A Written Republic: Cicero's Philosophical Politics

A Written Republic: Cicero's Philosophical Politics

A Written Republic: Cicero's Philosophical Politics

A Written Republic: Cicero's Philosophical Politics


In the 40s BCE, during his forced retirement from politics under Caesar's dictatorship, Cicero turned to philosophy, producing a massive and important body of work. As he was acutely aware, this was an unusual undertaking for a Roman statesman because Romans were often hostile to philosophy, perceiving it as foreign and incompatible with fulfilling one's duty as a citizen. How, then, are we to understand Cicero's decision to pursue philosophy in the context of the political, intellectual, and cultural life of the late Roman republic? In A Written Republic, Yelena Baraz takes up this question and makes the case that philosophy for Cicero was not a retreat from politics but a continuation of politics by other means, an alternative way of living a political life and serving the state under newly restricted conditions.

Baraz examines the rhetorical battle that Cicero stages in his philosophical prefaces--a battle between the forces that would oppose or support his project. He presents his philosophy as intimately connected to the new political circumstances and his exclusion from politics. His goal--to benefit the state by providing new moral resources for the Roman elite--was traditional, even if his method of translating Greek philosophical knowledge into Latin and combining Greek sources with Roman heritage was unorthodox.

A Written Republic provides a new perspective on Cicero's conception of his philosophical project while also adding to the broader picture of late-Roman political, intellectual, and cultural life.


“SO THIS, THEN, IS MY LIFE. Everyday I read or write something.” This notice, almost absurd in its vagueness, begins the last section of Cicero’s letter to his friend Papirius Paetus, composed towards the end of year 46. There are no letters to Atticus between November of 46 and March of 45, when Cicero, still in deep mourning for his daughter, left Atticus’ house for Astura. This reference to writing, then, may be the only surviving mention in the correspondence of the composition of the protreptic dialogue Hortensius. We lack circumstantial information about the composition, the kind of detail that we often find in the correspondence with Atticus and that reveals so much about Cicero’s compositional process (decisions about the title, the dialogue speakers, and the dedication, as well as requests that Atticus check a reference in a book and consultations about the translation of Greek terminology). This lack is more than matched by the dismembered state of the little that survives of the work itself. But the text was crucial to Cicero’s philosophical activity during the difficult years of Caesar’s domination, and it is equally important to our attempts to come to terms with the corpus of writings that he produced during those years, a corpus overwhelming in its ambition and sheer size, hailed as a triumph of the spirit by some and condemned (or pitied) as a failure by others.

Cicero returned to the Hortensius many times in the prefaces to other philosophical works, for it was there that he had made his case for philosophy in the broadest terms. The dialogue inaugurated what has often been called Cicero’s philosophical encyclopedia, a systematic attempt to present the major areas of Greek philosophical thought, reconceived, reworked, and rearranged with an elite Roman reader in mind. That this massive project was very much a product of its author’s particular circumstances is beyond doubt. On the most basic level, Cicero’s forced retirement from politics as a result of Caesar’s new order is what enabled the production of this— the largest— portion of the philosophica by giving him the unoccupied time that he desperately wanted to put to use. But more importantly, the very fact of Caesar’s new position, and the destructive

sic igitur vivitur. cottidie aliquid legitur aut scribitur (Fam. 9.26.4; SB 197).

On the date, see Ruch 1958b.35–37 and Bringmann 1971.90–93.

Steinmetz 1990 provides a useful overview of Cicero’s output during this period.

Cf. Bringmann’s (1971.118–19) reconstruction of Cicero’s speech in the dialogue as avoiding engagement with specific views of individual philosophical schools.

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.