Speaking for others: Cicero and the people he put in his dialogues

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.


4 thoughts on “Speaking for others: Cicero and the people he put in his dialogues

  1. But Cicero isn’t writing history – his philosophical dialogues are in the tradition of Plato and the lost exoteric works of Aristotle (along with various other lost authors). At Rep. 1.16, the speaker Scipio comments on the Platonic method, saying that Plato was so fond of Socrates he attributed just about everything he knew to him – that is, he put words into Socrates’ mouth. We can’t really track how the dialogues relate to Aristotle, because most of the relevant Aristotle is lost, but a substantial amount of work’s been done on how Cicero uses Plato. The philosophical dialogue was an established literary tradition.

  2. It’s also very common for one group’s standard literary device of the genre to annoy the heck out of another group.

    Historical fiction writers and History Channel “documentary” makers often don’t lose sleep over putting even unlikely speeches into people’s mouths, whereas people with more exact ideas about history are influential enough to complain but not influential enough to stop the production and distribution of such things.

    People may have complained about Livy taking liberties, but Livy’s books kept being copied and passed along.

  3. @CM: Thank you for the reference to the Republic – most useful and I shall look it up.

    “The philosophical dialogue was an established literary tradition” — I perhaps did not make it clear that generalities of this kind are precisely what I was trying to get past, down to the bedrock on which (if any) they are based. We have too much such statements in circulation, and few know what (if anything) they are based on. Indeed to raise the question, in some circles, risks being dismissed.

  4. The Latin of De Republica 1:16 is here. The corresponding English is not there, unfortunately, but is to be found here.

    Dein Tubero: Nescio, Africane, cur ita memoriae proditum sit, Socratem omnem istam disputationem reiecisse et tantum de vita et de moribus solitum esse quaerere. Quem enim auctorem de illo locupletiorem Platone laudare possumus? cuius in libris multis locis ita loquitur Socrates, ut etiam, cum de moribus, de virtutibus, denique de re publica disputet, numeros tamen et geometriam et harmoniam studeat Pythagorae more coniungere. Tum Scipio: Sunt ista, ut dicis; sed audisse te credo, Tubero, Platonem Socrate mortuo primum in Aegyptum discendi causa, post in Italiam et in Siciliam contendisse, ut Pythagorae inventa perdisceret, eumque et cum Archyta Tarentino et cum Timaeo Locro multum fuisse et Philoleo commentarios esse nanctum, cumque eo tempore in iis locis Pythagorae nomen vigeret, illum se et hominibus Pythagoreis et studiis illis dedisse. Itaque cum Socratem unice dilexisset eique omnia tribuere voluisset, leporem Socraticum subtilitatemque sermonis cum obscuritate Pythagorae et cum illa plurimarum artium gravitate contexuit.


    “But, my Africanus, (replied Tubero) of what credit is this tradition which states that Socrates rejected all these physical investigations, and confined his whole attention to men and manners? In this respect, what better authority can we cite than Plato’s? And in many passages of his works, Socrates speaks in a very different manner, and even in his discussions respecting morals, and virtues, and politics, he endeavours to interweave, after the fashion of Pythagoras, the doctrines of arithmetic, geometry, and harmonic proportions.”

    “That is true, replied Scipio; but you are aware, I believe, that Plato, after the death of Socrates, was induced to visit Egypt, by his love of science, and next Italy and Sicily, by his desire of understanding the Pythagorean dogmas; that he conversed much with Archytas of Tarentum, and Timæus of Locris; that he collected the works of Philolaus; and that finding in these places the renown of Pythagoras flourishing, he addicted himself exceedingly to these Pythagoreans and their studies; yet as he loved Socrates with his whole heart, and wished to attribute all great discoveries to him, he interwove the Socratic elegance and subtlety of eloquence, with somewhat of the obscurity of Pythagoras, and the gravity of his diversified arts.”

    Unfortunately I do not see that this actually says, CM, what your comment suggested it did?

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