Cicero and Latin Prose

views updated

Cicero and Latin Prose


Roman Hero. Marcus Tullius Cicero is the single figure of Greco-Roman antiquity about whom we know the most—in large part because of the vast literary legacy he has left in a variety of genres. In the Middle Ages his writings were prized as a mirror of the ancient world; in the Renaissance a Ciceronian style in one’s use of Latin was the hallmark of an educated man. Essentially conservative in outlook, Cicero was to many of his contemporaries a heroic figure, the one who (as he put it) “saved the Republic” in a time of political crisis. What he could not see, of course, is that the shifting sands of Roman politics meant inevitable change for Rome. As Cicero is arguably the single most important figure in the Roman Republic, and certainly in the history of Latin prose, a summary of Cicero’s life and literary legacy is important.

Legal Career. Cicero wrote down his speeches after he delivered them. Sometimes he made revisions; sometimes he even published speeches that ended up not being delivered. Like his Greek model Demosthenes, he published twelve of his speeches delivered during his consulate in 63 B.C.E., which conventionally serves as a watershed for

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

dividing his corpus. As a newcomer from Arpinum and a nonaristocrat, Cicero celebrated his breakthrough as a lawyer and speaker in 70 B.C.E. in the case against Verres, the corrupt former governor of Sicily. Cicero did his homework as a lawyer, gathering as much evidence of Verres’s maladministration as he could. He then delivered his short first speech against Verres, which exposes the defendant’s delay tactics as well as his powerful aristocratic backers. Cicero presents himself as being on top of his material, and assumes control of the case by appealing to the judges’ Roman virtues. Verres was devastated by the power of Cicero’s presentation: he headed for voluntary exile in Marseilles. Cicero had no need for the five following speeches against Verres which he had prepared; nonetheless, having just defeated Hortensius, Rome’s most celebrated lawyer of the time, he decided to publish his undelivered material as evidence of his prowess as an orator.

Rising Star. In the following years Cicero’s star rose steadily with speeches such as In Defense of Cluentius and On Pompey’s Command. In the former he first formulates his policy of concordia ordinum (unity among social classes); in the latter he aligns himself politically with the powerful general Pompey, whose quintessentially Roman qualities of virtus (bravery), auctoritas (authority), and felicit as (timeliness) he praises. In 63 B.C.E. he became consul and faced two challenges: Julius Caesar tried to win popular support and political power by means of a proposed agrarian reform bill, which Cicero in his three speeches on the agrarian law exposed as such and defeated. The second event was the coup attempt by a young nobleman named Lucius Sergius Catilina (Catiline), a minor episode in the civil upheavals of the first century B.C.E., which has received a great deal of attention because we possess not only Cicero’s four speeches, the famous Catilinarians, but also Sallust’s monograph on the series of events. Cicero’s first speech against Catiline, held in the senate with many of the coup members sitting in front of him, is nothing short of brilliant. Because the consul had no actual proof of the plot, he bluffs them. In a manner sometimes reminiscent of interrogations staged in TV crime series, Cicero starts out expressing his indignation at Catiline sitting in front of him before telling him that he knows everything. Fortunately, Cicero’s language is much more refined than that of modern TV cops. He is also even more devious. Toward the end of the speech, the personified Rome appears to him and asks him “Marcus Tullius, what are you doing?” She questions the wisdom of allowing the conspirators to stay in Rome and suggests that they should be summarily executed, thereby echoing Cicero’s own sentiments from the earlier parts of the speech. Cicero’s own attitude becomes the same as Rome’s attitude and that of every patriotic citizen. In the end, Catiline did run, was declared a public enemy, and was defeated by a Roman army. Cicero also obtained the senatus consultum ultimum (declaration of a state of emergency by the Senate), which gave him the power to execute the ringleaders of the plot. He nonetheless had the matter debated in the senate and won a conviction. Cicero managed to defend the freedom of the Roman republic and proceeded to publish twelve of his consular speeches testifying, in spite of their later publication, to his remarkable foresight.

Defense Speech. About seven years after delivering his Catilinarian speeches, Cicero, now no longer consul, conjures up another ghost in a speech. This time it is Appius Claudius Pulcher, appearing to his descendant Clodia in the speech In Defense of Caelius (34). Marcus Caelius had been accused of inciting public violence, sabotaging an embassy from Egypt and killing one of the ambassadors, and stealing some gold from Clodia as well as hatching a poison plot against her. The ghost of Claudius also asks his descendant “what are you doing?” and goes on to chastise her in a series of rhetorical questions for her immoral escapades. He claims that she has modeled herself after her brother Clodius, Cicero’s personal nemesis, rather than after her illustrious ancestors. This voice of Roman mos maiorum (ancestral custom) finds its counterpart one paragraph later in an apparition of the good-for-nothing brother Clodius, who, of course, advises that there are more fish in the sea than Caelius, and that all Clodia has to do is sit in her garden on the Tiber and wait for the willing young men to come to her. But all this is merely a diversion tactic to bypass the (probably not insubstantial) accusations against Caelius. Cicero tries to exonerate his client of the typical moral accusations leveled against him by the prosecution. He also shifts the blame for the entire court case to the jilted Clodia. And lurking behind Clodia is, of course, her brother, who later engineered Cicero’s exile. In exposing Clodia’s immorality Cicero is, however, treading on dangerous ground because his client Caelius had had an affair with her, and was therefore part of the immoral crowd. But the strategy did not backfire, because Caelius was acquitted.

Exile and Return. Cicero’s political opponent Clodius, Caesar’s henchman, passed a retroactive law against anyone who had killed a Roman citizen. This measure was of course specifically aimed at Cicero, who fled into exile in Greece, but returned triumphantly less than a year later. Still, his political influence had evaporated in the meantime. Cicero, who had not been able to console himself in exile, turned to rhetorical theory and philosophy, and published three eminent works: On the Orator, On the Republic, and On Laws. These three works confirm the integrated view Cicero held of statesmanship and oratory: On the Republic outlines the mixed Roman constitutions as the ideal; On Laws describes the statutes to uphold; and On the Orator sketches the ideal public figure who can put all these ideas into action.

Political Changes. Unfortunately for Cicero, after a brief comeback as governor of Cilicia, when he was poised to celebrate a triumph, civil war between Caesar and Pompey broke out and put a nail in the coffin of Cicero’s beloved republic. Under Caesar he again found himself politically put on ice. Once again he turned to philosophy, publishing works on ethics such as the Limits of Good and Evil, the Tusculan Disputations, On Old Age, On Friendship, and On Duties. These have become major sources of details of Greek philosophy that would otherwise now be lost. Although Cicero generally favors the line of Plato’s successors, On Duties develops Stoic thoughts. In it, Cicero overcomes the dichotomy between honestum (what is honorable or worthwhile in itself) and utile (what is useful): the honorable (e.g. learning Latin) always contains the useful (e.g. Latin builds vocabulary), but the useful does not necessarily contain the honorable.

Final Days. In the aftermath of Caesar’s dictatorship, Cicero quickly resurfaced to denounce Caesar’s would-be successor Marc Antony in no less than fourteen so-called Philippic speeches, modeled on Demosthenes’speeches against Philip of Macedon. In his first speech, Cicero appealed to Marc Antony to rule the state in such a way that his compatriots might enjoy his presence. Antony retorted in the next senate meeting, which Cicero did not attend, personally attacking the former consul as the major troublemaker of the past

twenty years. Cicero then wrote his second Philippic, which he published (without ever delivering orally) a few months later, after Antony had left Rome. In the first part of the speech, he quickly refutes Antony, then justifies his own political career. In so doing, he sets himself up as the foil for Marc Antony, whom he vitriolically attacks in the remainder with all the rhetorical fireworks of ancient invective. Not only is Marc Antony the real troublemaker in Rome, but he is also a crook, another Catiline whom Cicero will also defeat. The assassins of Caesar have demonstrated what is to be done with all tyrants. Cicero ends with a flourish; he has only two wishes: to leave the Roman people free when he dies, and to see every politician receive his just deserts. Although never delivered, the speech, published as a political pamphlet, encapsulates Cicero’s creed: people who use public life for their own ends deserve what Catiline and Caesar got. By this time, Cicero had nothing to lose but his life, which Marc Antony demanded as a condition for the second triumvirate with Octavian and Lepidus. After at least twelve more Philippics he had had enough: Cicero, the “most eloquent offspring of Romulus” (Catullus 49.1), was assassinated by Antony’s men on 7 December 43 B.C.E. But Marc Antony’s reputation as a potential military dictator has never recovered from Cicero’s invective.


D. R. Shackleton Bailey, Cicero (London: Routledge, 1971).

George A. Kennedy, The Art of Rhetoric in the Roman World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972).

James M. May, “Cicero,” in Ancient Roman Writers, Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 211, edited by Ward W. Briggs (Columbia, S.C.: Bruccoli Clark Layman/Detroit: Gale Group, 1999), pp. 54-67.

J. G. F. Powell, ed., Cicero the Philosopher (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995).