I am always suspicious of generalities. One generality that has bothered me for a while concerns the works of Cicero.
Some of these works, like the Tusculan Disputations, assemble a cast of Romans who engage in a debate. These are usually important people, and are all deceased. It is routinely said, without discussion, that this is a literary device; that Cicero is chosing players for the speeches he wants delivered.
Authors do such things, of course. But how do we know that Cicero was doing this? That this was a literary device known and practiced at that date? Or is this merely someone’s speculation?
Yesterday I came across a portion of the Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius that provided something of an answer. In book 17, chapter 5, of the Loeb translation by J. C. Rolfe (online at Perseus here) we find the following:
MARCUS CICERO, in the dialogue entitled Laelius, or On Friendship, wishes to teach us that friendship ought not to be cultivated in the hope and expectation of advantage, profit, or gain, but that it should be sought and cherished because in itself it is rich in virtue and honour, even though no aid and no advantage can be gained from it. This thought he has expressed in the following words, put into the mouth of Gaius Laelius, a wise man and a very [p. 217] dear friend of Publius Africanus “well, then, does Africanus need my help? No more do I need his. But I love him because of a certain admiration for his virtues; …”
As with all such things, we should check the Latin:
… hac sententia atque his verbis usus est eaque dicere facit C. Laelium, sapientem virum, qui Publii Africani fuerat amicissimus: …
I.e. “this idea … he made C. Laelius say, …”. It does indeed say that Cicero was putting words into the mouths of his speakers. Aulus Gellius, at least, recognises the idea.
But what were the parameters of this form of writing?
People tend to talk loosely as if writing material supposedly by another was acceptable. But it is unlikely that this is so, and if it is so, I should like to see the ancient writers who say so.
Pompeius Trogus, indeed, in book 38 of his lost history said something on this subject, as Justinus shows in his epitome, in chapter 3:
He [Mithradates] then assembled his troops, and animated them, by various exhortations, to pursue the war with the Romans, or in Asia. His speech, on this occasion, I have thought of such importance that I insert a copy of it in this brief work. Trogus Pompeius has given it in the oblique form, as he finds fault with Livy and Sallust for having exceeded the proper limits of history, by inserting direct speeches in their works only to display their own eloquence.
This indicates that there were some very definite limits to writing under the names of others. I wish I knew more about this.