Friday, May 16, 2008

How to read Cicero's gobbets and the problem of context when studying the ancient sources

I found this extensive review of Andrew Lintott’s new book, Cicero As Evidence: A historian’s companion, very interesting from the perspective of someone who tries to understand the historical context of works written by ancient sources:

An abstract:

"Andrew Lintott’s new book, Cicero As Evidence: A historian’s companion, treats the multi-volume writings of Cicero, from the private letters to the philosophical treatises, as if they were one big gobbet..."

"...He wants, on the one hand, to warn the novice against a naive, gullible approach to this material. You must not imagine, as he explains very clearly, that what have come down to us as "Cicero’s speeches" were in most cases anything like what were actually delivered in courtroom, Senate House or Forum. This is not just a question of Cicero improving what he had said on the day, when it came to circulating the “published” version. Some were outright confections, never delivered at all. This is well known to be the case with, for example, the later speeches in the series "Against Verres"; for Verres had seen the writing on the wall and scarpered when the trial was only part way through. But the idea that his famous fourth speech against Catiline is almost as much a retrospective invention is not so widely acknowledged. More than this, however, Lintott hammers home the obvious, but often neglected, point that the speeches as we read them make no sense in terms of the courtroom procedure of Roman law. If they reflect anything of what was said at the trial, it is only because Cicero has stitched together elements of various separate phases of the proceedings (including witness interrogation) to make something that would be handed to posterity as a single, coherent "speech"..."

"...He is impressively at home with the whole body of Cicero’s writing and has a sharp eye for some interesting and evocative passages. He is particularly good at unravelling the niceties of senatorial debate, as they are hinted at by Cicero in his letters. And he has an elegant few pages on the strange work known as the Commentariolum Petitionis (Handbook on Electioneering) written by Cicero’s brother Quintus to advise him on how to get elected to the consulship. Many have suspected this to be a first-century ad forgery, one of those imaginary historical exercises that Roman rhetoricians so loved. Lintott is not, for once, on the suspicious side, and uses the Commentariolum to capture the atmosphere of a Roman election, the handshaking, the canvassing and the streetwise PR campaign. Cicero, as we know, was to prove extremely successful at this. Not so the effete aristocrat Scipio Nasica in his own attempt at a charm offensive in an earlier election campaign. Surprised to find that the peasant’s hand he was shaking was so horny, he asked the poor man if he used his hands to walk on. Scipio lost that election..."

"...But there is also a “wood and trees” problem with the idea of history as gobbet. The finely honed analysis of individual passages is all well and good. But ancient writers did not write in three-line chunks, nor (despite the modern vogue for “sourcebooks”) did they write to be “sources”; nor, of course, did they write to be “Evidence”. By keeping his nose so close to the micro-problems, Lintott can miss out the bigger picture of the world in which Cicero operated, of what he thought he was doing and why that has been of such interest ever after.

So, for example, a carefully crafted section of Lintott’s book dissects Cicero’s philosophical writing and its relationship to his political life more generally. But there is nothing on just how extraordinary it was for a Roman politician to be analysing the world in Greek philosophical terms in the first place, or on the revolution in Roman thought (of which Cicero was part driver, part beneficiary) that made this possible. Another few pages offer a sensible analysis of the politics behind one of Cicero’s, now little read, religious speeches. This is Cicero’s own response to an enigmatic priestly interpretation of a strange rumbling sound that had been heard outside Rome and was assumed to be a message from the gods. But Lintott offers little to help us understand what difference this made, or how important the gods were in a world that might otherwise seem to be governed by hard-headed realpolitik and philosophical scepticism."
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