The Cult of Cicero: Have Latinists Been Brainwashed?

Josey Parker

Despite the despair that many students feel when they first encounter Cicero’s long periodic sentences and rhetorical flourishes, it is almost impossible to find a university Classics department or secondary school Latin program which does not place him foremost on their syllabus. For most students, Cicero will be the first ‘real’ Latin author that they encounter. And in that encounter, Cicero is so often treated as quasi-divine, the incarnation of eloquence itself. This deification of Cicero, however, is hardly a recent phenomenon.

Even as early as the first century AD, Pliny the Elder (AD 23–79) called Cicero facundiae Latiarumque literarum parens (“the father of eloquence and all literature of Latium”, Nat. 7.117). In his epic poem on the Roman civil war, Lucan (AD 39–65) crowned Cicero the Romani maximus auctor… eloquii (“the greatest author of Roman eloquence”, Bellum Civile 7.62–3.). Quintilian (AD 35–96), the author of an extended treaty on oratory, aspired to write everything as Cicero would have done, claiming that the name was not hominis nomen sed eloquentiae (“that of a man but of eloquence itself”).[1]

By this time, Cicero had become the central figure within the rhetorical classroom of Ancient Rome. Students of rhetoric would have spent hours composing their own speeches which were aimed at replicating Ciceronian style. As Tom Keeline (2018) argues, each of the great Latin authors of the so-called ‘Silver Age’ would have read and imitated Cicero assiduously in school. It is hardly unlikely that their praise of Cicero thereafter was linked to these early experiences of Ciceronian imitation. 

Bust of Cicero, 1st cent. AD (Capitoline Museums, Rome, Italy).

In Late Antiquity, there was some backlash against this glorification of Cicero, particularly amongst Christians who were attempting to live by Paul’s example:

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.[2]

For students of rhetoric like St Augustine and St Jerome, however, abandoning Ciceronian eloquence for Christian simplicity was an exceedingly difficult task. The style of scripture was so far from tulliana dignitas[3] (“Ciceronian dignity”), as St Augustine put it, that it was difficult for him to approach it as a weighty text in his youth. In an oft-quoted passage, Jerome recounts a dream where he was taken before a judge in heaven who inquired as to whether he was a Christian. When Jerome said that he was, the judge supposedly replied:

“Mentiris,“ ait, “Ciceronianus es, non Christianus; ubi thesaurus tuus, ibi et cor tuum.“

“You are lying,” he said. “You are a Ciceronian, not a Christian; where your treasure is, there your heart is also.”

Although Jerome’s dilemma has an obviously correct solution, the fact that Cicero and Christ are juxtaposed at all gives insight into the way Cicero was written and spoken about in Late Antiquity. While the contrast between the two does provide the opportunity for a nice alliteration, it is Cicero’s status as a model for imitation in rhetoric and the vast contrast between his periodic syntax and that of the often simplistic ‘Old Latin Bible’ which makes him a rival for the devotion of educated Christians during this period.

The dream of Saint Jerome, Matteo di Giovanni, 1476 (Art Institute of Chicago, IL, USA).

While Cicero was certainly admired and imitated throughout antiquity and the medieval period, he was at no time worshipped more devoutly than by the so-called ‘Ciceronians’ in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. This literary movement was based around the idea that Cicero was not only the most eloquent Latin author, but the only Latin writer whose prose should be imitated by contemporary writers. In contrast, the ‘Eclectic’ movement advocated for the use of multiple models of Latin prose.

Ciceronianism in the Renaissance was, for the most part, based in Italy and had ties more specifically to the cities of Rome and Padua. The movement’s links to Rome were primarily due to Ciceronians having prominent positions within the papal curia. During this period, with the Renaissance rediscovery of many manuscripts including Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria and Cicero’s Orator and De Oratore, there came a renewed focus amongst humanists on cultivating a pure and Classical Latinity in their own prose. This new Latinitas was especially important in the papal curia, where official documents were released in Latin to be read across Europe.

A 16th-century engraving of Poggio Bracciolini.

Most of the notable Ciceronians during the 15th century served as Apostolic Secretaries to the pope. Poggio Bracciolini (1380–1459), who is renowned for his development of humanistic script as well as his rediscovery of important manuscripts of Classical texts, spent fifty years in the papal curia and at the height of his career served as Apostolic Secretary. Poggio entered the Ciceronian camp in a disagreement with fellow humanist Lorenzo Valla (1406–57) over a marginal annotation in a book of Poggio’s letters: a student of Valla, or so the latter claimed,[4] had corrected a grammatical mistake in the work, and the volume later made its way to Poggio himself. Poggio proceeded to write a scathing condemnation of Valla in which he defended his own practice by backing up his usage with examples from Cicero.[5] While Valla advocated for the use of multiple models of Latin prose, Poggio deferred to the usage of Cicero above all others.

A few years later, Paolo Cortesi (1465–1510), who would also serve as Apostolic Secretary, entered a literary exchange with Angelo Poliziano (1454–94) in which he defended his practice of imitating Cicero alone. According to Cortesi, Cicero represented the ideal form of eloquence, and his prose should thus be the ultimate standard for any writer of Latin.

Cardinal Bembo, Titian, 1540 (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, USA).

Another Apostolic Secretary, Pietro Bembo (1470–1547), would also participate in a literary discussion on imitation with fellow humanist Gianfranceso Pico (1469–1533). In this work, Bembo argues that imitating the style of multiple authors is impractical and that it is extremely difficult to mix any two styles without ruining the effect of both. Rather, one should imitate the best of authors (Cicero, of course) in order to achieve a style which approaches literary perfection. Famously, in his Prose della volgar lingua, Bembo would also apply this approach to literary Italian, where Petrarch and Boccaccio, for poetry and prose respectively, replaced Vergil and Cicero as models for eloquence.

Thus, the position of Apostolic Secretary seemed to attract Ciceronians, perhaps because its formal documents and addresses demanded the use of a more standardized language, one which could more easily be taught and replicated, unlike the creative blend of styles championed by the Eclectics. While in the abstract it seems attractive to forge one’s own path by imitating all good features of Latin prose, in practice it is much easier to pick one style and stick to its imitation, especially when one is expected to produce vast quantities of writing in a relatively short period of time.

17th-century engraving of Christophe de Longueil.

This earlier generation of Ciceronians is usually considered to be less extreme than the one which would immediately follow in the 16th century. Beginning with the Belgian humanist Christophe de Longueil (1488–1522), the Ciceronian movement transitioned from a focus on style and syntax to a more pedantic emphasis on vocabulary and turns of phrase. Longueil’s anonymous biography claims that he spent a period of five years in which he only read Cicero in order to purify his style and diction. Thereafter, Longueil supposedly refused to use a single word which did not appear in one of Cicero’s works.

Regardless of whether these extreme claims are true, Ciceronianism from this point on does seem to have abandoned its more practical aims. After all, what could be less practical than having to spend five years reading only one author in order to roughly approximate his style and vocabulary? Instead, purity of language became the movement’s primary goal.

By far the most famous work on Ciceronianism, Desiderius Erasmus’ Ciceronianus (1528), is a savage critique of this more extreme brand of Ciceronianism. In the work, Erasmus (c. 1466–1536) returns to Jerome’s dilemma: can one serve two masters, Cicero and Christ? He rebukes in particular the Ciceronians’ tendency to replace “impure” Christian vocabulary with circumlocutions using words found in Cicero. For example, in one of Longueil’s works, rather than using the straightforward Christian term, baptizatos, he calls the baptized sacris illis liquoribus delibutos atque perfusos (“people smeared and drenched in those sacred waters”).[3] In another place, he refers to the Apostles as duodecim illis Christi legatis (“those twelve ambassadors of Christ”) rather than using the Christian Latin term apostolus (transliterated from the Greek of the New Testament).[6]

Engraving of Desiderius Erasmus, Albrecht Dürer, 1526.

The Ciceronians’ goal of completely purifying their vocabulary was furthered by the publication of a Thesaurus Ciceronianus by Mario Nizzòli (Nizolius) in 1535. This work was a complete dictionary of words used by Cicero. It allowed proponents of the movement to check quickly to see whether a word had been used in Cicero’s corpus and thus establish whether it could be admitted into their own.

Before the main body of the text, Nizzòli included a brief poem addressed to the reader:

Si tibi scribendi recte, recteque loquendi
   Ductorem certum forte parare cupis
Ut quo te expedias, nec multa volumina quaeras,
   Hunc tibi fac librum, Lector amice, pares.
Nam tibi Grammaticam simul omnem solus, et usus
   Verborum innumeros ex Cicerone dabit.

If you by chance desire to find a guide
   For speaking right, for writing very well,
That you may ease your task, nor search so wide
   Submit to this tome, Reader mine, and dwell
On it, for only this will grant you all
   The Grammar, Words which down from Tully fall.

Nizzòli thus attempted to create a work which allowed its readers to bypass the years of close study of Cicero but still write in elegant Ciceronian prose. This dictionary went through almost 70 editions, showcasing just how popular Ciceronianism became in the 16th century.

During this century, there was a veritable explosion of works on Ciceronianism in the wake of Erasmus’ Ciceronianus. Most notably, Julius Caesar Scaliger (1484-1558) and Étienne Dolet (1509–46) published works in defense of both Ciceronianism and Longueil which also harshly critiqued Erasmus’ stance on Latin prose. The movement trailed off in the 17th and 18th centuries, at least in its more extreme form, as the broader Eclecticism of Valla and Erasmus won out.

The opening of the Thesaurus Ciceronianus, beginning with instances where Cicero discusses the letter A.

Although few Classicists today take such a strong stance in support of Cicero, vestiges of the Ciceronian movement persist in many modern secondary schools and universities. At the University of Cambridge, for example, a whole section of the Latin prose composition exam is devoted to the imitation of Ciceronian prose.

Perhaps even more pervasive is the idea that Ciceronian syntax and morphology are standard for Latin prose. After having it hammered into their heads in school that Latin sentences involve long periods with the verb at the end, students often struggle with how to approach authors such as Seneca and Tacitus, who wrote in a completely different style.

Moreover, many grammatical rules which are based solely on the usage of Cicero are still found in Latin textbooks and taught in elementary Latin classes. For example, as recently as 2016, in Jones’ and Sidwell’s Reading Latin textbook, the genitive personal pronouns mei, tui, and sui are all listed as objective genitives, while meus, tuus, and suus are considered possessive or subjective genitives (e.g. amor mei “love for me” vs amor meus “my love”). This distinction in usage is commonly found in Cicero but had essentially disappeared by the time of Tacitus.[7] It was first presented as a rule in Lorenzo Valla’s De Linguae Latinae Elegantia, a grammar based mostly on the linguistic habits of Cicero and Quintilian.  Thus, despite modern linguistic analysis to the contrary, Ciceronian practice is presented to students as the rule for Latin universally.

If this were not enough, vocabulary lists given to beginning students of Latin tend to focus on words which are commonly found in Cicero, meaning that reading his works requires less use of a dictionary than reading many other authors. It thus becomes even more challenging for such students to read non-standard Latin texts such as letters, inscriptions, and graffiti, regardless of whether they were written in, before, or after the ‘Golden Age’.

The legend of Cicero lives on, in Enfield, North London.

In Classics faculties, there is an almost ubiquitous and tacit understanding that non-literary, ‘Silver’, Late-Antique, Medieval, and Renaissance Latin are all vastly inferior to the prose of the ‘Golden’ Latin authors. Of course, Cicero wrote eloquently and persuasively, but simply accepting the axiom that he is the pinnacle of human eloquence does a disservice to all other authors of Latin, ancient and modern. Latin students therefore emerge from their language courses far better prepared to encounter texts which resemble Cicero’s prose and with the myopic preconception that the farther away from Cicero one moves the worse the quality of the Latin.

It is primarily this snobbishness that has resulted in the lack of serious study of Medieval and Neo-Latin texts, most of which have no scholarly editions or readily available translations into English and other modern languages. For those of us who are interested in such works, this lack of scholarly attention has meant that the task of reading and analyzing them is infinitely more challenging than if we had chosen to write yet another treatise on Cicero’s Orationes in Catilinam. While there is no easy remedy for this dilemma, understanding the historical root of this lingering Ciceronianism is helpful in bringing about some salutary change.

The importance of the humanists of the 15th and 16th centuries for determining modern ideas about correct and incorrect Latin cannot be overstated. Their grammars, dictionaries, and treatises on language are the direct ancestors of our own. Somewhat paradoxically, then, these humanists are themselves largely responsible for the idea that their own works are not worth reading. If they considered ‘Silver’ and Late-Antique Latin authors worthy of derision, how much more writers over a millennium later?

With all of our modern understanding of language variation and sociolinguistics, Latinists still seem unable to shake off the rigid hierarchy of Latin authors cemented in the early modern period. Though expressed more subtly in recent years, Cicero is still non hominis nomen sed eloquentiae.

Josey Parker is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge. Her research interests include Renaissance Neo-Latin, Ciceronian reception, and Latin sociolinguistics. She has written for Antigone on the humanist Isotta Nogarola here.

Further Reading

J. Dellaneva (ed.), Ciceronian Controversies (Harvard UP, Cambridge, MA, 2007).

T.J. Keeline, The Reception of Cicero in the Early Roman Empire: The Rhetorical Schoolroom and the Creation of a Cultural Legend (Cambridge UP, 2018).

J,. Monfasani, “Renaissance Ciceronianism and Christianity,” in G. Patrick (ed.), Humanisme et Eglise en Italie et en France Meridionale (XVe siècle – milieu du XVIe siècle) (Collection de l’Ecole Française de Rome 330, Rome, 2004) 361–79.

I. Scott, Controversies over the Imitation of Cicero as a Model for Style and Some Phases of their Influence on the Schools of the Renaissance (Teachers college, Columbia Univ., New York, 1910).

T.O. Tunberg, “Ciceronian Latin: Longolius and others,” Humanistica Lovaniensia 46 (1997) 13–61.


1 Inst. 10.2.25, 10.1.112.
2 1 Cor. 2.1–15.
3 Conf. 3.5.9.
4 Lorenzo Valla, Laurentii Vallae Opera, nunc primo non mediocribus vigiliis et iudicio… emendata… (Basel, 1540) 253–4.
5 Poggio Bracciolini, Poggii Florentini oratoris et philosophi Opera, collatione emendatorum exemplarium recognita (Basel, 1538) 197.
6 Opera, f. 53v.
7 Cf. Jules Lebreton, Études sur la Langue et la Grammaire de Ciceron (Paris, 1901) 97–100; Leumann-Hofmann-Szantyr, Lateinische Grammatik, vol. II (Munich, 1963) 61, 65–7.