The Academy: session abstract and readings

Classics, Lecture 2: Cicero’s De re publica

Angus Kennedy


Cicero’s Republic (De re publica), written in 54-51 BC, has played a major role in the development of political and legal theory, despite its survival in a fragmentary state. In it, Cicero traces the development of the Roman state and builds a theory of constitutions that is very much in debt to Plato and Aristotle, who both wrote ‘Republics’ of their own. Cicero’s historical position as a defender of the Roman Republic - and its ‘mixed constitution’ of elements of kingship (consuls), aristocracy (the senate) and democracy (the people) - against tyranny, oligarchy and mob rule has led many to read him as a defender of republican liberty against the unscrupulous and power-hungry (most notably Caesar), who would make themselves kings by bribing the people to support them. Yet Cicero displays notable hostility to the public and to democracy in this work, warning how in Greece mere ‘craftsmen, shopkeepers, and all the dregs’ of Athens could be swayed by unprincipled demagogues. He repeatedly distinguishes between freedom (libertas) and licence (licentia): the latter is what results if the proper hierarchy is ignored and everyone is treated as if they were possessed of equal worth and equal authority. The consequences of this excessive equality and total freedom are such that ‘youngsters assume the authority of older men… even slaves behave with excessive freedom, wives enjoy the same rights as their husbands and, in this all-pervading freedom, dogs and horses and even asses charge around so freely that one has to stand aside for them in the street’.

The lecture will look at what Cicero understood as the public and how he related public freedom to the law, the authority of the senate and the Roman constitution. It will also compare Cicero’s model of freedom to that exercised by the great men of the time (Pompey, Caesar, Octavian): an exercise in individual freedom that provided a background of ongoing civil war to Cicero’s writing and political activism.

Reading

Cicero, The Republic and The Laws, Oxford World’s Classics

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