-90), for instance in choosing specific styles and themes for epistolary introductions or endings, particularly if the contents of the letter were apt to meet with resistance or anger. Constructing a public persona in these circumstances was "face-work," 3 while the knowledge of what was generally appropriate and the ability to discern what was appropriate in specific circumstances, was part of an aristocratic virtue described as urbanitas or humanitas (130-140), terms which hardly lend themselves to translation and which far exceeded what we would maybe today call "wit" or "refinement." In conclusion, De Giorgio rightly states that epistolary self-construction served two equally important functions: it allowed the letter-writer to adhere to the conventions of amicitia and the demands of social norms in a variety of forms by presenting himself as a diligent friend, but it also provided an opportunity to stress the writer's aristocratic cultural virtues, his ingenium, erudition, and wit, each time finely attuned to the individual addressee.

The second part of this study (157-264) deals with more philosophical matters, with auto-diegetical "écriture de soi", based on notions propounded by M. Foucault,4 the constant and ever-present process of self-reflection and self- experimentation in the letters of Cicero, particularly in those addressed to Atticus. While epistolary writing may be understood, according to De Giorgio, as "l'art de façonner son visage social, moral et psychologique, un 'art de soi-même'" (157), he also stresses that it is in constructing and reflecting social personas that Cicero reveals something of himself. In particular, the sometimes long passages of self-debate and self-reflection in Cicero, are, for De Giorgio, examples of cura sui (157-162), of internalised self-confrontation and "exercise" of the philosophical and political mind. Ch. 5 deals with particular examples of such letters, notably the long epistolary discussions with Atticus at the beginning of the Civil War. Agonising over whether or not to leave Italy with Pompey, Cicero, according to De Giorgio, is not only interested in Atticus' advice, but in the exercise in and of itself (Att. 9.8.2). De Giorgio demonstrates this particularly for Att. 7.11.19, a letter written after the events described in it had already led to decisions he now feigns to debate. Cicero himself admits that he is occupied with intellectual exercises which take the form of a monological deliberatio in utramque partem, the purpose of which is less to reach a specific decision than to arrive at an apt persona for the occasion.5 Ch. 6 stresses the importance of the Roman villa for "self-writing" (i.e.: writing on one's own as well as on one's self), as a physical location in which to write, as the setting for philosophical dialogues, and as a "mental image", a reflection of the self, as evidenced, for instance, by Cicero's care in choosing furnishing and art pieces for his various estates, reflective of his own persona (197-201). Ch. 7 deals with Cicero's self-conceptualisation of his role in the life of the Roman republic. Analysing those episodes in Cicero's life where he was confronted with the choice of further–although possibly fruitless–participation in political life or the retirement into philosophical otium, De Giorgio shows how Cicero in his correspondence attempted to incorporate these episodes of forced political retirement into his "self-work", either by adopting the persona of an "intellectuel de salon" (257) or of an Epicurean, as in 46 B.C., or, on the contrary, by refusing to do so, as during his time of exile (243-248), when he presented himself as "face-less" (246: "celui qui n'a pas de face, au sens propre et au sens de 'façade sociale'"), thus as socially invisible.

A short conclusion (265-268), a bibliography (269-298), and a very useful index locorum (299-305) complement this intellectually stimulating, if not always (and particularly for the non-native French speaker) easily accessible study, written in a demanding and high-brow style that at times obfuscates instead of clarifying. If one were to search for the proverbial fly in the ointment, one might rightly criticise the almost completely lacking acknowledgement of (not only) recent German scholarship. While English and Italian academia is represented in significant numbers among the titles listed, there are no more than 11 German articles and/or monographs listed in the 30-page bibliography. This is particularly galling in the case of a number of important studies of recent years which would undoubtedly have proven useful and stimulating to the author, as they touch on core issues of his own work.6 This quibble notwithstanding, the present volume makes an interesting and unusual contribution to the already vast body of scholarship focused on Cicero's correspondence – this alone should merit it a place on the bookshelf.


1.   "Absence et présence dans les lettres d'exil de Cicéron", Interférences 8 (2015), online publication Interférences; "'Je t'ai vu tout entire dans ta lettre'": Humanitas, 'portrait d'âme' et persuasion dans la Correspondance de Cicéron", in P. Laurence et F. Guillaumont (eds.), Epistulae Antiquae. Actes du Vième colloque international "L'épistolaire antique et ses prolongements européens" (Université François-Rabelais, Tours, 6-7-8 septembre 2006), Louvain; Paris 2008, 101-114; "Savoir commencer une letter et savoir la finir. Étude des interactions dans les séquences d'ouverture et de clôture des lettres familières de Cicéron", in B. Buraeu et C. Nicolas (eds.), Commencer et Finir dans les littératures antiques, Collection du CRGR 31, Lyon 2007, 347-360.
2.   See, for instance, p. 30: "Écrire devient alors un art de l'évaluation des circonstances et de l'acte approprié: c'est une technique de soi, développée avec les amici."
3.   See Hall, J., Politeness and Politics in Cicero's Letters, Oxford 2009; Goffman, E., Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior, Chicago 1967.
4.   Foucault, M., "L'écriture de soi", in Dits et écrits 1954-1988, éd. par D. Defert et F. Ewald, Paris 2001; L'Herméneutique du sujet, Collège de France (1981, 1982), Paris 2001.
5.   See p. 177: "Cicéron importe dans un cadre privé des techniques du débat public qui lui permettent de reformuler […] des événements qui ont déjà eu lieu ou des decisions qui ont déja été prises. Elles servent ainsi d'exercise de la pensée, constituent une manière de s'éprouver et de se positioner sur le plan éthique, que l'action ait été accomplie ou non."
6.   In particular Schneider, W. Chr., Vom Handeln der Römer. Kommunikation und Interaktion der politischen Führungsschicht vor Ausbruch des Bürgerkrieges im Briefwechsel mit Cicero, Spudasmata 66, Hildesheim 1998 and Behrendt, A., Mit Zitaten kommunizieren. Untersuchungen zur Zitierweise in der Korrespondenz des Marcus Tullius Cicero, Litora Classica 6, Rahden 2013. On amicitia, with a particular focus on the social dimensions, see now also Rollinger, Chr., Amicitia sanctissime colenda. Freundschaft und soziale Netzwerk in der Späten Republik, Studien zur Alten Geschichte 19, Heidelberg 2014.

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