Hunting the Hortensius, Cicero’s Lost Protreptic

Judith Stove

In his Letter 33 to Lucilius, the great Roman Stoic Seneca (c.4 BC–AD 65) argues compellingly that the student of philosophy should not rely only on maxims and quotations from the great thinkers, but should develop and express his or her own opinions. In other letters, however (94, 95), he maintains that precepts and pithy sayings can assist in moving the soul towards virtue. But what happens when an inspiring philosophical book seems to survive only in isolated fragments, and in the quotations which earlier readers have bothered to record and circulate?

It was to one book in particular that Saint Augustine (AD 354–430) – who, more than any other figure except Plato and Saint Paul, was to shape the Western philosophical, Christian, and literary canons – owed his inspiration towards the search for wisdom: Cicero’s dialogue Hortensius. Yet this important piece is one among the numberless “lost books” of antiquity, surviving only, it would seem, in “shreds and patches”. In this essay, I attempt to piece together the afterlife of this most influential but elusive text.

“Young Cicero” Reading, Vincenzo Foppa, c.1464 (Milanese fresco, now in the Wallace Collection, London).

Augustine’s Confessions, prepared in the years 397–400, is full of memorable scenes: the master rhetorician draws us into the streets, lecture halls and gardens of the extended Roman world. In his late teens in Carthage, Augustine was studying public speaking and law, while uneasily consorting with fellow students who found amusement in tormenting others (the self-described eversores, or “Wreckers”). Against this chaotic background, in his nineteenth year, Augustine came upon Hortensius:

The title of the book is Hortensius and it encourages Hortensius to study philosophy. That book really changed my attitude (ille vero liber mutavit affectum meum, 3.4)… In Greek the word “philosophy” means “love of wisdom”, and it was with this love that the text inflamed me.

This, then, was the start of Augustine’s long and painful intellectual, moral, and spiritual journey. At first the Scriptures seemed to him paltry in comparison with Cicero’s majestic prose (3.5). Over the coming years, he perfected the art of public speaking in order to earn a living, while experimenting with different spiritual directions. In the case of Augustine, then, the Hortensius had achieved what its author had intended: the work was a protreptic, that is, a work that “turns (the reader) towards” philosophy.

The dialogue, between the characters of Cicero himself (106–43 BC), Quintus Hortensius Hortalus (114–50 BC), Quintus Lutatius Catulus (121–61 BC), and Lucius Licinius Lucullus (118–57/56 BC), discussed the best way of spending one’s leisure time, concluding that philosophy is the most beneficial pursuit. Cicero had written the work in 45 BC as part of his own therapy for griefs that were both personal (the death of his daughter Tullia) and national (his dismay upon recognizing that Julius Caesar’s elevation was not going to represent any political future for Rome except, in practice, absolute monarchy). The four speakers champion different interests: Catulus praises literature, Lucullus history, Hortensius rhetoric, and Cicero himself philosophy. Hortensius himself was an older contemporary and Cicero’s predecessor as Rome’s pre-eminent lawyer, famous since his youth for outstanding skill in court.

The opening of Book 2 of Cicero’s De divinatione (On Divination) in a 15th-century manuscript; from the proantepenultimate line he mentions the Hortensius as the book whereby he “urged (people), as much as (he) could, to the study of philosophy” (Florence, Laurentian Library, Plut. 83.7, f.118v).

The dialogue was evidently popular in antiquity. While Augustine remains our main source for its content, fragments also survive in the works of other authors. One early quotation may appear in Seneca’s Letter 17.2 (written AD 62), where Seneca notes that we receive help from philosophy in matters small as well as great. In On the Trinity (written some years after the Confessions) Augustine recalled, word for word, Cicero’s stirring introduction which united the speakers, the reader, and all of humanity in a communal first-person plural:

Cicero… when he wished in the dialogue Hortensius to argue from an indisputable premise, about which nobody could be in doubt, took as the opening of his discussion: “Surely we all wish to be happy.”(Beati certe, inquit, omnes esse volumus’: De Trinitate 13.7.)

The point was the more forceful, Augustine argued, in that Cicero himself was an Academic Sceptic, a member of the school which held everything to be doubtful, yet even he could present happiness as a universal wish. Someone who wanted to live happily without cultivating the virtues of the mind would, in effect, be wanting to live happily without making use of the only means to that end.

Augustine’s free acknowledgment of his debts to Cicero came only a few years after Saint Jerome’s famous dream, in which he was told – to his lasting dismay – “You’re a Ciceronian, not a Christian” (Ciceronianus es, non Christianus, Epistles 22.30, written AD 383/4). In fact, the Christian Fathers of the West were thoroughly Ciceronian: not only in their deployment of dazzling Latin for persuasive ends, but in Augustine’s absorption and upcycling of earlier philosophical positions (whether in their Platonist, Aristotelian or Hellenistic aspects).

It is believed that Boethius, in the 6th century, also knew of Hortensius. Boethius himself was widely read and copied, which only throws into higher relief the question of when, why, and how such a key work as Hortensius could have vanished – particularly since so many of Cicero’s philosophical works survived.

Boethius depicted in jail with fellow scholars (he was imprisoned in 522 on grounds of treason and magic, and executed a few years years later); here he wrote the Consolation of Philosophy, from a manuscript of which this illumination comes (Glasgow University Library, MS Hunter 374 (V.1.11), f.4r).

In 1958, the French scholar Michel Ruch published a survey of Hortensius, suggesting some theories about the work’s disappearance. Jesuit scholar John Hammond Taylor (1908–80, an Augustine specialist) observed that Ruch’s accounts were neither compelling individually, nor consistent with each other. Ruch suggested, on the one hand, that the dialogue might have disappeared as part of efforts by pagan activists to destroy Classical works which might seem to support Christian doctrine. Curiously, he also advanced the opposing theory that, instead, it was Christian activists who were responsible for the disappearance. According to Taylor, the latter thesis had been advanced by Richard Mollweide, as far back as 1911–15, conjecturing that during the later 6th century numerous pagan works were systematically destroyed, in part because of the anti-paganism of Pope Gregory the Great (AD 540–604), but also because a shortage of parchment in monastic scriptoria meant that the copying of Christian works took priority.

Meanwhile, Charles H. Beeson (1870–1949) published in 1945 a survey of the Collectaneum of Hadoard, a medieval collection of excerpts from Cicero and some other authors. He concluded that, as censorship of the pagan classics was consistent throughout the period from early to late, this factor alone could not help to date Hadoard or his collection.[1] Beeson noted that Hadoard’s Hortensius snippet was identical with – and therefore probably lifted from – Augustine’s quotations, not from a manuscript of the dialogue itself. Nor was there extant, Beeson maintained, a 5th-century Corpus Tullianum, or semi-standard body of works by Cicero, from which Hadoard could have made his selections, in part because such a corpus would have been physically too massive for use.[2]

Beeson, considering palaeography (the style of script used to write books) as well as context, cautiously assigned Hadoard to the 10th century, conjecturing that he was based at Tours.[3] Overall, the testimony of Hadoard’s collection suggests that, although he had access to texts such as De Officiis and the Tusculan Disputations, Hortensius may have been out of circulation for some time.

Reichenau Abbey, founded in 724, in its present-day state.

Surprisingly, however, we find an apparent glimpse of Hortensius a hundred years after Hadoard. In the year 1054, at the Abbey of Reichenau on an island in Lake Constance, a brilliant monk called Hermanus (1013–54) was nearing the end of his life. This account of Hermanus – Hermanus Contractus (Hermanus the Lame) – was written by his friend and student, Berthold:

Hermanus (which means “great hero”), the son of the pious Count Wolferad, was from his earliest years in his outward person totally lame in all his limbs from a paralytic disease. As for his inner genius, however, he wonderfully outdistanced all the men of his age and by his own efforts and through his own understanding he had a virtually complete grasp of the difficulties of all the arts and the subtleties of poetic metre… That bodily frame was indeed so cruelly weakened in all its limbs that he could not without help move himself one way or another from the spot in which he had been placed, nor could he even turn on his other side, but he could sit with difficulty and in a crooked posture in a sedan chair, into which he was lifted by his servant to carry out some activity.

Hermanus was one of the fifteen children of Count Wolferad II of Altshausen and his wife Hiltrud. Scholars believe that Hermanus may have suffered from cerebral palsy, and possibly other conditions affecting the spine and nervous system. He could not have undertaken the military training which his warrior brothers, future Counts of Altshausen, received.

It was common for children with disabilities to be placed in monasteries: one reformer, Udalric of Zell, observed sardonically, “they offer [them] to God in a most solemn vow, although it is clearly done not for God’s sake but solely for this reason, that they may free themselves from the necessity of rearing and feeding them.” Wolferad II, a formidable local warlord, at odds with both secular and church powers, doubtless made a generous gift to the Abbey to accompany the offer of his son.

A famous ceramic tile set in a stove at Reichenau in 1745/6. The inscription says “B(eatus) Hermannus Contract(us) Mon(achus) Aug(iae) a devot(ione) Mar(iae) celebris ob(iit) 19. Jul(ii) 1054.” (“Blessed Hermanus the Lame, monk of Reichenau, famous for his devotion to Mary, died on 19 July 1054”).

So at Reichenau young Hermanus lived, learned, and studied, overcoming the challenges posed by his physical state. Another 11th-century chronicler, Henry of Weissenberg, wrote:

Because he bore this punishment from God most patiently and moreover very frequently thanked Him for it, through the gift of God, without any human teaching he appeared in every one of the liberal studies a new philosopher.[4]

Hermanus displayed exceptional versatility. He worked on mathematical problems; clocks, musical instruments, and mechanical devices; astronomical matters such as the length of the lunar month; musical theory and practice. In addition, he is traditionally thought to have composed several Marian hymns such as Salve Regina and Alma Redemptoris Mater, which remain part of the Catholic liturgy.

All these pursuits played a role in the functioning of the monastic house: lunar dating assisted in the compilation of accurate calendars and schedules, while music was a spiritual gift and a means of uniting men together. Hermanus also wrote a chronicle covering events relating to his own world and time. Its scope ranged across what is now Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, and across to France, Belgium, and Italy. Bishop followed bishop, duke fought with duke, and pope succeeded pope: Reichenau, despite its isolation, was well informed about events throughout Europe.

The final year covered in Hermanus’s chronicle is 1054, and indeed its author himself fell ill with pleurisy that same year. Berthold writes:

For ten days [Hermanus] gradually wasted away, suffering terribly and almost uninterruptedly from this deadly attack. The one day… I approached his sickbed in order to ask him whether he felt somewhat better. He replied, “Do not, I say, do not ask me about this, but rather listen carefully to what I tell you… I shall doubtless die shortly… I therefore urgently commend my sinful soul to you and to all my brethren. Throughout the whole of this night I was held in a kind of trance and it seemed to me that from memory and from my own knowledge – just as we are accustomed to recite the Lord’s Prayer – I was reading and re-reading and carefully examining the Hortensius of Tullius Cicero and similarly I was reading that part that was yet to be composed of the work that I planned concerning vices… As a result of the inspiration and encouragement that I received from this reading, this present world, together with all that belongs to it, and this mortal life itself became contemptible and wearisome to me. By contrast that future imperishable world and that eternal and immortal life filled me with such unspeakable desire and love that I regard and value all these transitory things as worthless and empty. I am indeed weary of living.”

Here, then, is a sighting of Hortensius from the mid-11th century, a hundred years after Hadoard made his compilation of Cicero quotes. Could it be that Reichenau possessed a complete copy of the work?

A fully illuminated page of the Reichenau Epistolary, decorated in gold, silver and purple dye, of the late 10th cent.: “Paulus” begins the Christmas Vigil (Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, MS McClean 30, f.3r).

Certainly, the great Benedictine house on the island had been noted as a centre of scholarship for two centuries. It was during the ‘Carolingian renaissance’ of the 9th century that the author Walahfrid Strabo (c.808–49) had been the Abbot, himself formerly a student of the Frankish Benedictine, Rabanus Maurus (780–856), who had prepared, alongside Biblical commentaries and lives of the saints, an encyclopedic De rerum naturis. In Hermanus’s lifetime, the Abbot Bern was an erudite man who encouraged the lame monk in his studies. (Bern’s tenure was not without controversy, however: Hermanus records that in 1032, having received special privileges and a pair of sandals from Pope John at Rome, Bern was accused by a neighbouring bishop of overstepping his rights – and had to submit the relevant documents, and the sandals, to be burned in the following year.)

Scholars of Hermanus’ work, where they note the Hortensius reference at all, rehearse the ‘fragments’ position. Ian Stuart Robinson, in his comprehensive edition of 2008, comments: “Only fragments of Cicero’s Hortensius survive.” For her part, Hannah Williams, paraphrasing Berthold, writes:

Throughout the night [Hermanus] was caught up in a kind of vision or ecstasy, during which he was able to read – and re-read – the lost letter, much beloved by the early Fathers, of Cicero To Hortensius.

This is footnoted: “Cicero’s letter Ad Hortensium [sic] was known only in fragments in the Middle Ages and was most likely known to Hermanus and Berthold only by reputation.” We now know that Williams is in error here: Hortensius was a dialogue, not a letter, and Hortensius was a character, not a recipient. The error has been compounded in the creation of the imaginary ‘letter title’ form by analogy with Cicero’s actual letters (identified by recipient, so Ad Atticum meant to his friend Atticus, Ad Familiares indicated letters to other friends, and so forth).

Miniature of Otto III, Holy Roman Emperor 996–1002, painted c.1000 (Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm. 4453, f.1r).

A way to address the substantive point, whether or not Williams is correct in suggesting that Hermanus and Berthold only knew Hortensius by reputation, would be to examine the holdings of the library at Reichenau in their time. As it happens, we are in a position to do this. The abbey’s library catalogues from the earliest period were published in a magisterial work from 1918, Mittelalterliche Bibliothekskataloge Deutschlands.[5] From the earliest period, Reichenau’s library was well connected, acquiring from Italy not only holy relics but valuable books: the Church Fathers, of course; Boethius; and even the flagrantly pagan Ovid, were represented, but it appeared to me on an initial perusal that no works at all by Cicero were listed. This, then, might confirm the “only fragments” view.

If this is correct, there is one fragment preserved by Augustine which is likely to be the one upon which Hermanus repeatedly meditated in the hours before his death. This piece was located, Augustine tells us, at the end of Hortensius:

[Cicero says] “While, then, we consider these things night and day, and sharpen our understanding, which is the eye of the mind, taking care that it never be dulled, that is, while we live in philosophy; we, I say, in so doing have great hope that if, on the one hand, this sentiment and wisdom of ours is mortal and perishable, we shall still, when we have discharged our human offices, have a pleasant setting, and a not painful extinction, and as it were a rest from life; or if, on the other, as ancient philosophers thought – and those, too, the greatest and by far the most celebrated – we have souls eternal and divine, then must we think that the more these shall have always kept in their own proper course, i.e. in reason and in the desire of inquiry, and the less they shall have mixed and entangled themselves in the vices and errors of men, the more easy ascent and return they will have to heaven.” And then he says, adding this short sentence, and finishing his discourse by repeating it: “Therefore, to end my discourse at last, if we wish either for a tranquil extinction, after living in the pursuit of these subjects, or if to migrate without delay from this present home to another in no little measure better, we must bestow all our labour and care upon these pursuits (i.e. of philosophy, quoted in Augustine’s De Trinitate 14.19.26).”

It would be fitting if it was the final section of the protreptic upon which Hermanus meditated, particularly because it deals with the end of life. Cicero offered the promise of a “tranquil extinction”, a consoling prospect for one who had suffered much in body. Hermanus’ soul, in Cicero’s Platonising account as well as in Augustine’s Christian one, would shed its mortal bonds and ascend to the “pleasant setting” where he would meet the other philosophers, as well as his Creator.

Saint Augustine, Philippe de Champaigne, c.1650 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA, USA).

Nearly three centuries elapsed before another habitual reader of Augustine, the poet Petrarch (1304–74), immersed himself in what he knew of the life and literature of Ancient Rome. In his early twenties, while working in Avignon, this native of Arezzo composed his first epic poem in Latin, Africa, about Scipio Africanus (236–183 BC). Crowned Poet Laureate in 1341,[6] Petrarch went on to search far and wide for manuscripts of Cicero’s works.

In one volume of Cicero, supposed to have been in Petrarch’s collection, a heading read: De laude ac defensione philosophiae, introducens Lucullum loquentem ad Hortensium, liber primus incipit (“In praise and defence of philosophy, introducing Lucullus addressing Hortensius, start of the first book”). Petrarch, apparently deceived by this heading, had assumed that the work which followed was the lost protreptic Hortensius. In fact, it was Book 2 of Cicero’s Academica Priora, which bears the subtitle Lucullus. (The confusion was compounded by the fact that more than one format of the Academica had been extant since antiquity.) In 1341, sighting a manuscript named Academica, Petrarch realised that his supposed Hortensius was really that same work, not the long-lost dialogue.

Four years later, Petrarch discovered, in the library of Verona cathedral, a cache of Cicero’s letters to Atticus and some other correspondents. He described his joy at the find, addressing Cicero himself in another letter, allowing him to converse with his long-dead hero:

I have read obsessively through your letters, so long and so keenly sought, and which I never thought I would find. (Epistolas tuas diu multumque perquisitas atque ubi minime rebar inventas avidissime perlegi, Ad Familiares 4.3).

This was the first of many letters to Cicero composed over several years. Petrarch remonstrated, mourned, and sympathised with his ancient friend. They also discussed literature: Petrarch speculated about how Cicero would have judged Virgil’s great epic, the Aeneid, if he had lived to read it, concluding confidently that Cicero would have judged it superior to Homer’s Iliad.

Historiated initial, with Petrarch lurking behind the V of “Voi“, in a late-15th-cent. manuscript of his Rerum vulgarium fragmenta or Canzoniere (Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional de España, Vitr. 22/1, f.11r)

Cicero’s own works, Petrarch confessed with dismay, were rarely studied any more, whether because the times were unsuited to philosophical thought, or because people lacked the capacity or interest. As a result, Petrarch went on to point out, core works of Cicero’s had been lost; he listed De republica, De re familiari, De re militari, De laude philosophiae, De consolatione, and De gloria; others, such as De legibus, had survived in such a fragmentary state that total loss might even have been preferable.

De laude philosophiae (In Praise of Philosophy) was none other than Hortensius. Petrarch, to his sorrow, had admitted defeat: Hortensius had eluded this most dedicated and persistent of searchers. With Petrarch, we too now must admit that our quest has failed to find any conclusive evidence of the survival of Hortensius as a complete work. And we are left, as were Ruch and Taylor in the mid-20th-century, to speculate as to why a book so critical to the Western tradition was allowed to vanish.

Counterintuitively, rather than neglect, the main reason may have been simply that it was “loved to death”. That is, because Augustine had reverently inscribed extracts which in turn were learnt and rehearsed by later men such as Hermanus, it was simply overlooked that the remainder had ceased to be copied and transmitted.[7] Then there was the confusion relating to the text and structure of Cicero’s Academica, which as we have seen misled even so motivated a researcher as Petrarch. And if a modern scholar can err about whether Hortensius was a dialogue or a letter, we can be sure that copyists in the Middle Ages were likely to have been at least equally vague.

Statue of Petrarch, 16th cent. (outside the Uffizi Galleries, Florence, Italy).

Finally, it is possible that the controversial context for some of Augustine’s quotations was a factor in the loss. Much of Augustine’s later years were spent in prosecuting ideological campaigns against heresies that divided the church, particularly the Pelagian movement. Pelagius (c.354–418), a near-contemporary of Augustine, had strongly argued against Augustinian ideas about Original Sin – supposed to infect all humans, even newborn babies – and defective human will. After Pelagius’s death, his cause was carried on by Julian (c.386–455), bishop of Eclanum, near Benevento in Italy, a formidable opponent. And it was in Augustine’s Contra Iulianum (423) that sizeable pieces of Hortensius were deployed.[8]

One of the reasons why the Pelagian Heresy had acquired and maintained an empire-wide following – not least in Italy itself – was that it preserved aspects of Classical virtue theory as taught in Platonism, Stoicism, and Roman tradition more generally. To accept that humans have the power, and responsibility, of choosing to act virtuously was intuitively attractive to men and women brought up on the works of Cicero, Livy, Virgil, and Seneca. For Julian, humans had the potential for good, and could control destructive impulses such as sexual desire.

It was precisely this aspect of Pelagianism, however, that it was the key concern of Augustine to refute, denying that any self-control can be achieved without the grace of God. As a polemical strategy, Augustine focused on associating Julian’s position with permitting untrammelled licence. He wished to portray the Pelagian movement as sexually immoral and, as Christian philosophy, inauthentic. To underline his points, he quoted from Hortensius some key passages, suggesting that even the pagans Plato and Cicero had taken the problem more seriously than the supposedly Christian Pelagians did:

[Cicero says:] “Should one seek the pleasures of the body, which, as Plato said truly and earnestly, are the enticements and baits of evil? What injury to health, what deformity of character and body, what wretched loss, what dishonour is not evoked and elicited by pleasure? Where its action is the most intense, it is the most inimical to philosophy. The pleasure of the body is not in accord with great thought. Who can pay attention or follow a reasoned argument or think anything at all when under the influence of intense pleasure? The whirlpool of this pleasure is so great that it strives day and night, without the slightest intermission, to arouse our senses that they be drawn into the depths. What fine mind would not prefer that nature had given us no pleasures at all?”

A 17th-century Calvinist sketch of the British monk and theologian Pelagius.

Ironically, then, the work of Cicero’s which had turned Augustine towards philosophy early in his life, survived only to be a weapon with which the great polemicist, in his final struggle, attempted to smash the fading swan-song of pagan virtue.

The name of the Pelagians became a slur which, astoundingly, retained its force for well over a thousand years. To this day, the doctrines of the global Anglican communion remain founded upon the 16th-century Thirty-Nine Articles, in which (Article IX) Pelagian beliefs attract a dismissive mention. In fact, it was perhaps the undying bitterness of this intra-Christian struggle that, ultimately, consigned to oblivion one of the most influential and important works of pagan philosophy.

Judith Stove is a writer and researcher based in Sydney, Australia, who has published two books about Jane Austen’s life and times. She writes about women writers of the long 18th century, and receptions of ancient literature.

Further Reading

Charles H. Beeson, “The Collectaneum of Hadoard,” Classical Philology 40 (1945) 201–22.

Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (Univ. of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1967).

Andrew R. Dyck, “Rivals into partners: Hortensius and Cicero,” Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 57 (2008) 142–73.

Mother Adel M. Fiske, “Hieronymus Ciceronianus,” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 96 (1965) 119–38.

Sabine MacCormack, “Cicero in late Antiquity,” in C. Steel (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Cicero (Cambridge UP, 2013) 251–305.

Ian Stuart Robinson, Eleventh-Century Germany: The Swabian Chronicles (Manchester UP, 2008).

John Hammond Taylor, Review of Michel Ruch’s L’Hortensius de Ciceron: Histoire et reconstitution, American Journal of Philology 81 (1960) 94–9.

John Hammond Taylor, “St Augustine and the “Hortensius” of Cicero,” Studies in Philology 60 (1963) 487–98.

Hannah Williams, “Taming the muse: monastic discipline and Christian poetry in Hermann of Reichenau’s On the Eight Principal Vices,” Studies in Church History 43 (130–43).


1 See his discussion on pp.208–9.
2 Ibid, 211.
3 Ibid., 221–2; more recent scholarship has located Hadoard at Corbie Abbey in Picardy.
4 Epilogue on the Life of Lord Herman the Lame, quoted at Robinson (2008) 6.
5 This work has been digitized and made available online by the Hathi Trust.
6 This was the second time since antiquity that this honour had been awarded; the first such recipient, in 1341 and also in Padua, was Albertino Mussato (1261–1329).
7 A similar fate often happens to encyclopedic works, once a more convenient digest or epitome of them has been made by a subsequent admirer.
8 Peter Brown’s classic 1967 biography of Augustine still offers a sensitive account of Julian’s career.