His Excellence (and Excellences)

After fairly briskly dispatching the first of four essential attributes of his perfect general, scientia rei militaris, in § 28, Cicero here moves on to the second in his list, virtus, which receives more extensive coverage (§§ 29-42). In § 29 he introduces three decisive conceptual operations that remain crucial for how the section on virtus unfolds:

  • (i) He fragments the singular virtus into a plurality of virtutes. These virtutes he defines further in two ways:
  • (ii) By adding the attribute imperatoriae, he implies that there are virtutes specific to the general. This in turn entails that the virtutes specific to the general do not constitute the sum-total of virtutes: there are others as well.
  • (iii) Within the subcategory of virtutes imperatoriae, he distinguishes between those that are commonly (cf. quae vulgo existimantur) recognized and those that are not. He goes on to list those he considers common ones right away (labor in negotiis, fortitudo in periculis, industria in agendo, celeritas in conficiendo, consilium in providendo), but postpones his treatment of the ‘uncommon’ ones until § 36, i.e. halfway through the section.

All three of these moves are of crucial importance to Cicero’s agenda in the pro lege Manilia. And all are to some degree both unorthodox and self-serving. To begin with, the switch from the singular virtus to the plural virtutes ‘de-essentializes’ virtus. Instead of opting for one basic, ‘essential’ meaning of the term (such as ‘martial prowess’), Cicero opens up an entire portfolio of virtutes, in which any one quality (such as ‘martial prowess’) is just one (if perhaps a privileged one) among several others that need to be taken into consideration as well. The use of the plural virtutes is not in itself unusual – it also occurs elsewhere in Latin literature, from Plautus and Terence onwards.22 And yet, in this particular setting, the way in which Cicero ‘pluralizes’ virtus may well have raised the eyebrows of those who, for whatever reason, preferred to think of virtus as consisting primarily in one particular quality (such as – again – straightforward military excellence). Similarly, other Roman aristocrats might well have balked at the differentiation of virtutes imperatoriae into those that are commonly recognized and those that are not. They might have objected that if one wanted to distinguish between virtus and virtutes imperatoriae in the first place, then the common understanding of virtutes imperatoriae as consisting of labor, fortitudo, industria, celeritas, and consilium is quite comprehensive, that, in other words, there are no ‘uncommon’ virtutes that qualify for being added to the list. But what Cicero hints at here, he elaborates in detail in §§ 36-42, where he submits that in addition to the ‘common ones’ the perfect general is also outstanding in innocentia, temperantia, fides, facilitas, ingenium and humanitas. In contrast to ‘courage’, ‘strategic brilliance’, and ‘martial prowess’, these are all ‘soft’ virtues, which put the emphasis on ethical excellences, such as integrity of character, self-restraint, trustworthiness, and ease in social intercourse. The conceptual operations here thus ultimately enable Cicero to endow virtus with a range of untraditional or at least unorthodox meanings – a conceptual creativity that, as we shall see, is a key part not only of his promotion of Pompey, but of his self-promotion as well.