By Jonathan Zarecki
Bloomsbury (2014) p/b 191pp £18.99 (9781780934709)
Cicero wrote De Re Publica in 52-51 BC. A central character is the rector et gubernator rei publicae, who represents the ideal statesman. Unfortunately only a quarter of the text survives, although scholars have reconstructed the gist of the missing sections. In the present work Zarecki, a classics professor at North Carolina University, seeks to analyse Cicero’s ideal statesman.
This book is divided into five parts. Chapter 1 sets the scene. It outlines the philosophical education which Cicero received in his youth. This included a healthy dose of scepticism, as he trained with the two great sceptics of the day, Philo and Antiochus. Cicero received a thorough grounding in Greek philosophy, in particular the works of Plato whom he revered. The De Re Publica owes much to Plato’s Republic. But also, as Zarecki demonstrates, Cicero adapts the theorising of the Greeks to the harsh realities of the Roman state. Cicero seeks to break down the barriers between academic philosophy and practical politics. Cicero’s experience as a politician shaped his philosophy; his philosophy, in turn, guided his political decision-making. Zarecki argues that, for all Cicero’s changes of direction, there is an underlying unity referable to his grounding in philosophy.
Chapter 2 deals with the great events between 63 and 51 BC: Cicero’s consulship in 63, Pompey’s return from the East in 62, the formation of the first triumvirate, Caesar’s consulship in 59, Cicero’s exile between 58 and 57, the composition of De Oratore in 56-55, Pompey’s sole consulship in 52, and Cicero’s departure as governor of Cilicia in 51. The chapter is not a narrative history, but rather an account of how the tumultuous events of that period shaped Cicero’s thinking and led him to compose De Re Publica. The corpus of Cicero’s letters, speeches and writings, particularly De Oratore, are a valuable resource for the author. Cicero witnessed the disintegration of the concordia ordinum, which was vital to the health of the Roman republic. He also saw the benefits of firm government under Pompey. These experiences persuaded Cicero that a mixed constitution was the most stable form of government.
Chapter 3 focuses on the rector-ideal as it is presented in De Re Publica. The rector has three great qualities: sapientia, prudentia and auctoritas. Zarecki discusses each of these Ciceronian virtues in some detail. The primary function of the rector is to preserve the republic, sometimes through crisis mediation. It is not clear whether Cicero envisaged that there would normally be just one rector or more than one. He certainly appreciated that on occasions the preservation of the republic required a single strong man to take charge. For this reason he strongly admired the sole consulship on Pompey in 52, describing it as ille divinus tertius consulatus. At the same time Cicero vehemently opposed tyranny. Indeed he portrayed the rector as the antithesis of a tyrant. When the civil war approached, Cicero was torn. Neither protagonist matched up to his concept of the rector. His relationship with both protagonists became ambivalent.
The last two chapters deal with the period after the publication of De Re Publica. They trace Cicero’s life during the civil war; his exile in Brundisium; his return to Rome; his mounting opposition to Caesar; his bitter struggle against Mark Antony; the Philippics and his death. During these years Cicero developed his concept of rector and he tried to live up to that ideal.
Overall this book is a fascinating study of the intellectual journey made by someone who was a top barrister, a leading philosopher and a senior politician in the last years of the Roman republic. The reader is assumed to have a general knowledge of Roman history and a smattering of Greek philosophy. The book will appeal to anyone who has an interest in political theory.