Oratory and Political Career in the Late Roman Republic by Henriette van der Blom (review)
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
Henriette van der Blom. Oratory and Political Career in the Late Roman Republic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. Pp. xiii, 377. $120.00. ISBN 978-1-107-05193-5.

Van der Blom is known primarily as the author of the book Cicero’s Role Models: The Political Strategy of a Newcomer (Oxford 2010; reviewed in CW 105.2 [2012] 281–82). In the book under review, she considers the career-building of other politicians of the late Republic. The core of the book comprises case studies of six politicians: C. Gracchus, Pompey, Caesar, Piso Caesoninus, Cato Uticensis, and Mark Antony, whereby the less important Piso is justified as “a figure by which we can measure the more extraordinary individuals” (203). [End Page 427]

Van der Blom argues that Roman politicians carefully planned their oratorical activity so as to promote their careers. But this emphasis on career-building gets in the way of understanding some of her figures. If ever a politician acted out of conviction, it would seem to have been C. Gracchus, who carried on the reform program of his slain brother Tiberius in the face of his mother’s opposition (if the relevant letter is genuine) and his own forebodings of a fatal end (Cic. Div. 1.56). In fact, toward the end of this chapter van der Blom has to admit that “Gaius’ interest in his legislation [w]as not merely a tool to push forward his career” (94). Similarly in the case of Cato, van der Blom at first leaves open whether his course was determined by career calculations or conviction (219), but by the end of this chapter she concludes that in fact his political principles were the lodestar that guided him (246).

Perhaps the most successful of van der Blom’s case studies is that of Pompey, but it is not so much his oratory that is studied (there are no verbatim fragments) as his general strategies for self-promotion. She explores Pompey’s special problem as a man who parlayed highly successful military activity into a place at the top of Roman politics, with the consulate as his first public office. As one who had not grown organically into the role, Pompey was uncomfortable and resorted to avoiding opportunities for public speaking and acting through middlemen so as not to leave himself in an exposed position. Van der Blom is particularly good at teasing out Pompey’s motives from the surface distortion of Cicero’s letters.

Van der Blom summarizes her approach in a concluding chapter (“Towards a New Brutus”). It might be helpful, however, to start with a clear understanding of the “old Brutus.” The criterion for inclusion there was not “oratorical ability and political outlook” (289). Rather, it aimed to be inclusive and largely erased politics by focusing on technique, as C. Steel showed (BICS [2002–2003] 200–205, misreported by van der Blom, 71, n.15). Van der Blom, too, largely erases politics and substitutes technique—the technique of career-building and image-promotion.

A few details: Van der Blom defends the idea that Gracchus presented similar speeches in self-defense before the censors and before the people (76–77). But this raises the question of what he would gain from the double publication. When Cicero published speeches addressed to two audiences on a single topic (Red. sen./Red. pop. and Phil. 3–4 and 5–6), the point was evidently to give students of rhetoric examples of how the different rhetorical situations could be met (see W. Stroh, Taxis und Taktik [Stuttgart 1975] 52–53), but Gracchus would not have had this motive (there being as yet no organized rhetorical instruction at Rome). I suspect that a single speech has been variously designated in our much later sources. Again, at 106 and n.151, eloquentia popularis as used at Cic. Orat. 13 is not “the art of speaking in a popularis way,” with popularis having a political sense; it is, rather, “public eloquence” and is opposed in context to elegans doctrina.

Although the general thesis about oratory and career-building proves to be a bit over-simple and one may challenge details, it should...