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A Classical Tribute to James May

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Cicero Cicero

Dr. James May just retired from a long and distinguished career at St Olaf College in Minnesota. I recently had the privilege of hearing his final Latin oration at the annual meeting of the Classical Association of the MidWest and South, which was held in Kitchener, Ontario.

The 18 essays in this tribute volume cover a vast array of topics from the most technical to pop culture. For example, one deals with the role of satire in refuting Christian heretics in the Byzantine period; while another surveys movies and TV shows that include Cicero as a character. We learn he was in 15 of the 22 episodes of the HBO series Rome, and the chapter even gives us his dialogue!

Closer to what one might look for in a classical book is a close reading of Lucan's depiction of Caesar as a lightning bolt personified, and his battle as said bolt against nature. Sarah Nix does a fine job at portraying the fearsome nature of Caesar's power over nature, especially in his deliberate destruction of a sacred grove to get timber he needed to beseige a town. "Caesar not only approaches the wood but begins to cut it down, demonstrating that he is not only a physical force but a cosmic force as well, able to defy the gods of the grove."

With the concept of truth a daily topic of discussion on cable TV news, the first chapter (by Hilary Bouxsein) shows the eternal relevance of how truth is perceived. She looks at the second half of Homer's Odyssey. While she draws no parallels with current political discourse in the U.S., I believe a close study of her discussion on the rhetoric of honesty will help us understand what is happening now. We learn, for example, how a character can "highlight his supposed honesty" that in reality is "not exactly a claim of truth." The character she looks at, Telemachus, merely "asserts that he is generally fond of speaking the truth." Remind you of anyone?

There are several outstanding chapters, including one (by Jennifer Starkey) on the "man-killing axe" called for by Clytemnestra in the play Libation Bearers by Aeschylus; and an essay by Ann Vasaly on Livy and the benefits of political discord. It is couched in terms of a discussion on Machiavelli's discourse on Livy. "Was Machiavelli right?" asks Vasaly. "Does Livy's history show that disunion made the Roman Republic free and powerful?" She concludes the observations of Machiavelli "are borne out" but qualifies it by highlighting aspects of Livy's presentation that Machaivelli "passes over in silence." A well reasoned and fascinating chapter.

Authors sometimes touch on an element of an argument without exploring it fully. For example, in a discussion of the gods by the 4th century CE writer Isocrates, Terry Papillon quotes him as writing "It is said that even the gods are ruled by Zeus. If the report is true about this, it is clear that they too prefer this government." As both sentences are couched in conditional terms, this is in fact a very weak argument by Isocrates for the promotion of monarchy, but the author does not explore its meaning or implications. Was Isocrates actually saying the opposite of what he appears to be promoting?

Five essays in the book focus on May's classical model: Cicero. What I would like to have seen in the book is an example of May's own writing on Cicero. His bibliography is given, with many Cicero-related papers listed. The inclusion of just one would have been marvellous, especially for those who are not conversant with his body of work.

The Ciceronian chapters address such topics as Cicero's developing ideas of apotheosis (he presents himself as wise and godlike); the dating of the quaestorship of Crassus based in part on the writing of Cicero; and the social propriety of Cicero writing letters during dinner time with friends (One can relate this to texting on the phone in a restaurant in 2017). The book resembles such a Roman banquet with delicacies that may tempt some but be turned down with thanks by others. Enjoy the feast.

 

Ab omni parte beatus (Blessed from every perspective) is $49 from the publisher Bolchazy-Carducci in Illinois.

The book is edited by Anne Groton

 

 

 

 

 

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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