Western Literature to Dante

Bruce A. McMenomy, Ph.D. for Scholars Online
2019-20: Mondays, 1:00 p.m.- 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time


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Unit V: Republican Rome ca. 200 to 44 B.C.

Week 15: Political Writers at Rome
C. Julius Caesar, ca. 100 - 44 B.C.
and M. Tullius Cicero, ca. 106 - 43 B.C.
[with Polybius, ca. 200 - ca. 118 B.C.]

By class time this week, please have read and considered

Now we move over to the Roman world. Unfortunately, we don’t have the time to show here the slow growth of the Roman republic, and its earliest forms of literature, as intriguing as all that is. The earliest Latin is pretty dry and procedural stuff, though — mostly law, and rather dull law as it goes.

Bust of Julius Caesar
Bust of Julius Caesar. Courtesy VRoma

When the Romans began seriously to look beyond the confines of Italy, and to conquer large portions of Greek territory (ca. 200 B. C.), their perspective on the world changed, and they became quite enamored of Greek art and culture. As the poet Horace (Q. Horatius Flaccus) would later say, “Greece, having been captured, took its captors captive.” The Romans in particular began to emulate Greek rhetoric — the rhetorical arts had a long and wild history in Greece, taking in such notable figures as Demosthenes and Aeschines, but also the Sophists, who were essentially rhetoric instructors. They also found Greek comedy intriguing, and developed a Roman comedy so entirely modeled on Greek originals that it was considered cheating to come up with a new plot. The comic playwright Terence (P. Terentius Afer) was accused of just this — contaminatio, it was called. The Romans also began to explore the other Greek forms of literature in fits and starts, including epic poetry (though the earliest efforts in this direction were pretty appalling), and also philosophy and history. In this earliest period there was one acute observer who was actually from Greece himself — a hostage named Polybius, who, during his many years at Rome (insuring that his hometown didn’t rise up in rebellion), wrote a historical study of the Roman way of life, and a penetrating account of their political structures, based on earlier theories of Aristotle. I have included a couple of the more interesting passages here for you to review. They are not required, and while they may come up in class, most of the attention will be focused on the following two authors from the first century B. C.

This week we can only scratch the surface of the rich treasury of Roman prose. Probably the two greatest Latin prose authors of the first century B. C. — that is, the last century of the Republic — were C. Julius Caesar and M. Tullius Cicero. Political enemies much of their lives, they came from widely differing backgrounds, pursued entirely different careers, and had profoundly different prose styles. The translations here have tried to capture some of these differences, and it will not be hard to tell them apart. Cicero, something of a fussy grammarian and stylist, but a powerful speaker, was a champion of a dying ideal of the Republic in which every party played a balanced part; his prose reflects this ideal of calm balance and careful deliberation. Caesar was a man of the new order — he accomplished almost unimaginable things on the strength of his personal charisma and charm, and effectively brought Republic to an end. His spare, uncompromising prose style is a nearly perfect representation of his personality, with an intensity of focus that occasionally seems to lapse, just for a moment, into brutality. The passage here is from the first book of the Gallic War, which recounts his long and spectacular career as a provincial governor and conqueror in the area that is now France.

Bust of Julius Cicero
A portrait bust of Cicero. Courtesy VRoma

Part of my point in making the selection I have made is to highlight the question of who or what kind of person a hero is — we have been discussing this in the past, and comparisons will become clearer as we go along. I would also like to shed some light for the first time on issues of style. I had thought originally to include at least one of Cicero’s speeches, since that is what he is most noted for; yet he was such a widely learned writer that there are few forms of writing he left untouched. He wrote rhetorical theory and philosophy in addition to his speeches. All of these are worth reading, and someone who would welcome a little extra reading might want to check out the Pro Milone (Defense of Milo), which will help tie together a number of the strands in these letters, and also some of the subsequent readings of other authors. But here I am merely having you read two letters, and they are of a very different sort.

As you read these, read them slowly and carefully. The passages are not, in terms of what you have had to read in the past, particularly long, but their style is really open to view somewhat.

Consider in particular for discussion:

  1. What kind of figure does each of these writers hold up to idealize? Caesar seems out to idealize himself — how does he portray himself? What are his virtues? What, by way of contrast, does Cicero emphasize in his own character?
  2. What do we mean by style? You can tell it’s there, but can you tell what it is?
  3. How do the styles of these two monumental prose stylists reflect the personalities behind them?

We will have one encounter with other Roman poets, and then will dive into our reading of the Aeneid. You may want to do yourself a favor by getting a head start on it. The translation I have recommended is quite straightforward, and though it cannot possibly do justice to the language of the original, it does preserve matters of structure and theme. Not to let the cat out of the bag, Vergil (some spell it, less correctly, Virgil) was modeling his work on that of Homer; the structure of the Aeneid directly reflects the structure of the Iliad and of the Odyssey. While you are reading it, consider how it does so; how and why, on the other hand, does it feel so different? What is Vergil’s political angle, if any? Is he promoting Rome, or attacking it from an obscure vantage point? Let all this roll around in your head as you read it, and we should be able to have some good discussions when you are finished.