Cicero’s Speeches

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Cicero’s Speeches

by Marcus Tullius Cicero


Two speeches set in Rome in the mid-first century bce; delivered in Latin in 63 BCE and 56 bce


In Ag&tnst Lucius Serglm Catilina i Cicero exposes to the Roman Senate a conspiracy aimed at the state. His In Defense of Marcm Caeliw Rtifm reveals Cicero’s view of the real reason for the case against Caelius—a spurned lover’s desire for revenge.

Events in History at the Time of the Speeches

The Speeches in Focus

For More Information

Marcus Tullius Cicero was born January 3, 106 bce, in Arpinum, a city 70 miles southeast of Rome. As boys, Cicero and his younger brother, Quintus, were trained for legal careers. By the time Cicero tried his first legal case (For Quinctius) in 81 bce, he had already embarked on a writing career, publishing On Invention (about finding topics for speeches) and earning a reputation as a skilled poet, though little of his poetry survives. From 79 to 77bce Cicero studied rhetoric and philosophy in Athens, Rhodes, and Smyrna (modern Izmir in Turkey). Returning to Rome, he began his political career in earnest, moving up the traditional cursus honorum (”course of political offices”). Winning many high-profile legal cases, Cicero earned a reputation as the leading advocate in Rome. He was elected as one of the two consuls for 63 bce, with the consulship being the highest elected office in the Roman Republic. In his year as consul, Cicero uncovered a revolutionary plot led by Lucius Sergius Catilina (in English, often changed to Catiline) to topple the government. The discovery led to Cicero’s delivering four speeches against Catilina, the first of which is covered here. For the rest of his life, Cicero considered his exposure of Catilina’s conspiracy his greatest achievement and contribution to Rome. In another famous speech that provides a window into the social circles of Rome during his day, Cicero defended Marcus Caelius Rufus, a former lover of Clodia, who was the notorious sister of Clodius, a diehard enemy of Cicero. Cicero himself had a stable marriage for 30 years to a woman named Terentia, but in 46 bce he divorced her and then married an adolescent named Publilia, who, like his first wife, came from a wealthy family. Cicero seems to have been in constant debt (Roman politicians received no salaries, and lawyers could not technically charge for their services, though they were often rewarded in other ways). The ill-fated second marriage lasted only a year. Divorcing Publilia, Cicero retreated to his villa at Tusculum to devote himself to his philosophical writings.

Caesar’s murder in 44 bce drew Cicero back into public life. He struggled to uphold Rome’s republican government while others strove to circumvent the constitution and work outside the system. In 44-43 bce, Cicero delivered 14 speeches that harshly criticized Mark Antony; called the Philippics, they were named after some earlier speeches by the Greek orator Demosthenes against Philip of Macedon. Antony retaliated when he gained power, having Cicero executed on December 7, 43 bce. It is reported that Antony (or his wife Fulvia) ordered Cicero’s head and the hand with which he wrote the Philippics to be staked up for all to see on the speaker’s platform in the forum at the center of Rome. Yet, despite all the official punishment, Cicero has endured as Rome’s greatest orator. He considered the first speech featured here (originally called In Catilinam I) his greatest contribution to Rome. In the second speech (originally called Pro Caelio), he offers a snapshot of aristocratic life in a Rome in political turmoil.


A Roman man who opted for a career in politics had to climb a ladder of governmental position. By Cicero’s time, the progression was more or less standardized. The first rung was quaestor, an administrative position that often involved service to the governor of a province and made one a member of the Senate. There were 40 quaestorships in Cicero’s day. The next higher position was aedile, for which there were four openings a year. Since aediles took charge of public buildings, games, and festivals, the position helped politicians win popularity with the people. After aedile came praetor, a mostly judiciary position held by eight Romans at a time. The next rung up was the key position of consul, occupied by two men yearly. Consuls commanded the army, conducted the chief elections, presided over the Senate, and enforced Senate decisions. The office of consul usually led to a subsequent position as chief magistrate of a province. Above the consulship came the censor, an office in effect only every five years, when two exconsuls were appointed to conduct a property census. Censors were also in charge of public morals and could expel senators if they wanted. Finally, the hierarchy of offices provided for the special position of dictator, an emergency post filled only in times of military crisis and then only for six months.

Events in History at the Time of the Speeches

The social and civil wars

Cicero lived during one of Rome’s bloodiest periods, when the Re-public was wracked by internal wars. During his teenage years, Rome became enmeshed in the Social Wars (91-89 bce), fighting against its erstwhile Italian allies, who wanted more rights for themselves, including the right of Roman citizenship. Technically Rome won the Social Wars, but in the end it granted citizenship to the allies, enlarging its electorate (although the new citizens had to come to Rome to vote). Cicero, it will be remembered, came from outside Rome, a fact that would in one respect work in his favor as he rose to distinction: he always had a measure of support from other Italians, especially the wealthy business class.

In the 80s bce, Rome moved from the Social Wars to a civil war that pitted Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix against Gaius Marius, who was a distant relative from Cicero’s hometown of Arpinum. Sulla won this conflict. At the same time, Rome was fighting a war in the East against Mithridates VI, King of Pontus (in the Black Sea region), who tried to take advantage of Rome’s troubles at home to gain power. He put to death perhaps as many as 80,000 Romans—mostly businessmen—who were in Asia Minor. Sulla helped curtail Mithridates’ power for the time being. Returning to Rome, Sulla seized control and, in 82 bce, had himself appointed dictator. He made some attempts to reform Rome’s political system, then shocked everyone by retiring and disappearing from the public scene in 79 bce.

With Sulla gone, his former generals jockeyed for power. The civil war between Marius and Sulla gave rise to many of the figures that would dominate the Roman political scene for the next few decades, including Pompey (106-48 bce), Crassus (c. 112-53 bce), and Caesar (100-44 bce). Cicero was making a name for himself as a lawyer at the time and launching his own political career. In 66 bce, Cicero gave his first political speech (”On the Command of Pompey”), aligning himself with Pompey in the competition for power. For the rest of Pompey’s life, Cicero championed him as often as he could, though he admitted to often being disappointed by Pompey’s actions. Cicero was, despite these disappointments, convinced that Pompey would uphold the Senate and constitution of the Roman Republic, whereas popular leaders like Caesar threatened to do away with the system altogether. In terms of his own work, Cicero saw himself as a figure who should constantly strive to get all parts of the Roman state to work in harmony (with the Senate in control) for the good of all Roman citizens.

The First and Second Triumvirates

In 60 bce, with the help of Pompey and Crassus, Caesar was elected to be consul for the next year. Largely to fight the Senate’s attempts to curtail their power, the three—Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus—formed an informal alliance (known now as the “First Triumvirate”) and became the effective rulers of Rome. Cicero had been asked to join this alliance, but the orator turned them down. His primary responsibility, as he himself states throughout his career, was to uphold the constitution that he saw as the heart of the Roman Republic; he feared that popular leaders like Caesar would undermine the Republic and try to assert individual rule.

When Crassus died in 53 bce, the only major players left were Pompey and Caesar. The situation led to another bloody civil war, which began in 49 bce and ensued for several years be-fore Caesar emerged victorious. Early in 44 bce, now the solitary power, Caesar had himself declared dictator in perpetuo (dictator for life), which demonstrated the obvious: Rome’s Republican system of government no longer worked. Caesar now held more power than any one man in Rome for nearly 500 years. Shortly thereafter, on the Ides of March (March 15) in 44 bce, a group of senators assassinated Caesar, plunging Rome into another period of political uncertainty. Cicero was not asked to take part in the assassination, but after the deed was done, the conspirators sought his approval; his response was lukewarm by his own admission, as he disapproved of the violence and was troubled by the possibility of further instability. Caesar’s second-in-command, Mark Antony, emerged as the leader of the faction that backed the murdered leader. At the same time, an heir apparent appeared on the scene—Caesar’s 18-year-old adopted son, Octavian (63 bce-14 CE). Octavian quickly showed himself an able leader and soon had much of Caesar’s military force on his side. He allowed the Senate to use him as a force against Antony, and in return secured the consulship in 43 bce, which gave him a certain legitimacy. Cicero had hopes of playing Antony and Octavian off each other to minimize the threat of either one be-coming too powerful, but the two were eventually reconciled and, along with one of Caesar’s former lieutenants, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, formed what became known as the Second Triumvirate. Unlike the First Triumvirate, this arrangement was a constitutional one, ratified by the Senate.

The new leaders drew up a list of people who were considered enemies, calling for their lives and property to be confiscated by the state. According to some sources, there was disagreement over whose names should appear on the list. Antony demanded that Cicero and his family (his son Marcus, brother Quintus, and nephew Quintus) be included; supposedly Octavian was against this but agreed for the sake of the alliance. Cicero was not alive to see the ultimate dissolution of the Second Triumvirate, which gave way to another civil war. The three leaders squabbled. Lepidus lost any influence he had because of military failures, which Octavian had to reverse. Eventually Octavian and Antony vied for supremacy off the coast of Actium in western Greece in 31 bce; Octavian won the battle, ending the civil war and becoming master of the Roman world. In 27 bce, he was given the title Augustus (means “reverend,” or “deserving reverence”), a milestone that for many scholars signifies the death of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire. Augustus had become Rome’s first emperor.

In sum, history shows that the fears of Cicero, who devoted his life to preserving the republican form of government, were well founded. Imperial rule would continue thereafter, with little more than lip service being paid to some vestiges of the Republican government. In their own ways, Caesar, Pompey, and Octavian all did what the target of Cicero’s first speech, Catilina, had tried to do 36 years earlier: seize power unconstitutionally by military force. Cicero stopped Catilina, but his political efforts against the others were in vain.


By Cicero’s day, Rome’s male citizens had at least two names, while Roman men of the nobility had three names and sometimes more. Cicero had three—Marcus Tulfius Cicero, including the following parts:

  • The praenomen (literally “before the name”), Serving as a first name, the pramomen was chosen from a few possible options, including Gaius, Gnaeus, Publius, and Marcus.
  • The nomen (or name). The most important part, the nomen identified the clan to which a person belonged; in Cicero’s case, this is Tullius.
  • The cognomen (like a nickname). The cognomen made it possible to differentiate among various branches of a clan, all of which kept the same nomen. Thus, Cicero’s branch of the Tullius clan was the Ciceros (Latin Cicerones), possibly because one of Cicero’s ancestors had a scar or a wart shaped like a chickpea.

The naming of children was more or less predetermined, with the eldest son being named after the father, Cicero’s father’s name was also Marcus Tullius Cicero. Cicero’s own son was in turn named Marcus Tullius Cicero. To differentiate, people would some-times refer to a father as “the elder” and the son as “the younger,” If there were more than two people with the same name, they would use other degrees (“the youngest”) or a cognomen. Female children, on the other hand, legally had only one name, the feminine form of the clan name. So, Cicero’s daughter was simply “Tullia,” If Cicero had had more than one daughter, each would have been named Tullia, and then distinguished as “the first,” “the second,” and so on.

Names were further complicated if a person was adopted. Julius Caesar, for example, had a grandnephew and adopted son who was originally named Gaius Octavtus Caepias. When Caesar adopted him, his name was changed to Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus to show that he now belonged to the Caesarian branch of the Julian c fan but had once been a member of the Octavian clan,

A conspiracy to thwart, a friend to rescue

When Cicero was consul in 63 bce, a nobleman named Catilina threatened the government of Rome. Having failed to win the consulship two times already (he had lost to Cicero the previous year), Catilina seems to have abandoned the constitutional process. Apparently he planned a violent coup, appealing to people from various social classes, in part by promising debt relief. Debt was a constant problem among the Romans. It plagued not only aristocratic family members, who had to spend to maintain their positions, but also the less well-to-do, because interest rates were unregulated and hence outlandishly high. According to some, both Caesar and Crassus secretly supported Catilina’s plot but distanced themselves from him when it became clear he would fail. When Cicero discovered the conspiracy and revealed it to the Senate, the main threat was over. Some of the conspirators were executed within the city, despite the uncertainty that existed about a consul’s right in times of emergency to execute Roman citizens without a full trial. Catilina, who openly rebelled, was killed along with some fellow conspirators in a battle outside Rome.

Venues for rhetoric

There were three main places in which a Roman orator spoke: in the law courts, in the Assembly, and in the Senate. All of these met in or right off Rome’s central forum (a name that derives from the Latin for, meaning “I speak”). A public square (or rectangle) at the center of town, the forum served as the focal point for government, business, and social affairs. For the orator, it offered different challenges depending on whether he was arguing a law case or speaking in the Assembly or Senate.

Law courts. The courts met in the forum itself and provided entertainment to those who happened by and decided to watch. Both sides agreed on a judge (usually one of the praetors) and established beforehand the actual charges. After this point, there could be no divergence from the charges laid out. The courts conducted their proceedings in the open air, and the juries were large; the norm was probably around 75 people, including senators, businessmen, and other well-to-do Romans. The prosecution spoke first, followed by the defense, after which evidence was produced. That the evidence came only after lengthy sets of speeches highlights the relative importance accorded to rhetoric (the art of public speaking) by the Roman justice system.

The speakers were not lawyers in the modern sense. No one paid for their services; instead, Roman defendants relied on personal connections for legal aid. A powerful Roman often acted as an advocate in exchange for favors (usually votes) from less powerful clients. Though Cicero preferred to speak on behalf of the defendant, he spoke on both sides and was often the final speaker. In delivering For Caelius (or In Defense of Marcus Caelius Rufus), Cicero was the third of three advocates on the side of the defense.

To modern readers, Roman court speeches seem irrelevant to the case and too concerned with issues of character. For Caelius, for instance, is all about Caelius’ relationship with a woman named Clodia; Cicero barely mentions any of the real charges. The focus on character, however, was extremely important; it was considered worthwhile to defend a good person regardless of their guilt or innocence in the particular matter at hand. Cicero deems Caelius a good person who can help Rome, and so defends him. As a rule, the most important thing at stake in the Roman courtroom was a person’s reputation; a person’s actions and general behavior were the central issue.

Assemblies. For close to 500 years (510 bce-27 bce) Rome was a republic. In theory, its government was representative, with supreme power resting in the people, although only over time did the ruling class grow to include not just aristocrats but commoners too. By Cicero’s day, male citizens (all the free adult males) could vote for magistrates and on issues of legislation. The citizens formed various assemblies In some assemblies, the men voted by tribe (by group determined on a geographic basis); in others, by property rank. In either case, the whole group got one vote. Limited in power, these assemblies did not create legislation (the Senate did); they only voted on it. Each type of assembly dealt with different kinds of legislation and had the power to elect certain officials. The assemblies usually met out-doors in the forum.

Sometimes Romans congregated more informally, providing Roman politicians with opportunities to address the general public. Because there was no way of magnifying sounds, an orator had to be very loud. Cicero tells us that, as a young man, his voice was weak and needed work.

The Senate. In the Senate the focus was on issues of policy, in the development of which oratory played a key role. In theory, the Senate was only an advisory body, and the people voted on all major issues. In fact, however, the Senate was the only consistent power in Rome, as most other offices had terms of only one year. Membership in the Senate was for life and could be taken away only under extraordinary circumstances. Sons tended to inherit the right to belong from their fathers, though the two men who served as the consuls, or chief officials, of Rome selected members of the Senate. As a body, it proposed laws and brought them before the people for a vote, produced resolutions, administered the government’s finances, assigned magistrates to the provinces, handled foreign relations, and supervised state religious practices.

Like all other official government posts, the position of senator offered no salary. There were stricter requirements placed on senators than on other officials. Senators could not earn their livelihood from any business that required constant attention. It followed that a Roman had to be quite wealthy to belong to the Senate. The Senate met throughout the year, whenever a consul called a meeting, usually in the curia, a building in the forum. Technically these meetings were closed to the public, but they tended to be held with the doors open, so a large crowd could often be found listening outside.

The two consuls for the year had the right to speak first. Next came the princeps senatus or “chief of the Senate,” followed by former consuls and then former praetors. Given all the rules and the size of the Senate (it grew to 600 members under Sulla), most senators probably did not speak at a given meeting, though it typically lasted from early in the day until the evening. It was considered improper to continue to meet past sunset.

The Speeches in Focus

Contents summary

Cicero, like most politicians of his day, was trained to speak in private court cases as well as in meetings of the Senate. In the course of his lifetime, he delivered all types of speeches. The following two speeches exhibit the different circumstances under which Cicero would speak and the tactics that he and others like him would use.

Against Lucius Sergius Catilina

Cicero delivered this speech to the Senate on November 8, 63 bce. Instead of meeting in the Senate house, the body met in the Temple of Jupiter Stator (“the Stayer,” the deity who stopped battle routs or re-treats) on the Palatine hill in the middle of Rome. The case was heard here to guard against attack from the accused party’s fellow conspirators. As consul, Cicero convened the meeting and, in this instance, was the first to speak.

Before this meeting took place, Cicero had gathered information from informers about Catilina’s plans of conspiracy against the state. Cicero refers to these plans throughout his speech. Because the danger is still at hand, he cannot reveal the names of his informers, so he presents no real proof of his charges. Still he has enough information to charge Catilina under the Plautian law concerning violence. We do not know the exact nature of this law, but surviving references suggest that it involves some kind of armed violence or even an attack on the state, including inciting a public riot (which seems to be how the law was leveled against Catilina). The charges were brought against Catilina sometime after October 21 and before Cicero made his speech on November 8. In the interim, while the investigation was underway, Catilina either had to post bail or give himself over to house arrest; as Cicero mentions, Catilina chose the latter. The Senate had also passed what is known as a “final decree” (senatus consultum ultimum), giving Cicero as consul special power to deal with threats to the state. It was under these auspices that he would eventually order the execution of some of Catilina’s followers without trial, though with the approval of the Senate. Before Cicero delivered this speech, then, people were aware that Catilina was plotting something, but he had not yet been confronted with any serious charges. This speech marks the beginning of Cicero’s efforts to con-front this conspiracy head-on.

Cicero begins his speech by revealing to Catilina that he knows all he has been plotting he had said would happen did, in fact, happen (about two weeks earlier Cicero had informed the Senate of preliminary aspects of Catilina’s plan, including attempted attacks in other Italian cities). Cicero adds new details about the conspiracy, informing the Senate about a recent meeting of the conspirators (at which they talked about how to divide power and whom to kill) and about a subsequent attempt on his own life.

The central debate involves what to do with Catilina. Cicero argues for letting him go as opposed to killing him immediately (as the earlier Romans would have done), since no one knows the extent of the conspiracy. If they kill Catilina, they will not know how many conspirators are left. If they let Catilina go, he will either leave and take his fellow conspirators with him or meet with the army he is amassing and make the threat clear to everyone:

Make war on your own country; behave like a godless brigand, and revel in the fact. For then it will be abundantly clear that I have not driven you into the arms of strangers, but that you have merely responded to an invitation to join your own friends.

(Cicero, Selected Political Speeches, p. 88)

Either way, it will be easier to deal with the problem. Thus, Cicero argues, he is actually serving Rome better by letting such a dangerous enemy go. Cicero is not worried about his own glory, but about the safety of Rome.

The day Cicero gave this speech, Catilina did flee the city to join another disgruntled Roman, named Manlius, who was amassing weapons and recruiting men for a bona fide revolt. After Catilina joined Manlius, they were both declared public enemies. The conspirators left in Rome were put to death, and Catilina and his forces were crushed in battle soon thereafter.

For Caelius (or In Defense of Marcus Caelius Rufus)

Cicero delivered this speech on April 4, 56 bce, before the law court, defending his client against charges of “political violence,” which included the assault and murder of a foreign envoy.

Before this trial, Rome had been involved with politics in Egypt. An embassy led by a man named Dio had come from Alexandria to Italy to plead a case before the Roman Senate, and a number of the foreign visitors were killed. The trial against Caelius is part of the attempt to call the killers to account. The formal charges against Caelius are 1) civil disturbance at Naples; 2) assault on Alexandrians at Puteoli; 3) damage of the property of one Palla; 4) taking gold for the attempted murder of the ambassador Dio; 5) attempted poisoning of Clodia; and 6) the murder of Dio. For these charges, Caelius faced possible exile or even death. It is perhaps surprising to modern readers that Cicero does not even mention most of these charges. Instead he argues on a more personal level, focusing on issues of character. It is important to note that since in this case he was the last speaker for the defense, it is likely that the preceding two speakers (one was Caelius himself) treated these charges in more detail.

Cicero begins his speech by commenting that an outsider would think this was a serious case, because the court is meeting on a holiday. But the threat is not really serious, Cicero says. The case in fact has much to do with the malice of Clodia, a woman formerly involved with Caelius.

Cicero combats the charges of the prosecution by defending Caelius’ character, pointing out that Caelius trained with Cicero as a young man. It is true that Caelius was a friend of Catilina, but this is irrelevant, since many young men were. In any case, Caelius was not part of the conspiracy.

Caelius’ only mistake, if any, was moving to a new neighborhood, where he unfortunately met Clodia:

And that, gentlemen, hints at what I am going to demonstrate when I come to the appropriate point in my speech: namely that all this young man’s trouble, or rather all the gossip about him, has been caused by his change of residence—and by this Medea of the Palatine.

(Cicero, Selected Political Speeches, p. 176)

(Cicero here uses Medea as a metaphor for a troublemaker or villainess; see Medea also in Classical Literature and Its Times.) After briefly discrediting the witnesses against Caelius, Cicero notes that he will focus on the facts.

Caelius’ prosecutors have gone too far in relying on vague moral assertions, says Cicero. There is no crime in enjoying dinner parties and wearing perfume. Instead, this case should focus on particular charges, which involve gold that Caelius allegedly took from Clodia, and his subsequent at-tempt to poison her. Thus, “the whole of the case revolves around Clodia. She is a woman of noble birth; but she also has a notorious reputation” (Selected Political Speeches, p. 183).

But how shall he proceed against Clodia—in a “mild and civilized fashion” or in “the bleak old manner and style” (Selected Political Speeches, p. 184)? If the latter, then he will have to call up the spirit of Clodia’s famous ancestor, Appius Claudius the Blind, to reprove her. He would certainly say that she is not acting according to the traditions of her family and that her rampant lust is disgraceful. But this is not, continues Cicero, the way he wants to proceed; he will be mild instead, thinking of what her brother, Clodius, would say. He would tell her that she could find many other men for her bed and that she should leave Caelius alone. And how should Cicero treat Caelius? If Cicero treats him like the father figure


C icero’s speech holds additional interest for students of Roman literature because of the possible identification of Clodia, the woman whom Gicero attacks, with Lesbia, the woman in some of the love poems of Catullus (c 84-54 bce; see Catullus’ Carmina also in Classical Literature and Its Times). Like other Roman love poets, Catullus did! not use his mistress’ real name. He calls her “Lesbia” in his poetry, as a tribute to the Creek poetess Sappho, who was from the island of Lesbos. While it is impossible to know if Clodia and Lesbia are one and the same (we first hear of the connection from Apuleius [in the mid-1 00s CE)), Cicero’s portrait of Clodia and her circle of admirers casts interesting light on some of Catullus’ poetry, much of it a testament to a love/hate relationship. All we know about Clodia’s relationship with Caelius is what we hear from Cicero, namely that they had an affair, indulged them-selves together, and then separated on unpleasant terms.

in the comedies by a favorite playwright of Rome (meaning Caecilius [d. 168 bce]), then Caelius only has to claim that it is all gossip. If Cicero treats him like a father in the comedies of another favorite (meaning Terence [d. 159 bce]), then Caelius need only say that Clodia made the advances. Perhaps Cicero is being overindulgent. Yet morals are not what they used to be; every young man will have his dalliances. Caelius, however, is not out of control, as his ability in oratory shows. Such skill only comes from hard work, and Caelius could not have worked so hard if he was as depraved as the prosecution asserts. Thus, it is only the spurned lover, Clodia, who is responsible for this case being brought against Caelius.

Cicero addresses the charges that Caelius borrowed money from Clodia to hire hit men to kill Dio, the ambassador from Alexandria. If Clodia knew what the money was for, says Cicero, then she was involved; if she did not know, then her relationship with Caelius was not as close as the prosecution says. Also, Lucceius, the man who hosted the ambassador, had testified as to Caelius’ innocence (his testimony was read in court but is not included with this speech). Accordingly, the Clodii (Clodia’s family) must have fabricated these charges.

Regarding the poison that Caelius allegedly tried to give Clodia, Cicero notes that the prosecution never really provided a motive. Caelius would have to have conspired with Clodia’s slaves, who are known to be unreliable and more like bedmates than slaves. Would Caelius be this foolish? As for poison, Clodia should be careful mentioning poison, considering how suddenly her husband, Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celer, died. The whole story of Caelius trying to acquire the poison is a poorly constructed tale and is nothing but a ludicrous stage show with no proof behind it.

In summation, Cicero remarks that the law on violence is to be reserved for serious charges and that Caelius has done nothing to merit such a charge. It is clear to everyone that he is a respectable young man; he lapsed only in being briefly involved with Clodia after moving into her neighborhood. When he broke off this affair, she acted out of hatred and had this case brought against him, concludes Cicero. Caelius is such a noble young man and such a benefit to the Republic that he should be acquitted—and he was.

Rhetoric in the Roman Republic

In his defense of Caelius, Cicero must deal with Caelius’ prior association with Catilina, whom Cicero himself had earlier maligned. In the later speech, to suit the case, Cicero provides a very different portrait of Catilina, one that speaks of him as impressing even Cicero as a man full of positive character traits:

Let no blame attach to Caelius because he associated with Catilina. For that is something which he has in common with many people, including persons who are beyond reproach. Indeed, I declare that I myself was once nearly deceived by him. I took him for a patriotic citizen attached to our national leaders, and for a faithful and reliable friend. I did not believe his misdeeds until I saw them; until I had actually caught him in the act I had no suspicion they even existed. If Caelius, too, was one of his numerous friends, he would, I agree, be right to feel annoyed that he made such a mistake, just as I sometimes regret my own misconception about the man. But the fact should certainly not give my client the slightest cause to fear that the friendship might be used as the basis for an indictment in court.

(Selected Political Speeches, pp. 173-174)

This part of Cicero’s speech highlights the training of Roman orators, who learned numerous approaches to public speaking, including arguing both sides of an issue as the occasion arose. Like many of his contemporaries, Cicero was trained from an early age to engage in all the aspects of oratory because it was so integral to the life of a Roman politician. His defense of Caelius shows the importance of rhetoric, as it “is another example of Cicero’s success in defending a client by cleverness, wit, and style rather than by evidence or proof” (Kennedy, p. 139).

Cicero’s training allows him to draw on a wide range of skills in the speech against Catilina and the speech for Caelius. The first speech is full of invective; the second, a speech to entertain. His contemporaries regarded Cicero as a master of both types. A highly serious speech, the one against Catilina involves attacking a person to convey a threat at hand. In keeping with this purpose, Cicero stresses Catilina’s vices and emphasizes (and perhaps overemphasizes) the danger to Rome.

In the second speech, a legal defense, Cicero focuses on entertaining his listeners as the final speaker in a case that took place on a holiday. He fills his speech with jokes, quotations from comic plays, and humorous caricatures of some of his personal enemies and their ancestors: “The speech for Caelius is by common consent Cicero’s wittiest” (MacKendrick, p. 264). Throughout the speech, for example, Cicero makes cutting remarks about Clodia’s character, as when he alludes to a possible incestuous relationship between her and her brother Clodius:

Indeed, my refutation would be framed in considerably more forcible terms if I did not feel inhibited by the fact that the woman’s husband—sorry, I mean brother, I always make that slip—is my personal enemy. Since that is the situation, however, my language will be as moderate as I can make it, and I will go no farther than my conscience and the nature of the action render unavoidable. And indeed I never imagined I should have to engage in quarrels with women, much less with a woman who has always been widely regarded as having no enemies since she so readily offers intimacy in all directions.

(Selected Political Speeches, p. 184)

Cicero identifies wit as one of an orator’s essential tools. In the following passage, he rails at the dismal qualities of a group of orators that he has heard, and in the process reveals what he considers to be the best attributes of a skilled orator:

Of them there was not one who gave me the impression of having read more deeply than the average man, and reading is the well-spring of perfect eloquence; no one whose studies embraced philosophy, the mother of excellence in deeds and in words; no one who had mastered thoroughly the civil law, a subject absolutely essential to equip the orator with the knowledge and practical judgement requisite for the conduct of private suits; no one who knew thoroughly Roman history, from which as occasion demanded he could summon as from the dead most unimpeachable witnesses; no one who with brief and pointed jest at his opponent’s expense was able to relax the attention of the court and pass for a moment from the seriousness of the business in hand to provoke a smile or open laughter; no one who understood how to amplify his case, and, from a question restricted to a particular person and time, transfer it to universals; no one who knew how to enliven it with a brief digression; no one who could inspire in the judge a feeling of angry indignation, or move him to tears, or in short (and this is the one supreme characteristic of the orator) sway his feelings in whatever direction the situation demanded.

(Cicero, Brutus, pp. 279-281)

Reading, studying philosophy and Roman history, mastering civil law, joking at an opponent’s expense, moving from the particular to the general—these skills make up the ideal rhetorician as Cicero saw it (in 46 bce) and, to some extent, as Cicero’s contemporaries would have seen it. In the two speeches covered here, Cicero places most emphasis on the ability to sway the feelings of the audience.

The importance of rhetoric in ancient Rome cannot be overstated. Persuasive speech was one of the main paths to distinction, especially for those, like Cicero, who did not hail from a distinguished aristocratic family. To a great extent, it was Cicero’s speaking ability that allowed him to rise to the highest-ranking office in Rome.

Ability in rhetoric and military affairs went hand in hand. A soldier was supposed to be able to exert influence at home as well as on the campaign: “Rhetoric is the special speech of the state. It is also, in effect, the occupation of off-duty soldiers” (Habinek, p. 2). For Cicero, who had little military experience, rhetorical ability was especially key. Throughout his career, Cicero, his own best public relations agent, reminded listeners that he had saved his country without bloodshed by foiling the Catilinarian conspiracy. In terms of the accolades he received for his role in the affair, Cicero did achieve something akin to military success, as the rewards, praise, and political clout given him were usually reserved for victorious generals. He was also the first to be called “Father of the Fatherland,” a title later used by Caesar Augustus.

Sources and literary context

To produce the two speeches featured here, Cicero drew upon his rhetorical training in both Rome and Greece. Several years after the Catilinarian affair, Cicero likened his speeches against Catilina to Demosthenes’ speeches against Philip of Macedon, called the “Philippics.” Cicero considered the Athenian speaker Demosthenes (384-22 bce) to be one of the orators most worth imitating, and the “Philippics” were famous for their invective. Cicero would return to them when he wrote his own “Philippics” against Mark Antony.

In his defense speech for Caelius, Cicero shows the influence that drama had on his style. Roman comedy exercised a particular influence; Cicero even discusses characters from the plays of Caecilius and Terence (see Terence’s Brothers also in Classical Literature and Its Times). To discredit the witnesses’ story that his client tried to poison his former lover, Cicero treats it as if it were part of a play, which allows him to critique it for its lack of sensible plot. As suggested, such a treatment was especially appropriate because this speech was delivered during a period of holiday celebration, when such comedies were per-formed (MacKendrick, p. 264).


Of these two speeches, the one against Catilina has proven to have a more lasting influence, in part because Cicero himself continued to remind people of his role in suppressing what he paints as one of the most serious threats in Roman history. He refers to this threat numerous times in later speeches and in “On His Consulship,” a poem he wrote in 60 bce (only fragments of this poem survive today). His repeated references to the conspiracy and the en-during popularity of his speeches helped build an image of Cicero as the savior of Rome.

A younger contemporary of Cicero’s, however, provides a slightly different account of the conspiracy. Gaius Sallustius Crispus (86-c. 35 bce) wrote a historical monograph about Catilina and his plot that gives Cicero a less individual role than the orator gives himself. On the other hand, Sallust, as he is called, refers to Cicero’s speech against Catilina in positive terms: “the consul Cicero, alarmed by Catilin[a]’s presence or, it may be, moved by indignation, rendered the state good service by delivering a brilliant oration, which he afterwards wrote down and published” (Sallust, p. 198). Sallust also tells us of Catilina’s reaction to the speech, including a derogatory remark about Cicero being “a mere immigrant,” a reference to his status as a “new man,” not a proud descendant of a forefather who had served before him, but the first in his family to become consul (Sallust, p. 198).

Later references to Cicero often focus on his oratory in general rather than on specific speeches. According to Quintilian (c. 35 CE-before 100?), famous as a writer on and teacher of rhetoric, Cicero was considered the ideal orator; as Quintilian himself saw it, Cicero was “the name not of a man, but of eloquence itself” (Quintilian in Rawson, p. 299).

—Kristopher Fletcher

For More Information

Austin, R. G. Cicero. Pro M. Caelio Oratio. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960.

Catullus. The Poems of Catullus. Trans. Guy Lee. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Cicero. Selected Political Speeches of Cicero. Trans. Michael Grant. London: Penguin, 1989.

Cicero. Brutus. Trans. G. L. Hendrickson. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962.

Everitt, Anthony. Cicero: A Turbulent Life. London: John Murray, 2001.

Habinek, Thomas. Ancient Rhetoric and Oratory. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.

Kennedy, George A. A New History of Classical Rhetoric Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.

MacKendrick, Paul. The Speeches of Cicero: Context, Law, Rhetoric. London: Duckworth, 1995.

May, James M., ed. Brill’s Companion to Cicero: Oratory and Rhetoric. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2002.

Rawson, Elizabeth. Cicero. A Portrait. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983.

Sallust. The Jugurthine War/The Conspiracy of Catiline. Trans. S. A. Hanford. New York: Penguin Books, 1963.

Warmington, E. H., ed. Ennius and Caecilius. In Remains of Old Latin. Vol. 1. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988.