Latin Prose Writers Before the Augustan Age

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Latin Prose Writers Before the Augustan Age

Writers Before Cicero.

Roman historical traditions shaped the Roman people; from early times, the pontifex maximus (high priest) of Rome kept a record on a whitewashed board of the magistrates for each year and any notable events. The first true historian of Rome, Fabius Pictor, wrote in Greek rather than Latin. His history, written during the desperate war with Hannibal the Carthaginian, was intended to encourage pro-Roman sympathies in Greece. Marcius Porcius Cato (234–149

b.c.e.) was the first author and statesman who made a point of using Latin in his writing. He was a considerable orator, and in his old age he wrote a history titled the Origines on the origins not only of Rome but neighboring towns as well. All that survives of his writing is a treatise on agriculture that leaves the impression that he was a hard-boiled but pious farmer. After him, there is no prose author of note until Cicero and Julius Caesar in the middle decades of the first century b.c.e.

Marcus Tullius Cicero.

The facts of Cicero's life can be given briefly. He was born in 106 b.c.e. in the small town of Arpinum (modern Arpino). At age sixteen he was attached to a well-known barrister of the day, Quintus Mucius Scaevola, to win his entrée into the Roman legal industry. At eighteen he began his compulsory military service. He served under the father of Julius Caesar's rival, Pompey, which he always thought gave him a special link with Pompey. For the next few years he studied rhetoric and philosophy in Rome and made his court debut in 81 b.c.e. This was the period of Sulla's dictatorship, and Cicero made himself a marked man by successfully defending a man who had incurred the enmity of one of Sulla's minions, Chrysogonus. Cicero thought it prudent to retire to Greece for further study following this case and only returned to Rome after Sulla's death in 78 b.c.e. His first great triumph in court was in 70 b.c.e. when he impeached Gaius Verres for his corrupt governorship of Sicily. Verres went into voluntary exile before he was sentenced, and the Sicilian provincials who were his victims got no restitution. To win the case, Cicero had defeated the best lawyer of the day, Hortensius, and his reputation was made. He rose to be consul in 63 b.c.e. even though he was a "new man"—that is, no one in his family had been consul before—and during his year in office, he suppressed the conspiracy of Catiline and put the conspirators to death without trial, which was illegal. For that he was exiled in 58 b.c.e. and was allowed to return only after he made it clear that he would not make waves for the political triumvirate of Pompey, Crassus, and Julius Caesar who were manipulating politics behind the scenes at this time. When Caesar started the civil war in 49 b.c.e. by crossing the Rubicon River which marked the boundary between his province of Cisalpine Gaul and Italy, Cicero, after some hesitation, joined the senatorial group led by Pompey, who were Caesar's enemies. After the defeat of Pompey's army during the next year at the battle of Pharsalus, Cicero returned to Italy. He was not one of the conspirators who murdered Caesar on the Ides of March (15 March) 44 b.c.e., but there is little doubt that he approved, and in the immediate aftermath, he tried to arouse the senate to suppress Mark Antony's efforts to take over. He thought—wrongly—that he could use Julius Caesar's grandnephew Octavian, whom Caesar had adopted in his will, against Mark Antony, and then discard him when he was no longer necessary. Events turned out otherwise; Octavian joined Antony and another of Caesar's officers, Lepidus, in a second triumvirate of power brokers, and when this second triumvirate drew up its list of enemies to be proscribed in November, 43 b.c.e., Antony insisted that Cicero be included. He was killed by Antony's troops and his head nailed to the rostra, or speaker's platform in the Roman Forum where Cicero had often spoken.

Cicero's Letters.

The sheer bulk of Cicero's works is impressive. He bequeathed to posterity private letters, public speeches—some delivered in the law courts, others in the senate or before a public assembly—treatises on rhetoric, and dialogues on philosophy that had an enormous influence even though he was not, by any means, an original philosopher. His letters were written to his friends and family members, including his younger brother Quintus and his close friend and confidante, Titus Pomponius Atticus, a wealthy businessman and financier who stayed out of politics and survived the civil wars. The letters reveal the private Cicero, who differed from his public persona. Lawyers at this time in ancient Rome did not charge their clients fees, for the pretence was maintained that lawyers were above such considerations. They did, however, expect gifts and legacies from their clients, and Cicero's income was such that he could maintain a large number of country villas, although his lifestyle was not particularly extravagant for men of his class by the standards of the day. Cicero's letters give a rare glimpse of the private life of a Roman statesman as the Roman republic slid into civil war.

Cicero's Speeches.

Of Cicero's orations delivered in the Roman senate or public forums, his most famous are his four speeches against Catiline and his Philippics, speeches attacking Mark Antony, of which the first was delivered in the senate on 2 September, 44 b.c.e. and the second—his most famous—actually published as a pamphlet though it was in the form of a speech. The Catilinarian orations were delivered in the year of Cicero's consulship, 63 b.c.e. How serious a threat Catiline was to constitutional government is a matter for dispute—certainly Cicero exaggerated. Cicero's speeches delivered in the law courts throw a lurid light on Roman public life. His Verrine Orations against the corrupt governor of Sicily, Verres, who was tried in 70 b.c.e., were published after the case; they had not actually been delivered in court, for Verres went into voluntary exile first. Another great speech on behalf of a thuggish gang leader, Milo, in 52 b.c.e. was not delivered in court either. Cicero lost the case, but made up for it by publishing the version he would have given, but failed to do so because he was unnerved by Pompey's soldiers ringing the court. Other speeches give splendid vignettes of Roman life. One, "In Defense of Cluentius," is a murder case in an Italian town. Another, "In Defense of Caelius" throws a sidelight on Catullus' love affair with Lesbia, for Caelius was an ex-lover of Clodia, who seems to have been the Lesbia of Catullus in real-life. Caelius had had an affair with Clodia, and when he abandoned her, she charged him with an attempt to poison her. Cicero's defense of Caelius gives him a chance to dwell on the demi-monde of Rome, and Clodia's private life in particular.

Rhetorical and Philosophical Treatises.

Cicero was an eclectic philosopher who wrote philosophic dialogues during a period of his life when the alliance of the power brokers Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus, known as the First Triumvirate, sidelined him from politics. Of his works on rhetoric, his Brutus is interesting for its discussion of the development of oratory in Greece and Rome, which leads up to a description of his own development. Cicero followed it with his Orator, which makes the case that the true orator must be a master of all styles: the simple, the somewhat florid, and the grand. Cicero is a major source for modern knowledge of oratory in the Roman republic.

Other Notable Writers of Prose.

Gaius Julius Caesar is better known as a world conqueror, but he was also an author. His claim to fame in the latter arena is his Commentaries on the Gallic War and Civil War. His Latin style is unlike any other writer's, except for his imitators. He was writing a "commentary," not a "history" of his conquest of Gaul and the civil war that followed it; a "commentary" purported to be a first draft which would later be fitted out with literary adornments. Caesar was writing for propaganda purposes, but he reads like a good war correspondent. His bias is apparent but not blatantly so. One of his officers, Aulus Hirtius, added an eighth book to the Gallic War and continued Caesar's Civil War with a work in a style that copies Caesar's, the Alexandrine War. It is the source for the affair between the young Cleopatra of Egypt and Julius Caesar. Another supporter of Caesar with a more eloquent style was Sallust (Gaius Sallustius Crispus) who wrote a History, now lost, monographs on the Conspiracy of Catiline in 63 b.c.e., and the war with Jugurtha in north Africa at the end of the second century b.c.e. which was won by Marius, Caesar's uncle by marriage. In the second of these, Marius comes off very well. In his monograph on Catiline's Conspiracy, Cicero's role pales beside those of Julius Caesar and Cato the Younger. Cicero is portrayed as a decent but lightweight politician, but Cato represents the severe righteousness of an extreme right-wing statesman while Caesar has the makings of a beneficent ruler. Finally, there was an extraordinarily productive writer, Marcus Terentius Varro, of whose many works only one survives complete: a dialogue on buying and running a farm. Another writer worthy of mention is Cornelius Nepos, whose Book about Excellent Leaders of ForeignPeoples—22 of them, all Greeks except for two Carthaginians and one Persian—was written in straightforward but rather dull Latin prose.


Samuel W. Crompton, Julius Caesar (Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003).

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

Elizabeth Rawson, Cicero: A Portrait. Rev. ed. (Ithaca: N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983).

David Stockton, Cicero: A Political Biography (London, England: Oxford University Press, 1971).

Sir Ronald Syme, Sallust (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).

Kathryn Welch and Anton Powell, ed., Julius Caesar as Artful Reporter: The War Commentaries as Political Instruments (London, England: Duckworth, 1998).

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Latin Prose Writers Before the Augustan Age

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