De Legibus

De Legibus
Author Marcus Tullius Cicero
Country Roman Republic
Language Latin
Subject Government Philosophy Politics
Publisher Presumably Titus Pomponius Atticus

The De Legibus (On the Laws) is a dialogue written by Marcus Tullius Cicero during the last years of the Roman Republic. It bears the same name as Plato’s famous dialogue, The Laws. Unlike his previous work de re publica, in which Cicero felt compelled to set the action in the times of Scipio Africanus Minor, Cicero wrote this work as a fictionalized dialogue between himself, his brother Quintus and their mutual friend Titus Pomponius Atticus. The dialogue begins with the trio taking a leisurely stroll through Cicero's familial estate at Arpinum and they begin to discuss how the laws should be. Cicero uses this as a platform for expounding on his theories of natural law of harmony among the classes.

The three remaining books (out of an indeterminate number, although Jonathan Powell and Niall Rudd in their translation for Oxford seem to argue that it may have been six, to bring it in line with the number in de re publica), in order, expound on Cicero's beliefs in Natural Law, recasts the religious laws of Rome (in reality a rollback to the religious laws under the king Numa Pompilius) and finally talk of his proposed reforms to the Roman Constitution.[1]

Whether or not the work was meant as an earnest plan of action is unknown. Cicero's basic conservative and traditionalist beliefs led him to imagine an idealized Rome before the Gracchi, with the classes still in harmony. From there, he reformed the worst points of the Roman constitution, while keeping the majority of it. Cicero's proposed constitution in Book Three must be seen as a renovation of the existing order, not a call to shatter the order and build anew. However, less than a decade after the accepted date for his beginning the manuscript, Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, launching the civil war that would end the Republic.

Book One

The book opens with Cicero, Quintus and Atticus walking through the shaded groves at Cicero's Arpinum estate, when they happen across an old oak tree linked by legend to the general and consul Gaius Marius, who also was a native of Arpinum. Atticus questions whether or not it still exists, to which Quintus replies that so long as people remember the spot and the associations connected with it, the tree will exist regardless of its physical presence. This brings the trio into a discussion of the porous border between fact and fable in historians' writing of the day. Cicero lets on that even in their day, many of the stories of the Roman kings, such as Numa Pompilius conversing with the severed head of his wife Egeria, were thought of as fables or parables rather than as actual incidents which happened.

Atticus takes the opportunity to prod Cicero to starting a promised work on Roman history (if such a work existed, it has not surfaced to any extent in modern times) and flatters him by pointing out that in any case, Cicero may be one of the more qualified men in Rome to do it, given the numerous flaws of Roman historians of the era. Cicero begs off, mentioning that he has his hands full with studying the law in preparation for cases. This brings us to the meat of the book, an exposition of the wellspring of the law. Atticus, as a divertissment, asks Cicero to put some of his knowledge to use right then and there and give them a discussion on the law as they walk across his estate.

To Cicero, law was not a matter of written statutes, and lists of regulations, but was a matter deeply ingrained in the human spirit, one that was an integral part of the human experience.

His reasoning goes thus:

Book Two

Book Two begins with Cicero espousing his beliefs on Natural Law. The party has made it to an island in the river Fibrenius where they sit and relax and resume their discussion. As the book begins, Cicero and Atticus argue about whether a person can hold patriotism for both one's larger country and the region therein that one hails from: i.e., can one love Rome and Arpinum at the same time? Cicero argues that not only can one, but it is natural. Cicero uses the example of Cato the Elder, who by dint of his birth in Tusculum was a Roman citizen yet could, with no hypocrisy, also call himself a Tuscan. However, Cicero also makes the important distinction that one's birthplace must take subordination to the land of one's citizenship—that there is where one's duty is owed to and for which one must, if necessary, lay down one's life. Cicero also strengthens the link between him and Gaius Marius by having Atticus mention a speech by Pompey, who talked of Rome's debt to Arpinum, as its two greatest sons were also Rome's saviors.

Once the trio reach the island, Cicero launches into an examination of law. He begins by saying that law does not, and cannot, begin with men. Men, to him, are the instruments of a higher wisdom which governs the entire earth and has the power, through shared morality, to command good or forbid evil. Cicero also makes a distinction in this section between legalism (actual written law) and law (right and wrong as dictated by the eternal wisdom). To Cicero, human laws can be good or ill depending on whether they are in sync with the eternal, natural law. A law enacted for a purely temporary or local purpose is law, according to him, by dint of public approval. It has force of law only so long as people observe it and the state enforces it. Natural law, however, needs no encoding, no enforcement. By way of example, Cicero mentions that when Sextus Tarquinius, son of King Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, raped Lucretia, there were no laws in Rome governing rape. However, even then, the populace knew viscerally that what had happened was against shared morality, and followed Lucius Junius Brutus to correct matters. Evil laws, or ones that go against the eternal law, further, do not deserve the title, and states that enact them to the exclusion of the eternal law do not deserve the title states. To demonstrate, Cicero uses the analogy of unschooled people or quacks passing themselves off as doctors and prescribing deadly treatments. No one in their right mind, Cicero argues, would dare call such treatments "medicine" or their practitioners "doctors".

Cicero's insistence that religious belief (the belief in the gods, or God, or the Eternal wisdom) must be the cornerstone of law leads the trio, naturally, into the framing of religious laws. The laws proposed by Cicero seem to draw mostly from even then antique statutes from Rome's earliest days, including those of Numa Pompilius, the semi-legendary second king of Rome and the laws of the Twelve Tables, according to Quintus. From thence follows a long discussion on the merits of Cicero's hypothetical decrees.

Among the things acknowledged in this section are the fact that at times religious laws have both a spiritual and a pragmatic purpose, as Cicero, when quoting the laws of the Twelve Tables and their injunction against burial or cremation within the pomerium, admits that the injunction is as much to appease fate (by not burying the dead where the living dwell) as it is to avoid calamity (by lessening the risk of fire in the city due to open-pyre cremation). After the discussions on religious laws, and with Cicero's stated objective to replicate Plato's feat by conducting a thorough discussion on the laws in one day, they move into civil law and the makeup of the government.

Book Three

Book Three, where the manuscript breaks off, is Cicero's enumeration of the set up of the government, as opposed to the religious laws of the previous book, that he would advocate as the basis for his reformed Roman state.

Outline of Cicero's proposed Constitution

After a discussion and debate between Cicero and Quintus about the Consuls and the voting rights of citizens, the manuscript breaks off.

Provenance of the text

Much like its sister work de re publica, de Legibus exists in fragmentary condition, with no work beyond the first half of Book Three known to survive. The remaining fragments of de Legibus are scattered in three volumes at the Bibliotheek der Rijksuniversiteit in Leiden, Netherlands.

Further, issues of legibility and authenticity have been raised among researchers. Vienna Professor M. Zelzer in 1981 argued that the text as it is now known may have been translated out of a cursive (as opposed to block-text) copy at some point, incurring possible mistranslations from the vagaries of the script. Others (such as translator Niall Rudd) argue that the text was still in rough-draft form at the time of Cicero's murder in December 43 BC, and that it was still to be cleaned up and edited by the author. Much like de re publica, some material was recovered from the writings of others. Two passages were found used in the third- and fourth-century writer Lactantius's Divinae Institutiones (Lactantius also quoted heavily from de re publica), and one further paragraph has been located in Macrobius' Saturnalia.




  1. Marcus Tullius Cicero; Niall Rudd; J G F Powell (2008). The republic and the laws. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-954011-X.

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