Libyans, Iberians, and Celts: Cicero on controlling “savage” peoples (mid-first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Libyans, Iberians, and Celts: Cicero on controlling “savage” peoples (mid-first century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 29, 2024,

Ancient author: Marcus Tullius Cicero (mid-first century BCE), Letters to his Brother Quintus 1.27-29 (link).

Comments: This is a passage from a letter by Cicero to his brother, Quintus (written ca. 60-59 BCE), regarding Quintus’ continuing role as Roman proconsul of Asia. Cicero first puts forward some images of an idealized Roman ruler by suggesting that even the most “savage” peoples should be ruled in a constrastingly “civilized” manner. This sets the stage for Cicero’s point, and that is that Greek peoples (such as those in the province of Asia) were by far superior to other peoples and deserving of the best oversight possible. So Libyans, Iberians and Celts are placed at the lowest position in Cicero’s presumed ethnic hierarchy with Greek peoples near the top, but Romans are in a superior position to rule everyone.

For Cicero’s further characterizations of the peoples of Africa, see passages from his defence of Scaurus (link).

Works consulted: H. Čulík-Baird and M. Hanses, “Africa Ipsa Parens: Racializing Representations of Sardinians in Cicero’s Pro Scauro (54 B.C.E.),” TAPA 154 (2024): 77–119.


[Ruling “savage” Africans, Spaniards, or Gauls]

[Cicero addressing his brother Quintus regarding his role as proconsul of Asia:] Therefore throw your whole heart and soul into the policy you have until now adopted, treating as friends those whom the Senate and people of Rome have committed and entrusted to your honour and authority, protecting them in every possible way, and desiring their greatest possible happiness. If the drawing of lots had given you authority over Africans, Spaniards or Gauls, savage and barbarous peoples (nationes), it would still be incumbent upon a man of your civilized character to study their interests, and consider their welfare and security.

[Ruling superior Greeks]

However, seeing that we are governing the descent groups (genera) of humankind in which not only do we find real civilization [i.e. Greek peoples in Asia], but from which it is also supposed to have spread to other peoples, it is at any rate our duty to grant them [Greeks], above everything, just that which they have granted to us. For at this point, especially as my life and achievements leave no room for the slightest suspicion of laziness or frivolity, I will not be ashamed to assert that I am indebted for whatever I have accomplished to the arts and studies transmitted to us in the works and teachings of Greece. And that is why, over and above the common honesty due to everyone – yes, over and above that – it seems to me that we owe a special debt to those descent groups of humankind [i.e. Greek peoples], and that is, among those very people whose precepts have rescued us from barbarian ways, to be the willing exponents of the lessons we have learned from them.


Source of translation: W.G. Williams, M. Cary, and M. Henderson, Cicero: The Letters to His Brother Quintus, The Letters to Brutus, Handbook of Electioneering, Letter to Octavian, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1929), public domain, adapted by Harland.

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