“Res Publica Res Populi” — Cicero’s Definition of the State

Over the past couple weeks, I started reading Cicero’s De Re Publica in Latin. For some context, De Re Publica is a Socratic dialogue written as an imitation or response to Plato’s own Republic, which I studied in the first quarter. As Socrates primarily speaks for Plato in his Republic, Scipio Africanus acts as the voice of Cicero in De Re Publica. In the passages I read, Cicero starts his in-depth discussion on forms of government. Scipio first defines the state, using the interesting phrase “res publica [est] res populi.” The word res is a tricky one to translate, but it generally means thing, matter, or business. The phrase “res publica,” the very subject of Cicero’s work, is often translated as republic (you can probably see why), but more accurately refers to the state, and a literal translation would be “the public matter.” Cicero equates this with the “res populi,” an almost identical phrase meaning “the matter of the people.” I found this quite interesting because at first sight it seems almost a meaningless definition. However, Cicero uses it to emphasize that the state is made of its people, and it carries the interests of those people. In that sentence, he goes on to clarify that the populus itself cannot be any organization of people but one under which they are united by law and common interest. For me, this raised an interesting question: would Cicero consider a tyranny, or any other “evil” form of government that he proposes later in this work, to be a state? In those governments, the people do not seem allied by a common interest (“utilitatis communione sociatus”), so does that mean they are not a true populus whose res could define the res publica? I am excited to see how Cicero addresses this issue as I continue my reading.

One Reply to ““Res Publica Res Populi” — Cicero’s Definition of the State”

  1. This is really interesting, Matt. This is one of the reasons that “commonwealth” is such a great translation of “res publica,” since it has both the sense of something kept in common for the public and the actual state. I like what you’ve done here using the italicized Latin words in your analysis (since that way you don’t have to worry about losing some of their connotations in translation). As you’re writing more, you’ll probably do the same for “res populi” and “res publica,” defining them up front, but then keeping them in Latin all the way through.

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