Episode 47: O Tempora, O Mores!

The story of Cicero’s career is an epic tale, filled with courtroom dramas, corruption, conspiracy, greed, and Cicero’s own enduring hope for a better future.

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Cicero’s Rise to Consulship and the Catiline Conspiracy

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 47: O Tempora, O Mores! This is the second of three shows on the Roman orator, statesman, and writer Marcus Tullius Cicero, who lived from 106-43 BCE.

This episode covers the main part of Cicero’s career, a career filled with courtroom dramas, political intrigues, and conspiracies as Cicero followed his dream and ascended the four rungs of the cursus honorum, or course of offices. I want to start this episode with a quote from the great contemporary philosopher Bruno Latour. And this is a quote about politicians. Latour writes that
It takes something like courage to admit that we will never do better than a politician [Those who are not politicians] simply have somewhere to hide when they have made their mistakes. They can go back and try again. Only the politician is limited to a single shot and has to shoot in public. . .What we despise as political ‘mediocrity’ is simply the collection of compromises that we force politicians to make on our behalf.1
The quote – it’s from a book called The Pasteurization of France, by the way – the quote invites us to think about the unique challenges faced by figures in the public eye. A politician, a much sought after orator, or a lawyer – and Cicero was all three of these – works always in real time. Their decisions are often scrutinized in retrospect with a more complete understanding of their ramifications, and they are judged in hindsight not just by the motivations of each individual decision that she makes, but also the reverberations of decisions that she couldn’t readily anticipate. A modern politician – a prime minister, president, or senator, faces an uncommon degree of public scrutiny. And Cicero, whose cases, and speeches, and private correspondence and books have been studied for over two thousand years, has been particularly swarmed with criticism – criticism for wavering in his support for the republic, for taking cases at loggerheads with his ideals, for bloviating and defaming the family members of defendants, for either being overly reluctant or overly hasty in his sanctioning of wars and executions.

Part of the reason that Cicero, and moreover the final decades of the republic continue to fascinate us is that this is a story with no moral anchor, no white hats and black hats, but instead a complex web of causality formed by overlapping threads of self interest. Today, we will continue to look at one of those threads.

Ritratto maschile, grimani, 50-100 dc ca

Cicero’s legal career proper began just after the dictotarship of Sulla (138-78), when Sulla was a consul in 80 BCE. It was a perilous time to take cases, particularly those involving Sulla’s henchmen, which Cicero did in his work as Sextus Roscius the Younger’s defense attorney. Photo by Sailko.

In the previous episode, we heard about the first three decades of Cicero’s life – tumultuous, violent years dominated by the military men Marius and Sulla. We learned about Cicero’s participation in the Social War, during which Rome’s Italian allies attempted to secede and form their own kingdom. We spent some time talking about the Roman course of offices, or cursus honorum – how it worked, and how by the time Cicero began his first public office the whole system of Roman politics was becoming damaged by a long history of bribery and reckless campaign spending. And finally, we heard the dark story of the 80s BCE, a decade that saw Rome’s first dictatorial purges, and the first assaults on Rome by a Roman general, not to mention a major war in Greece against the Anatolian king Mithridates. We closed on the verge of Cicero’s first major case, and that’s where I think we should pick up today.

Cicero’s first major case as a lawyer was defending a man who had been implicated the previous year in the political murders of 81 BCE. It is hard to imagine a more dangerous climate for a young attorney to begin his career. In his first case, Cicero had to defend his client against the bloodthirsty minions of the former dictator Sulla. Sulla had stepped down from dictatorship during Cicero’s first trial. But nonetheless Sulla still held the powerful position as consul for the year 80 BCE. Against the formidable Sulla and his subordinates, Cicero had little power. Cicero was not, like Sulla or after him Julius Caesar, ever a dictator, nor an ingenious general. He never chopped through native populations in order to secure a new province. Plutarch describes Cicero as “very particular and even fussy about his health in general,” adding that Cicero “used to have massages at regular intervals and go for a fixed number of walks.”2

Cicero, in short, was no model of Roman vigor, and he was never feared and respected for his ability to hurl a javelin or endure a long march. All the same, within a decade of Cicero’s first case, everyone knew his name, and most of the men who sought influence and success in the last decades of the Republic tried, at some point in their careers, to forge an alliance with Cicero. Because in the forum, and the senate house, in courts and even in extemporaneous public gatherings, Cicero needed neither an army nor a sword to be one of the most effective and dangerous people in Rome. To learn how he began on this path, we need to talk about the murder of Sextus Roscius the Elder. [music]

The Trial of Sextus Roscius the Younger

One evening, in 81 BCE, a wealthy man named Sextus Roscius the Elder was murdered while returning home from a party in the city of Rome. The dictator Sulla’s purges had been tearing through the city for some time. A name would go up on the general’s proscription list, and soon enough, someone’s body would be discovered, his family would lose its inheritance, and his belongings would be eligible for public auction. The government, at that moment in Roman history, was a dictatorship, pure and simple. If the dictator or one of his lackeys wanted you eliminated – for any reason – your name on the proscription list was your death sentence.

All of this sounds nasty enough, but it gets worse. The henchmen of Sulla had grown brazen over the months of 81 BCE, and at some point it became acceptable for them to put a man’s name on the proscription lists posthumously. Anyone with a personal connection to the dictator, then, could commit murders for personal gain and on the caprices of their whims, and then, after the fact, claim that it had been at the bidding of the city’s chief executive. The murder of Sextus Roscius the Elder had been committed under these circumstances. Sextus Roscius was a family patriarch with a large store of property in a town called Ameria, about 50 miles south of Rome. Sextus Roscius was probably killed at the behest of a man called Chrysogonus, a freeman whom Sulla had put in charge of the proscriptions, and even worse, at the encouragement of some of poor old Roscius’ greedy relatives. Following Sextus Roscius’ murder, the corrupt Chrysogonous bought the old patriarch’s estate for a tiny fraction of its market value and shared the booty with his fellow conspirators.

This sort of thing was happening often enough throughout 81 BCE that Plutarch remarked, as we heard before, “Many people were killed because of purely personal enmities; they had no connection with Sulla in any way.” Poor old Sextus Roscius was one of these victims. But hard as it is to believe, the story grows worse from here. Sextus Roscius the Elder had a son – whom we’ll just call Sextus Roscius from here on out. Young Sextus Roscius was in his hometown of Ameria when the murder happened – again 50 miles from Rome – but he came to the city, to seek justice for his father’s murder with the support of the citizens of Ameria.

Sulla’s murderous lackey, Chrysogonus, was working with two of young Sextus Roscius’ relatives, and the trio couldn’t have the son of the man they’d murdered sniffing around Rome and making trouble for them. And so, going from morally reprehensible to utterly shameless, they accused young Sextus Roscius of murdering his own father. Young Sextus Roscius’ plight, as his case came to court in 80 BCE, was bleak. The murderers of his father had powerful connections. He was an outsider, and the crime of which he had been accused was grisly, and alongside his prosecutor were members of his own family who had benefited from the murder of his father. He only had two things going for him. One was a pretty solid alibi. And the other was that he had the man who would later become the most famous orator and attorney in history working for him, Marcus Tullius Cicero. And Cicero, then just 26 years old, wanted to win his first major case.

M Tullio Cicer (Cicero) - Studiolo di Federico da Montefeltro

Justus van Gent’s Cicerone (c. 1472-6).

Cicero was in a tough situation, though, going up, as it were, against an ex-dictator and a sort of state sanctioned mafia. On one hand, Sulla had made some efforts to reform the law courts, creating a new court specifically to deal with murder, and the trial of Sextus Roscius the younger was the first trial to be held in this new court. As biographer Kathryn Tempest puts it, “after years of bloodshed and recent proscriptions, the people were anxious for a conviction to demonstrate some return to law and order.”3 There was some public, grassroots inertia to make an example of someone like Chrysognus, the figurehead of Sulla’s bloody purges. On the other hand, the family that had contacted Cicero to take the case warned the young attorney that he shouldn’t implicate Chrysogonus, because implicating Chrysogonus was the same as implicating the dictator Sulla. So, what did Cicero do, in his first major court case? Did he avoid mentioning Chrysogonus, as he’d been advised to do? Let’s hear some of the speech that Cicero made. Long quote, and this is the phenomenal D.H. Berry translation, published by Oxford University Press in 2000. Here’s Cicero, going up against the minions of Sulla.
I was not singled out as the one man who could speak with the greatest skill, but was simply the only one left who could speak with relatively little danger. . . The property of the father of my client, Sextus Roscius, is worth six million sesterces, and. . .a young man, arguably the most powerful man in Rome at the present time, claims to have purchased this property for two thousand sesterces: this man is Lucius Cornelius Chrysogonus! He has a particular request to make of you, gentlemen. Seeing that he has unlawfully seized the extremely valuable and splendid property of another man, and seeing that the life of Sextus Roscius [the younger] appears to him to stand in the way of and impede his access to that property, [Chrysogonus] asks that you remove all uneasiness from his mind and release him from all his fears. For as long as Sextus Roscius [the younger] is still unharmed, Chrysogonus does not imagine that he can keep possession of the very large and valuable inheritance of this innocent man; with Roscius [the younger] condemned and forced into exile, however, he believes that he will be free to squander and fritter away his ill-gotten gains. Chrysogonus therefore requests that you relieve him of this anxiety which worries and torments his mind night and day, and declare yourselves his accomplices in this outrageous theft which he has committed. . .First of all I ask Chrysogonus to content himself with our wealth and property, and not to demand our life-blood as well. Secondly I ask you, gentlemen, to make a stand against the wickedness of criminals, to alleviate the misfortunes of innocent men, and in the case of Sextus Roscius [the younger] to repeal a danger which threatens every one of us. [Cicero spends some time implicating and excoriating young Roscius’ relatives who profited from the murder, and then Cicero vividly draws the entire crime.] Should I call on the protection of the immortal gods, or of the Roman people, or of you who at this moment exercise supreme authority? The father outrageously murdered, the family home besieged by enemies, property removed, appropriated, and plundered, the son’s life endangered and repeatedly attacked by sword and treachery! From this long list of enormities, surely there is no type of crime that has been left out? Yet they cap and crown these misdeeds with further atrocities. They fabricate a charge that defies belief, they use my client’s own money to bribe people to prosecute him and testify against him. . . They thought he would lack defenders, and he does. But a man who is prepared to speak freely and to defend him loyally–which, in this case, is all that is needed – this he most certainly does not lack, gentlemen! In taking on this case I may perhaps have acted rashly, carried away by the impetuosity of youth. But now that I have taken it on, even though–by Hercules! – all kinds of threats, terrors, and dangers surround me, I will stand up and face them.4
The oration Cicero delivered for his defendant was magnificent – thirteen and a half thousand words in the original Latin, about the length of the previous program on Cicero’s early life and career, and thus something between 90 and 120 minutes in length. I imagine the spectators were eating popcorn and that ten minutes in, Chrysogonus was wishing he’d worn a diaper. The long form of the courtroom oration allowed Cicero to do many things over the course of a 90-120 minute speech throughout his career – this specific speech in defense of Sextus Roscius the younger took the daring step of unambiguously implicating Chrysogonus in the murder, but in the speech Cicero also removed Sulla from any culpability in the crime, critically stating that “I know for a fact, members of the jury, that all this was done without Lucius Sulla’s knowledge.”5 Cicero’s speech in support of the accused parricide Sextus Roscius is on one level a furious attack on the greedy murderers who flourished under the dictatorship of Sulla – it ends with a fervent appeal for a return to the rule of law. But the speech was also politically shrewd, careful to exculpate executive leadership from any malfeasance discussed during the trial. The result was that Cicero won his first celebrity case, poor young Sextus Roscius was acquitted, and Chrysogonos, whatever exactly happened to him, vanished from the historical record.

After Pro Roscio Amerino

Not content to rest on his laurels, as he reached his 27th birthday in 79 BCE, Cicero set out for the east. He wanted to learn everything he could about oratory – how to best conserve his voice, discipline his diction, and in his own words, “to restrain the luxuriancy of a juvenile imagination.” When he returned from abroad, “The vehemence of my voice and action was considerably abated; the excessive ardour of my language was corrected; my lungs were strengthened; and my whole constitution confirmed and settled.”6 Before embarking with his brother Quintus and his dear friend Atticus on this journey, Cicero married a woman named Terentia. She was a wealthy eighteen-year-old and an excellent catch for his purposes, and their marriage would endure for twenty-eight years. At the age of 29, then, in 77 BCE, Cicero returned from abroad. He had won a celebrity trial and Rome had become the husband of an affluent and connected young woman. Through Terentia’s dowry and an inheritance from another source, at the end of his twenties Cicero had strong financial resources. And just as importantly – for all of Rome, in fact – the tyrant Sulla, shocking everyone, had not only given up his dictatorship – after serving as consul in 80 BCE, Sulla had left Rome and retired to his country estate to write his memoirs, finishing these peacefully in the company of his wife and male lover, and passing away in 78 BCE.

By 77, then, as Cicero trekked westward toward Rome across the peninsula after his journey to the east, he knew that he was coming back at the top of his game, and with strong financial resources, to boot. But he also knew that the Republic itself was coming back to life – this time, he hoped, for good. We, knowing the endgame of the Late Republic, might regard the young lawyer’s return to his home turf with a sense of pity. But Cicero could not have known that the road ahead led to the further lawlessness and chaos of two triumvirates. As far as 29-year-old Cicero understood, the tyrannies of Marius and then Sulla would be the exceptions to the long, lawful order of the Republic’s history.

In 77 BCE, the republic, after the crisis of the 80s, seemed to have returned to normal working order. Ambitious Romans could climb the cursus honorum, from quaestor, to aedile, to praetor, to consul. The senate, that advisory body that legislators traditionally consulted, was a mixture of established aristocratic families, rich oligarchs, populist politicians, and everything in between. The Tribunes of the Plebs also had a powerful role to play in politics, particularly as a rising hodgepodge of lassiez-faire capitalists were slowly dissolving the traditional linkage between wealth and aristocratic pedigree. It wasn’t a perfectly lawful system by a long shot. The wellbeing of the general public was, as it had always been, secondary to the greed and aspirations of Rome’s hegemony. And yet, compared to the previous decade, if nothing else, in the early 70s, there had at least been a return to tradition. Romans were no longer slaughtering each other outside of the city’s gates, and citizens were no longer being eradicated en masse because a dictator suspected them of sedition, or a dictator’s minions wanted their money and estates. A tropical storm, after a hurricane, seems tranquil by comparison, and young Cicero was quite accustomed to wearing a rain slicker and galoshes. So as he returned to Rome to begin his career proper, Cicero would have expected the business-as-usual corruption and graft that characterized Roman politics. But he could not have known that the ladder that led up to the position of consul – that course of offices that he sought to climb, was nailed to the deck of a sinking ship. [music]

Cicero’s Quaestorship in Sicily

In 76 BCE, Cicero ran one of twenty positions of quaestor, and won. This was the first of the four rungs of the Roman cursus honorum, and it gained Cicero entrance into the Roman senate for life. Quaestors had a broad range of responsibilities related to the Republic’s financial affairs, both in the city as well as the provinces. They oversaw the dispensation of state expenditures and income sources, serving as important links between lower level local bureaucrats and higher up governors and military commanders. Cicero’s own quaestorship brought him to Sicily, Rome’s oldest province. He was 31 years old, and when he arrived in Sicily he observed one of the more toxic effects of Rome’s political system.

We talked last time about how tax farming worked in the republic. A contractor goes to the senate, offers to pay, for instance, 400,000 sesterces for the right to tax Sicily in the upcoming year 75 BCE. He gets his contract awarded, pays the senate 400,000 sesterces, and the next year heads down to Sicily and starts taxing away, seeking to make not only the 400,000 he invested upfront, but however much extra he feels is legally possible or ethically permissible. Tax farmers worked in conjunction with former politicians serving yearlong terms of governor. These governors, who’d served as consuls or praetors, often brought huge debts with them that they’d amassed during their campaigns, and during their governorships, working side by side with tax farmers, Roman governors sought to tax their way back to solvency. Tax farming, and its partner institution of Roman gubernatorial terms, were diverse.7 Sometimes Roman provinces were taxed at reasonable rates, and Republican rule brought with it stability and new commercial opportunities. On the opposite end of the spectrum, sometimes Roman provinces were brutally overtaxed by their imported rulers and the opportunistic businessmen who worked alongside them.

Cicero entdeckt das Grabmal des Archimedes (Zuccarelli)

Cicero is said to have sought out and visited the tomb of the Sicilian polymath Archimedes (287-212 BCE) during his quaestorship in Sicily. The painting is James Steakley’s Cicero Discovers the Tomb of Archimedes (1747).

What Cicero saw in 75 BCE was closer to the latter. Sicily was an agriculturally rich province – a breadbasket that fed the Roman commoner, and thus because of its resources it was a potential gold mine for the men lucky enough to govern and tax farm it. When Cicero worked there, mismanagement had led to poor conditions for the province’s citizens. We don’t know exactly what his work there entailed. The letters that we have from him begin more than ten years after his quaestorship. But from what we know, Cicero served as an advocate of Sicilian interests and he simultaneously managed to increase the Sicilian grain export to Rome. The quaestorship of 75 helped Cicero understand how Rome’s management of the provinces worked in practice, and during this year Cicero built a relationship with the island’s native population which would prove useful in one of his upcoming cases. This quaestorship also taught Cicero something else about Roman culture.

Plutarch writes that while Cicero was working as a quaestor in Sicily, although the locals were initially skeptical of him, “when they had had experience of his careful management of affairs, his justice and his kindly nature, they honoured him more than any governor they had ever had.”8 Plutarch goes on to offer some details about how Cicero’s skills as a lawyer came in handy in Sicily, and then he offers this story about Cicero’s return from Sicily.
After. . .[his quaestorship, Plutarch writes,] when [Cicero] was on his way to Rome and, as a result of these successes, was feeling particularly proud of himself, he had, as he informs us, an amusing experience. [Just south of Rome] he happened to meet a well-known man and one whom he considered a friend of his. Imagining that he had filled the whole of Rome with the fame and glory of his achievements [in Sicily], Cicero asked this man: ‘What are people in Rome saying about what I’ve done? What do they think of it?’ To which the reply was: ‘But Cicero, you must tell me where you’ve been all this time.’”9
What Cicero took away from the incident was that he needed to stay in Rome if he wanted to advance his political career. And accordingly, whenever possible Cicero stuck close to the city for the remainder of his life. That anecdote from Plutarch probably also reflects the patrician hegemony’s attitude toward the provinces in general – out of sight, out of mind; distant pastures filled with cash which, unless invading armies were crossing them, needn’t concern the Roman gentility.

The Trial of Gaius Verres

The 70s BCE, which had begun with the promising resignation of Sulla, grew increasingly turbulent as the decade lengthened. First, an ex-governor of Spain, much loved by an influential tribe there, had returned to the western provinces of Spain in 80 BCE. Sertorius, the ex-governor in question, was a celebrity general and gifted statesman who wanted to found a new Rome in Spain. During 75 BCE, while Cicero was serving as quaestor in Sicily, Cicero’s exact contemporary Pompey was fighting the defected general’s forces throughout Spain, with the last major battle between them taking place in 74. That same year, unfortunately for Rome, Mithridates rose up again in the north of modern day Turkey, and Rome sent its consuls to the distant east to fend off their stubborn Anatolian nemesis. With the consuls of 74 deployed on campaign, and the attempted secession in Spain stopped by the increasingly famous Pompey, for a moment it seemed that Rome’s military affairs were under control. Then, in 73, the Third Servile War broke out in southern Italy. Cicero, who had been serving as defense for other “new men” like himself, in 73 and 72, would have heard news of a Thracian gladiator called Spartacus chopping his way through Roman legions during these years, up until Pompey, returning from Spain, finally intercepted and crushed the rebellion in 71. Mithridates, meanwhile, continued to hold his own in the east.

Sicilia2 Excurson 5 7-3-2007 Cicero consulship

A photo of the Sicilian countryside. The island had been a predominant source of grain since Romans had acquired it during the Punic Wars. Photo by Adrian Valerius.

As 71 gave way to 70 BCE, three years of chaos had unfolded both at home and abroad. The senate, which had been waging wars in the east and west and fighting off a gladiator-led army on Rome’s doorstep, had not had the time to attend another crisis close at home – one taking place in Sicily. Between 73 and 71 BCE, a senator named Gaius Verres had served three terms as governor in Rome’s breadbasket. According to Cicero, Gaius Verres’ conduct in Sicily, even for a provincial governor, had been extreme, involving extortion, blackmail, murder, bribery, theft, and even the plundering of temples.10 During his three terms in control of Sicily, Gaius Verres went from bad to worse, and the Roman political machine did nothing to stop him. Eventually, Verres’ hubris got the better of him. The greedy governor had been staying in the Sicilian town of Thermae, with a wealthy native Sicilian named Sthenius. Gaius Verres, thinking himself entirely above the law at this point, had stolen Sthenius’ personal property, and then gone on to loot the town’s statues. Sthenius went to Rome with his case, but Verres leveled counter charges of forgery against his Sicilian victim. There is some ambiguity about exactly what happened – we only have Cicero’s record of the events, and at times Cicero’s words against Verres sound more like a standard political defamation than an objective history. But whatever it was that Verres did, it was enough to get him summoned to court. The trial of Gaius Verres was held in 70 BCE.

It was a celebrity case for a number of reasons. Verres was a powerful man, with well connected friends – the sort of person whose cocoon of wealth and influence could protect him from being charged for even the most egregious conduct. At the same time, the evidence of Verres’ crimes was so plentiful that his trial unfolded as a sort of case study of whether or not rich Romans could be prosecuted at all. The Roman emperor Tiberius would later say in regards to taxing the provinces, “It is the part of a good shepherd to shear, not flay, his sheep.”11 Verres had most certainly been flaying, and as the case came to court in the summer of 70 BCE, Romans waited to see just how much brutality and mismanagement a governor could get away with.

Cicero, at this point, was 36 years old and hungry for a major public trial. From his quaestorship five years before, he had personal ties to Sicily, and wanted to see his former province treated fairly in the Roman courts. He had to compete for the right to prosecute Gaius Verres, and won out over another eligible prosecutor. As the summer dragged on, Verres and the men who supported him tried to delay the case until the next year, when a new group of magistrates would hold office – nearly all of whom were friends with Verres, whose defense advocate in the trial, Hortensius, would be consul the next year. This strategy didn’t quite work out for Gaius Verres, though. Cicero was given 110 days to journey to Sicily and gather evidence for his prosecution. Cicero only needed fifty. The young attorney had contacts in Sicily, and the Sicilians themselves were very, very angry.

So Cicero came back well before he was expected. When the trial began, Cicero, who had every reason in the world to crush the former governor, made a surprising move. Cicero delivered a short excerpt from a full oration, and otherwise let the evidence he’d brought back speak for itself. In comparison to his 13,500 word speech in defense of the accused parricide Sextus Roscius ten years earlier, he concise oration we call the first actio of the In Verrem – or “the first hearing Against Gaius Verres” was less than 5,000 words. While short, the speech that Cicero delivered certainly lays out the defendant’s alleged crimes in vivid color. Here’s a sample from it, a fairly long and definitely entertaining quote, from the D.H. Berry translation, published by Oxford University Press in 2006.
While [Gaius Verres] was governor, [Cicero summarizes,]the Sicilians were not allowed the use of their own laws, or the decrees of our senate, or the common laws of mankind. All the property that anyone owns in Sicily today is that which has either escaped the notice of this monster of avarice, or has been left over after his greed was satisfied. Over those three years [that he governed Sicily], no lawsuit was decided except by his say-so, and no man’s inheritance from his father and grandfather was so secure that it could not be confiscated at Verres’ order. . . By a new and corrupt ruling, arable farmers were forced to hand over vast sums of money from their capital; our staunchest allies were classed as enemies; Roman citizens were tortured and executed like slaves; criminals were acquitted through bribery; innocent and respectable men were prosecuted in their absence and convicted and exiled without a defence; the most strongly fortified harbours and the biggest and best-protected cities were left vulnerable to pirates and brigands; Sicilian soldiers and sailors—our friends and allies—were starved to death; and the finest and best-equipped fleets were, to the great disgrace of the Roman people, lost and destroyed. Ancient monuments, some the gift of wealthy kings who intended them to adorn their cities, others set up by our own victorious generals who either donated or restored them to the cities of Sicily – all these this same praetor plundered and stripped bare. And he did not do this only to the public statues and works of art: he also stole from all the temples, places sanctified by holy veneration, and he did not leave the Sicilians with a single god that seemed to him to have been made with above average artistic skill or with ancient craftsmanship. As for his sexual crimes and immorality, considerations of decency prevent me from relating his outrageous behavior; and at the same time I am reluctant thereby to add to the grief of those whose wives and children could not be protected from his violent assaults.12
Now it is possible that Gaius Verres, in the face of Rome’s most capable orator – in the face of such a fierce string of accusations – was still sitting up straight in his defendant’s bench after hearing this. He had a core of powerful alliances in the senate, after all, and although he faced horrid allegations, a bit of wriggling and a bribe here or there might still get him off scot-free. Verres probably listened to this part of the speech and steeled himself to hear an hour or two more of the same. But Cicero surprised everyone.

Rather than whipping the jury into a frenzy with more vivid portraiture of the criminal and his crimes, Cicero said this. “The fruits of glory that could be reaped from a full-scale speech, these I must keep back for some other time; for the present I must prosecute the defendant instead with account books, witnesses, and public and private certified documents and evidence.”13 Cicero, after all, had not come back from Sicily empty handed. Two days of witness testimonies and hard evidence shattered the case of the defense. Verres was defamed took himself into exile, and Cicero earned himself another celebrity trial victory. Not to be deprived of the prosecutor’s traditional right to speechify, and even though he had won his case, Cicero still published a five book long set of speeches against Verres, which he had prepared in the event that the case’s defense persisted after the initial presentation of evidence. These speeches contain a number of exemplary instances of what literary scholars call hypotyposis and classicists call enargeia, or lucid tableaus of scenes and events, such as when Cicero describes Verres’ corrupt superintendent standing on the Sicilian shore and neglecting his duties.
The diligent praetor surveyed the fleet under his orders, as long as it was passing by his scene of profligate revelry. . .The praetor of the Roman people stood in his slippers, clad in a purple cloak, and a tunic reaching down to his ankles, leaning on a prostitute on the shore. . .[and] spent. . .all his days in a drinking tent which he had pitched on the [beach].14
The five book long Verrine Orations demonstrates that while Cicero was confident that his amassed evidence would win the case for him, he was also more than prepared to deliver the traditional orations expected of a prosecutor.

The immediate outcome of the case was that it ruined Gaius Verres’ career and promoted Cicero’s own. But the sentencing of Gaius Verres coincided with a broader and by all means positive movement in Roman poitics. This was reviving the office of censor. We haven’t talked about this yet, but essentially, it had been customary for two men who had served as consuls to oversee the ethics of the senate for eighteen month terms, much like our House Committee on Ethics here in the United States. The normal actions of Rome’s censors had been interrupted during the dictatorship of Sulla eleven years before, but in 70 BCE, new censors were appointed, and during their terms in office, sixty-four men were kicked out of the senate for various sorts of misconduct. It was a referendum against the thuggery, extortion and bribery that was increasingly characterizing the behavior of a sect of Roman politicians.

Cicero and Pompey, 75-65 BCE

When we look back on this moment in Cicero’s early career, or more broadly the history of the Republic between 75 and 65 BCE, the hero of both Rome as well as the history books was undoubtedly Pompey. Pompey won the war in Spain. Pompey crushed the slave rebellion led by Spartacus. Pompey flushed the eastern Mediterranean of pirates in 67. Pompey, in 66, beat back the Armenian king Tigranes and secured an alliance with Armenia, and within a year had defeated the great Roman nemesis Mithridates VI. Pompey was the man of the decade, the hero who travelled to far off lands and put out fires. But importantly, Pompey was also behind the revival of the office of censor. It was through Pompey’s consulship in 70 BCE with Marcus Licinius Crassus that new censors were appointed, and so the conviction of Gaius Verres was Cicero’s contribution to a more general pushback against senatorial corruption spurred on by that year’s highest magistrates.

Pompey Cicero relationship

Pompey and Cicero had a long and complex relationship, which lasted until the end of Pompey’s life in the autumn of 48 BCE.

Cicero may have been involved in anti-corruption legislation that year in a different way. A praetor of 70 BCE introduced the lex Aurelia iudiciaria. This new law changed the way that juries were composed. Previously, trials of senators were ruled on by juries made of senators, and juries could thus be favorably biased toward defendants. The new law of 70 BCE – again the lex Aurelia iudiciaria – required that a jury be made up of two thirds equestrians and one third senators. Cicero mentions this new measure in his orations against Gaius Verres, and Verres’ trial marked the end of a system in which only senators judged senatorial crimes. 15

So Pompey is justifiably the main character in Roman history between 75 and 65. His victories in Spain, his successes against Spartacus and Mediterranean pirates, and his later heroism in the eastern wars against Mithridates all make for spectacular stories. But in 70, Pompey, and beneath him Cicero, were also taking steps to prevent wars from happening in the first place. The war in Spain and all the Mithridatic Wars, from 88-63 BCE, might have been avoided with better state oversight of how the provinces were being governed. And likewise, with better attention to domestic economic conditions, the senate might not have had to deal with the revolt of Spartacus. By the late 70s the republican government was entering a level of corruption that was starting to hinder its operations on the Italian peninsula as well as overseas. But in 70 BCE, at the end of this bumpy decade, Pompey and Crassus’ revival of the office of censor, Cicero’s legal victory against Verres, and the reform of how juries were composed were powerful symbolic steps against this corruption.16

Romans, of course, favored the meatier stuff of military victories and triumphs over the subtler accomplishments of lawyers and politicians. And while Pompey’s military victories abroad, and his legislation domestically were both great for Rome’s longevity, the means by which he had acquired his consulship of 70 BCE was not. In 71 BCE, seven years before he was legally allowed to, Pompey had demanded a consulship, which he was given the next year. There is little doubt that Pompey was an outstanding field commander. His military career had been spectacular. But giving military men a fast track up the cursus honorum – and moreover expecting that battlefield skills would consistently translate into political skills – as Rome expanded and its governing body’s responsibilities grew more complex, converting war heroes into consuls became more and more problematic. At worst, the promotion of politically inexperienced generals into the state’s highest offices not only filled these offices with blundering personnel. Promotions like Pompey’s also made regular politicians jealous and deepened the animosities between rank and file senators on one hand and popular generals on the other. In the summer of 71 BCE, when he sought the position of consul before it was legally permitted, Pompey certainly deserved the highest plaudits for his work on behalf of the Roman state. Yet in winning the position of consul prematurely, Pompey broke the law and continued the dangerous pattern introduced by Marius and Sulla, who had also believed that the Republic’s laws could be bent and broken for exceptional military men. Meanwhile, Cicero, born the same year as Pompey, had to play by the rules, and seek out his own magistracies when they were legally available to him. [music]

Cicero’s Rise to Aedile and Praetor

While Cicero didn’t enjoy the extralegal promotion that his contemporary Pompey did, nonetheless, after his victory over Gaius Verres, Cicero’s career continued to unfold successfully. During Pompey’s premature consulship in 70 BCE, Cicero was elected to the second rung of the cursus honorum – the rank of aedile. The office of aedile was useful to an up and coming politician. Aediles helped oversee the flow of grain into the city. Aediles superintended public games, festivals, buildings and open spaces, and thus a shrewd aedile could use his position to improve his reputation with the common people of the city. Cicero, who from his earlier quaestorship as well as the highly visible trial of Gaius Verres, enjoyed a great relationship with Sicily, used his connections to keep Sicilian grain prices low.

So far, in our story of Cicero, he by all means seems to be a likable protagonist. As of his aedileship in 69 BCE, we’ve seen Cicero rather bravely defend an accused parricide, succeed in his work as a quaestor in Sicily, and then return to prosecute a man who had flagrantly abused the rights of Sicilians. Being a new man who had risen to the second rank of the cursus honorum by 69 BCE, we know that Cicero played by the rules and respected the old laws of the Republic. Yet in the year 69, as Cicero returned to defending rather than prosecuting, we begin to get a rounder sense of what Cicero was willing to do to succeed and build his reputation as a budding politician. If we have followed his biography thus far with a sense that he will be an unflagging proponent of human rights and legislative consistency, 69 BCE is the year in which we see that Cicero, like ourselves, was a person of his times.

Roman Empire Gallia Narbonensis

Transalpine Gaul, or Gallia Narbonensis, the location of Marcus Fonteius’ controversial governorship.

A year after he had prosecuted Gaius Verres, that rapacious Sicilian governor, Cicero went on to defend another ex-governor – a senator named Marcus Fonteius, for charges of extortion. Fonteius had been governor of Transalpine Gaul, or southern France on the west side of the Alps. Fonteius may not have reached the heinous levels of extortion and criminality that Verres had.17 Nonetheless, Fonteius had been charged of the sort of provincial mismanagement that fomented insurrection abroad, and Cicero successfully defended him. So why, after emerging as a champion of the common Sicilian the previous year, did Cicero perform an about face and defend a man who had little regard for the wellbeing of the provinces?

There are many answers, the simplest of which is that Cicero was a lawyer, and he was doing his job. But the case of Fonteius may have been attractive to Cicero for a different reason. The year before, Cicero had championed the case of the common provincial and taken down a powerful man – one who had the support of some of Rome’s noblest families. Perhaps Cicero wanted to re-knit his ties with the senate and demonstrate that his gifts in the courtroom could be used to their advantage, as well. Additionally, Transalpine Gaul was worlds away from Sicily. While Sicily was Rome’s oldest province, and the seat of senatorial vacation homes, what happened in Transalpine Gaul was an altogether different matter. In Transalpine Gaul, where the locals spoke exotic languages and had tribal ties to the vast unconquered reaches of modern day France, maybe it seemed that a stricter and more avaricious governance was permissible. Sicilians were quaint neighbors. Gauls, however, were long haired barbarians.

So 69 BCE saw Cicero at the second rung of the cursus honorum, and this year also saw Cicero developing some deft political instincts, as well. Neither one of the optimates, nor a popularis during his career, Cicero worked to ingratiate both classes of politicians, and everyone in between. This was often an advantage. In any political system that is bipartisan, or has an otherwise multipart structure with opposing interests, of course it behooves an ambitious politician to cultivate alliances on all sides.

As the 60s continued, Cicero naturally had his eye on the next rung of the cursus honorum, and in 67, he accomplished the dual feat of getting his beloved daughter arranged into an advantageous marriage, and being elected as praetor. The role of praetor was suitable to Cicero’s talents. And in 66 BCE, Cicero took advantage of his new position to address the assembled citizen body, the first time he had ever addressed the public in a meeting of this sort.

That year, Cicero delivered a speech called On the Command of Pompey.18 There had been a proposal to give Pompey the military authority to solve a nettling problem that the Romans continued to face in the east – Mithridates. Twenty-one years before, the Anatolian king had butchered the Latin speaking population of Asia Minor, and incredibly, as the Third Mithridatic War dragged into its eighth year, Mithridates was still strutting around modern day Turkey and endangering Roman sovereignty in the eastern Mediterranean.

There was little doubt, militarily speaking, that Pompey was the man for the job. He had the experience, the logistical brilliance, and the rapport with his troops to take over command in the east. The problem was that a sect of senators continued to be leery of the upstart general, who like Cicero was not even from Rome proper, and who had illegally snatched up the role of consul several years before. It was a clear cut example of a popularis general butting heads with the highborn optimates of the senate. Cicero had to take a side. And in his speech On the Command of Pompey, Cicero took a chance and allied with the famous general. Yet in doing so, Cicero was careful to emphasize that Pompey winning the campaign would be good for everyone – even Pompey’s political opponents. Cicero was made sure to stress that the man who had been commanding operations on the eastern front, Lucullus, was the “most illustrious of men” and that although Cicero did support Pompey, that Lucullus’ “true glory shall not appear to be at all disparaged by my pleading.”19 There were commercial opportunities available in Anatolia available for all classes, Cicero added, and Pompey was the best man to tidy up the wars, and get the east open for business. [music]

The Trial of Aulus Cluentius Habitus

Cicero’s praetorship of 66 BCE saw him taking a public role in another controversy – the trial of a man named Aulus Cluentius Habitus. Now this was another celebrity trial, and one with amusingly screwy ethics and legal precedents. Cluentius had allegedly poisoned his stepfather, Oppianicus. What made the situation odd was that eight years before, Oppiancus, the stepfather, had been charged with poisoning the stepson, Cluentius. In the previous trial, the stepfather had been convicted by a single vote, but it was tacitly known that the jury had been thoroughly bribed. In 66 BCE, though, the case was a bit more serious, because this time, the poisoning had resulted in the stepfather dying. Cicero, again, was defending the accused parricide, but unlike in his much earlier trial of Sextus Roscius the younger, Cicero found himself defending a man against whom public opinion had turned, who had been implicated in legal corruption in the past and was unlikely to emerge unscathed.

Cicero’s defense of young Cluentius survives in a 21,000 word behemoth called Pro Cluentio – one of his most famous orations. Pro Cluentio is an unsettling combination of dismissal, misdirection and defamation all designed to distract jury and judges from the details of the case as it had come to court. Cicero found himself in the tricky position of wanting to maintain rapport with both the defendant and the accuser. The accuser, Oppianicus the younger, whose father had really been killed, was a wealthy equestrian. The defendant, as sketchy as his legal past might have been, was also an influential and well connected man. And so Cicero had to thread a very small needle, acquitting his client of all charges while at the same time being respectful to the prosecution.

Cicero said that Cluentius’ stepfather had actually been killed when he fell from a horse – there had been no poisoning at all. As for the accused, poor Cluentius had been charged as a result of his wicked mother, Sassia, whose immorality, violence, and lust new no bounds. A long section of Pro Cluentio is a blood and thunder picaresque tale of wicked Sassia’s role in the two alleged poisonings. Mother to the defendant, and wife of the victim, according to Cicero, Sassia was at the heart of the family’s discord. Here’s a little slice of Cicero’s Pro Cluentio, the C.D. Yonge translation this time. Cicero says that initially, Sassia’s marriage with the victim
subsisted with all respectability and all concord; when on a sudden there arose the nefarious lust of an abandoned woman, united not only with infamy but even impiety. For Sassia, the mother of [the defendant], (for she shall be called his mother by me, just for the name’s sake, although she behaves towards him with the hatred and cruelty of an enemy), – she shall, I say, be called his mother; nor will I even so speak of her wickedness and barbarity as to forget the name to which nature entitles her; (for the more lovable and amiable the name of mother is, the more you will think the extraordinary wickedness of that mother, who for these many years has been wishing her son dead, and who wishes it now more than ever, worthy of all possible hatred.)20
Sassia’s turpitude, in Cicero’s speech, knows no bounds – she lusts after and marries her son-in-law, she tortures slaves, and works, year after year, to try and butcher her biological son. The oration, with its archetypal tale of a wicked matriarch, could not have been good for Sassia’s reputation. And Cluentius was not charged. With another celebrity trial successfully wound up, Cicero also completed his praetorship at the end of 66, just before his 41st birthday.

The most famous anecdote about this case comes from the later rhetorician Quintilian, writing around the end of the first century CE. Recalling the events of trial, and Cicero’s own recounting of them, Quintilian writes, “Cicero boasted that he had thrown dust in the eyes of the jury in the case of Cluentius, [but] he was far from being blinded himself.”21 In other words, Cicero made and won his case, and he knew quite well that poetic license and highfalutin rhetoric had been the source of his victory, rather than an impartial presentation of the facts. [music]

Cicero’s Run for Consul

With his praetorship of 66 BCE finished successfully, with more courtroom victories under his belt, more notoriety, and a growing web of connections, Cicero began planning for his run for consul. One of his efforts in this direction was an attack on Marcus Licinius Crassus, the wealthiest man in the republic, who in the mid-60s was already legendary for his greed and questionable ethics. One of the most famous anecdotes about Crassus is printed in Plutarch’s Lives, in which we learn that Crassus was fond of saying “no one [can] be called rich who [cannot] support an army out of his income.”22 I guess that excludes most of us. Anyway, Crassus, about a decade older than Cicero, had evidently grown his wealth during the purges of Sulla by putting innocent rich men’s names on Sulla’s death lists and taking their property. While no profitable business venture seemed to be beneath Crassus, the most famous anecdote about his greed is how he would show up at burning houses with the equivalent of a fire truck, and rather than helping, offer to buy the burning property at a tiny fraction of its worth. After the deal was closed, Crassus would then put the fire out and enjoy the fruits of his timely purchase.23

Crassus, leading up to Cicero’s run for consul in the summer of 64 BCE, had set his eyes on Egypt. At that point, Egypt was not yet a Roman province, and Crassus was trying to support its absorption into the Republic, possibly with the 36-year-old Julius Caesar leading the military campaign. While by Crassus’ time, aristocratic greed was a longstanding part of the republic, the extent of his rapacity was, even by Rome’s political standards, shocking. Crassus had been bribing courts, funding young politicians who’d later be useful to him, and moreover taking the garden variety fiscal corruption that characterized the republic and substantially overstepping it. An inner nucleus of old guard senators was already opposed to the waterfall of cash Crassus was dispensing, and took strong objection to Egypt being opened up as a province under the auspices of Crassus’ funding. Cicero made a speech called On the Egyptian Kingdom, now mostly lost, that condemned the rich Roman for his greed, and his efforts to commander the ship of state. As a result, Crassus perhaps learned that one needed military strength as well as financial resources in order to properly co-opt the leadership of Rome, a lesson Crassus would remember half a decade later when he formed the First Triumvirate with Caesar and Pompey. Cicero, for his involvement with the affair, earned further approbation from the optimates at the heart of the senate, showing them that while he could help indict a wayward governor, he could also serve the interests of Rome’s inner conclave of traditionalists.

In the summer of 64, then, Cicero finally shot for the top, running for consul. We have by no means discussed all of his political activities up to the age of 42, but I hope I’ve given a general idea of his career up to this point. Cicero had taken a well-rounded assortment of cases that demonstrated his fidelity to both popular as well as aristocratic causes. In his operations as a praetor he had worked strategically not to alienate any of Rome’s power brokers. Going into the consular election of 64, then, Cicero had an excellent resume, but for one thing. He was a new man from Arpinum, who’d never had a consul in his ancestry. And the last time a new man from Arpinum had been a consul, it had been Marius, and Marius, in hindsight, had not been good for the stability of the republic or the interests of Rome’s aristocrats.

Cicero’s electoral opponents were both men from noble families. One of them, Lucius Sergius Catalina, ended up being a pivotal figure in Cicero’s life, and we know him today as Catiline. Catiline and his co-runner in the election of 64 went hard after popular support. They had enormous financial resources, and it’s possible that Cicero’s newly made enemy Crassus was bankrolling them. Cicero, on the other hand, ran a more traditional grassroots campaign, traveling widely even all the way up to Gaul, garnering support by learning names and relying on his friends to help communicate his moderatist message. He may have been a new man, but unlike his blue blooded opponents, Cicero had demonstrated respect for well heeled aristocrats, rich entrepreneurs, and common citizens alike. While his extraordinary skills as an orator certainly didn’t hurt in his run for consulship, when he won the election in the summer of 64, it was a result of a long career of careful alliances and a longstanding ability to maximize the amount of friends he made, and minimize the quantity of enemies.

Winning the consulship was one of Cicero’s signal achievements, and he knew it. Biographer Kathryn Tempest writes that,
Cicero was notoriously happy to expound upon his own successes; [but] even to an ancient audience, who were more accustomed to and acceptable of such braggadocio, Cicero seemed capable of excessive immodesty. . .At the beginning of his consulship, however, Cicero had more reasons than most to feel proud: he had won his election to every single appointment at the first opportunity and, even more impressively, he had done so without recourse either to a ready-made support base or bribery.24
On January 1st, 63 BCE, having had an illustrious career largely due to his own talent and work ethic, Cicero began his consulship. And that year, for the first time in his life, Cicero found himself, rather than a Sulla or a Pompey, on the front page of Roman news. [music]

The Background of the Catiline Conspiracy

The opening months of Cicero’s consulship passed smoothly enough. His co-consul, Antonius Hybrida, was one of the pair Cicero had campaigned against, but Cicero was able to work with his colleague on a bill related to land reform. In this bill, as well as a high profile trial that took place over the winter and spring of 63, Cicero allied himself with senatorial interests and against those of populist reformers, reluctant to embrace any radical changes that might pull the rug out from beneath the old order.

The English poet Ben Jonson staged Catiline in 1611, a historical tragedy on Roman themes like his contemporary Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Coriolanus.

By the summer of 63, the elections for the next year’s consulship were being held. Cicero’s previous opponent, Catiline, was running again. Catiline, by this point, had a big chip on his shoulder. A member of an ancient, but declining patrician family, it had been Catiline’s goal in life to obtain a consulship and restore his family’s political reputation. The previous year, Catiline had spent lavishly in the consular election, expecting to make his greatest ambition come true by fomenting popular support. And he’d lost. It was a political defeat, but also a financial defeat. As we learned in our previous episode, ex-consuls traditionally enjoyed provincial governorships, where they could fleece or skin the local populations of tax money as they saw fit, and get out of the debts they’d accrued. By mid-63, Catiline had become a very dangerous person. He’d lost most of his money but none of his ambition. He continued to see popular support as his gateway to power. And by that time he harbored a violent hatred for Cicero and the highest ranks of the senate.

Cicero understood what Catiline was, and the risk that a self-serving populist with nothing to lose posed to the Republic. When Cicero went to speak out against Catiline’s campaign, he gave a speech while wearing body armor, indicating that if Catiline won, the workaday politicians of the Republic who played by the rules would be in mortal danger. However melodramatic the body armor was, the gesture worked. Catiline’s second bid for consulship was wrecked. And, his ambitions undaunted by two electoral losses, Catiline decided it was time to resort to extreme measures.

He plotted a coup. Had Catiline been successful, a large number of influential senators, including, we can assume, Cicero, would have been murdered and Rome would have been torn with arson. For that matter, if Catiline had been successful, and seized the fortunes of Rome’s richest senators nd sprinkled them into the populace and military, we might be talking about Catiline as a sort of Robin Hood figure who snatched up aristocratic money and handed them to his supporters. In any case, Cicero was a central figure in foiling Catiline’s plot and preserving business as usual over the course of the autumn and winter of 63.

Catiline had a number of co-conspirators at different echelons of society. One of them had a mistress, and this mistress served as Cicero’s informant. In late October, Cicero acquired a bundle of letters addressed to Catiline’s aristocratic allies – letters that advised them to get out of the city due to an impending bloodbath. Cicero had the letters read in front of the senate, and soon the plot thickened. By this point, Cicero also knew learned that an ex-centurion from the army of Sulla was marshalling troops up near modern day Florence for an impending march on Rome, and Cicero convinced the Senate that this was all a part of Catiline’s grand plan.

The Senate was persuaded that danger to the Republic was imminent, and passed what was called the “ultimate decree,” a measure that gave the consuls license to take any actions they saw fit for the sake of the preservation of the state. As the autumn deepened, Cicero was in a peculiar position – holding broad executive powers, but at the same time uncertain of exactly who was involved with the conspiracy. Catiline himself, most problematically of all, was not directly or conclusively implicated. By early November, Catiline was getting ready to leave the city and unleash his assassins and arsonists. Before his departure, though, he wanted to destroy Cicero, that infuriating man who’d stolen the consulship from him twice. And this is where the story really gets interesting.

The Catilinarian Orations

On the morning of November 7th, 63 BCE, an assassin infiltrated Cicero’s house during his morning appointments and made an attempt on Cicero’s life. The killer was unsuccessful. And the next day, in the ancient Temple of Jupiter, which could be guarded more easily than the senate house, Cicero and the senate met to discuss what to do next. For whatever reason – perhaps just to flaunt that he had not yet been directly inculpated in the conspiracy, Catiline himself attended. Cicero, who had just survived an attempt on his life the day before, delivered an oration that we call the First Catilinarian, which is a good contender for the most famous speech in his entire oeuvre. It begins with a series of furious rhetorical questions, which we presume Cicero addressed to Catiline himself, and this is the D.H. Berry translation.
How far, I ask you, [said Cicero on the morning of November 8, 63 BCE]. . .How far, I ask you, Catiline, do you mean to stretch our patience? How much longer will your frenzy continue to frustrate us? At what point will your unrestrained recklessness stop flaunting itself? Have the nightly guards on the Palatine, have the patrols in the streets, have the fears of the people, have the gatherings of all loyal citizens, have these strongly defended premises in which this meeting is being held, have the faces and expressions of the senators here had no effect on you at all? Do you not realize that your plans have been exposed? Do you not see that your conspiracy has been arrested and trapped, now that all these people know about it? Which of us do you think does not know what you were up to yesterday evening, what you were up to last night, where you were, whom you collected together, and what plan of action you decided upon? What a decadent age we live in! The senate is aware of these things, the consul sees them — yet this man remains alive! Alive, did I say? He is not just alive: he actually enters the senate, he takes part in our public deliberations, and with his eyes he notes and marks down each one of us for assassination. We meanwhile, brave men that we are, think that we have done enough for our country if we merely get out of the way of his frenzy and his weapons.

By Hercules, if my slaves were as afraid of me as all your fellow-citizens are of you, I would certainly think I ought to leave my house—so don’t you think you ought to leave Rome? And if I saw my fellow-citizens looking at me, even without justification, with such deep hatred and suspicion, I would prefer to remove myself from their sight than remain before the hostile gaze of all of them. But you, knowing the crimes you have committed and so being aware that the hatred everyone feels towards you is merited and has long been your due, do you hesitate to remove yourself from the sight and presence of those whose minds and feelings you are injuring? If your very own parents feared and hated you, and it was absolutely impossible for you to become reconciled with them, surely, I think, you would withdraw to somewhere where they could not see you.25
And that line “What a decadent age we live in,” or, more famously, in Latin, “O tempora, o mores,” is the title of this episode, which might also simply be translated as “Oh, the times, oh, the customs!” a phrase which expressed the incredulity Cicero must have increasingly felt during his later career. Anyway, on the morning of November 8, 63 BCE, in a furious invective of just 3,400 words – rather concise for Cicero – the consul told Catiline that he should have already been executed for his crimes against the state, and that it was time to get out of Rome. Historian Mary Beard calls the speech “a marvelous mixture of fury, indignation, self-criticism and apparently solid fact.”26 As a result of the oration, Catiline fled the city. Donning a consular robe – the one that Cicero had denied him, Catiline joined his co-conspirator’s army up to the north in Etruria. [music]

After Catiline’s departure, one of Catiline’s lieutenants took over the planned massacre and arson in the city. His name was Lentulus, and he was a disgraced ex-senator. Part of Lentulus’ plan was to enlist the help of a tribe of Gauls. A Gallic revolt, thought the conspirator Lentulus, would distract the Roman military and enable Catiline’s army to strike the city more effectively. Unfortunately for Catiline and his co-conspirator Lentulus, the Gauls were not interested in a rebellion. Quite the opposite, actually – for whatever reason, they evidently felt a certain Gaul of duty toward Rome. They got in touch with Cicero, and eventually provided him with documents that implicated the conspirators still in the city of Rome. The conspirators were arrested, damning evidence against them now in the hands of the senate. On December 3, 63 BCE the conspirators were brought before Cicero. One of their houses was stocked with weaponry that had been intended to be used in the coup. Catiline and his army were still out there, but the bloody coup that had been about to break out in Rome had been stopped.

Early December of 63 was a pivot point in Cicero’s life. He was at the apex of Rome’s power hierarchy, he had survived an attempt on his life, and had saved the lives of dozens of senators and perhaps preserved the structure of its nearly 500-year-old government. But that same week he made a decision that would later haunt him and nearly cost him his life. This decision was, to put it simply, that he voted for and sanctioned the execution of the captured conspirators without a trial.

The Execution of the Conspirators

The senate was nearly unanimous in its vote for execution, as the conspirators had been planning the murder of much of the senate. Rome did not have long term prison system, and house arrest for the would-be insurrectionists perhaps seemed insufficient, considering the magnitude of their planned crimes. Cicero, as much as anyone, knew that the Roman court system’s loopholes and vulnerability to bribery might let many of them off scot-free. Additionally, the year was almost over. A new crop of consuls and praetors would soon superintend Rome’s trials. Julius Caesar, specifically, was to be praetor the following year, and he spoke out against the summary execution of the conspirators.

And I want to take just a second to tell a funny story about this moment in the trial of the conspirators. So, one side of the senate stood for leniency – this side was typified by Julius Caesar. The other side stood for summary execution, and this other side had the conservative champion of the republic Cato the Younger at its forefront, not to be confused with Catiline himself. According to Plutarch, at one point, Cato the Younger was grimly expounding on why the conspirators needed to be executed. As Cato enumerated all the reasons why the would-be arsonists and assassins warranted execution, a letter came in, and it was delivered to Julius Caesar. It looked a bit suspicious. The 37-year-old Caesar, after all, was defending the interests of criminals, and here he was receiving secret notes, to boot. Cato the Younger intervened. As Plutarch puts it, Cato the Younger was speaking when
a little note was brought in from the outside to Caesar. Cato tried to fix suspicion on the matter and alleged that it had something to do with the conspiracy, and bade [Caesar] read the [letter] aloud. Then Caesar handed the note to Cato, who stood near him. But when Cato had read the note, which was an unchaste [love] letter from [Cato’s own] sister Servilia to Caesar, with whom she was passionately and guiltily in love, [Cato] threw [the letter] to Caesar, saying, “Take it, [you drunk],” and then resumed his speech.27
Thus, hoping to implicate Caesar in the conspiracy, Cato instead discovered that Caesar was sleeping with his sister. Pursuing extramarital affairs at the aristocratic level was one of Caesar’s many hobbies, and it’s possible that this embarrassing revelation had an impact on the outcome of the pivotal trial, but anyway, the little story is just too fun to pass up.

However the steamy revelation brought levity and distraction to the conspirators’ trial, when it was Cicero’s turn to talk, he acknowledged the opposing view but ultimately pushed for execution. In an oration called the Fourth Catilinarian, Cicero laid the dichotomy before the senate. Here’s a slice of that speech, in which Cicero offers his own position on the possible execution of the conspirators, again the Oxford D.H. Berry translation.

It is a long time now since I first observed that a great insanity had arisen in our country, and that a new kind of evil was being concocted and stirred up; it never entered my head, however, that such an extensive and deadly conspiracy as this was the work of citizens. . . [Cicero goes on a long aside here emphasizing that he respects the lenient instincts of Julius Caesar, but then he adopts a hard line a moment later.] I imagine this city, the light of the world and the citadel of every nation, suddenly being burnt to the ground. I see in my mind’s eye pitiful heaps of citizens unburied, in a country that has itself been buried. There appears before my eyes a vision of [the conspirators], crazily reveling over your corpses. . . I cannot help but shudder at the thought of mothers weeping, girls and boys running for their lives, and Vestal virgins being raped. It is precisely because this prospect seems to me so dreadfully pitiful and pitiable that I am taking a firm and resolute stance against those who would perpetrate such atrocities. Let me ask you, if a head of a family were to find his children killed by a slave, his wife murdered, and his home burnt, and failed to inflict the greatest punishment possible on the slave responsible, would he be thought compassionate and merciful, or utterly cruel and inhuman? For my part, I would consider a man perverse and iron-hearted if he did not seek to reduce his own pain and torture by inflicting pain and torture on the person who had injured him. It therefore follows that in the case of these men who have plotted to butcher us, our wives, and our children, who have attempted to destroy the homes of each one of us and this home of the whole nation, and who have done this for the specific purpose of settling the tribe of the [Gauls] upon the final traces of this city and upon the ashes of an empire that has been destroyed by fire, if we then act with severity, we shall surely be thought of as merciful. But if instead we choose to show leniency, we can only expect, amid the destruction of our country and its citizens, to acquire a reputation for the most terrible cruelty.28
Whether brilliant or diabolical, you can see in the small excerpt of that speech some of Cicero’s rhetorical maneuvering. Execution without a trial is wrong, but considering the circumstances at hand, killing the conspirators, Cicero emphasizes, will be an act of mercy.

The senate was persuaded that execution was the right thing to do. The conspirators were put in some sort of a hole or holding cell, and strangled. When Cicero emerged from the prison, he famously announced their demise with the single word vixere, or “They have lived.” The next year, Catiline died in battle. A conspiracy that might have ended the Republic and led to the downfall of Rome was forestalled. Cicero was the hero of the hour, but as his consulship ended, and the months of 62 began to pass, he started to discover that the summary execution that he’d sanctioned would be a part of his reputation for the rest of his political career. [music]

Ciceronian Oratory in the 70s and 60s: The Bigger Picture

I think we should leave Cicero in the opening months of 62 BCE, still at the height of his power, for now. In this program we have seen some of Cicero’s most famous moments of oratory, from what seems to have been a rather daring and heroic defense speech for the accused parricide Sextus Roscius, to his prosecution of the greedy Sicilian governor Gaius Verres, to his defense of Aulus Cluentius and invectives against the man’s stepmother, to Cicero’s famous first oration against Catiline, and finally, the call for summary execution that we just heard in the Fourth Catilinarian. We’ve heard just a tiny snippet from the vast corpus of Cicero’s political and defense speeches, but I hope it has been enough for you to get a sense of the range and amplitude of his oratory. Whether defending helpless Sicilians or calling for the execution without trial of well known Romans, Cicero used rhetoric to get things done, and at times, his powers of persuasion had wide ranging effects on the lives of Romans around him.

Richard Wilson - Cicero with his friend Atticus and brother Quintus, at his villa at Arpinum - Google Art Project

Richard Wilson’s Cicero with his friend Atticus and brother Quintus, at his villa at Arpinum (c. 1771-75). After his consulship, as Rome grew more volatile, Cicero increasingly turned to writing at his villas.

Like anyone in the late republic, we can neither valorize nor vilify Cicero. But having heard so much from him in this show, and such a diverse set of excerpts, I think we can say something about the Roman forum and assembly before the rise of Octavian in the 30s BCE. The Rome into which Cicero was born was a place of relatively free speech. It was a place where the verbal acrobatics and logical artifices of an orator – as we’ve seen in this show – could cascade into crowds of senators and commoners alike, and where there was no sovereign authority decreeing what might and might not be said. The justice dispensed in this climate, and the political appointments made there, were corrupted by extortion and bribery. But at the same time, Rome during the youth and early career of Cicero was a place where eloquence and oratory mattered. We can look back into the political history of the late republic and wince at its culture of venality and unscrupulousness. But at the same time, in Cicero’s Rome, politicians and commoners expected to listen to, consider, and potentially be swayed by massive, complex, detailed orations on cases and laws. However messy the system was, the vigor and intellectual clarity of a single person’s reason was given a chance to flow into the sieve of public evaluation, and occasionally have a far reaching impact on Roman history. This culture of free speech, over the 50s, 40s, and 30s, began to sputter out, and even printed literature, like the melancholy Eclogues of Virgil, and the cautious satires of Horace, begins to reveal overtones of prudence and self-censorship utterly different than the unrestrained impetuosity of a Ciceronian oration. Put simply, we heard in this episode Roman oratory with the amps cranked up to eleven. Over the next century, as salvation based cult religions became increasingly widespread and emperors began running the gamut between authoritarian and sadistic, private sects like the Epicureans, the Stoics, the Dionysians, and the Christians began to swell just as public life demanded more caution and restraint. Cicero couldn’t have known it to be the case, but his great orations were fireworks that closed the centuries long parade of Romans who had enjoyed free speech.

To return more specifically to the late 60s BCE, though, I wanted to end with the Fourth Catilinarian because it marks a point at which Cicero himself, ever a champion of republican due process, pushed for extralegal measures for his own safety and what he perceived to be the preservation of the republic. Moving outside the bounds of law, by December of 63 BCE was nothing new. The Gracchi brothers had begun the process over seventy years before, and Cicero’s push for summary execution of the conspirators, rather than formal trials, was part of a spreading avalanche of legal improvisations at the executive level of Roman leadership. Cicero was thus not immune to a growing tendency to override the law for the sake of self-preservation and personal gain, even if the executions with which he closed his consulship helped squelch Catiline’s rebellion and preserve the status quo. Unlike some of his contemporaries likely did, however, Cicero thought a lot about what it meant to break the law in exceptional circumstances, and to make extralegal decisions based on what he called “The Conflict between the Right and the Expedient” in a book he wrote toward the end of his life.29 Following Cicero’s consulship, he found it increasingly impossible to rely on due process when a growing number of politicians and military men around him were not doing so.

Moving on to Cicero’s Later Career

As I did in the previous program, I want to thank Professor Kathryn Tempest of the University of Roehampton for reading a transcription of this show before I recorded it. The complexity of this period of history, together with the scope of Cicero’s output made these programs particularly challenging to plan and write, and Professor Tempest helped me make sure that my dates were spot on, my coverage reasonable, and my facts all accurate. If you want to hear Cicero’s full story, I again enthusiastically recommend her book Cicero: Politics and Persuasion in Ancient Rome, whether you’re a journeyman classicist or you just want a fun biography set in a captivating place and time in world history, and you can find this volume as a featured book at literatureandhistory.com. Kathryn, on behalf of everybody here who was curious about Rome and Cicero, thank you!

So next time, in Episode 48: The Right and the Expedient, our third of three shows on Cicero, we’ll hear about the great orator’s actions over the 50s and 40s – how he was exiled when the political tides turned against him, how he travelled all the way to central Turkey to complete his own proconsular governorship, and how, as Caesar, Crassus and Pompey rose to become the First Triumvirate, Cicero, the senate, and the republican legal process were all gradually sidelined and steamrolled. During his final two decades, Cicero was increasingly disgusted with Roman public life, turning toward the composition of written works on philosophy, politics and rhetoric when he found the city’s assemblies hostile to him. While he produced book after book during these eventful years, he also had a few dazzling orations left up his sleeves. Most notable of these were the Philippics, a set of speeches and pamphlets directed against Mark Antony. If we think of Ciceronian oratory as the fireworks show that closed the old free speech culture of the Roman Republic, the Philippics are the crescendo of that show, and, like all such pyrotechnic crescendos, they were followed by darkness. Thanks for listening to Literature and History, and try the quiz on this program at literatureandhistory.com to see how much you remember about Mr. Cicero so far. If you want to hear a song, I’ve got one for you, and if not I’ll see you next time.

Still listening? Oh, that’s very kind of you! So there’s a lot of fun stuff related to Cicero that’s worth writing songs about. But I got to thinking about what it would sound like if Cicero’s First Catilinarian was made into a rap song. The First Catilinarian is, again, possibly his most famous oration – that hundred ton smack down he threw at Catiline at the Temple of Jupiter on November 8, 63 BCE. I got to wondering what would have happened if some fog machines and lights came on and some backup singers came out to help Cicero trash Catiline in front of the senate, and I wrote this song, which is called “First Catilinarian Rap.” This one was a lot of fun to make, so I hope you enjoy it. Thanks again for listening to my show, and we’ll hear all about the final third of Cicero’s life and career next time.


1.^ Latour, Bruno. The Pasteurization of France, trans. Alan Sheridan and John Law, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1988, p. 210.

2.^ Plutarch. The Fall of the Roman Republic. Translated with an Introduction and Notes by Rex Warner. Revised by Robin Seager. New York and London: Penguin Classics, 2005, p. 331.

3.^ See Tempest, Kathryn. Cicero: Politics and Persuasion in Ancient Rome. London: Bloomsbury, 2011, p. 33.

4.^ Cicero, Pro Roscio 5,6,7,30-1. Quoted in Cicero. Defence Speeches. Translated by D.H. Berry. Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 10, 17-18.

5.^ Ibid, 21 (p. 15).

6.^ Cicero. Cicero’s Brutus or History of Famous Orators; also His Orator, or Accomplished Speaker. Translated by E. Jones.

7.^ See, for instance, Cary, M. and Scullard, H.H. A History of Rome: Down to the Reign of Constantine. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1975, p. 175-7.

8.^ Plutarch. The Fall of the Roman Republic. Translated with an Introduction and Notes by Rex Warner. Revised by Robin Seager. New York and London: Penguin Classics, 2005, p. 328. Plutarch takes the story from Cicero’s Pro Plancio, 64.

9.^ Ibid, pp. 328-9.

10.^ The charges are laid out in In Verrem 1, 13-14 by Cicero himself, though the luridness and comprehensiveness with which Verres’ crimes are laid out suggests the general format of a Roman political defamation rather than a detailed catalog of offenses to specific individuals.

11.^ Suetonius. Tiberius (32). Quoted in Suetonius. Complete Works. Delphi Classics, 2016. Kindle Edition, location 33802.

12.^ In Verrem 13-14. Printed in Cicero. Political Speeches. Translated and with Introductions and Notes by D.H. Berry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006, pp. 16-17.

13.^ Ibid, 33; p. 23.

14.^ Verrine Orations 5.33. Quoted in Cicero. Delphi Complete Works of Cicero. Delphi Classics, 2014. Kindle Edition, Location 9084. On this passage and Quintilian’s interpretation of it see Eco, Umberto. On Literature. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005, pp. 181-2.

15.^ See Berry (2006), p. 176. The passage in Cicero is In Verrem II, 5.177.

16.^ Additionally, 52 BCE Pompey did try to impose a five year waiting period between a consulship and a proconsulship, thus combating electoral bribery and excessive campaign spending.

17.^ See Tempest (2011), p. 60.

18.^ For more background on this speech and its architecture, in conjunction with Cicero’s On Oration, see ibid, pp. 71-3.

19.^ Pro Lege Manilia (5, 10). Cicero. Delphi Complete Works of Cicero. Delphi Classics, 2014. Kindle Edition, Locations 10953, 11019.

20.^ Pro Cluentio (12). Cicero. Delphi Complete Works of Cicero. Delphi Classics, 2014. Kindle Edition, Location 11462.

21.^ Quintilian. Institutes of Oratory (21). In Quintilian. Delphi Complete Works of Quintilian. Delphi Classics, 2015. Kindle Edition, Location 2224.

22.^ Plutarch. Fall of the Roman Republic. Translated and with Introduction and Notes by Rex Warner. London: Penguin, 2005, p. 112.

23.^ See Tempest (2011), p. 80.

24.^ Ibid, p. 85.

25.^ In Catilanam I (1-2,17). Printed in Cicero. Political Speeches. Translated and with Introductions and Notes by D.H. Berry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006, pp. 157, 162-3.

26.^ Beard, Mary. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. New York and London: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2016, p. 30.

27.^ Plutarch. Cato the Younger 24.2. Printed in Plutarch. Delphi Complete Works of Plutarch. Delphi Classics, 2013. Kindle Edition, Location 23391.

28.^ In Catilanam IV (6,11-12). Printed in Cicero. Political Speeches. Translated and with Introductions and Notes by D.H. Berry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006, pp. 195, 197-8.

29.^ De Officiiis 3.1.1. Printed in Cicero. Delphi Complete Works of Cicero. Delphi Classics, 2014. Kindle Edition, Location 82644.