Cicero wrote several great dialogues. This book deals with two of them, and later this year I’ll be reporting on another Oxford University Press book that examines two more.

The synthesis of half a century of engagement with Cicero, this book by Dr. James E.G. Zetzel is a treasure for all classical historians. Zetzel is Professor Emeritus of the Latin Language and Literature at Columbia University Press. He is author of several books on Cicero, including Cicero: Ten Speeches, Cicero: On the Commonwealth and On the Laws; and Cicero: De Re Publica. This last-mentioned title is from 1995, and here he revisits that dialogue in tandem with De oratore.

De re publica was written immediately after De oratore; they were composed between 55 and 51 BCE. To provide some context for those not too familiar with the Roman Republic, the era was filled with assassination as Civil War raged. Pompey was killed in 48, Julius Caesar was killed in 44, and Cicero himself met the same fate in 43. Before all this happened, the assassination of another great Roman statesman was a watershed event for Cicero.

Crassus died in 91, and in De oratore Cicero wrote it was his good fortune in dying when he did as he did not live to witness the Civil War that tore Rome apart. “The death of Crassus is the death of the world Cicero so admired” writes Zetzel, “and the conversation of De oratore is the last gasp, almost literally, of the ideal Roman Republic.”

Zetzel traces a connexion between the writings of Plato and that of Cicero. “Following Plato’s description of the death of Socrates, Cicero describes Crassus’ last speech in the senate as his swan song.” On a more general note, Zetzel tells us “It is important to recognize that much as Cicero admires Plato as a writer, it is his life, not his philosophy, that serves as a template to be accepted or modified.” But Zetzel explains in detail that the relationship between Plato’s Phaedrus and Cicero’s De oratore is a double-edged sword. “It is, on the one hand, serios: Cicero is attempting to recreate the atmosphere of Platonic dialogue in a Roman context; on the other hand, the characters in the dialogue recoginse that the literary setting in which they place themselves is no more than a clever refraction of the real world of Roman public life, a world in which Plato has no place at all.”

In another approach Zetzel takes on the dialogue, he sees a direct parallel between what Cicero wrote about Crassus, and how he viewed his own career as a Roman statesman. His “own deeply emotional exclamation of despair at the frustration of Crassus’ life and hopes” is one of the most famous passages of ancient times. He wrote in part “Men’s hopes are treacherous, their fortunes fragile, and all our struggles are in vain! They are often broken and crash in the middle of the course or are overwhelmed along the way before they could see the harbor.” This could just as easily have been written about Cicero himself, after he was killed. But Cicero forestalled that by lamenting his own life in De oratore. Even though he had risen to the top, and even been declared Saviour of the Fatherland, his retirement was cut short by affairs of state. He expected that the “unending toils of the courts and the pressures of a political career” would cease with retirement. “But that hope of my thoughts and plans was frustrated, both by the serious disasters of shared crises and by my various private misfortunes.” As Zetzel so concisely describes it, “Cicero repeatedly and emphatically ties the scene of De oratore to his own memory, his own experience, and his own disappointment. It is an emotional recreation, or invention, of his own lost past and future.” Indeed, Zetzel makes us realise that “Crassus and Cicero are reflections of one another;” only they have achieved the level of the “perfect orator,” described as a master of all knowledge. It all goes to what he identifies as the central question of the dialogue: “what allows an orator to function successfully in Rome?”

Zetzel notes that the form of Cicero’s writing, the dialogue, “was a common way to write about philosophy – or indeed about intellectual topics of any kind.” What he writes about Aristotle is actually a bit startling. “Aristotle’s works certainly included dialogues (which have not survived) and Cicero knew them much better than he knew the Aristotelian works that we possess.” Cicero also knew of dialogues written by many others, all of which have been lost to us.

In the second dialogue Zetzel considers, De re publica, Cicero creates “a theory of government that was not utopian and not condescending – and above all, one that was relevant not to the obsolete and petty world of the Greek polis to but to genuine complexity of Rome.” Indeed, while an analysis of rhetoric and politics could be traced back to Plato, “they were very differently implicated in the philosophical world” of the Roman Republic. Unfortunately for modern scholars, “the most readable portion of the text as it now exists is the most elementary and least interesting portion of the dialogue.”

In the dialogue, Cicero writes much about Scipio, a Roman general who died long before, in 129 BCE. It is pretty much a given that the words of Scipio in De re publica are actually the words of Cicero. Scipio’s larger argument in the dialogue is certainly one that Cicero would agree with: government is less a matter of constitutional form than of personal character.

I found Zetzel’s study of Book 3 of De re publica to be illuminating for a reason he doesn’t actually mention. In 155 BCE, Rome received a delegation from Athens. The Senate had imposed a crippling fine on Athens over a land dispute, so Athens sent three men to Rome to plead their case. But instead of sending diplomats, the ambassadors were “the heads of three philosophical schools: Diogenes of Babylon (Stoic); Critolaus (Peripatetic); and the skeptic Carneades (Academic).” Imagine how different our world would be now if we relied on philosophers instead of politically-appointed ambassadors (who are often just stooges that contributed campaign money) to solve affairs of state. As Zetzel admits, Cicero’s debate on justice in this dialogue is “a work a remarkable complexity.” In this brief review I can only say it is well worth studying, and the concluding section on Scipio’s Dream, which ends De re publica, is extraordinary.

In his final pages, Zetzel gives us a major take-away. “In viewing his literary and philosophical endeavours themselves as a contribution to political and moral life Cicero himself makes this fairly explicit: to reflect on Plato is to reflect on Rome.” So, anyone who thinks they can read Cicero without reading Plato first better think again! A great book, and one that will quickly become essential reading for Classical scholars.


The Lost Republic: Cicero’s De oratore and De re publica lists for $99. It is by Oxford University Press.


By Dr. Cliff Cunningham

Dr. Cliff Cunningham is a planetary scientist, the acknowledged expert on the 19th century study of asteroids. He is a Research Fellow at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia. He serves as Editor of the History & Cultural Astronomy book series published by Springer; and Associate Editor of the Journal of Astronomical History & Heritage. Asteroid 4276 in space was named in his honour by the International Astronomical Union based in the recommendation of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Dr. Cunningham has written or edited 15 books. His PhD is in the History of Astronomy, and he also holds a BA in Classical Studies.