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CJ-ONLINE  January 2009

CJ-ONLINE January 2009

Subject:

CJ Online Exclusive 2009.01.02 MURRELL, Cicero and the Roman Republic

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Cicero and the Roman Republic. By JOHN MURRELL. Greece & Rome: Texts and 
Contexts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. 184. Paper, 
$25.00. ISBN: 978–0–52169–116–1.


Order this text for $19.03 from Amazon.com using this link and 
benefit CAMWS and the Classical Journal:

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/redirect-home/classjourn-20


Previously published CJ Online reviews are at 
http://classicaljournal.org/reviews.php


CJ Forum Online Exclusive 2009.01.02

John Murrell’s (M.) contribution to Cambridge’s Greece & Rome: Texts 
and Contexts series, a series targeted at either advanced high school or 
undergraduate students, provides a chronological survey of Cicero’s life 
and the history of the Late Republic through a selection of translations of 
primary readings and associated discussion questions, which are designed, 
according to the back cover, to encourage students “to consider the 
relevance of ancient texts to the modern world.” M. intends “to show 
the strains and pressures on the Republic which eventually led to the rule 
of one man” (p. v), and for the most part he succeeds in achieving his 
aim.

Several aspects of the book stand out. While the chapters generally cover 
the standard episodes from Cicero’s life, such as the prosecution of 
Verres (Ch. 4), the Catilinarian Conspiracy and the fight with Clodius (Ch. 
6) and the conflict with Antonius (Ch. 12), M. also includes several often 
less-discussed topics, such as Cicero’s thoughts on citizenship (Ch. 1) 
and his proconsulship in Cilicia (Ch. 10), and devotes a good bit of text 
to discussions of Rome and its provinces. M. has also done an admirable job 
of drawing from the entire Ciceronian corpus; he quotes from no fewer than 
27 works, and makes liberal use of Cicero’s letters. In addition, he 
provides supporting text from such diverse sources as Sallust, Suetonius, 
Plutarch and Asconius. Furthermore, M. provides a list of suggested further 
readings, helpfully divided into the categories of “introductory” and 
“more advanced” studies. There is also a short but useful glossary of 
terms, and the maps and illustrations that appear, while relatively few in 
number, are informative, high-quality additions. The four-page introduction 
is a fine summary of the political structure of the Roman state, and M. 
makes sure to emphasize the important point that the optimates and 
populares should not be seen as ancient equivalents of modern political 
parties. The biographical and explanatory footnotes that accompany the 
translations of primary sources are succinct and useful without being 
overwhelming, and the short narratives that connect the primary readings 
often provide valuable summaries of important political points (such as the 
discussion of Sulla’s reforms on pp. 23–4).

I nonetheless have two main reservations about this book, the first more 
serious than the second. The lack of discussion of Cicero’s philosophical 
program is glaring and unfortunate. While M.’s text contains a great deal 
of discussion of the degeneracy and decay of the Roman government, the De 
Republica is given only cursory mention on p. 118, where the focus is on 
the discovery of the Vatican palimpsest, not the content of the work 
itself. The De Legibus is the first work M. quotes (pp. 8–9), but only 
for its discussion of a man’s two fatherlands, and he never mentions it 
again. In addition, the entirety of the period from Pharsalus to the 
aftermath of Caesar’s assassination is condensed into a mere nine pages, 
and save for one quotation from Fam. 7.28.3, all mention of Cicero’s 
philosophical program composed in those years is omitted. In a book that 
seeks to explore the reasons for Rome’s evolution from republic to empire 
and “why [Cicero] felt so strongly about the respublica” (p. v), at 
least a token discussion of the De Officiis is expected. Granted, this is 
not a book for specialists, but these works are not beyond the capabilities 
of the intended audience, and they provide valuable information about 
Cicero’s thoughts on the nature of the Republic.

My second reservation concerns the discussion questions that appear 
throughout the book. These questions are designed to engage the students 
not only with Cicero’s writings and the political climate of ancient Rome 
but also with current events and modern political history. But the 
questions seem to blur the focus, and since they are integral to the stated 
purpose of the Greece & Rome series, they would be impossible to leave out 
if one were to adopt the book for class use. A number of them, especially 
in the last three chapters, are relevant and thought-provoking; for 
example, M. ends by asking perhaps the most fundamental question of all: 
“Was the respublica worth saving?” (p. 174). But within the context of 
what he is attempting to do with this text, I often felt that the questions 
diverted attention from Cicero and the fall of the Republic and made the 
book seem as if it were more concerned with modern civics. A few examples: 
“There are societies or countries which do not use the adversarial 
system. How is justice administered in such places?” (in a discussion of 
Verres’ trial); “In modern states what views do governments and 
political parties have about poverty and the ways to eliminate it?” (in 
the chapter devoted to the Catilinarian Conspiracy, after Cicero’s list 
of the five categories of Catiline’s followers given at Cat. 2.17–23). 
Furthermore, at several points M. makes comments or presents questions that 
may not sit well with an American audience and that may require deft 
maneuvering on the instructor’s part to keep the class discussion both 
cordial and on-topic. For example, on p. 42, M. calls the contemporary 
United States an imperialist state; whatever truth this statement may 
contain, it could be easily construed as polemical by some students. The 
second question on p. 91 asks students to think about modern examples of 
“politicians obstinately sticking to their principles when a more 
flexible stance might have helped the state”; I do not think that it is 
much of a stretch to think that the immediate response may involve 
President George W. Bush and his policies. M.’s questions also 
occasionally ask students to compare apples and oranges, as when he asks 
students on p. 126 to consider how modern warfare differs from the ancient 
variety described in a very short excerpt describing Cicero’s 
unimpressive campaign at Pindenissum.

These qualms aside, M.’s book achieves its goal of providing a fairly 
comprehensive and accessible discussion of the collapse of the Roman 
Republic, and will be particularly useful for advanced high-school 
students. I remain hesitant about its usefulness in the undergraduate 
classroom, but as part of an interdisciplinary freshman seminar it is at 
least worthy of consideration.

JONATHAN P. ZARECKI
University of North Carolina, Greensboro



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