Monday, September 23, 2019


Meike Rühl, Ciceros Korrespondenz als Medium literarischen und gesellschaftlichen Handelns. Mnemosyne. Supplements, 422. Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2018. Pp. x, 338. ISBN 9789004383142. $140.00.

Reviewed by Andrew R. Dyck, Los Angeles

Version at BMCR home site

Publisher's Preview

Known as the author of a study setting Statius's Silvae into a socioliterary context,1 Meike Rühl continues her exploration of 'moments that turn into literature,' this time with Cicero's epistolary corpus as the analysand.

A brief Introduction defines an approach based on theories of communication and the sociology of space. Of the two parts, Part 1 considers the letter as a medium of communication, whereas Part 2 offers a topography of the Ciceronian letter. A brief Conclusion rounds out the volume. Her quotations in the text are accompanied by deft German translations; might she might consider producing her own rendering of the corpus to replace Wieland and Gräter?

Part I begins with current theories of communication, which are based on analysis of conversation. The basic constituents (sender, recipient, statement, and context) apply equally to conversation and correspondence. Letters differ from conversation in that a letter, having only a visual dimension, lacks the contextualization cues (e.g., intonation) and paralinguistic signs (e.g., speed of enunciation, pauses, intervals between changes of speaker) of conversation.

The Cicero-Caelius correspondence makes an apt initial example, since instead of being the usual 'half dialogue' it contains a substantial number of Caelius's letters, indeed the ratio is 17:9 in favor of Caelius. The exchange begins with Cicero's departure on May 1, 51, bound for Cilicia, the province he has been assigned to govern. The first step is negotiation of the general framework. Cicero clarifies that he need not be told all the current gossip; what he expects from Caelius is a prognosis of the future (Fam. 2.8.1). To overcome the distance and create a communicative community, much use is made of personal pronouns and pronominal adjectives (pp. 36-37).

Rühl claims that verbal cues embedded in the narrative replace the nonverbal 'contextualization cues' that aid conversational communication. It is certainly possible for substitutes to be developed for contextualization cues and paralinguistic signs, e.g., the 'LOL' commonly used in online communications to indicate tone (= 'laughing out loud'). However, Rühl's examples, such as the curse at Fam. 8.1.4 ('may this be on their heads!': p. 36), are unconvincing, since this could equally be said in conversation. The transfer of communication theory based upon conversation to epistolary practices is perhaps less straightforward than Rühl suggests.

If Rühl first explores one of the most discussed segments of the corpus, the correspondence with Caelius, she turns next to one of the more neglected, the letters of recommendation (litterae commendaticiae). The neglect may have to do with the fact that these letters have been mostly gathered together in a single book (Fam. 13), an arrangement that makes their transactional and, in part, formulary nature obvious, although Cicero usually contrives to vary the conventional forms and keep his recommendations lively and interesting.2

Here Rühl investigates the power dynamics between author (A) and addressee (B) as well as the position of the laudandus (C) and compares the different relations involved in the more impersonal modern letter of recommendation. The ancient letter of recommendation is based upon a preexisting relationship of (A) and (B) and forms a part of that relationship: the letter itself documents the existence of the relationship, and the reaction of (B) shows its strength or weakness. The role of (C) is to prove himself worthy of the praise bestowed by (A) and also to report the outcome back to (A). Rühl appositely illustrates the functioning of the process by reference to the correspondence between Cicero and Caesar on the one hand and Cicero and Trebatius on the other at the time when, in spring 54, Trebatius set out to join Caesar in Gaul with Cicero's letter of recommendation in hand. She also shows how a skilled player of the game, such as Cicero, can mobilize other agents, in this case his brother Quintus and his friend Balbus, both of whom were also with Caesar in Gaul, to increase the social pressure to obtain the desired result, in this case, the acceptance of Trebatius (p. 124).

In Part 2, after a theoretical introduction to space as a social and imagined construct, Rühl turns to the fairly extensive corpus of letters Cicero dispatched as governor of Cilicia (51-50 BCE), beginning with official reports to the senate. Cicero was, of course, well versed in this kind of public rhetoric: in the face of the threat of a Parthian invasion, he paints himself as a well informed and 'hands-on' administrator and sets off his record against the foil of M. Bibulus, governor of neighboring Syria, who has been slow to arrive in post (Fam. 15.1-2).

From Cicero's point of view, the problem with his being in the province was that he lacked the 'stage' on which he preferred to perform—Rome itself. In this situation, Atticus compensates for the missing spectators. Hence the incessant praise of his own performance in the letters to this addressee that readers have found so tedious and/or grating.3 Rühl shrewdly suspects that when Cicero tells Atticus that he would prefer for him to hear his praises sung by others (Att. 5.17.2, 5.19.2), this may be a subtle hint that Atticus himself should take on that role (p. 170).

Of particular interest is Cicero's account of his one military venture as governor, the capture of the stronghold of Pindenissum in the Amanus Mountains that was held by a band of 'Free Cilicians' who resisted the Roman imperial yoke. He offers, in fact, three different versions of this, to Atticus, Caelius, and Cato, each carefully tailored to the particular addressee, as Rühl shows, learned and literary to the first, playful to the second, and factual to the third (pp. 177-85). Rühl adds a discussion of Cato's reply (Fam. 15.5), in which she stresses his convoluted and fussy formulations (pp. 185-88) and shows little sympathy for his position. Readers may wish to supplement by comparing the more sympathetic discussions by Wistrand and Fehrle (not cited by Rühl).4

The chapter on Cicero's letters from Cilicia concludes with a comparison with Caesar's commentaries on the Gallic War. Here Rühl includes a comparison of Cicero's siege of Pindenissum with Caesar's of Alesia; she thinks the former inspired by ('nachempfunden') the latter, speaks of the Caesarian scene as Cicero's 'great model' ('das grosse Vorbild'), and of Cicero distancing himself 'by means of parody' ('parodierend') from Caesar (pp. 195, 196, 199). These ideas rest upon shaky foundations, however. It is agreed that Caesar composed Gal. 7 in the winter of 52-51.5 The reception of Gal. is first attested in 46 (Brut. 262). It seems doubtful that Cicero already knew Caesar's account before he left for Cilicia in May 51, and nothing in the two passages requires such knowledge. The commonalities involve siege techniques, which, if they were not generally known among Roman field commanders, could have been imparted to Cicero by his brother Quintus, who was his legate in Cilicia, as he had been of Caesar for several years in Gaul.

Chapter 7 discusses Rome as a space in Cicero's imagination, beginning with the correspondence with Varro in 46 as both men seek to get their bearings in an Italy now dominated by the dictator Caesar. Rühl speaks aptly in this context of 'inner emigration' (p. 207) and might have invoked the similar concept of 'inner exile'.6 She is particularly good on the letter in which Cicero gives vent to his consternation at Pompey's (militarily necessary) abandonment of Italy (Att. 7.11.3-4; pp. 209-11) and defines Rome as a 'semantically charged place of remembrance' ('semantisch aufgeladene[r] Erinnerungsort': p. 210). In dealing with the correspondence with Caesar from the early stage of the civil war, however, she seems to read too much into the phrase 'ad urbem' (Att. 9.16.2; p. 213), which indicates merely that Caesar would like Cicero to be 'in the vicinity of the City' (OLD s.v. ad 13a), sc. so as to be available for consultation or the like, not that he is barred from the City.

The final part of Chapter 7 differs from the foregoing in that it deals not with concrete places but with urbanitas, a quality abstracted from the urban environment, which Rühl conceives as a 'habitus' in Bourdieu's sense (p. 223) and as a strategy used by outsiders to advance their interests in the political game (as it had been by Cicero, though there is always the danger of overgeneralizing from his case because he dominates our evidence for the period). Rühl discusses inter alia Caesar's reference to Cicero in the dedication of De analogia and Cicero's citation thereof and riposte at Brut. 252 ff. Here she is in line with recent scholarship emphasizing the qualified or possibly barbed nature of Caesar's remarks (palliated by the framework in which Cicero cites them).7 She also adduces in this context Pliny's citation of Caesar apropos of Cicero (Nat. 7.117; p. 242) but fails to explain how this apparently positive assessment might relate to the dedicatory preface of De analogia or how Caesar excludes Cicero from military and political discourse (as claimed on p. 243). In this last part of Chapter 7 the discussion of the relationship of Cicero and Caesar is spun out to considerable length; this reader would have preferred a tighter focus on urbanitas. Good points emerge, however, e.g., on Cicero's letter to Paetus describing a convivium at the house of Volumnius Eutrapelus and the conditions for communication under Caesar's dictatorship (Fam. 9.26; pp. 279-87).8

Rühl, then, has tackled a diffuse subject, which she seeks to control by focusing on some key aspects. She acutely dissects the sociopolitical power structures that underlie the epistolary behavior of Cicero and his contemporaries, and deserves to be read by all who are interested in such issues, though readers should, as always, not relax their critical guard.


1.   M. Rühl, Literatur gewordener Augenblick. Die Silven des Statius im Kontext literarischer und sozialer Bedingungen von Dichtung (Berlin-New York, 2006).
2.   Rühl (p. 119 and n. 61) endorses the theory of Gurlitt, revived by Cotton, that when Cicero contemplated publishing a selection of his letters (Att. 16.5.5) he had in mind the litterae commendaticiae. This seems doubtful, however. To judge from the plan for his consular corpus, he will have wanted to promote an image of himself as a consummate statesman (cf. Att. 2.1.3). If that is so, one might have expected inclusion of, e.g., 1.1 on provincial governance (which was already elaborated with fine clausulae) or a version of Fam. 1.9 (the self-justification to Lentulus) with the sensitive matter edited out.
3.   For the theatrical metaphor, cf. Ver. 2.5.35 with Rühl, p. 153; for a reader's response, cf. A. Lintott, Cicero as evidence: A historian's companion (Oxford, 2008), 254-55.
4.   M. Wistrand, Cicero imperator: Studies in Cicero's correspondence 51-47 B.C. (Gothenburg, 1979), 31-34; R. Fehrle, Cato Uticensis (Darmstadt, 1983), 229-33.
5.   So M. Radin, 'The date of composition of Caesar's Gallic War', CP 13 (1918), 283-300 at 288; cf. T. P. Wiseman, 'The publication of De bello Gallico', in K. Welch and A. Powell, eds., Julius Caesar as artful reporter: The war commentaries as political instruments (London, 1998), 1-9 at 6.
6.   Cf. N. Herescu, 'Les trois exils de Cicéron', Atti del I Congresso Internazionale di Studi Ciceroniani (Rome, 1961), 1.137-56.
7.   One misses a citation of A. Garcea, ed., comm., Caesar's De analogia (Oxford, 2012), 88-90.
8.   For this letter, cf. J. Hall, 'Writing letters at dinner time: Cicero's epistolary etiquette', in A. H. Groton, Ab omni parte beatus: Classical essays in honor of J. M. May (Mundelein, 2017), 161-80.

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