After this peek at the beginning and end of the speech (and Cicero’s possible motivations for mounting the speaker’s platform), it’s time to get the speech as a whole into view, with a particular emphasis on his portrait of the perfect general (§§ 27-49), most of which (= §§ 27-45) is included in your set text. Here is a basic outline:8

Paragraphs Part of the oration
1-5 I. Exordium and narratio
6-50 II. Confirmatio I
6-19 1. de genere belli
20-6 2. de magnitudine belli
27-49 3. de imperatore deligendo
28 a. scientia rei militaris
29-42 b. virtus
43-6 c. auctoritas
47-8 d. felicitas
49-50 4. Sum-up
51-63 III. Refutatio
64-71 IV. Confirmatio II and Peroratio

The structure is straightforward. Cicero starts with a few words by way of introduction (§§ 1-3 = exordium) and briefly covers some key points of the current military situation in Asia Minor (§§ 4-6 = narratio). In §§ 6-50 he gives his reasons why the bill should pass: the type of war (§§ 6-19) and the scope of the war (§§ 20-6) call for a perfect general (§§ 27-49), and the only one who fits the bill is therefore Pompey, the greatest general of all times. After summing up his argument (§§ 49-50), Cicero considers and dismisses objections to the appointment of Pompey (§§ 51-63 = refutatio), reasserts the desirability of the bill (§§ 64-68) and signs off with a rousing conclusion (§§ 69-71 = peroratio). The set text (§§ 27-45) hits on the very centre of the speech, i.e. Cicero’s portrait of the perfect general and his four principal qualities, all of which (so Cicero claims) Pompey embodies: knowledge of military matters (scientia rei militaris), overall excellence (virtus), commanding respect (auctoritas), and divinely sponsored success (felicitas). Let’s take a look at each of these qualities in turn.

Scientia militaris (§ 28)

In § 28 Cicero surveys Pompey’s career, tracing his transition from school to army, from GI to general, from general to greatest military commander of all times. A stint in the army around the age of twenty was routine for a Roman aristocrat with political ambitions. Cicero, too, served his time – as it happens also under Pompey’s father Strabo.9 But after his stint in the armed forces, he went off on a study trip to Greece and devoted himself to excellence in (courtroom) oratory – knowing full well of course that military achievement was the highway to public office in Rome with a monopoly on gloria. Decades later, finally obliged to serve as pro-consul of Cilicia in 51 BC, i.e. the very region supposedly ‘pacified’ and turned into a Roman province by Pompey in the 60s, Cicero won a couple of minor military encounters against uppity tribes, was hailed as imperator by his troops, and did his futile best to convince the senate to grant him a triumph. But what was little more than a fortuitous accident for Cicero, i.e. holding a military command and at least staking a claim to celebrate a triumph, was a profession for Pompey, who triumphed thrice in the course of his career. His rise to the top did perhaps not happen quite as quickly as Cicero’s star-struck way of putting it in § 28 suggests; and it was facilitated by such factors as the premature death of his father (leaving Pompey in charge of the extended social networks of the family), the chaos of the civil wars, and his willingness to proceed by means of unconstitutional measures, which included the raising of a private army that he put at the disposal of Sulla.10 In Cicero’s survey of Pompey’s career, these scary details are carefully airbrushed.11

One peculiar feature of Cicero’s praise of Pompey’s unmatched scientia militaris is his insistence that it is grounded in actual experience, rather than the perusal of books: plura bello gessit quam ceteri legerunt (‘he has conducted more campaigns than the rest have read of’). It is worth questioning this piece of praise a bit, especially as it comes from Cicero.12 Depending on the reader, it could imply very few military feats indeed; if, on the other hand, the reader Cicero has in mind is someone like himself (who had surely perused all the major Greek and Roman historiographers and most of the minor ones as well) the praise turns into panegyric hyperbole. It is perhaps unsurprising that the earliest attestation of the contrast comes from Cicero, whose first-hand experience of military life was notoriously limited, but who was a voracious reader. As John Henderson puts it: ‘The ludicrous presumption that Cicero’s worth listening to when he comes on as expert on imperial strategy in the field – as if he knows anything about campaigning, soldiers and fighting, local barons and militias, anything he didn’t read in books or from reports of his colleagues and rivals – has to be underlined. Do we want a foreign office full of champion debaters or people who have been in a helicopter or used a field latrine, etc. etc.?’

Virtus (§§ 29-42)

By the late republic, if not since time immemorial, the term virtus possessed a range of meanings. It could signify ‘martial prowess’, refer to various other ‘excellences’, or designate ethical excellence in a technical philosophical sense. It moreover served as a generic label for an entire set of desirable qualities or values in contrast to the semantics of other, more sharply defined value terms such as fortitudo (‘bravery’). We thus also find it in the plural (omnes virtutes) or similar phrases (omne genus virtutis). This range of meanings came in handy: since, by etymological definition, each Roman vir worth his masculine mettle wanted to lay claim to vir-tus, it must have been agreeable that there were different versions of virtus to choose from.13

In fact, there are reasons to suppose that it was in part its privileged status in the Roman system of values, which turned virtus into such a protean concept: the Romans tussled over its definition and proprietorship. A ready example of individuals or groups trying to spin virtus in their own image are the controversial views over whether virtus ran in families and could thus be handed down like a heirloom from one generation to the next or whether (the potential for) virtus occurred randomly throughout society or at least its upper echelon. The former was the preferred view of the nobility, which had a vested interest in naturalizing historical achievement, the latter that of homines novi (‘new men’), who liked to style themselves as the standard-bearers of an excellence that the degenerate offspring of once-great families no longer managed to uphold – according to the formula ‘novus homo-prisca virtus’ (‘new man – ancient excellence’).14 New men naturally did not all agree either on what, precisely, ‘ancient excellence’ consisted in. Marius and Cicero, for example, were both ‘new men’; but they could not have differed more radically in their preferred definition of virtus. Marius emphasized military virtus, whereas Cicero preferred to foreground other aspects, such as ‘civic ethics’ (well aware of the fact that Roman common sense was with Marius on this).15 The different nuances and variants of virtus in Roman culture mean that each individual instance of the term requires careful inspection in order to spot the ideological agenda that is afoot, and this is doubly true for as innovative a treatment as Cicero’s in the pro lege Manilia.

The section on virtus is by far the longest of the four. It neatly falls into two halves: §§ 29-35 (= 7 paragraphs); and §§ 36-42 (= 7 paragraphs). The exact symmetry is programmatic: each half has equal weight. Cicero sets up the partition in § 29, where he distinguishes between the virtutes of a military commander that are commonly recognized as such and a further set that could be considered ‘handmaidens’ of the first, but turn out to be equally essential for winning the war against Mithridates. Those in the first set are all aspects of the virtus bellandi (‘martial prowess’) and have to do with the nuts and bolts of successful warfare. Cicero specifies labor in negotiis (‘effort in public affairs’), fortitudo in periculis (‘courage in dangers’), industria in agendo (‘care in operating’), celeritas in conficiendo (‘speed in finishing’) and consilium in providendo (‘good judgement in exercising forethought’). Those in the second set all foreground ethical qualities – qualities, in other words, that shape socio-political interactions outside the combat zone, but are important to generate trust in Roman rule and marshal support for Rome’s war-efforts among the allies. Cicero specifies innocentia (‘integrity’), temperantia (‘moderation’), fides (‘trustworthiness’), facilitas (‘ease in interpersonal relations’), ingenium (‘outstanding talent’), and humanitas (‘human kindness’).16 It is probably fair to say (and Cicero concedes as much in § 29) that many in the audience would not have intuitively thought of the qualities in the second set as essential attributes of virtus imperatoria and hence hallmarks of the perfect general. Cicero, in other words, does something decidedly unorthodox. Why?

To begin with, he argues that the entire portfolio of virtutes, both the ‘tough’ ones and the ‘soft’ ones, are necessary to win this particular war. Those in the first set are necessary to crush Mithridates on the battlefield; those in the second to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the local population and thus create the conditions for a permanent peace (or ‘pacification’). There is an eerie contemporary relevance to Cicero’s argument. The fact that he also had some ulterior motives for making it (see below) should not obfuscate the possibility that he may actually have a point: recent history has again shown that it is much easier to crush combatants with superior military force than to genuinely ‘pacify’ a region by winning over the local populations.

Secondly, Cicero’s insistence that Pompey combined outstanding virtus in the traditional sense of martial prowess with ethical integrity, social humility, and overall moderation was bound to assuage fears that he would turn into a second Sulla: someone known for his temperantia would not make an immoderate grab for absolute power in Rome like the former dictator, surely? (Whether Pompey actually possessed the qualities Cicero here ascribes to him is of secondary importance for the rhetorical agenda of the speech: but it is an interesting question for you to pursue and debate.)

And finally, the emphasis on ‘soft’ qualities that are equally desirable in the sphere of warfare (militiae) as they are at home in the sphere of domestic politics (domi) enables Cicero to outline a portfolio of virtutes, to which he too can stake a claim, as well as coming across as a wised-up political analyst. With the second set, he partially assimilates his summus imperator (‘the perfect general’) to the summus orator (‘the perfect orator/statesman’), who was – as he obliquely hinted at in the opening paragraph of the speech – none other than himself. This crafty scheme of self-promotion, which enables Cicero to bask in Pompey’s reflected glory (and, conversely, make Pompey beholden to a set of excellences Cicero himself held dear), comes out most forcefully in § 42, where Cicero claims that dicendi gravitas et copia (‘weighty and abundantly eloquent oratory’) possesses quaedam dignitas imperatoria (‘a certain dignity characteristic of a general’). While ostensibly claiming this quality for Pompey, no-one had a greater gift for weighty and abundantly eloquent oratory than Marcus Tullius Cicero. Put differently, as with so many definitions of virtus that of Cicero, too, is at least in part a mirror image of the author and certainly branded as his design.

Auctoritas (§§ 43-46)

Let’s start with an attempt at definition: ‘Some exceptions notwithstanding, auctoritas in Roman Republican usage denoted a socially legitimized power that did not amount to binding commands and did not rely on means of enforcement. It presumed a likely obedience to social superiors (or acknowledged experts) in a society that presupposed a hierarchical order in all its segments, an obedience that emanated from the bottom-up.’17 That’s quite a mouthful – and more a gloss than a definition. But the Greek historiographer Cassius Dio, for one, would have appreciated the difficulty of pinning down auctoritas more precisely. He encountered the same quandary upon reporting that the Augustan senate, when a poorly attended session was not quorate to pass a piece of legislation, would state its opinion in what he terms ‘an act of auctoritas’ (expressing a senatorial preference that carries the weight of the prestige attached to this particular body but was not legally binding, in short: ‘an ineffective resolution’).18 Writing in his native tongue, he has to concede that Greek lacks a term to render auctoritas adequately (55.3.4-5):

ἐβουλεύοντο μὲν καὶ ἥ γε γνώμη συνεγράφετο, οὐ μέντοι καὶ τέλος τι ὡς κεκυρωμένη ἐλάμβανεν, ἀλλὰ αὐκτώριτας ἐγίγνετο, ὅπως φανερὸν τὸ βούλημα αὐτῶν ᾖ. τοιοῦτον γάρ τι ἡ δύναμις τοῦ ὀνόματος τούτου δηλοῖ· ἑλληνίσαι γὰρ αὐτὸ καθάπαξ ἀδύνατόν ἐστι.

[... the senators would proceed with their deliberations and their decision would be recorded, though it would not go into effect as if regularly passed, but instead, their action was what was termed auctoritas, the purpose of which was to make known their will. For such is the general force of this word; to translate it into Greek by a term that will always be applicable is impossible.]

Dio is right. His inability to translate auctoritas is a symptom of the fact that Greek and Roman culture evolved quite distinct vocabularies and ways of thinking about the phenomenon that we would refer to as ‘power’ – which we may loosely define, for present purposes, as ‘the (value-neutral) ability to impose one’s will in a given situation’. Interestingly enough, Ulrich Gotter has argued that just as Greek has no straightforward lexical equivalent for Latin auctoritas, Latin (unlike Greek) has no straightforward lexical equivalent to English ‘power’ (or the equivalent Greek terms archê and kratos).19 Surveying the range of terms to do with power – in the main: potestas (‘a socially or institutionally sanctioned form of power that attached to social roles (such as the pater familias) and public offices’), imperium (‘the right to issue orders that attached to certain public offices’), auspicium (‘the right to consult the will of the gods that attached to certain public offices’), auctoritas (‘prestige derived from past achievements’), dignitas (‘social rank and standing’), opes (‘unsanctioned means to impose one’s will on others’), potentia (‘unsanctioned means to impose one’s will on others’), and vis (‘illegitimate use of force’) – he notes that none of them signifies ‘power’ in the abstract, general sense of the English word (or archê and kratos in Greek):

all of these notions were deeply rooted in a normative discourse. Generally speaking, they can be divided into acceptable and unacceptable forms of asserting one’s will. It is true that potentia, opes, and vis are as unspecific as equivalent Greek terms. But they all carry highly negative connotations, implying as they do the irregular or illegitimate potential for, or assertion of, power. The other terms refer to legitimate forms of commanding or enforcing obedience and, in principle, can be reduced to the complementary pair of potestas and auctoritas. Dignitas provided auctoritas with legitimacy. And imperium and auspicium were specifications of potestas. The semantic range of neither potestas nor auctoritas is sufficiently abstract and general to render adequately any of the Greek terms for power.20

These observations deserve pondering in their own right, not least because the Greek and Roman ways of thinking about and conceptualizing power have left such a deep imprint on Western thought more generally, in the wider context of the classical tradition.21 And they also offer an excellent, broader frame for a more specific discussion of auctoritas and its place within Rome’s political culture.

The centre of auctoritas in republican Rome was the senate – a body consisting of former office-holders (i.e. former holders of public potestas), who here brought to bear their collected experience and wisdom on public affairs, especially those to do with international diplomacy or warfare. The senate had no executive powers (they relied on magistrates to enact their advice or recommendations) or legislative rights (the privilege to pass laws rested with the people). And yet, they were a significant, at times the significant, force in the administration of the res publica, especially when it stood more or less united – owing to the prestige and respect they commanded, in short because of their collective auctoritas (as well as, of course, other sources of influence such as social networks and wealth). ‘In most cases ... auctoritas senatûs ... meant that the magistrates were supposed to present all issues of public importance to the senate and then follow the advice given to them by the senate. It is impossible to define whether this advice was binding in a de iure or a de facto sense... Or, as Mommsen put it: “auctoritas as a term which evades any strict definition corresponds to the senate’s powerful position which is very effective on the one hand but cannot be defined in legal terms on the other hand. Auctoritas is more advice than command but it is advice that one cannot properly avoid”.’22

In his philosophical (!) writings, Cicero too identified the senate as the principal ‘site’ of auctoritas in Roman politics. In the ‘balanced’ constitution he outlines in the de Re Publica (‘On the Commonwealth’), written in the late 50s, the magistrates had potestas, the people represented libertas (‘liberty’), and the senate possessed auctoritas.23 Likewise in the ideal constitution he outlines in the subsequent de Legibus (‘On the Laws’), where he specifies that potestas ought to lie ‘with the people’ (in populo) and auctoritas ‘with the senate’ (in senatu).24

The senate could exercise its auctoritas as a collective best when it stood united. That was not the case with the lex Manilia. Some distinguished senators, such as Quintus Hortensius and Quintus Catulus, former consuls both and hence beacons of auctoritas, opposed the bill. As a counterweight, Cicero calls upon the auctoritas of those senators who supported the legislation (§ 68):

quod si auctoritatibus hanc causam, Quirites, confirmandam putatis, est vobis auctor vir bellorum omnium maximarumque rerum peritissimus, P. Servilius, cuius tantae res gestae terra marique exstiterunt ut, cum de bello deliberetis, auctor vobis gravior esse nemo debeat; est C. Curio, summis vestris beneficiis maximisque rebus gestis, summo ingenio et prudentia praeditus, est Cn. Lentulus in quo omnes pro amplissimis vestris honoribus summum consilium, summam gravitatem esse cognovistis, est C. Cassius, integritate, veritate, constantia singulari. qua re videte horumne auctoritatibus illorum orationi qui dissentiunt respondere posse videamur.

[And if you think that our side of the argument, citizens, should be confirmed by authorities, you have the authority of Publius Servilius, a man of the greatest skill in all wars, and in affairs of the greatest importance, who has performed such mighty achievements by land and sea, that, when you are deliberating about war, no one’s authority ought to have more weight with you. You have the authority of Caius Curio, a man who has received great kindnesses from you, who has performed great exploits, who is endowed with the highest abilities and wisdom; and of Cnaeus Lentulus, in whom all of you know there is (as, indeed, there ought to be from the ample honours which you have heaped upon him) the most eminent wisdom, and the greatest dignity of character; and of Caius Cassius, a man of extraordinary integrity, and valour, and virtue. Consider, therefore, whether we do not seem by the authority of these men to give a sufficient answer to the speeches of those men who differ from us.]

But this is not the only way in which auctoritas figures in the pro lege Manilia. At the beginning of the speech, Cicero identifies the people (!) as the ultimate source of auctoritas in Roman politics – right in the teeth of his own constitutional theory! Cicero starts by saying that he did not dare to intrude upon the authority of this place (huius auctoritatem loci) until he had honed his eloquence to perfection (§ 1). He follows this by acknowledging that his efforts in the law courts have received their most honourable reward in the people’s approbation (ex vestro iudicio), with his election to the praetorship (§ 2). This serves him as point of departure for some more general statements about the reciprocity between magistrates and the people (§ 2):

Nam cum propter dilationem comitiorum ter praetor primus centuriis cunctis renuntiatus sum, facile intellexi, Quirites, et quid de me iudicaretis, et quid aliis praescriberetis. Nunc cum et auctoritatis in me tantum sit, quantum vos honoribus mandandis esse voluistis, et ad agendum facultatis tantum, quantum homini vigilanti ex forensi usu prope cotidiana dicendi exercitatio potuit adferre, certe et si quid auctoritatis in me est, apud eos utar qui eam mihi dederunt, et si quid in dicendo consequi possum, eis ostendam potissimum, qui ei quoque rei fructum suo iudicio tribuendum esse duxerunt.

[For when, on account of the adjournment of the comitia, I was three times elected the first praetor by all the centuries, I easily perceived, O Romans, what your opinion of me was (quid de me iudicaretis), and what conduct you enjoined to others. Now, when there is that authority in me which you, by conferring public offices on me (nunc cum et auctoritatis in me tantum sit, quantum vos honoribus mandandis esse voluistis), have chosen that there should be, and all that facility in pleading which almost daily practice in speaking can give a vigilant man who has habituated himself to the forum, at all events, if I have any authority (certe et si quid auctoritatis in me est), I will employ it before those who have given it to me (apud eos utar qui eam mihi dederunt); and if I can accomplish anything by speaking, I will display it to those men above all others, who have thought fit, by their decision (suo iudicio), to confer honours on that qualification.]

Here Cicero identifies the decision or approval (iudicium, iudicare) of the Roman people, who voted him into public office, as the (one and only) source of his auctoritas – and endows the place itself where magistrates interact with the citizen body with ‘authority’ (auctoritas). This is curious: technically speaking, his election to the praetorship has given him potestas (‘power associated with public office’), not auctoritas. So what is going on here? The solution to the riddle can be found in Cicero’s portrait of the perfect general – one of whose four principal hallmarks is precisely auctoritas. And in § 43 Cicero reiterates the idea that the ultimate source of auctoritas is the people – though now with reference to Pompey: the ‘judgements’ of the Roman people, he claims, i.e. their decisions to vote Pompey into office or grant him extraordinary commands, represent Pompey’s greatest source of auctoritas; and he leaves no doubt that Pompey will honour this investment with extraordinary service on behalf of the people. By some minor conceptual fiddling at the outset of the speech, where he uses auctoritas instead of potestas (and thereby transfers a quality conventionally associated with the senate to the people), Cicero manages to set up a triangular relationship between Pompey, the perfect general (and his auctoritas), himself, the perfect orator (and his self-proclaimed auctoritas), and his audience, the Roman people (according to the Cicero of the pro lege Manilia, the ultimate source of any auctoritas).25

Still, the most graphic image of auctoritas in the speech is not the auctoritas of the people (despite Cicero’s conceptual alchemy), or that of individual senators (let alone the senate as a whole) but that of the perfect military commander and hence of Pompey. As §§ 43-46 of the set text suggests, it was enormous – and arguably incompatible with the central importance of senatorial auctoritas, which was designed to envelop short-term elected officials after their year in office: the key constraint of a club with life-time membership with strict rules for rising up the ranks ‘in house’ – all of which Pompey bypassed with supreme sangfroid in his rise to the top (see our commentary on § 28). In this context, you may wish to chew over what Augustus said in the Res Gestae Divi Augusti (‘The Deeds of the Divine Augustus’): once he had become princeps in 27 BC, he surpassed everyone in auctoritas, even though the potestas attached to the magistracies he held did not exceed that of his colleagues in office: post id tempus auctoritate omnibus praestiti, potestatis autem nihilo amplius habui quam ceteri qui mihi quoque in magistratu conlegae fuerunt (34.3).26 This raises the question: what are the conditions in which auctoritas (the prestige and respect ascribed to an individual to the point that one follows him willingly) turns into a proto-autocratic form of power?

Felicitas (§§ 47-48)

The fourth quality of Cicero’s portrait of the perfect general is felicitas, which can be glossed with ‘divinely sponsored success’. To be sure, along with the tail end of the section on auctoritas Cicero’s treatment of felicitas has not made it into the set text. Yet to exclude it from consideration entirely carries risk. The effect on your understanding of Cicero’s agenda would in all likelihood resemble the attempt to sit on a four-legged chair from which one leg has been removed: it’s bound to be shaky. Cicero placed felicitas in the last, climactic position for a reason. If scientia militaris and virtus are qualities very much focused on the individual (his biography/education, his personal talents), the notion of auctoritas presupposed a wider socio-political context; felicitas, in turn, widens the horizon still further: as divinely sponsored luck/success, it implies a supernatural frame of reference. Cicero thus proceeds from individual to community to the world at large.

Now public discourse in many, if not most societies (including postmodern ones, such as our own) often takes it for granted that one or more supernatural beings exist, are extraordinarily powerful (if not omnipotent), and show an interest in human affairs.27 As Simon Jenkins noted not too long ago in The Guardian: ‘Religious institutions are manifestly alive and kicking in both national and international politics. World leaders, even democrats such as Tony Blair and George Bush, appeal to supernatural entities to validate their politics.’28 Republican Rome was no exception: references to the gods are standard in Roman oratory, and prayers frequent. The term orator itself has religious connotations: its etymological affinity with orare (to pray) situates the speaker and his discourse within a supernatural context.29 The platform from which members of the ruling elite addressed the populace during public assemblies was a sacred space;30 and the senate frequently met in temples. In Cicero’s speeches, too, the gods figure prominently. Invocations of the di immortales regularly occur at charged moments of pathos or outrage; numerous orations of his begin or end in prayers; and strategic oaths underscore his truthfulness or non-partisan devotion to the good of the commonwealth.

Like all belief-systems, Rome’s civic religion, i.e. the religious beliefs and practices that formed an integral part of Roman politics and had co-evolved with the political culture of the res publica, had certain preferences: it endorsed some ways of configuring the divine sphere and frowned on others. The area of most concern to us here is the question to what extent a human being could resemble, perhaps even turn into, a god: any such ‘boundary crossing’ was irreconcilable with the principle of oligarchic equality that underwrote the republican tradition of senatorial government. Republican Rome did not even have a cult for Romulus, the city’s founder, and the first time a human being underwent deification after his death (as happened to Julius Caesar), the res publica was well on its way to becoming a monarchy.

Rome’s civic religion, then, maintained a strict divide between the human and the divine. Attempts at crossing the boundary, in whatever form, while feasible in theory (there existed, in principle, no religious objections to humans becoming gods: in literary texts, it happened all the time), were politically incorrect moves in the field of power.31 Still, for outstanding aristocrats, to tiptoe across, or, as the case may be, boldly step over the dividing line of human and divine or to claim a special relationship with a supernatural being or, more generally, the supernatural sphere formed tempting means of self-promotion during the last centuries of the republic. Inspiration came from the East, in both theory and practice. Poets and other litterateurs cultivated a variety of Greek literary genres that explored different forms in which humans could become ‘godlike’, including outright apotheosis. In the context of imperial expansion, the Romans also encountered the cults that bestowed religious honours upon living rulers – a practice that had started to proliferate in the wake of Alexander the Great.32 The perceived divinity of (royal) power had little to do with the proclivity of Eastern subjects to emote irrationally about their kings, as some ancient sources (including Cicero: see our commentary on § 41) imply. Rather the Hellenistic ruler cult constituted an ideological form and social practice by which kings justified their reign and cities negotiated their existence within the domineering presence of ‘a supra-poliadic power’, i.e. a power bigger than the individual city-states or poleis.33

Given that the award of cultic honours to (potential) benefactors was part and parcel of the diplomatic activities of Greek city-states, it is hardly surprising that Romans too (including Pompey) received religious adulation when they started to flex their muscle in the Greek East. From the early second century onwards, Greek cities granted select Roman magistrates cultic worship.34 A situation of cultural schizophrenia ensued: one and the same individual could be both godlike in Greece and all too human in Rome. The civil conflicts of the late republic accelerated the development of novel forms of religious self-promotion. Matters came (again) to a head with Sulla. His claim to permanent felicitas (he had himself called Sulla Felix) was incompatible with fundamental tenets of Rome’s civic religion since it signalled a privileged and personal relationship with the gods.35 His rise to the dictatorship demonstrated for all to see that a darling of the gods did not fit into the political culture of the republic. At the same time, his maverick self-promotion as the recipient of special supernatural support raised the stakes in the game of competitive emulation: any aristocrat who did not lay claim to similar privileges would implicitly concede that he was only second best.

By identifying felicitas as a crucial quality of the perfect general and ascribing an outstanding degree of divine support to Pompey, Cicero makes a significant concession to the expectation that superior military leadership evinces supernatural qualities and privileges. At the same time, he tries hard to accommodate this idea within republican parameters. The divine favouritism that he claims for Pompey is rather more muted than that on which Hellenistic rulers or, indeed, Sulla insisted (for details, see our commentary on §§ 47-48). Cicero tries his hardest to lay down a cordon sanitaire between Pompey on the one hand and the Hellenistic kings and Sulla on the other, as he co-opts the registers of distinction defined by the dictator to authorize and validate Pompey’s appointment, while bending over backwards to set him apart as well (for details of his conceptual gymnastics, see our commentary on §§ 47–48). Pompey thus emerges as a ‘republican Sulla’ as it were, a general with the same felicitas but without the penchant for the tyrannical exercise of power.

In Cicero’s portrait of the perfect general and his endorsement of Pompey as one such, the most important tic of his rhetoric is the theme of singularity. Pompey, it seems, has outgrown the standard terms of aristocratic competition. He is the unheard-of peak, the new pinnacle, the quintessence of Roman excellence and all the excellences – summa enim omnia sunt in uno [sc. Cn. Pompeio]: everything desirable is present in this one man, and to the highest degree (cf. § 36)! It thus stands to reason that the Roman people would wish to stake everything (omnia) on him alone (in uno Cn. Pompeio); others warn that such a move is fraught with risk (see § 59). Both supporters and opponents of the bill were trying to seize upon the essential twinning of the polarity omnia – in uno, whether to promote or to demonize it. Cicero, for one, pumps up the volume: in giving shape to this summus et perfectus imperator (§ 36), he not only draws on Roman traditions, but brings into play idioms and imagery derived from Hellenistic kingship ideology. The speech advocates a variant of the ‘theology of victory’ that Eastern potentates promoted, features encomiastic themes reminiscent of Greek treatises ‘On Kingship’, and may even be alluding to Xenophon’s Cyropaideia, in many ways the prototype of writings on the good king.36 At times it sounds like Cicero is speaking at the court of Alexander the Great, Pompeius Magnus’ Greek role model, rather than the Roman forum.37

Yet however much he is laying it on with a trowel, there are also protestations of restraint, however feeble, as Cicero tries to drape his Magnus, Maior, Maximus rhetoric beneath a republican veneer. As Rufus Fears puts it: ‘In its structure, language, and content the work is heavily influenced by Hellenistic encomiastic traditions; and the speech may quite properly be used as a primary source for the role and imagery of the theology of victory in Hellenistic panegyric. However, it is also quite clearly a political document, and in it we see the total accommodation of the theology of victory to exigencies of Roman political life.’38 Or, to rephrase the point more simply: Pompey is no Sulla. Superman will control himself! (Just look at his ‘soft virtues’, which Cicero parades in §§ 36-43...)

History proves that, with respect to Pompey, Cicero was right. In 61 BC, Pompey returned to Italy and Rome, ‘having conquered Mithridates, Syria and Jerusalem, reorganized the provinces, and built up a network of client states between Roman territory and the Parthian Empire. Pompey returned, in other words, from a tour of duty as a Roman Alexander, fighting his way into the territory that was still physically and intellectually dominated by Alexander’s campaigns. But he seems to have stopped short of overt royal aspirations, making an effort instead to work within the traditional framework of power.’39 Upon landing at Brundisium, he dismissed his troops.40

In the event, then, Cicero was correct in divining that Pompey would not turn into a second Sulla. In this respect, his calculated risk paid off. At the same time, in the form of the pro lege Manilia he imported Greek kingship ideology into Rome. The necessary revisions he undertook to make it more compatible with Roman aristocratic sensibilities resulted in a hybrid idiom of praise in which autocratic and republican elements intermingle. Historical reality caught up with Cicero’s ‘visionary’ rhetoric soon enough. In a sense, the pro lege Manilia constitutes the blueprint for royal panegyric in a republican key that would define much of Roman imperial discourse – whether in the form of Cicero’s speech pro Marcello (delivered in 46 BC), in which he praises the dictator Caesar for his ‘self-restrained omnipotence’, in Augustus’ notion of the princeps as a primus inter pares (‘the first among equals’) who rules on the basis of his auctoritas, or in Trajan’s self-promotion as civilis princeps (‘an emperor beholden to the principles that defined the political culture of the long-dead republic’), as articulated, above all, in the Cicero update of Pliny’s Panegyricus.

The set text, then, offers plenty of talking points of abiding interest. Here are some (you will no doubt think of others):

  • Spotting spin, not least personal agendas in rhetoric that proclaims exclusive devotion to the common good (an ability that ought to come in especially handy in election years).

  • ‘Eggs in one basket’: how to differentiate forms of power (and its concentration) from republican principles.

  • (Rome’s) imperial expansion and the chicken coming home to roost.

  • The qualities required of an outstanding general and statesman, and the potential desirability that those in command balance strategic with cultural and socio-political intelligence.

  • The relationship between statesmen who do things with words and those who do things with swords.

  • The longevity of (published) discourse, unintended consequences, and the ironies of history, or: how could the speech of an arch-republican turn into the blueprint for an imperial/autocratic ideology?

In short, the set text offers fraught stuff galore: have fun and mean it!


8 For a more detailed outline see MacKendrick (1995) 3-6.

9 There is no evidence that the two met then and there.

10 Caesar Octavianus, the future princeps Augustus, proudly followed in his footsteps. See the opening of his Res Gestae: Annos undeviginti natus exercitum privato consilio et privata impensa comparavi, per quem rem publicam a dominatione factionis oppressam in libertatem vindicavi (‘In my nineteenth year, on my own initiative and at my own expense, I raised an army with which I set free the state, which was oppressed by the domination of a faction’). See further Hodgson (2014).

11 To enable you to read between the lines and properly appreciate Cicero’s artful ‘silences’ in his account of where Pompey’s astounding scientia militaris came from, we have supplied a detailed biography under ‘Further Resources’, which should offer a neat opportunity for a ‘compare and contrast’ exercise with the set text.

12 He seems to have been quite fond of it: see his speech pro Fonteio 43, where he praises the defendant as someone to be numbered among non litteris homines ad rei militaris scientiam sed rebus gestis ac victoriis eruditos (‘men who gained their military knowledge not from text-books but from their operations and their victories’). The contrast famously recurs in the speech the historian Sallust put into the mouth of Marius, where the readers come from the established nobility, and the doers are new men like himself (Bellum Iugurthinum 85.13).

13 As the author of the Rhetorica ad Herennium puts it (3.6): nemo erit qui censeat a virtute recedendum (‘no one will propose the abandonment of virtus’) – even though the orator will spin what virtus actually is and means to suit his agenda.

14 Wiseman (1971) 113.

15 A related controversy concerned the question as to whether virtus ultimately boiled down to natural endowment or whether (and if so to what extent and how) it was teachable. Against a strictly ‘biological’ conception of virtus, educators of all stripes have had a professional stake in upholding the belief that, at least in part, excellence can be taught or that innate talent is, at any rate, insufficient by itself for attaining perfection.

16 Ingenium (which is something like ‘innate talent’ and does not presuppose a wider social context) does not quite fit in with the others: for a possible explanation why Cicero included it in the list see our commentary on § 42.

17 Nippel (2007) 27.

18 Balsdon (1951) 43.

19 The Greek terms have continued to define the way Western culture understands and categorizes political systems: they are part of mon-archy = ‘power’ (-archy from archê) is in the hands of ‘one’ (monos in Greek); aristo-cracy = power (-cracy from kratos) is in the hands of ‘the best’ (aristoi in Greek); or demo-cracy = power (-cracy from kratos) is in the hands of the people (demos in Greek). Question: in whose hands does power lie in a ‘republic’ (from Latin res publica = ‘the public thing’, ‘civic affairs’)?

20 Gotter (2008) 199; acceptable, unacceptable, irregular, illegitimate, and legitimate are our italics to help underscore the point that none of the Latin terms captures the abstract, value-neutral sense of ‘power’ in English or archê and kratos in Greek.

21 See Silk, Gildenhard and Barrow (2014), especially § 26 (‘Forms of Government’).

22 Nippel (2007) 18. The concluding reference is to Mommsen, Römisches Staatsrecht, vol. III/2, 1034.

23 See de Re Publica 2.57.

24 de Legibus 3.28.

25 The insistence on the people as the ultimate source of prestige, and on the obligation of service Cicero feels he has incurred by winning a public election, fits into his self-promotion as a homo novus (‘a new man’ without any consuls in his lineage). Unlike the ‘arrogant’ established senatorial families, he does not consider election to high public office as part of his birthright; rather, he presents success at election as grounded entirely in the judgement of the people of Rome, who, with their votes, express approval for merit.

26 For Augustus and auctoritas see Galinsky (1996), Chapter 1: ‘A Principal Concept: Auctoritas’.

27 The following is based on Gildenhard (2011) 266-67.

28 Friday June 30, 2006, 34.

29 See Pina Polo (1996) 19, as well as, on the semantics of oratio more generally, Gavoille (2007).

30 At Man. 70, for instance, Cicero calls on those gods, qui huic loco temploque praesident (‘who guard this sacred place’).

31 Feeney (1998) 108-10.

32 Habicht (1970), Price (1984), Badian (1996), Mikalson (1998) (esp. ch. 3: ‘Twenty years of the divine Demetrios Poliorcetes’), Chaniotis (2003). Flower (2006) 31-4 offers a useful reminder that the transition from deified human to disgraced dead could be a quick one.

33 Ma (2003) 179, with reference to Price (1984); further Stevenson (1996) on the social ideals that informed the elevation of human beings to divine status, Ma (1999/2002) and Chaniotis (2003).

34 Price (1984) 40-7 surveys the evidence of Greek cults of the goddess Roma and individual Roman officials in the Hellenistic period.

35 Classen (1963) 330. In his autobiography, Sulla suggested that he could sidestep the protocols of Roman religio, such as collective negotiation of the meaning of divine signs; statements such as that he liked to converse in private with a daimon by night made a mockery of this principle. For Sulla’s (religious) self-promotion see e.g. Ramage (1991) and Lewis (1991).

36 See Fears (1981) for the ‘composite of themes and ideas’ of the Roman ‘theology of victory’ (797) and its Hellenistic background, Haake (2003) on peri-basileias (= ‘On Kingship’) treatises and Gruber (1988) for the likely influence of Xenophon on Cicero, including an analysis of the differences between the Cyropaideia and Hellenistic kingship ideology.

37 For the shadow that Alexander the Great cast over Roman politics see Spencer (2002), including a discussion of Pompey’s systematic imitation and emulation of the Macedonian world-conqueror from early on.

38 Fears (1981) 797.

39 Spencer (2002) 19.

40 Matters are of course not so simple; naturally, there was a sequel: see our sketch of Pompey’s subsequent career in ‘Further Resources’.