Photo by Bradley Weber on Flickr

The Romans and Intellectual Disciplines

Peter Burke

In Rome, unlike Greece, we find not only the praises of outstanding intellectual all-rounders but also recommendations to students of particular disciplines to acquire a wide knowledge, perhaps as an antidote to creeping specialization. Cicero (106–43 BC), one of the most eloquent public speakers of the Roman world, began his treatise on the orator (De oratore) by emphasizing the need for wide knowledge (scientia . . . rerum plurimarum) as a condition for success in this art. The treatise continues in the form of a dialogue between Marcus Crassus and Mark Antony, in which Crassus claims that ‘whatever the topic’, the orator will speak better about any branch of knowledge than someone who confines himself to it. Another famous treatise on rhetoric, the Institutes of Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (AD 35–100), known as ‘Quintilian’, also argues that the would-be orator needs to know about all subjects. The author cites the names of eight polymaths, five Greek – including Hippias – and three Roman, including Cicero. The context, ironically enough, is the increasing specialization of rhetoricians, along with grammarians and jurists.

A similar argument to that of Cicero and Quintilian on the orator was put forward in the case of the architect by Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (d. AD 15). Vitruvius claimed that his profession was a ‘multidisciplinary’ branch of knowledge (scientia pluribus disciplinis et variis eruditionibus ornata). According to him, the ideal architect would have a knowledge of literature, draughtsmanship, geometry, history, philosophy, music, medicine, law and ‘astrology’ (including what we call ‘astronomy’).

Exemplary polymaths include one expatriate Greek, Alexander of Miletus (Lucius Cornelius Alexander, d. 36 BC), who was taken to Rome as a slave tutor and was nicknamed ‘Polyhistor’, in other words an individual who enquires into many things. Three Roman polymaths are frequently mentioned in classical texts: Cato, Varro and Pliny the Elder.

Marcus Porcius Cato, otherwise known as Cato the Elder (234–149 BC), was cited by Quintilian for his knowledge of war, philosophy, oratory, history, law and agriculture, and by Cicero’s Crassus because ‘there was nothing that could possibly be known and learned at that period [a hundred years earlier] that he had not investigated and acquired and, what is more, written about’. In his long life, in which he also held political and military posts Marcus Terentius Varro (116–27 BC) wrote over seventy works on antiquities, language, agriculture, history, law, philosophy, literature and navigation, not to mention his satires. Cicero described Varro as ‘a man outstanding for his intellect and his universal learning’ (vir ingenio praestans omnique doctrina), while Quintilian declared that he wrote on ‘many, almost all kinds of knowledge’ (Quam multa paene omnia tradidit Varro!). Varro’s treatise on ‘disciplines’ in the plural (Disciplinae) has been described as ‘the first encyclopaedia that is securely attested’. The text has been lost but it is known that it dealt with the seven liberal arts, with architecture and with medicine.

Pliny the Elder (AD 23–79) practised law, commanded a fleet and advised emperors but, as his nephew remarked, ‘he thought all time not spent in study wasted’. Some slaves read to him while he dictated to others. Pliny wrote on grammar, rhetoric, military and political history, and the art of fighting on horseback as well as the encyclopaedic Natural History which made him famous and which covers much more than what was later understood by ‘natural history’. The author boasts in his preface that he had consulted about two thousand volumes and that not a single Greek had written about all parts of his subject single-handed. Although he based some statements on his own observation, Pliny was essentially a compiler. On the other hand, the preface to his Natural History denounced plagiarists. He may have guessed that his own work would be plagiarized in later centuries.

From The Polymath by Peter Burke. Published by Yale University Press in 2021. Reproduced with permission.

Peter Burke is emeritus professor of cultural history at Cambridge University. He is the author of many distinguished books that have been translated into more than thirty languages.

Recent Posts

All Blogs