Book Review: Cicero’s Offices

Cicero’s Offices, by Cicero

It is strange to think that some authors have works which authors enjoy adding onto others in order to pad the page count and make the books seem more substantial but are actually quite worthwhile in their own right. This book is an example of a situation where quite a few of the contents have already been put into different contexts but in such a way that is quite a bit better here than it is in other cases. The main works of this connection work as a coherent unit for several reasons. One of them is that the works were all written for the same audience, the author’s son and hopeful political heir, and were all written during the time of enforced retirement that followed between the collapse of the Roman Republic after the death of Caesar and before Cicero himself was dispatched by the temporarily victorious Marcus Antonius’ soldiers. The second thing that connects these works together is the fact that they are organically connected, in that each later work references works written earlier, showing that to Cicero at least, all of them present a unity of material that is meant to cover related aspects. And if the author thought that these works were related and connected, it certainly makes sense for later editors to do so here as well.

This book is an interesting one in large part because not only does it contain connected contents but it also frames these contents successfully, noting in an excellent introduction that Cicero’s goal to bring harmony to the Roman Republic was unsuccessful but certainly not foolish. After that comes more than 300 pages of worthwhile material. First comes a discussion of offices, where Cicero discusses how one is to handle political power responsibly, which the author peppers with discussions of his own political life and the behavior of his contemporaries in a way that might seem gossipy in lesser hands but here looks like the adroit use of relevant and topical material to draw insights from. This material takes up close to half of the book. After that comes the familiar and often anthologized Laelius (an essay on friendship) and Cato (or an essay on old age). While these materials are likely to be familiar to the reader, here they work well because all three of the works share internal references that point out the order they were written in and the way that the three combined deal with essential aspects of life for a politically active Roman man who seeks to make good friends, rule well, and live long and prosperously. After this comes selected letters to various friends that demonstrates Cicero’s excellence as a friend, as well as an index of persons.

One of the oddities of this work, and something that deserves commentary, is that the works are included in this work in the exact opposite order to which they are organized by Cicero. This is a strange way to order materials, but there must be some reason for it. It seems, at least to this reader, that the materials of this book are organized based on how compelling the content of the book appears to the author. This means that politics comes first, friendship second, and reflections on old age third. In reality, Cicero wrote about such matters with a reflection on old age (and death) first, friendship second, and politics third. And given what was soon to happen in the author’s life after having written this collection, there is no reason to fault him for ordering things in such a fashion. After all, Cicero was not to enjoy a quiet old age but was soon to be butchered to death in a brutal political murder, and his inability to ensure positive relationships with his political enemies certainly hastened his end, and he and other like-minded people could not expect to enjoy an active political life in the regime that was coming to Rome and thus while politics is of great interest to us, it was of considerably less relevance to someone whose political life was at an end.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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