The Senator Scholars of Ancient Rome Are the Subject of a New Book

Classics Professor Katharina Volk takes on Cicero, Caesar, Brutus, Cassius, and others in “The Roman Republic of Letters.”

Eve Glasberg
November 22, 2021

In her new book, The Roman Republic of Letters, Classics Professor Katharina Volk explores a stirring chapter of intellectual history, focusing on the literary senators of the mid-first century BCE, who came to blows over the future of Rome even as they debated philosophy, history, political theory, linguistics, science, and religion.

It was a period of intense cultural flourishing and extreme political unrest—and the agents of each were very often the same people. Members of the senatorial class, including Cicero, Caesar, Brutus, Cassius, Cato, Varro, and Nigidius Figulus, contributed greatly to the development of Roman scholarship, and engaged in a lively and often polemical exchange with one another.

These men were also crucially involved in the tumultuous events that brought about the collapse of the Republic, and they ended up on opposite sides in the ensuing civil war between Caesar and Pompey. Volk treats the intellectual and political activities of these senator scholars as two sides of the same coin, exploring how scholarship and statesmanship mutually informed one another.

Volk talks about her new book with Columbia News, along with what she’s reading now and would recommend to others, the new course she’s teaching on friendship from antiquity to the present, and her choices for ideal dinner companions.

Q. How did you come up with the idea for this book?

A. I have always been interested in the late Republic—it is, to me, the most fascinating period of Roman history—but the first idea for this particular project grew out of my previous book, on the Roman astrological poet Manilius (Manilius and his Intellectual Background). In the context of researching astrology in Rome, I first encountered Nigidius Figulus, a late Republican senator with very peculiar interests in astrology, magic, and Pythagoreanism. This made me more curious about the intellectual scene of the mid-first century BCE in general, and the idea for the new book developed out of that.

The Roman Republic of Letters by Columbia University Professor Katharina Volk

Q. Do you have a favorite among the members of the Roman senatorial class that you cover in the book, and if so, why?

A. This is not very original, but I would have to say Cicero. He is not only the one about whom we know the most, but to me he remains—in his wit and intelligence, his emotional ups and downs, and his unrivaled mastery of language—the most human and humane of the bunch.

Q. Are there any lessons for today's politicians and/or cultural leaders that can be drawn from these Roman senator-scholars who mixed politics and culture?

A. Hmm. I would like to say what a good thing it would be if today’s politicians were also scholars, as these ancient Romans were. Then again, nearly everybody I discuss in the book ended up exiled or assassinated, or committed suicide to avoid a worse fate. So I am not sure there is a lesson there.

Q. What are some recent books you read that you would recommend, and why?

A. Over the summer, I read two recent novels that tell riveting stories and are also verbal masterpieces, in very different styles: James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird (a picaresque romp) and Colson Whitehead’s Harlem Shuffle (a pitch-perfect noir).

Q. What's on your night stand now?

A. A silly and very enjoyable Italian mystery, Gaetano Savatteri’s Il delitto di Kolymbetra, which takes place at an archaeological site in Sicily, and some readings for my current class on friendship, including Tennyson’s In Memoriam and Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend.

Q. Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?

A. I am a big fan of the novels of Anthony Trollope and am close to having read all 47 of them. Trollope also wrote a biography of Cicero, which I am planning on reading one of these days. 

Q. What are you teaching this semester, and in the spring?

A. I am currently teaching a new class, “Friendship from Antiquity to the Present,” where we started with the Epic of Gilgamesh and will end with Elena Ferrante, taking in a lot of mostly ancient philosophy of friendship on the way. I got the idea because I am now writing a commentary on Cicero’s On Friendship (together with my husband, Columbia Emeritus Classics Professor James Zetzel), and the class has been great fun so far. In the spring, I will be teaching an advanced Latin class on Roman Epicureanism, with more Cicero, as well as Lucretius, Catullus, and Horace.

Q. You're hosting a dinner party. Which three academics or scholars, dead or alive, would you invite, and why?

A. I would have to invite A. E. Housman, one of the greatest Latin scholars as well as, of course, a great poet. He might be a bit gloomy though, so perhaps Cambridge University Roman historian Mary Beard to liven things up. As for the third, he is not really a scholar, but how about Montaigne? I love his Essays, he knew his classics, and I bet he would be a good conversationalist.

Check out Books to learn more about publications by Columbia professors.