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On the Commonwealth and On the Laws

Cicero™s On the Commonwealth and On the Laws were his ¬rst and
most substantial attempt to adapt Greek theories of political life to
the circumstances of the Roman Republic. They represent Cicero™s
vision of an ideal society and remain his most important works of
political philosophy. On the Commonwealth survives only in part, and
On the Laws was never completed. The present volume o¬ers a new
scholarly reconstruction of the fragments of On the Commonwealth
and a masterly translation of both dialogues. The texts are supported
by a helpful, concise introduction, notes, synopsis, biographical
notes, and bibliography; students in politics, philosophy, ancient
history, law, and classics will gain new understanding of one of the
great philosophers and political ¬gures of antiquity thanks to this

JA MES E. G . ZE TZ EL is Professor of Classics and James
R. Barker Professor of Contemporary Civilization at Columbia
University in the City of New York. He has lectured and published
widely on Latin literature and the transmission of texts, including a
commentary on the Latin text of On the Commonwealth (Cambridge,
±µ) and an essay, ˜˜Rome and Its Traditions,™™ in The Cambridge
Companion to Virgil (±·).

Series editors
R   ® ¤ G µ  
Reader in Philosophy, University of Cambridge
Qµ  ® ©® S« ©® ® 
Regius Professor of Modern History in the University of Cambridge

Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought is now ¬rmly estab-
lished as the major student textbook series in political theory. It aims to make
available to students all the most important texts in the history of western
political thought, from ancient Greece to the early twentieth century. All the
familiar classic texts will be included, but the series seeks at the same time to
enlarge the conventional canon by incorporating an extensive range of less
well-known works, many of them never before available in a modern English
edition. Wherever possible, texts are published in complete and unabridged
form, and translations are specially commissioned for the series. Each volume
contains a critical introduction together with chronologies, biographical
sketches, a guide to further reading and any necessary glossaries and textual
apparatus. When completed the series will aim to o¬er an outline of the entire
evolution of western political thought.

For a list of titles published in the series, please see end of book

On the
Commonwealth and
On the Laws
 ¤ ©  ¤ 
Columbia University in the City of New York
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Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, São Paulo

Cambridge University Press
The Edinburgh Building, Cambridge  µ, United Kingdom
Published in the United States by Cambridge University Press, New York
Information on this title:

© in the editorial matter, selection and English translation Cambridge University Press 1999

This book is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception and to the provision of
relevant collective licensing agreements, no reproduction of any part may take place
without the written permission of Cambridge University Press.

First published in print format 1999

ISBN-13 978-0-511-06760-0 eBook (EBL)
ISBN-10 0-511-06760-7 eBook (EBL)

ISBN-13 978-0-521-45344-8 hardback
ISBN-10 0-521-45344-5 hardback

ISBN-13 978-0-521-45959-4 paperback
ISBN-10 0-521-45959-1 paperback

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page vi
Editor™s note
Text and translation

On the Commonwealth
Book ± ±
Book  
Book  µ
Book  ·
Book µ ·
Book  
Unplaced fragments

On the Laws
Book ± ±°µ
Book  ±
Book  ±µ·

Biographical notes
Index of fragments
General index

Editor™s note

Raymond Geuss originally encouraged me to undertake this translation;
I owe him and Quentin Skinner thanks for publishing it in this series,
and I am also grateful to Richard Fisher, Elizabeth Howard, Caroline
Drake, and Jane Van Tassel of Cambridge University Press for their ex-
pert advice and assistance.
A preliminary draft of the translation of Book ± of On the Laws was
used by students in Contemporary Civilization ±±°± in the core cur-
riculum of Columbia College; I am grateful to David Johnston, the di-
rector of the course, for including it in the course reader, and to the stu-
dents in my own section who o¬ered useful corrections and
suggestions. Susanna Zetzel has o¬ered advice on numerous passages
and has improved the introduction immeasurably. Robert Kaster and
Gareth Williams generously read a draft of the entire book and have of-
fered many corrections of my Latin, English, and logic. The remaining
faults are my own.
This translation was begun during a sabbatical leave in ± and com-
pleted during a research leave in ±·“ aided by a Fellowship from
the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. I am grateful both
to Columbia University and to the Guggenheim Foundation for their
support. I received practical assistance of other kinds from my good
friends Douglas Kilburn, Robert Phinney, and Scott Decker, who sup-
plied water, heat, and light, without which the revision of this book
would have taken far longer to complete.


Cicero™s Career
Early in December  , the consul Marcus Tullius Cicero, having
unmasked the conspiracy of Catiline and supervised the execution of
several of the leading conspirators, was hailed as Father of his Country
and escorted home by a crowd of grateful Romans from all ranks of
society; a public thanksgiving was decreed in his honor, the ¬rst such
award ever made for nonmilitary service to the state. That moment was
the summit of a remarkable career: not only had Cicero™s consulate been
distinguished by signal success and acclaim, but the very fact that he had
achieved that o¬ce “ the chief magistracy in republican Rome “ and had
done so at the earliest legal age of  was itself unusual. Cicero was born
in ±°  to one of the leading families of the town of Arpinum, some
±±µ kilometers southeast of Rome; and although the town had had
Roman citizenship since ±, no one in Cicero™s family had ever held
public o¬ce at Rome. Ties of friendship between Cicero™s family and
some of the leading aristocrats of Rome had permitted him to learn the
ways of Roman politics and law under the tutelage of the leading orator
(Lucius Licinius Crassus) and jurists (Quintus Mucius Scaevola the
Augur and his cousin Quintus Mucius Scaevola the Pontifex) of the °s
and °s; but in the ¬rst half of the ¬rst century  it was rare for a ˜˜new
man™™ “ the ¬rst in his family to achieve high o¬ce “ to become consul.
Recruitment to the ranks of the Roman aristocracy in Cicero™s day was
real, but it usually took several generations to reach the highest o¬ces;
more rapid elevation was generally the result of military rather than
oratorical talent. Cicero rose to eminence as a public speaker and as a


supporter of moderate reform within the traditional social order based on
landed wealth and hierarchical deference; his early speeches attack cor-
ruption and abuse of power within the system rather than the system
itself. His success was based in part on his rhetorical and political skills,
in part on his reassuring conservatism at a time of extraordinary military
and social upheaval. Elected as a safe alternative to Catiline, the bankrupt
and unsavory aristocrat whose electoral failure drove him to conspiracy
and revolution, he managed very brie¬‚y to unite the discordant elements
of Roman society in the face of the genuine danger posed by Catiline: the
honors and acclaim that he received were well earned.
The actions that deserved honor, however, were the source of a
downfall even more rapid than his rise. Legitimate fear of armed insur-
rection led Cicero to execute citizens in  on the basis of a resolution of
the senate, without a formal trial. In the violent factional politics of the
late °s and early µ°s, his actions in  left Cicero vulnerable to his
enemies; the coalition which he had created against Catiline dissolved in
the face of mob violence and rampant corruption; and he was sent into
exile in µ at the instigation of the tribune Publius Clodius Pulcher “ only
to be recalled eighteen months later when political circumstances
changed. Cicero relied on his own abilities at a time when the possession
of money and armed troops had far more political e¬ect than eloquence,
decency, or parliamentary skill; although honored for his eloquence and
expertise, he remained without real in¬‚uence through the turbulence
that preceded the civil war between Pompey and Caesar; and having
half-heartedly chosen to support Pompey, he had virtually no place in
public life under Caesar™s dictatorship in the °s. Only at the end of his
life, after the assassination of Caesar on ±µ March , did Cicero regain
some measure of power, leading the senate in its support of Brutus and
Cassius against Antonius. But in the bewildering military and political
circumstances of “, Cicero™s mistaken judgment that he could con-
trol and use the young heir of Caesar (then Gaius Iulius Caesar Oc-
tavianus, eventually to become Augustus) had fatal consequences: at the
formation of the Second Triumvirate (Antonius, the young Caesar, and
Marcus Lepidus) in November , he was proscribed. After he was killed
on · December, his head and hands were cut o¬ and placed on the
Rostrum in Rome, a sign of the ruthlessness of the triumvirs and a
symbol of the end of traditional republican politics.


Cicero the philosopher
By the °s, when Cicero came to Rome as a teenager, young men of
wealth and standing were beginning to be educated in more than the
traditional elements of law and public speaking. In the dialogue On the
Orator written in µµ  (with a dramatic date of ±), Cicero documents
the growing acquaintance of Roman senators with Greek philosophy and
rhetoric: by ±°°, it was not unusual for magistrates on their way to govern
eastern provinces to stop in Athens to listen to philosophers explain the
simpler dialogues of Plato; Cicero himself, when he found it politically
prudent to leave Rome in the early ·°s, went to Rhodes to study
philosophy and rhetoric. That encounter with Greek learning had a
lasting e¬ect. More than many of his generation, he studied those
subjects seriously. He listened to the lectures of Philo, the head of the
skeptical Academy, and to his successor Antiochus of Ascalon, who
turned the Academy away from skepticism towards an interest in ethics
closer to that of Plato and his immediate successors. For many years, he
provided a home for the blind Stoic philosopher Diodotus, and although
his own philosophical allegiance remained with the skeptical Academy,
he read and studied widely in Greek philosophy at large. He was equally
adept in the rhetoric and poetry of Hellenistic Greece, writing while still
in his twenties a treatise on the ¬rst of the traditional elements of
rhetoric, inventio (selection of arguments), and translating at about the
same time the Phaenomena of Aratus, a third-century poem on astron-
omy the immense popularity of which in antiquity remains something of
a puzzle to modern readers. His speeches reveal, while in traditional
Roman fashion disclaiming, a deep and extensive knowledge of Greek
philosophy, poetry, history, and art; and although his philosophical
works often proclaim distrust of Greek learning for its own sake, he
consistently attempted to shape it to the needs and values of Roman
By the time he returned from exile in µ· to his frustratingly powerless
position in Rome, therefore, it is not altogether surprising that he turned
from political action to writing. The µ°s were a time of extraordinarily
broad and complex engagement with Greek ideas in Rome: Pompey™s
vast conquests in the Greek east in the °s encouraged what Sulla™s
brutal siege of Athens in  had begun, an exodus of leading Greek
intellectuals to Rome. Some came willingly to the new ¬nancial, military,
and now cultural capital of the Mediterranean; others, like Virgil™s Greek


teacher Parthenius, came as enslaved prisoners of war. The Epicurean
Philodemus of Gadara, many of whose copious writings have been
unearthed in the excavations of Herculaneum, was the house Greek of
Cicero™s enemy Piso (one of Caesar™s fathers-in-law) and was well known
to Cicero, who also defended in  the Roman citizenship of the elderly
Greek poet Archias from Syrian Antioch. The invasion of Greek intellec-
tuals had a powerful e¬ect on Roman letters beginning in the µ°s: both
Catullus, writing learned poetry in the manner of the Alexandrians, and
Lucretius, expounding Epicureanism in Latin verse, were the bene¬ci-
aries of Greek learning and exercised an immense in¬‚uence on Latin
poetry in the next generations.
In this cultural climate, and with his extensive knowledge of Greek
rhetoric and philosophy, Cicero was similarly moved to adapt the learn-
ing of Greece to the traditional culture of Rome. In the period between
µµ and his reluctant departure to govern the province of Cilicia in the
spring of µ±, Cicero wrote three dialogues (the ¬rst works of the kind
written in Latin) in imitation of Plato: On the Orator adapted and replied
to the Gorgias and Phaedrus; On the Commonwealth (De re publica) is his
version of the Republic; and On the Laws (De legibus) “ which was left
incomplete “ is modeled on Plato™s Laws. After the Civil War, his literary
production increased in speed and diminished in elegance: two more
works on rhetoric and a long series of studies, which Cicero himself
claimed (falsely) were simply transcripts of Greek works, on epistemol-
ogy, ethics, and religion. While in these dialogues Cicero adapted his
models through the use of Roman examples and issues, it was only after
the death of Caesar, at the same time that he wrote the Philippics
attacking Antony, that he returned to writing about the immediate
concerns of Roman public life: the treatise On Duties written at the end of
 was for centuries his most widely read and in¬‚uential work.

A Roman Plato
Although in all his philosophical works Cicero made extensive use of the
writings of Hellenistic philosophers, above all the Stoics and Peripatetics
(the school of Aristotle), and in the dialogues written after the Civil War
he generally employed the form of Aristotelian dialogue “ set speeches
expounding di¬erent philosophical points of view rather than Socratic


conversation “ it was Plato to whom he was ¬rst attracted as a literary and
stylistic model, even though (or perhaps because) he found Plato™s views
on rhetoric and government both wrong and unrealistic. The use of
strongly characterized speakers of divergent views in a fully realized
dramatic setting “ particularly true of the Platonic dialogues Cicero most
extensively employed, Gorgias, Phaedrus, Republic, and Laws “ was
eminently suitable for Cicero™s project in the µ°s, an attempt to transpose
Greek ideas about public life into a Roman context and to provide a more
rigorous philosophical model for Roman public behavior and institutions
than had previously existed. On the Orator was placed in the dramatic
setting of ± , just before the outbreak of the war between the Romans
and the Italians (the Social War), using as speakers ¬gures whom Cicero
had known as a young man. In the dialogue, he combined a technical
discussion of rhetoric with a broader exposition of the civic and practical
value of the true orator, arguing (against Plato and others) not only that
rhetoric was itself an ars (Greek techne: a discipline with rational rules
capable of being taught and transmitted) but also that it was the master
art to which philosophy, at least ethics, should be subordinated; further-
more, he transposed the notion of ars itself from the schoolroom to the
forum: the consummate orator becomes a ¬gure capable of transmitting
to society the ethical and social values learned through both study and
practical experience.
In On the Orator there are clear indications of Cicero™s larger concerns
with the political context of ethical values and with the importance of the
orator as the true statesman; above all, it displays Cicero™s belief that it is
through the character and political wisdom of particular individuals “ in
On the Orator seen as an element of rhetoric itself “ that the larger goals of
society can best be fostered and maintained. In On the Commonwealth,
which he began to write less than six months after the earlier work, he
attempted to give a fuller account of the values and nature of public life.
Cicero™s correspondence gives some indications of the process of compo-
sition and of his ideas about its contents: he ¬rst describes it as politika
(Greek: concerning public life), then as ˜˜about the best commonwealth
and the best citizen™™ before settling on the title On the Commonwealth.
The original plan was for a nine-book work set in ±  at the home of
Scipio Aemilianus; when a friend criticized this as limiting the opportun-
ities for comment on current a¬airs and appearing too improbable (the
conversation takes place twenty-three years before Cicero™s birth), he
considered turning it into a dialogue with himself as the main speaker,


but rapidly thought better of that and returned to the original setting, but
in six books.
The choice of characters and the dramatic moment of the conversation
were important for Cicero. Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus Afri-
canus, twice consul and censor, adoptive grandson of the elder Scipio
Africanus (the conqueror of Hannibal) and himself the destroyer of
Carthage in the Third Punic War in ±  and of Numantia in Spain in
±, was a man whom Cicero greatly admired as not only a great general
and orator but as someone renowned for his intellectual accomplish-
ments as much as his success in public life. A friend of the Greek
historian Polybius (whose account of the Roman constitution Cicero
used extensively in the ¬rst two books of On the Commonwealth) and the
Stoic philosopher Panaetius as well as of the Roman poets Terence and
Lucilius, Scipio emerges in Cicero™s presentation as an ideal example of
the successful fusion of public action and educated thought, someone
who could well be imagined to have o¬ered an explanation, as he is made
to do in the dialogue, of the philosophical underpinnings of Roman
government. The conversation is imagined to have taken place early in
±, during a political crisis: Scipio was leading the conservative attempt
to eviscerate the law for agrarian reform passed by his cousin Tiberius
Gracchus as tribune of the plebs four years earlier. That legislation and
the concomitant violence and upheaval had resulted in the murder of
Gracchus by a mob led by another of Scipio™s relatives, Scipio Nasica
Serapio; and the tribunate of Gracchus was regarded by Cicero and his
contemporaries as the beginning of social upheavals which lasted into
their own time. The dialogue envisages Scipio as the one person whose
stature and abilities could halt such developments; but it takes place only
a few days before the real Scipio died suddenly and mysteriously. His
death may have been natural, but Cicero believed that he had been
murdered by supporters of the Gracchan laws. As in On the Orator,

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