De re publica: Wikis


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De re publica (Latin: On the commonwealth, see below) is a dialogue on Roman politics by Cicero, written in six books between 54 and 51 BC. It is written in the format of a Socratic dialogue in which Scipio Africanus Minor (who had died a few decades before Cicero was born, several centuries after Socrates' death) takes the role of a wise old man — an obligatory part for the genre. Cicero's treatise was politically controversial: by choosing the format of a philosophical dialogue he avoided naming his political adversaries directly. Cicero employed various speakers to raise differing opinions in an attempt to make it more difficult for these adversaries to take him to task on what he had written.


Setting and dramatis personæ


The dialogue is portrayed as taking place in Scipio's estate, during three consecutive days. Each day is described in two books, with an introduction by Cicero preceding the dialogue of each book. A large part of the last book (the sixth) is taken by Scipio telling a dream he had: this passage is known as Somnium Scipionis, or "Scipio's dream".


In alphabetical order:

The Title of the Dialogue

While already the Latin version of the title of this work is given in two versions (De re publica and De Republica), depending on source, the translation of the title of this work knows even more variants, often indicating the stance of the translator: since the expression "res publica" (appearing in a deflection in the title of this work) later evolved, with some shifts of meaning, to republic, or a similar term in many languages, there is no general consensus over the interpretation of the connotations implied by these expressions.

English translations of the title of Cicero's De re publica

De re publica is referred to as...

  • (The) Republic - that translation neglects the first word of the Latin title, which is the equivalent of On, so other translations of the title include On the republic or Treatise on the republic.
  • Although "republic" can appear a neutral translation of "res publica", it is infected by the many interpretations given to the word republic afterwards, as mentioned above. So, the translation of "Res publica" (literally the "public thing" or the public cause) has many variants:
    • Sometimes "Res publica" is translated into Commonwealth, hence Treatise on the Commonwealth is a possible translation of the title
    • On Government or On the State - Cicero's intention was however probably more specific, the type of government that had been established in Rome since the kings, and that was challenged by amongst others Julius Caesar, by the time Cicero wrote his De re publica. (see: Roman Republic)

History of the text

Large parts of the text are missing: especially from the 4th and the 5th book only minor fragments survived. All other books have at least some passages missing. Scipio's dream, which is only a part from the 6th book, is nearly all that survives from that book. The Somnium Scipionis, as it is known, survives because it was the subject of a commentary by Macrobius, who excerpted large portions; both he and his readers in the Middle Ages and Renaissance were mainly interested in its discussion of astrology and astronomy, especially given the loss of the rest of the book. An enterprising copyist early in the textual tradition appended a copy of the Somnium to a copy of Macrobius's Commentary, but this copy appears to be inferior to the one Macrobius was reading. This text became so popular that its transmission was polluted by multiple copies; it has been impossible to establish a stemma for it.

The largest part of the surviving text was uncovered as a palimpsest in 1822 in a Vatican Library manuscript (Vat Lat 5757) of a work by Augustine. Before that date Scipio's dream was the only larger excerpt of the text that was known to have survived the Middle Ages. The other fragments are mainly quotes found in the work of other authors (for example Augustine and Nonius Marcellus). Through these other authors' discussion of Cicero's treatise, the main topics of each book can be surmised.

The discovery in 1822 by Cardinal Angelo Mai was one of the first major recoveries of an ancient text from a palimpsest, and although Mai's techniques were crude by comparison with later scholars', his discovery of De Republica heralded a new era of rediscovery and inspired him and other scholars of his time to seek more palimpsests.

A photostat was published in the 19th century by the Vatican library, and a transcript is available in the 1908 Supplementary Proceedings of the American School of Rome. Uncertainty continues over several corruptions in the text that affect key data, such as the structure and size of the Comitia Centuriata in early Rome as described by Scipio in Book II. Another key area of debate is the one corrective hand present in Vat Lat 5757; some scholars believe the corrective hand was a more skilled copyist, perhaps a supervisor, who had access to the same text as the copyist and was correcting the first work; others have concluded that the corrective hand had access to a different version of the text.

It is worth noting that in one letter to his friend Atticus, Cicero asks him to make a correction to the copy of De Republica Cicero has sent him. This correction is not present in the Vat Lat 5757 version of the text.


Apart from the Greek philosophers mentioned above, Polybius was also an important source of inspiration for Cicero's political views.

Since not all of the work survives, some of the content is surmised from references by other ancient authors.

Book one: Contains a discussion between the protagonists of the political situation of their time. The theme of the work is given and some comments are made about the theory of constitutions.

Book two: An outline of Roman history and the development of the constitution.

Book three: The role of justice in government is examined, as are the different types of constitutions.

Book four: A discourse about education.

Book five: The characters converse about the qualities of the ideal citizen in government.

Book Six: Little of this book survives except the Somnium Scipionis, which functions as the conclusion to the work.


  • Cicero: On Friendship and The Dream of Scipio by J. Powell (1990) Aris & Phillips Ltd: Wiltshire


  • This excessive liberty soon brings the people, collectively and individually, to an excessive servitude. (Excessive liberty leads both nations and individuals into excessive slavery.) [Lat., nimiaque illa libertas et populis et privatis in nimiam servitutem cadit.] (I, 68)

External links

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