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Renaissance tragedy, Cicero, separation of church and state


Ben Johnson's Catiline, the exemplary Renaissance tragedy, has only recently been studied in detail for its menacing statement about Republican politics, and since no thorough reading of the play appeared until the 1950s, no received critical opinion need stand between the reader and the text. The disadvantage of this state of affairs is clear—any reading is liable to partake of the imbalance of contemporary criticism lamented by Richard Levin in New Readings vs. Old Plays. After Ellen M. T. Duffy demonstrated that Jonson made the most of Renaissance scholarship in his use of the classics, a number of astute critics began to examine the play as a political play. K. M. Burton, Joseph Allen Bryant, Jr., Michael J. C. Echeruo, and Angela G. Dorenkamp illuminated Catiline mainly as an historical play with dark political significance. Cicero is now often read as a Machiavel, only with Dorenkamp's caveat: "The 'Machiavellianism' which seems to account for Cicero's acceptance of the disparity between moral ends and political means is classical and not Italian Renaissance." Already the caveat has been forgotten in Larry Champion's reading of the play. Cicero's means of saving Rome have been emphasized over the fact that his end was achieved: Rome survived. What has been lost along with a firm grasp of the Classical context out of which Catiline grew, is a sensitivity to the reality of the history that is represented in the play. Recent papers at scholarly meetings have begun to explore this wider consideration, but none has focused on a fact so fundamental to Roman thought and to Jonson's play that it may well be taken for granted. At the center of Rome and the play Catiline was the concept oof pietas, or piety–not our notion of piety, but one which saw no distinction between religion and the state. Pietas and patriotism were inextricable concepts: impiety and treason were synonymous terms. Ben Jonson in Catiline presented a world now very distant from the modern one with its separation of Church and State. Catiline is a traitor and by his act of treason is not just a political renegade but also an apostate. Repeatedly Jonson used the terms piety and impiety in their Roman senses, as best seen in Vergil's Aeneid and Cicero's De officiis, Book II. Cicero, far from being the Machiavel, in this context, is the pious saviour of his country.