Episode 48: The Right and the Expedient

Following his consulship, Cicero did his best to salvage the battered Republic, eventually going head to head with the powerful young general Mark Antony.

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Cicero and the Fall of the Republic

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 48: The Right and the Expedient. This is the third of three episodes on Marcus Tullius Cicero, the Roman orator, statesman and lawyer who lived from 106-43 BCE. Thus far, we have learned about the bumpy period of history into which Cicero was born – the Marian reforms to the military, the Social War in which Cicero briefly fought, and the dictatorship of Sulla. We talked about some of Cicero’s most famous cases – the trial of the accused parricide Sextus Roscius, the corrupt Sicilian governor Gaius Verres, and several others. And we discussed Cicero’s journey up the cursus honorum, as he went through the rungs of quaestor, aedile, praetor and consul, all at the earliest date legally possible. When we last left him in the opening months of 62 BCE, Cicero had just finished his consulship. He had been central to averting the wave of arson and political assassinations that historians call the Catiline Conspiracy. But in averting this conspiracy, Cicero had joined with other senators to sanction summary executions of Roman citizens without trials, though these citizens may indeed have been guilty of sedition and terrorist plots.

Comic History of Rome Table 10 Cicero denouncing Catiline

John Leech’s “Cicero Denouncing Catiline” from Gilbert Abbott Beckett’s The Comic History of Rome (1850).

In the heat of the moment, in December of 63, the executions that capped off Cicero’s consulship were measures of expediency performed by a state that had no prison system. Cicero himself had survived an attempt on his life and he was leery that the next year’s magistrates would free the conspirators, thus endangering the senate and the stability of Rome. Nonetheless, the executions, in the coming decade, would come back to haunt him. Whether they had been unavoidable, or a flagrant abuse of consular power, the executions that took place in December of 63 were, by Cicero’s opponents, leveraged to push him from the summit of Roman political power. And if the middle two decades of Cicero’s life were an almost miraculous climb up the republican social ladder, the final two decades were a slow, begrudging descent.

Being Cicero’s, it was an idiosyncratic descent. One of the recurring themes we’ve encountered is the notion of public chaos and instability leading to a turn toward private life. We talked about this in Episode 40: Hellenism and the Birth of the Self, and it came up again in our show on Epicureanism and Lucretius. Lucretius, and after him Virgil and Horace, found that a sequestered intellectual life based on close friendships was a far more reliable path to tranquility than throwing oneself into the gauntlet of a military and political career. To some extent, the last twenty years of Cicero’s life are characterized by intermittent turns toward isolated intellectualism. But Cicero never became a cloistered philosopher, nor an author of cautiously political poetry, like his Augustan Age successors. Cicero was from an earlier age than Virgil and Horace, and Cicero was feistier. Though at key moments in the 50s and 40s he deferred to the gravitas of Caesar, Cicero’s fiery republicanism continued to drive him up until the end of his life.

In this program, then, we’ll talk about the final two decades of Cicero’s life. In January of 62 BCE, Cicero was at the helm of Roman power, Crassus, Pompey and Caesar were gradually casing one another out for an alliance, a baby named Gaius Octavius was not yet six months old, and, to the northwest, millions of Gauls in modern day France and Belgium lived in tribes along waterways and fertile lowlands, as they had for centuries. Twenty years later, Gaul was conquered and decimated, Cicero, Crassus, Pompey, and Caesar were all dead, and Octavian was in a position to pursue absolute power. The following is the story of how all of this happened, and how Cicero fit in. [music]

Cicero and the Formation of the First Triumvirate

After his consulship of 63 BCE ended, the following year, Cicero served as the defense attorney for the nephew of the departed dictator Sulla, an affluent young man who’d profited from his uncle’s political killings. The case’s prosecutor found that Cicero was hard to compete with – the ex-consul and defender of the state was now part of the core of the senate, and – as the prosecution pleaded, Cicero was acting as a tyrant – just as he once had when he’d killed Roman citizens the previous winter without trials. Notwithstanding this cutting criticism, Cicero indeed won the case.

Now, in addition to using his court cases to solidify relationships with various splinters of the Roman elite, Cicero took cases for a different and simpler reason. It was an excellent way to make huge chunks of money. Neither lawyers nor prosecutors were paid set fees by the state or their clients. Instead, a sort of quid pro quo exchange system existed in which legal professionals could incur favors and monetary gain based on their successes in court. In the case of Cicero’s defense of Sulla’s nephew, Cicero’s incentive was most certainly in part financial. Upon helping Sulla the younger to a legal victory, Cicero was able to purchase himself a lavish house on the Palatine Hill. To some, Cicero’s defense of young Sulla that year was an ugly and even startling cash grab that seemed beneath the dignity of an ex-consul.

Pompey bust cicero

A 17th-century bust of Pompey, sculptor unknown.

Now at this point, in 62 BCE, Pompey the Great arrived back in Rome. Two years before, Pompey had seen the dead body of Mithridates VI, and had traveled far and wide – throughout Asia Minor, modern day Armenia, Syria, Jordan, and maybe most famously, Pompey had even entered the sacred Second Temple of Jerusalem. Crushing foes and consolidating new territories, Pompey had continued to be indispensible to Rome. Yet the senate remained a little worried about Pompey. They remembered Marius, and after him Sulla, and after him the attempted coup by Catline. But Pompey was none of these things. As the law required, Pompey disbanded his force outside the city gates. He made no request for a consulship, nor a dictatorship. He only asked that the senate grant land for his soldiers and formalize the territorial acquisitions that he’d acquired in the east. As the year 62 dragged into 61 and then 60, Pompey became increasingly disgruntled with the senate, who stalled in granting his requests. If a returning general and ex-consul who’d won land for the Republic couldn’t even secure plots for his soldiers, Pompey wondered, then what good was the senate? Another man was wondering the same thing. The ultra-rich Crassus, whose greed had been balked by the senate before, decided that an alliance with Pompey would give him an illustrious tie to the best military man in the Republic. Realizing the power of their alliance, Crassus and Pompey also needed connections inside the senate – they needed someone brilliant with words – someone who knew the power blocs and inner mechanisms and could represent their interests in the senate house. Julius Caesar was the man whom they chose, but Caesar himself had a fourth person in mind, and this person was Cicero. In a letter that Cicero wrote in early January of 59 BCE to his friend Atticus, Cicero revealed that Caesar had sought his help as a sort of fourth triumvir – one who could guide Caesar through the complexities of Caesar’s consulship, which begun that same month.1 Cicero, in spite of his great ambition, was not interested. Cicero was ambitious, but his loyalties lay with the senate and the traditional political structure of Rome, and he seems to have known that a partnership between Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar was likely to threaten the rule of the senate.

By the time Cicero was contacted about joining Caesar and the others, the First Triumvirate had already formed. Out of it, Crassus hoped to earn a back channel into jealously guarded world of senatorial power. Pompey hoped to finally get the senate to formalize his territorial gains. Caesar sought a triumph and consulship, and, considering what happened later, power at any expense. On January 1, 59 BCE, through means of Crassus’ money, Pompey’s fame, and Caesar’s consulship that same year, the first triumvirate locked arms and moved into the spotlight of Roman political power. The last act of the long history of the Republic had begun.[music]

Cicero’s Exile and Return to Rome Under the Triumvirs

On the first day of his consulship, Caesar passed legislation officializing Pompey’s territorial provisions in the east. For Crassus, Caesar passed a bill that made tax farmers less accountable to the senate. For himself, he selected Gaul as his post-consular province to govern and awarded himself with three legions to use there. In the spring of that year Pompey married Caesar’s daughter. The ties between the first triumvirs were tightening, and Cicero read the writing on the wall. He was never a moral purist. In fact he mocked his contemporary Cato the Younger for excessive idealism, writing in a private letter that the austere senator “speaks as if he lives in Plato’s Republic rather than in the gutters of Rome.”2 Never a staunch idealist, then, when Cicero saw what the First Triumvirate was up to, he simultaneously understood the great power they were accruing, and he wrote to his friend Atticus that he did not regret refusing to join them. Cicero’s moral flexibility had limitations, and one of those limitations was that at the end of the day, his allegiance was to the republican system, warts and all.

Unfortunately for Cicero, as the triumvirs’ power waxed his own position in Rome grew precarious. Two years before Caesar had begun his pivotal consulship of 59 BCE, Cicero had made a powerful and volatile enemy. This enemy’s name was Publius Clodius Pulcher. And at some point in February of 61 BCE, Pulcher had snuck into the house of Julius Caesar’s wife Pompeia during an all-female religious ceremony that included the city’s sacred vestal virgins. Though it may have just been a prank, a man sneaking into an all-female ceremony seemed to many to epitomize the moral deterioration of Rome’s younger citizens. Caesar divorced his wife. Pulcher was put on trial and Cicero testified against him. But the volatile young nobleman was acquitted, as Crassus dumped enough money into the jury to purchase a favorable verdict for Pulcher. Cicero was disgusted, and Pulcher did not forget who had been his friends and enemies in the affair.

Two years later, Pulcher had become a tribune of the plebs after some slippery political maneuvering, and he used his powerful position to pass a law aimed directly at Cicero. The law imposed exile on any Roman who had executed another Roman without normal legal proceedings. Cicero had done just this back at the end of 63. And so in 59, for the first time in sixteen years, Cicero packed his bags for a long absence from Rome, uncertain if he’d ever return.

He was gone for eighteen months, spending them in the northern Aegean and on the coast of modern day Albania. His beloved house on the Palatine was looted and destroyed. It was a dark period, and Cicero lamented his exile in numerous letters to his friend Atticus. The historian Plutarch found Cicero’s correspondence during this period exceedingly heartsick – the biographer wrote that Cicero “remained for most of the time miserable and disconsolate, keeping his eyes fixed, like a distressed lover, on Italy; his spirit was not great enough to rise above his misfortunes, and he became more dejected than one would have thought it possible for a man who had enjoyed such advantages in training and education.”3 But while Cicero was indeed miserable abroad, and while his house was destroyed, he had enough allies in Rome to pass legislation that allowed him back into the city. On August 3, 57 BCE, Cicero arrived back at home.

History had moved quickly while he was away. Clodius Pulcher, who’d spearheaded Cicero’s exile, had during his tribunate of 58 secured a free grain allotment for the plebeians and stirred up gang warfare on the streets of Rome. As a result of Pulcher’s reckless doling out of grain, by the summer of 57, a food shortage crippled the Italian peninsula. Power hungry populists like Pulcher, whatever age they live in, are often drawn to extreme crowd pleasing measures that garner them short term praises from the masses, though such measures have damaging effects in the long run.

Cicero helped get Pompey assigned to a 5-year special position designed to stabilize commerce and the flow of grain up into Rome. The first triumvirate of Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar was by the summer of 57 wearing thin, but the next spring the three men met and re-knit their bonds. There was far too much to gain. For the renewed partnership, Pompey and Crassus agreed to a joint consulship in 55, and Caesar would receive an additional five years to conduct campaigns up in Gaul. The three men also, in the spring of 56, decided that Cicero would need to be controlled.

As the joint consulships of Pompey and Crassus began in 55, Cicero found himself in a severely compromised position. The senate consisted of men like Cato the Younger, who was a hard line Republican hostile to political compromise, and others who had actually betrayed Cicero when the vote had come up to have him exiled. Thus, the senate was a difficult bunch to cast his lot with – a mixture of rigid traditionalists and outright political foes. Cicero’s alternative to the senate was the triumvirs: Pompey, Caesar, and Crassus. Though never fond of Crassus, Cicero was generally cordial with the great Pompey, and Caesar and Cicero, both of them students of rhetoric and literature, did have genuine respect for one another. And Cicero had another motivation to join his interests with those of the triumvirs. During his exile Cicero had worried intensely about his family. He had a young son, and his daughter, in her early twenties when Cicero returned to Italy, was the apple of his eye. His wife and kids, then, over the mid to late 50s, entered into Cicero’s political calculations, and during and after the consulship of Pompey and Crassus in 55, Cicero emerged as a powerful spokesperson for the First Triumvirate.

He was effective, but not particularly happy during the mid to late 50s. As he wrote to his brother, and I’m quoting this letter in Kathryn Tempest’s biography of Cicero,
I am tormented. . .tormented: there is no government; there are no law courts. At this stage of my life, when my influence in the senate should be flourishing, I am either being thrown into legal work or occupying myself with private study. And so, that motto, which I have loved since I was a boy – “Far to excel, surpassing all the rest” – has been shattered. I have been unable to attack some of my enemies, others I have even had to defend. I am neither free in what I think, nor in whom I choose to hate.4

Keenly aware of the muzzle being kept on him by the triumvirs, Cicero began to turn, as he increasingly would over the next decade, to writing and private study as an outlet for his energies. His books The Republic, On the Orator, and The Laws were exercises in imagining an ideal and fully functional Republic, and the work that unfettered oration might play there. In 53, however, suddenly, the republic that Cicero was imagining seemed in reach once again. [music]

Cicero’s Cilician Governorship

Pompey had married Caesar’s daughter back in the spring of 59 BCE. In 54, she died in childbirth, with the baby boy perishing, as well. The most important link between Pompey and Caesar was thus broken. And the following year, in 53 BCE, Crassus died. The arch-corrupter of Roman politics was killed in a battle with Parthian forces near the middle of the modern day border between Syria and Turkey. In the words of the historian Cassius Dio, “This was his end. . .[T]he Parthians, as some say, poured gold into his mouth in mockery; for though a man of great wealth he was so eager for money as to pity those who could not support an enrolled legion from their own means, regarding them as poor men.”5 Even Dio admits that the bit about the molten gold being poured into his throat is suspect, but in any event, Crassus was in his own time not a particularly popular figure. His death removed a corrosive force from republican politics, but it also, following Caesar’s daughter’s death, meant that Caesar and Pompey had fewer reasons to collaborate with one another.

As the 50s drew onward, Pompey increasingly emerged as a friend of the senate, though not an unconditional one. He worked on a law against electoral malpractice, and another designed to eliminate character assassinations from public trials. He sought to let witnesses testify in trials prior to the florid speeches of the defense and prosecution. Pompey even tried to combat electoral bribery by imposing a five year waiting period between a consulship and a provincial governorship. Considering his continued positive effect on Roman politics, and his implementation of what seem to have been farsighted political reforms, Pompey’s actions in the late 50s remind us that even during the late Gallic Wars, the end of the Republic was by no means a foregone conclusion. Pompey had joined the first triumvirate largely out of frustration with legislative gridlock, and Cicero must have been pleased to see the great value of Pompey’s continued contributions to the republic as the 50s drew to an end.

The last law I mentioned above – the one requiring a 5-year cooling off period between a consulship and a provincial governorship, which was obviously salubrious to the government as a whole, had an inconvenient effect on Cicero. The orator, along with all other ex-consuls who’d ignored their rights to a provincial governorship, was required to hold his own, in the far off territory of Cilicia, or the coastal underbelly of modern day Turkey. For the third time in his life, Cicero planned a long stay abroad, knowing that he’d spend the months of 51 BCE far, far away from Rome.

One of the fascinating things about Cicero’s Cilician governorship is that it allows us to see what kind of a ruler Cicero would have been if left to his own devices. While he didn’t want to go to Cilicia, and while he would have loved to spend 51 BCE forging a stronger alliance with the well respected and moderate Pompey, Cicero nonetheless poured himself into work as governor. When he arrived, Cilicia was a mess. Its previous governor, taking a common path for an ex-consul, had used his term in Cilicia to extract crippling quantities of revenue from the taxpayers there.

Aladaglar detail

Aladaglar national park in modern day Turkey, near where Cicero spent his governorship in Cilicia. Quite a different place than Cicero was accustomed to! Photo by Bicounet.

Cicero, charmingly, did away with a customary practice of having statues of himself installed at the beginning of his gubernatorial term. He knew it was a waste of money, and also that he was just passing through. What had happened during the previous governor’s reign was that the native Cilician population had become so crippled with debt that there was no possibility of them ever getting out. To help stave off the economic crisis, Cicero capped interest rates at 12%, and offered extensions to Cilicians unable to pay. The measures helped everyone. The provincials saw a route out of debt. The creditors saw that they might be paid back, after all. The previous governor had treated Cilicia like a piñata. Cicero treated it as a humanitarian crisis that needed intelligent intervention. Now, it must be said that what we know about Cicero’s Cilician governorship comes mostly from Cicero himself, who is not an unbiased source, but in any case, in telling his story we have to make use of the documents that we have.

One of the stranger moments in Cicero’s life came when he had to command a military force against highland tribes that lived in the mountains of central Anatolia and had never bowed to the yoke of Roman rule. His campaign against the “Free Cilicians” was successful enough to earn him the right of a triumph, although Cicero never had any interest in war. One of his letters from this campaign to his friend Atticus is a window into Cicero’s conduct as a military commander. Now, this letter was written at a site called Issus, where back in 333 BCE Alexander the Great had fought Darius. Cicero, however egotistical Plutarch and others have found him, speaks of his military efforts on behalf of the Republic with realism and humility.
After great labour and preparation [, Cicero wrote to his friend on December 19, 51 BCE] I finished the [campaign] without loss to my army, though with a large number of wounded. I am spending a merry Saturnalia, and so are my soldiers, to whom I have given up all spoil. . .For a few days we were encamped on the very spot which Alexander had occupied against Darius at Issus, a commander not a little superior to either you or me!6

Nothing if not intelligent and well read, Cicero knew the modesty of his own position and military gains, and made sure that the rewards went to the soldiers who’d earned them. For full disclosure, though, I should add that the same letter describes the 12,000 sesterces that Cicero earned for selling enemy soldiers into slavery, money which went to Rome’s treasury. It’s ugly profiteering by our standards, but of course in Cicero’s day he was following the established customs of the republic.

With the year abroad wound up, Cicero was eager to return to Rome, and did so as soon as he could. And when he returned, he found that history had continued to move blindingly fast in the heart of the republic. [music]

Cicero’s Role in Caesar’s Civil War and its Aftermath


Lionel Royer’s Vercingetorix Throws Down His Arms at the Feet of Julius Caesar (1899). A beautiful painting, made even better by Vercingetorix’s biker moustache.

Over the course of the 50s, Caesar had conquered Gaul, bringing himself a gigantic fortune and popular fame. But Caesar’s command in Gaul was due to end. He knew that he had risen to such a level of fame and power that given the opportunity, his enemies in Rome would persecute him. The only way to protect himself would be to enter office immediately as consul upon his return from Gaul. But there was a problem. Pompey and Caesar’s relationship had deteriorated significantly while Cicero had been out governing a province in the southeast of modern day Turkey. And Pompey blocked Caesar’s path to the consulship. The opposition between the two men was already so great that both of them courted Cicero as he trekked back to Rome. And as 50 gave way to 49, Cicero discovered that although he could restore the economy and protect the citizenry of Cilicia from unsustainable financial policies, when it came to the republic as a whole, his powers were dreadfully small. Ten years before, Caesar had begun January of 59 BCE as a consul, passing laws which gave powers to the First Triumvirate. And Caesar began January of 49 BCE with a bang as well. On January 11, 49 BCE, Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his troops and led them down into Italy.

Cicero then, in early 49, found himself dragged into the civil war. Nothing about it appealed to him. Cicero had ties to both Caesar and Pompey, and he sided with the latter due to Pompey’s long track record of working in conjunction with the old order. Pompey had nabbed up a couple of consulships. His fame and military strength continued to intimidate the senate. But during mid-January of 49, Pompey was nonetheless the choice of the senators and other men of means who stood to profit from business as usual in the Republic.

La clémence de César

Abdel de Pujol’s The Clemency of Caesar (1808). The dictator’s forgiveness of former enemies is a common part of the way his character is described and depicted, both in antiquity and much later.

Not being a foot soldier or general, and being utterly against the war in the first place, Cicero spent most of 49 in Pompey’s camps, disgusted at the brutality of the whole affair. The pivotal battle of the war between Caesar and Pompey took place in August of 48, at the Battle of Pharsalus, on the east central part of the Greek mainland. Cicero may or may not have been there. When it was over, and Caesar had won, and some of the dust had settled, and other senators who’d supported Pompey waited to see what was next, Cicero found himself summoned to the Adriatic port city of Brundisium by Julius Caesar.

Cicero spent a miserable year there. Caesar had gone down to Alexandria to chase after Pompey, and, finding him dead, lingered there in Egypt until the end of 47 with his new lover Cleopatra. Trapped in Brundisium, Cicero had time to fume on a growing set of family problems. His beloved daughter Tullia had given birth prematurely the previous summer, and the incident had permanently impacted her health. Cicero’s brother Quintus had, in front of Caesar’s supporters, blamed his previous support of Pompey on Cicero, thus selling Cicero out. Just as badly, Cicero’s relationship with his wife had been growing worse and worse since his exile ten years prior, and the couple divorced in 46 BCE, having been married for over thirty years. In the midst of all of this, Cicero’s son-in-law was becoming increasingly devoted to populism and political radicalism more generally, thus endangering Cicero’s cherished daughter in the midst of her declining health.

So when Caesar issued Cicero a pardon, the orator must have been near rock bottom. His government was in shambles. His family was coming apart. He had friends on both sides of the recent civil war who had been killed. Yet it could have been worse. Caesar took a break from the continued civil wars in the summer of 46 to issue pardons to former Pompeians throughout Rome, and even Cicero was impressed at the dictator’s clemency. One of the pardons was issued to a man named Marcus Claudius Marcellus, a former consul who had unambiguously backed Pompey in the civil war. Cicero was so impressed at Caesar’s clemency that he offered a speech called For Marcellus, praising Caesar’s great forbearance, and even suggesting that the dictator’s wisdom was deific. It was an interesting speech for a man who’d devoted so much of his life to the republic, although it did call for Caesar to restore the time honored customs of the republican government. Delivered in mid-September of 46 BCE, the speech Pro Marcello, or again For Marcellus was the first speech Cicero had given in the senate in a long time. Here’s the opening of Pro Marcello, one of Cicero’s more famous speeches – and this is the D.H. Berry translation, published by Oxford University Press in 2000.
The long silence, conscript fathers, which I had maintained for all this time – not from any fear, but out of a mixture of grief and diffidence – has today been brought to an end; and today has also brought a return to my former practice of freely expressing my wishes and opinions. For such exceptional kindness, such unprecedented and unheard of clemency, such extraordinary moderation in someone who has attained absolute power over everything, and such astonishing and, one might almost say, superhuman wisdom — these are things I cannot possibly pass over in silence. . .[I]n the glory which you have acquired by your present action, [Julius] Caesar, you have no partner: all of it, however great it may be (and it is indeed the greatest possible), all of it, I repeat, is yours. No centurion, no prefect, no cohort, no troop can take any of it for themselves, and even that mistress of human affairs, Fortune, does not offer herself as you partner in this glory: she yields it to you. . .[And Cicero adds later, significantly, that] It is your task, Gaius Caesar, and yours alone, to restore everything that you can now see lying battered and shattered (as was unavoidable) by the violence of war. Courts must be established, credit restored, self-indulgence checked, the birth-rate raised, and everything which has become disintegrated and dissipated reorganized by means of stringent legislation. In such a terrible civil war, amid such stirrings of spirits and swords, it was inevitable that the stricken state, whatever the final result, would lose many ornaments of its prestige and many bulwarks of its security, and that each leader would do many things under arms that he would not have permitted in peacetime. It is your task [, Caesar,] now to heal all these wounds of war, which no one but you is capable of treating. . .[U]nless you bring stability to this city through reform and legislation, your renown will just wander far and wide, without acquiring a settled home and fixed habitation.7

While Cicero does, significantly, emphasize that it is Caesar’s duty to help restore and stabilize the republic, the bulk of the speech is characterized by effusive gratitude and a desire for reconciliation. In less than 3,000 words, Cicero repeatedly emphasizes the miraculousness of Caesar’s spirit of postwar forgiveness, reminds his listeners that atrocities committed in the past few years were wartime acts that must be forgiven, and that Caesar must take care of himself, because the republic has need of him. There is a sense that though the Pompeians lost, the cause that they stood for may not have been lost at all, thanks to Caesar’s astonishing clemency. Now, we do have to remember that this speech was offered in Caesar’s presence, and thus its sincerity is suspect. Many senators in the room must have been filled with bile and anger in spite of Caesar’s generous pardons. But Cicero himself, as his letters around this time reveal, seems to have been genuinely optimistic that the republic might be restored under Caesar and his extraordinary leniency.8

As 46 BCE continued, and Cicero began to see the full extent of Caesar’s political foresight and diplomatic skills, he seems to have grown more amenable to the idea of the conqueror of Gaul occupying an unusual position of power in the government, provided that this position was only a temporary measure to help heal the wounds of the Republic.9 Yet this government, Cicero increasingly discovered, did not especially require his own services. Caesar’s viceroys ruled the city as he mopped up the civil war, and, recently divorced and brooding, in 46 BCE alone Cicero wrote no fewer than four books – a collection of essays on stoicism, and three volumes on the history, classifications, and practice of oratory.

Family affairs in the autumn of 46 continued to be rocky. He remarried that year, marrying, as it was not unheard of to do, a teenage girl at the age of sixty. Her name was Publilia, and sources seem to agree that the union would bring Cicero money. If he expected a new beginning, though, his hopes were dashed in early 45. His daughter Tullia, who had been his pride and joy for almost 35 years, died in childbirth. Shattered, Cicero divorced his new wife. Whatever future he saw for himself at this point, it no longer involved a teenage bride.

Between Tullia’s death in February of 45, and a brief stint of coming out of retirement in September of 44, Cicero completed a staggering eleven books, largely in his seaside hermitage near Antium, about thirty miles south of Rome. Over these twenty or so months Cicero completed On Ends, On the Nature of the Gods, Tusculan Disputations, On Fate, On Divination, On Friendship, On Old Age, Academic Questions, Consolation, Topics, and On Duties.10 While Cicero’s philosophical oeuvre is often accused of being hastily written and thus suffering from rough spots and internal inconsistencies, the last of these books – On Duties – was the second work printed in Europe after the Gutenberg Bible.11 That Cicero could dash out something in eight weeks that would be considered second only to the word of God in fifteenth-century Europe is a testament to the vast knowledge and compositional skills he had acquired by his early sixties. I won’t delve into Cicero’s philosophical work very much here. A couple of episodes ago we talked about the disparaging view Cicero held toward Epicureanism, and when we get to Seneca the Younger and Marcus Aurelius we’ll talk a bit more about Cicero and stoicism. While his oeuvre of work during the years between 47 and 44 is too vast for a thematic generalization, it’s safe to say that Cicero found writing on oratory and philosophy an endurable substitution for his previous political career. That political career had a swan song, which we should talk about now. [music]

Cicero and the Assassination of Julius Caesar

As Cicero mourned the death of Tullia and the dissolution of his family, in the autumn and winter of 45 BCE, Caesar was swaggering around Rome, countenancing the general populace while at the same time further and further alienating the senate. On one hand, his unique position as consul for multiple years, his position as pontifex maxiumus, and his position of dictator allowed him to do rapid legislative work, unencumbered by the traditional power blocs, egos, and generally unruly nature of the senate. On the other hand, while he was clement and forgiving to those who had committed offenses against him, Caesar was not without his hubris. He handed out magistracies to friends and allies. He swelled the senate by three hundred men. These two offenses alone incurred the hatred of the senators who’d won their way into the senate by ancient lineage or hard work. And some sources record that Caesar also flaunted his relationship with Cleopatra, building a gold statue for the Egyptian queen in Rome’s Temple of Venus and parading their son around the city. While in 46, there had been a sense of incredulity, typified by Cicero’s oration Pro Marcello, that Caesar’s civil war hadn’t culminated in a bloody purge. But during the mid-40s, Caesar began to exhibit more authoritarian tendencies, and in early 44, he named himself dictator perpetuo, or dictator in perpetuity, of the republic. This was too much for the traditionalists around him to tolerate.

Gerome Death of Caesar

Jean-Léon Gérôme’s striking Death of Caesar (1867) shows how ready the assassins were to forget the murdered dictator, and perhaps also deluded they were in thinking that he would soon be forgotten.

On March 15, 44, Caesar was stabbed to death in the senate. Cicero was not involved in the plot. He had been referring to Caesar as rex or “king” in his private correspondence. He despised the disregard that Caesar had shown to the customs of the Republic. But as he had communicated in Pro Marcello two years prior, Cicero couldn’t deny that his slightly younger contemporary had brilliance, gravitas, a desire for learning, and deft leadership instincts. Thus, due to his general aversion to violence and his complex affection for history’s most famous Roman, Cicero must have watched the dictator’s murder with shock and nausea. When the deed was done, Brutus held up the bloody dagger with which he’d stabbed the dictator, and, looking at Cicero, congratulated the 62-year-old statesman.12 And Cicero, who had hoped that Caesar’s ascension would help resuscitate the ailing republic, perhaps realized that Caesar’s death might do the same thing.

Two days after the Ides of March, the senate held a debate which Cicero himself arbitrated, in which it was decided that Caesar’s assassins would not be punished, but also that for the next two years, Caesar’s directives would continue to be acted on. The decision got Caesar’s killers out of hot water, but it also helped Caesar’s allies – most importantly Mark Antony – gather power in the city and safeguard their leader’s reputation. Caesar’s reputation wasn’t exactly hurt by the opening of his will, either. He left 300 sesterces – the equivalent of about four months salary for a foot soldier – to every citizen of Rome and offered his gardens as public grounds for the people of the city. Brutus and Cassius – his most notorious assassins – found it hard to demonize a man who’d just given a giant windfall of cash to every citizen of Rome. Even in death, Caesar continued to outmaneuver them.

While Cicero saw Caesar’s death as an opportunity, there were nonetheless many, many roadblocks to the restoration of the Republic. Having cast his fortunes with Pompey and the Republic in the civil war a few years before, and lost, Cicero was understandably cautious in the middle part of 44. He stayed out of Rome, and even planned a journey to Athens to observe his son’s education. And as the summer lengthened into autumn, Cicero watched Mark Antony very, very carefully. Antony had been Caesar’s co-consul up to the time of his murder, and had been a diehard Caesarian for a decade, having commanded a wing of Caesar’s army in the battle which had defeated Pompey the Great. In the spring of 44, Cicero was glad to see Antony abolish the office of dictator, a seeming step against power grabs like Caesar’s. But in June that same year, Antony strong armed the senate into giving him a five year tenure of authority over Gaul. Thus, having declined one of Caesar’s precedents, Antony sought to follow another.

Caesar’s assassins had hoped for a clean break with his legacy, and found this break elusive. As Cicero famously wrote in a letter to Atticus, “Good God, the tyranny survives though the tyrant is dead! We rejoice at his assassination, yet support his acts!”13 Cicero’s incredulity toward Caesar’s continued power is also apparent in On Duties, in which he describes “The death of this tyrant, whose yoke the state endured under the constraint of armed force and whom it still obeys more humbly than ever, though he is dead.”14

In fact, On Duties reflects Cicero’s growing intolerance for men like Mark Antony, Caesar, and before them Sulla and Marius. Cicero was 62, Antony was 26 years his junior, and the aging orator had seen multiple generations of would-be autocrats appear, spearhead some form of mass homicide, and then disappear, each one damaging the Republic more and more. Thus, Cicero did not pay much deference to Antony to begin with, and when provoked, Cicero delivered some of his best orations – a staggering fourteen of them that survive today, and there may have been others – against the younger general. They are among Cicero’s most famous works – characteristically eloquent, logically cogent, viciously critical, and unstintingly thorough. In the words of one scholar, the Philippics present the conflict between Antony and Cicero as “a fight between the entire populace and a single, completely unacceptable individual.”15 These fourteen speeches, which we call the Philippics, would later cost Cicero his life. [music]

The Philippics and Cicero’s Politics after Caesar’s Death

M Antonius modified

The last years of Cicero’s life were dominated by a feud with Mark Antony.

The occasion of the First Philippic was a threat Antony made on Cicero’s house in early September of 44. Cicero had refused to attend a Senate hearing about Caesar being added to the pantheon of Rome’s gods. In response, Antony threatened that Cicero’s house would be demolished. The First Philippic, delivered on September 2, 44 BCE, called Antony out on his increasingly autocratic tendencies and criticized him for using the voice of a dead ruler to push laws through the senate. Antony was not in the audience on September 2, but he rebutted in a senate meeting held on September 19, and he discovered that Cicero was more than willing to enter a war of words, only this time in print. The Second Philippic, a political pamphlet that Cicero put into circulation after Antony’s rebuttal, is a relentless character assassination, a long section of it being a derogatory autobiography of Antony beginning with his boyhood. Cicero depicted Antony as a cheat, a drunk, a whoremonger, disloyal to friends and guilty of multiple forms of treason. Antony had literally placed a crown on Caesar’s head, and as Cicero recollected it, “on the day when [Mark Antony], in the sight of the Roman people, harangued the mob, naked, perfumed, and drunk, and labored moreover to put a crown on the head of his colleague, on that day he abdicated not only the consulship, but also his own freedom.”16 At one point in the Second Philippic, Cicero recollects an instance when Antony came to the assembly while drunk, when “he vomited, filling his lap and the whole platform with morsels of food stinking of wine!”17

Cicero’s decisive opposition to Mark Antony reflected the increasingly fanatical hostility to any form of autocracy that he adopted later in life, particularly after Caesar’s death. In the third book of On Duties, Cicero comes down furiously and decisively against autocracy, reflecting the increasingly hard line attitude he adopted as his family fell apart and he felt like he no longer had anything to lose.
Our tyrant [, writes Cicero in the last book of On Duties – and he’s speaking about Caesar –] deserved his death for having made an exception of the one thing that was the blackest crime of all. Why do we gather instances of petty crime – legacies criminally obtained and fraudulent buying and selling? Behold, here you have a man who was ambitious to be king of the Roman People and master of the whole world; and he achieved it! For, oh ye immortal gods! can the most horrible and hideous of all murders – that of fatherland – bring advantage to anybody[?]”18

It’s a powerful logical turn – this move which says Caesar’s murder was justified because Caesar was murdering the republic. Cicero had hoped that Caesar would be able use his unique position and stature to repair the machinery of the republic and get it running again. Instead, Caesar had done the unthinkable and pursued the position of dictator in perpetuity. And if Caesar, with his erudition, his military brilliance, his warmhearted forgiveness of those who opposed him – if Caesar ultimately succumbed to a lust for absolute power, Cicero thought, then no comparable military leader ought to be tolerated by the 500-year-old republic – certainly not the vulgar and violent young general Mark Antony.

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

Justus van Gent’s M Tullio Cicer (c. 1472-6) showing Cicero doing what he did best.

The Second Philippic is an entertainingly vicious piece of slander, diluted with Cicero’s own words of self defense, as the pamphlet was a response to a rejoinder from Antony. Taking as its subject Antony’s entire life and career, the Second Philippic is colorful in its libel and at the same time dreadfully serious in the nature of its accusations. Cicero describes Antony’s “stupidity” (80), his “astonishing stupidity” (8), and “his stupidity – a quality in which he surpasses everyone else” (19). Antony doesn’t just possess “worthlessness” (61), he possesses “a lightweight kind of worthlessness” (63) and is thus an “utter moron” (29).19 “Pay attention for a moment,” Cicero tells Antony early in the pamphlet, “Try to think like a man who is sober, just for a second” (31). Antony is “crazed and violent” (68) guilty of “scandalous disgrace. . .intolerable cheek, wickedness, and depravity” (15). Antony affects to practice oratory, Cicero says, but “the reason you [speak in public] is to help you belch up your wine, not to sharpen your intelligence” (42). At the climax of Cicero’s manifold insults is his assessment that Antony is “accursed in the eyes of the Roman people, an object of detestation, and the enemy of all the gods and all mankind now and for ever more” (65).

These colorful zingers pepper the whole of the Second Philippic, a mass of punchy insults that variously call Antony dissipated, licentious, and dumb as a stump. But as the pamphlet continues, Cicero builds toward much more serious and carefully organized accusations. He writes that although Antony was born poor and his early interests included little more than selling his body for sex (44-5), when the Caesar’s civil war unfolded Antony had been the chief butcher of Roman citizens (55). There was truth to this claim, and Cicero knew it – Antony had commanded some of Caesar’s toughest legions at the Battle of Pharsalus just four years earlier, and thus he had a lot of republican blood on his hands (55). Cicero argues that just as Helen was the root cause of the Trojan War, Antony’s actions spurred on Caesar’s civil war, and thus every Roman citizen ought to be arrayed against him (55). And Cicero recalls an incident at the Lupercalia festival the previous year – we talked about this earlier – when Antony stood nude and offered Caesar a crown, publically testing the waters for Caesar’s ascent to monarchy (55). Antony, in other words, according to Cicero, spurred Caesar on toward civil war and later autocratic hubris. Antony – perhaps even more than Caesar, was responsible for the recent civil war, according to Cicero.

Throughout the Second Philippic, Cicero thus goes after Antony with heavy artillery. But part of Cicero’s purpose in writing the 21,000 word long document, as I said before, is self defense. Antony knew about Cicero’s steadfast republicanism, and seems to have tried to implicate Cicero in the assassination plot. By the autumn of 44, having seen Caesar’s hubris and failure and having no more patience for aspiring tyrants, Cicero was ready to admit that although he hadn’t been in on the plot to kill Caesar, he was glad that the dictator was dead. I’m going to quote a few more excerpts from the Second Philippic for you here, again the D.H. Berry translation. Listen to the way that Cicero turns the tables on Antony, emphasizing that however sycophantic Antony is to the memory of Caesar, Antony, more than anyone else, benefited from Caesar’s death. So, here’s Cicero’s words to Mark Antony, about six months after Caesar’s assassination.
It is true, as you yourself used to point out, that everyone who did not want to be a slave profited from Caesar’s death; but you gained more than anyone, because now not only are you not a slave, you are a king. You freed yourself of your colossal debts at the [public temples]. You made use of the account books held there to squander an unimaginable sum of money. You had a large part of the contents of Caesar’s house transferred to yours. And you have a highly profitable factory set up at your own house to produce forged notebooks and memoranda – a scandalous market of estates, towns, exemptions, and revenues. What, except Caesar’s death, could possibly have rescued you from your poverty and debts?. . .[And later, Cicero imagines Antony enjoying the windfall of cash caused by Caesar’s death:] So, drenching himself with the wealth of that great man, [Mark Antony] danced for joy, like a character from a play. . .It is incredible and weird how he squandered so much property in so few, I will not say months, but days. There was a vast quantity of wine, an enormous weight of the purest silver, valuable textiles, and a large store of elegant and beautiful furniture. . Actors came and took what they liked, as did actresses. The house was packed with gamblers, filled with drunks. Drinking went on for days on end, all over the place. [And later Cicero addresses Mark Antony directly again:] What could be more disgraceful than this, what more disgusting, what more deserving of every kind of punishment? Surely you are not waiting for us to jab you with cattle-prods? If you have any human feeling at all, my words must tear you, must make you bleed. (35-6, 65-6, 86)

These are particularly cutting accusations, because Antony’s entire post-assassination stance depended on an affected loyalty to the supposedly sacrosanct memory of Julius Caesar. By reminding all of Rome that Antony’s political power came from the assassination, Cicero cast an ugly shadow on Antony’s piety toward the dead dictator.

On Duties and the Philippics, then, show Cicero adopting a less conciliatory Republican stance as he entered his early 60s. The Second Philippic was only the beginning of Cicero’s ferocious and vocal stand against Mark Antony’s rise to power – at least twelve more followed. In an alternate universe, perhaps, Cicero’s political tracts and brilliant Philippics would have pulverized Antony’s standing in the Republic, averted the second triumvirate and renewed outbreak of civil war, taught young Octavian to have regard for the sacred institutions of the state, and restored the Republic once and for all. But, as you know, that’s not exactly how it went down. In fact, that’s not how it went down, at all. [music]

Cicero’s Murder

The new year of 43 BCE broke with the scent of renewed war on the wind. In the east, Brutus and Cassius were mustering troops and resources for an impending battle. In Rome itself, the consuls Hirtius and Pansa joined with young Octavian in order to fight against Mark Antony. Antony himself had rallied together the powerful troops loyal to Caesar and his legacy. Antony lost a battle against Octavian and the two consuls in mid-April. By May, though, Antony had rallied somewhat, and Caesar’s former co-consul Lepidus joined him. A much greater boon came Antony’s way when Octavian changed sides. Octavian knew that his personal fortune and his popularity with the masses came from him being Caesar’s adopted son. The future first emperor of Rome was in a peculiar position, having no affection for Mark Antony, but at the same time having no decisive reason to throw in with those who opposed the legacy that lay behind his power. Octavian was pushed over to Antony’s side when, after helping win a campaign in the north of modern day Italy, he was not given any military honors. Honors instead went to a general whom Octavian had helped rescue, who, even more insultingly, had been one of Julius Caesar’s assassins.

In the middle of 43, as Octavian’s loyalties were shifting, Cicero was trying to get in touch with Brutus and Cassius, who were out in Macedonia and Syria trying to rally more forces, politicking, as he always had, for the preservation of the republic. But as the autumn began, a year after he’d begun the Philippics, Cicero began to feel a distance from Octavian, and on November 27, 43 BCE, a pivotal meeting took place near modern day Bologna. Cicero was not there. But Mark Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus were, and at this meeting they declared themselves a second triumvirate. Each man seeking his own personal gain at any cost, the trio drafted, in biographer Kathryn Tempest’s words, “the largest death warrant ancient Rome had ever seen,” a massive proscription list on which were printed the names of three hundred senators, and two thousand equestrians, men who had wealth that the triumvirs needed, men who had spoken out against them, and, preferably, men who fit both categories.20

Mark Antony wanted Cicero’s blood, and that of his entire family. Octavian, although he had no particular opposition to the aging orator, conceded.21 Cicero and his brother, with whom he’d reconciled, were planning to defect to the army of Brutus. But they didn’t make it. Quintus and his son were butchered first. Cicero made it to the port town of Caieta, 70 miles southwest of Rome, and planned to depart from there. Plutarch’s narration of the end of Cicero’s life is the most famous – let’s hear it. This is from the Rex Warner translation, published by Penguin in 2005. A long quote, here – Plutarch writes that Cicero fled to one of his houses at the port city of Caieta.
Here [, Cicero] had an estate which was a most agreeable place to go to in the summer, when the. . .winds are so pleasant.

In this place also there is a temple of Apollo, a little above the sea, and from the temple a flight of crows rose up into the air with a great noise and came flying towards Cicero’s ship as it was being rowed [back to land, after he hesitated in departing from Italy]. [The crows] perched on either side of the yard, some croaking and some pecking at the ends of the ropes, and everyone regarded this as a bad omen. Cicero, however, disembarked, went to his villa and lay down to rest. Then, while most of the crows perched round the window, making a tremendous noise with their cawing, one of them flew down on to the bed where Cicero was lying with his head all covered up, and little by little began to drag away with its bill the garment from his face. When the servants saw this they reproached themselves for standing by as spectators waiting for their master to be murdered, and doing nothing to defend him, while these wild brute creatures were helping him and caring for him in his undeserved ill fortune. So, partly by entreaty and partly by force, [the servants] took [Cicero] up and carried him in his litter [back] towards the sea.

Meanwhile, however, the murderers had arrived. These were the centurion Herennius and Popillius, an officer in the army, who had in the past been defended by Cicero when he was prosecuted for having murdered his father. [Plutach describes how Cicero was being carried away to safety, back to his ship, but that one of his slaves directed the killers to his location, because he] told the officer that the litter was being carried down to the sea by a path that was under the cover of the trees. The officer took a few men with him and hurried round to the place where the path came out of the woods, and Herennius went running down the path. Cicero heard him coming and ordered his servants to set the litter down where they were. He himself, in that characteristic posture of his, with his chin resting on his left hand, looked steadfastly at his murderers. He was all covered in dust; his hair was long and disordered, and his face was pinched and wasted with his anxieties – so that most of those who stood by covered their faces while Herennius was killing him. His throat was cut as he stretched his neck out from the litter. He was in his sixty-fourth year. By Antony’s orders Herennius cut off his head and his hands – the hands with which he had written the Philippics.22

Plutarch goes on to describe the ghastly fate of the great writer’s severed parts. At Antony’s behest, Cicero’s head, and his hands were nailed in the Forum for all to see. The intention was perhaps to strike fear into the hearts of Antony’s political opponents, but the effect was the opposite, revealing, in Plutarch’s words, not the treachery of Cicero, but instead “the image of the soul of Antony.”23

With Cicero gone, and with the power of Brutus and Cassius flagging, the time of the Republic was passing. A new generation of younger men who sought kingships and dynasties were free to kill one another without the chastening rhetoric of their elders. Cicero was far from perfect. But without him, and without the educated sect of politicians who championed the checks and balances system of the old order, the ouruboros serpent of state systems – the one that Polybius had described a century earlier, turned its turn, and Rome was again heading towards a monarchy. It didn’t happen immediately, and for its first emperor Rome was lucky enough to have a man an unusually long reign who was interested in governing and had a high capacity for doing so. All the same, with Cicero’s death came the genesis of a new 500-year monarchy, and a period of European history dominated by kings and popes and caliphs. As for oligarchy, and democracy, and all of the inherent stability and advantages that come with the organized distribution of power – lights out. [music]

Fulvia y Marco Antonio, o La venganza de Fulvia (Museo del Prado)

Francisco Maura y Montaner’s La venganza de Fulvia (1888). The hazy, carnivalesque atmosphere depicts the chaos and breakdown of civic order that happened during the Second Triumvirate.

Cicero’s Historical Reputation

In 1819, just outside of Charlottesville in modern day Virginia, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to John Adams. Both had served terms as US President. Jefferson was then 76, and Adams 84, and the subject of Jefferson’s letter was none other than Cicero, and the twilight of the Roman republic. Jefferson wrote,
I have been amusing myself latterly with reading the voluminous letters of Cicero. They certainly breathe the purest effusions of an exalted patriot, while the parricide Caesar is lost in odious contrast. [The “parricide” accusation may be a direct reference to that passage from Cicero’s On Duties we heard a minute ago. Anyway, Jefferson continues,] When the enthusiasm, however, kindled by Cicero’s pen and principles, subsides into cool reflection, I ask myself, what was that government which the virtues of Cicero were so zealous to restore, and the ambition of Caesar to subvert? And if Caesar had been as virtuous as he was daring and sagacious, what could he, even in the plenitude of his usurped power, have done to lead his fellow citizens into good government?. . .But [, on the other hand,] steeped in corruption, vice and venality, as the whole nation was – and nobody had done more than Caesar to corrupt it – what could even Cicero, Cato, [or] Brutus have done, had it been referred to them to establish a good government for their country? They had no ideas of government themselves, but of their degenerate Senate, nor the people of liberty, but of the factious opposition of their tribunes.24

This succinct appraisal of Cicero’s late career, to me, captures the central question we encounter when we try to make some sort of assessment of Cicero. We may well understand Caesar as the midwife of Caligula, and Nero, and Commodus; of civil wars wrought by dynastic disputes; of awful years of four and five emperors – we can understand Cicero and Jefferson’s assessment that Caesar was the murderer of the fatherland. But, Jefferson asks, what exactly was the system that Cicero backed? An old boy’s club? A nest of greed and hedonism that speciously traced its origins back to a legendary and virile past? It certainly wasn’t a republic like the one Jefferson had helped design, in which provincial sovereignty and federal sovereignty were symbiotic, in which there were far more barriers to pecuniary corruption than had existed in Cicero’s Rome.

While Cicero stood far more for consistently for the Republic than almost any in his generation, he occasionally exhibited the same tendencies that Marius had, and after him Sulla, and then Caesar, Antony, and Octavian – tendencies to state that extralegal measures were permissible in extreme circumstances. Describing the man who had been central in the overthrow of the original Roman monarchy, Lucius Brutus (not to be confused with Cicero’s contemporary Brutus), Cicero wrote that, “Though just a private citizen, Brutus took the whole country on his shoulders, and he became the first in this state to show that, when it comes to preserving the people’s freedom, no one is just a private citizen. Following his example and leadership, the country was roused.”25 This idea – the idea that extralegal measures are permissible “when it comes to preserving the people’s freedom,” which was at the center of Caesar’s ideology, had appeal to Cicero as well. As Gesine Manuwald writes, in the last years of his career, Cicero
regarded individual initiatives and special measures (even going against Republican conventions) as justified, legitimized by his view of the clash with Antony as an exceptional temporary situation. . .Therefore Cicero allowed men fighting on his side to be ‘their own Senate,’ that is, to take their own decisions and not wait for official authorization: as long as they took what Cicero believed to be the right measures and did what was in line with his idea of the Republic.26

On one hand, when a freight train of dictators is trying to smash the pillars of your civilization, maybe it is permissible to ignore the cumbersome apparatus of a legislative body in order to ensure that civilization’s basic structural continuity. On the other hand, claiming that illegal power grabs are for the benefit of the people and their freedom is what dictators do. Cicero was no Caesar, but in his executions of the Catilinarian conspirators in December of 63, and in some of his later writings and political decisions, Cicero did show that in extreme circumstances he was willing to take legally unprecedented steps to advance his agenda. The title of this episode – Episode 48: The Right and the Expedient, comes from the third book of Cicero’s On Duties, and it’s a phrase Cicero uses to describe the dichotomy between dutiful due process on one hand and emergency measures on the other. As I said in the previous episode, while Cicero was not immune to the sorts of legal improvisations that ended up tanking the republic, he was at least deeply wary of their consequences.

Gustave Doré - Dante Alighieri - Inferno - Plate 12 (Canto IV - Limbo, Dante is accepted as an equal by the great Greek and Roman poets)

Dore’s depiction of Dante’s limbo in Canto 4 of the Inferno, done in 1857. Presumably one of the sagely looking fellows is Cicero.

But I’m not going to end these three episodes on history’s most famous orator by telling you that the republic that he supported was corrupt, or that occasionally – occasionally, mind you – Cicero showed an extremely dangerous propensity to override the law. That seems like a dreadfully anticlimactic way to close such a great story.

Cicero has been in continuous print for over two thousand years, although his reputation has varied through the centuries. During the early imperial period he was vilified for his republican politics. In Late Antiquity, Saint Jerome worried that he was a Ciceronean, and not a Christian, and in subsequent centuries Pope Gregory the Great ordered Cicero’s works destroyed, lest they distract young people from reading the Bible. Christians could love Cicero’s writings on oration without any guilt, as they did during and after the Carolingian Renaissance. Aquinas and particularly Dante admired him – Cicero stands shoulder to shoulder with Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato in Dante’s Limbo. Latin was the intellectual and theological language of Europe, and Cicero its grandmaster, and as Petrarch and others reprinted ancient manuscripts of Cicero’s works in the 1400s and 1500s, multivolume collections of his writings began to become available again. Now we could close with an assessment from many different sources – Quintilian, Pliny, Macrobius, Boethius, Longinus, Gibbon, Cardinal Newman, Martin Luther, Montesquieu, Voltaire, David Hume, J.S. Mill, John Adams, Harry Truman – even studies of the speeches of Barack Obama. In all these cases, the political stance that Cicero generally maintained, and even moreso, the fearsome clarity, the organization, the explosiveness, the intensity, and the imaginative scope of Cicero’s language are held with awe and reverence. But I want to quote from the early imperial historian Velleius Paterculus, born about twenty years after Cicero died, and I’ll quote from Gesine Manwald’s recent book on Cicero. The historian Paterculus, like, perhaps, we are, was disgusted at the barbarity of Mark Antony’s murder of the great statesman. And, in a memorable part of his history of Rome, the historian Paterculus imagines addressing Antony directly.
[Y]ou accomplished nothing [by killing Cicero], Mark Antony – for the indignation that surges in my breast compels me to exceed the bounds I have set for my narrative – you accomplished nothing, I say, by offering a reward for the sealing of those divine lips and the severing of that illustrious head, and by encompassing with a death-fee the murder of so great a consul and of the man who once had saved the state. You took from Marcus Cicero a few anxious days, a few senile years, a life which would have been more wretched under your domination than was his death in your triumvirate; but you did not rob him of his fame, the glory of his deeds and words, nay you but enhanced them. He lives and will continue to live in the memory of the ages, and so long as this universe shall endure – this universe which, whether created by chance, or by divine providence, or by whatever cause, he, almost alone of all the Romans, saw with the eye of his mind, grasped with his intellect, illumined with his eloquence – so long shall it be accompanied throughout the ages by the fame of Cicero. All posterity will admire the speeches that he wrote against you, while your deed to him will call forth their execrations, and the race of man shall sooner pass from the world than the name of Cicero be forgotten.27

In the end, the historian Paterculus was right. Mark Antonys are a dime a dozen in history books. Ciceros are one in a billion. [music]

Moving on to Augustan Poetry

Well this has been an unexpectedly long installment on Cicero, and as I come to the end of it I keenly feel a sense of how much I didn’t cover – hardly anything in detail about Cicero’s philosophical works or his writings on oratory, only the smallest slices of his most famous speeches, and not a word about the formal theory and structure of his oratory. For these subjects, the curious reader has plenty of great scholarship to choose from, and as I did in the previous two shows I recommend Kathryn Tempest’s fantastic biography of the writer as an ideal starting place – the book is called Cicero: Politics and Persuasion in Ancient Rome.

It so happens that Professor Tempest has released a new book within a few weeks of this episode coming out, a volume called Brutus: The Noble Conspirator, published by Yale University Press. Marcus Junius Brutus the Younger is often remembered as Caesar’s most famous assassin – Dante puts him in one of Satan’s mouths in the icy lake at the bottom of hell. Brutus was born about 20 years after Cicero and he lived through much of the same history, and also like Cicero, Brutus was a champion of the Republic. Now I haven’t read Brutus: The Noble Conspirator yet, but if it is anything like Tempest’s earlier biography on Cicero, this book will be a new gold standard on one of the most famous figures of the late Republic – accessible, comprehensively researched, rich with history, but also fun to read and full of memorable and humanizing details. You can get it on Amazon, or Google books, and there’s an audio version as well. Check it out. It’s pretty cool to read works on the cutting edge of modern scholarship.

While we hardly covered everything related to Cicero, which would require several hundred hours of audio, rather than just four or five, we did, I hope, get a sense of Cicero’s place in the history that he lived through. What we learned about Cicero, and Roman history and politics over the course of these three episodes will continue to be useful as we move on to the next sequence of programs – a set of five shows on the Latin poetry that led up to Virgil’s Aeneid.

We have been away from literature for a little while, actually, and we’re on the verge of a set of works that I’m very excited about – works that begin to take us a lot closer to our eventual goal of Anglophone literary history. Specifically, the next five shows will cover the poetry of Catullus and Horace, and the shorter poems of Virgil – the Eclogues and Georgics – the ones he wrote mostly in the 30s BCE before tackling the Aeneid in the 20s. The reason I’m excited about this mass of short poetry is that it’s a moment in Latin literary history at which we can begin to draw direct connections to writers from the Renaissance and afterwards. The densely allusive style and pastoral beginnings of John Milton’s career are a direct result of Virgil and Virgil’s predecessor Catullus. The lyric poetry of the 18th century and Romantic period was heavily influenced by specific odes that Horace wrote during the early years of Augustus’ reign. In fact, as we’ll see in the next show, European love poetry in general – short lyrics capturing intense personal feelings toward another person – was shaped by the works Ovid, Propertius, and before all of them Catullus.

In the Anglophone world, up until very recently, Latin literature has had far more of a formative influence than Greek. As scholar David Scott Wilson-Okamura writes, during the Renaissance,
There was more [Virgil], less Homer, and (in England) almost no Dante. The plays of Sophocles and Aeschylus were available in print, but there were no early translations and only very advanced scholars could penetrate their still formidable language. Your [contemporary] first-year university student, with no Latin and less Greek, probably knows more about what is in Oedipus Rex than Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, and Shakespeare combined.28

In other words, while we have spent a massive amount of time with Homer, the playwrights of 5th-century Athens, Apollonius of Rhodes, and other Greek authors, writers of Shakespeare’s generation did not have ready access to editions and translations of ancient Greek literature. Their classics were Latin works produced during the Augustan Age, towering above all of them the Aeneid and the Metamorphoses.

The Augustan Age was period between the 30s BCE, when Augustus rose to prominence, and then his death in 14 CE. As I said a moment ago, when we reach Augustan Age in literary history, we come to a moment when we can trace unambiguous lines of influence between the Renaissance and the poetry of Ancient Rome. But that’s actually only half of it. Augustan Age literature is like an asterisk, influencing later works but also being spurred on by a diverse set of earlier texts from all over the ancient Eurasian world. The lyrical poets of the first century BCE in Rome knew the poetry of Archaic Greece better than we do today. Catullus and Horace modeled poems after Sappho; Horace saw Archilochus as one of his main predecessors. Virgil modeled his early work on the Greek writer Theocritus and, more obviously, his Aeneid on the epics of Homer. The generation of Catullus and the one that came after him were an erudite and curious bunch – they were poet-scholars interested in synthesizing and being a part of a long, multilingual, pan-Mediterranean literary culture, with a one foot in contemporary Rome and the other in bygone cultures of ancient Greece – third century Alexandria, fifth-century Athens, sixth-century Lesbos, seventh-century Ionia, all the way back to the eighth-century BCE works of Hesiod and Homer.

Quick note here – Literature and History was in the news this week. Listener James McWilliams, who is a history professor and a columnist for Pacific Standard and several other magazines, published a piece about this podcast, educational podcasting in general, and me and how this project got started. There’s a link to the article in this episode transcription, and on the “About” section of my website. It’s a great article, and I think James shares my optimism about the future of educational podcasts – if you get a chance to read it and share it with some friends, I’d really appreciate that.

Next time, we’re going dive back into literature proper and talk about Cicero’s younger contemporary Catullus, a member of a group of writers Cicero called the neoteroi, or “moderns.” Discarding the precedents of their Latin forebears Livius Andronicus and Quintus Ennius, Catullus and other famous Roman poets of the first century BCE wrote short works of verse. They could be bawdy and pornographic as well as sober and pious; scathingly seditions as well as complacently patriotic; buoyantly satirical as well as intellectually dense. Catullus, specifically, is one of the most virtuoso and beloved poets from antiquity, his surviving 117 poems running the gamut between glitteringly beautiful and shockingly disgusting. On the latter note – yeah – if you’ve never heard Catullus’ work, I recommend a vomit pail and possibly some safety goggles, because Catullus can get filthy. So next time, in Episode 49, The Strange Roots of Love, I will tell you all about Catullus, his short, yet shimmeringly diverse body of work, and what it was like to be a poet as Rome began to make its transition between republic and empire. I’ve got a quiz on this program on the website if you want to try your hand at seeing how many dates and historical events you’ve retained from the show. Thanks for listening to Literature and History, I’ve got a song coming up if you want to hear it, and if not, see you next time!

Still here? Alright. So, I got to thinking about those Philippics – the long series of orations against Mark Antony that may very well have cost Cicero his life. Got to thinking about those, and what it would have been like to hear them in person, and I wrote a song called “The Last Philippic.” Now, I know we just did a rap number in the previous show, but I just couldn’t think of anything better than an epic rap battle between Cicero and Mark Antony to close out this whole series. Cicero, after all, is the ancient world’s most famous wordsmith, and I think that if he were reincarnated he would make for a fantastic rap or hip hop artist. So this on is again called “The Last Philippic,” and in it, you’re going to hear Cicero definitively have the last word. Thanks again for listening, and the great Catullus and I will see you next time.


1.^ See To Atticus 23 (2.3.3) and Tempest, Kathryn. Cicero: Politics and Persuasion in Ancient Rome. London: Bloomsbury, 2011, p. 117.

2.^ Quoted in Tempest (2011), p. 110.

3.^ 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. 356.

4.^ To Quintus 25. Quoted in Tempest (2011), p. 136.

5.^ Dio, Cassius. Roman History 40.27. Quoted in Complete Works of Cassius Dio. Delphi Classics, 2014. Kindle Edition, Location 6744.

6.^ To Atticus (20). Cicero. Delphi Complete Works of Cicero. Delphi Classics, 2014. Kindle Edition, Locations 91026, 91038.

7.^ Pro Marcello 1,7, 23-4, 29. Printed in Cicero. Political Speeches. Translated and with Introductions and Notes by D.H. Berry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006, pp. 212-13, 218, 220.

8.^ The optimism comes across in a letter he wrote to Aulus Caecina that same month in September of 46, in which after gushing about Caesar’s acts of forgiveness, Cicero brags that “Caesar daily receives me with more open arms, while his intimate friends distinguish me above everyone.” Quoted in Quoted in Cicero. Delphi Complete Works of Cicero. Delphi Classics, 2014. Kindle Edition, Location 102145.

9.^ See Tempest (2011), p. 175.

10.^ Ibid, p. 178.

11.^ Cicero. The Nature of the Gods. Translated by Horace C.P. McGregor, with an Introduction by J.M. Ross. New York and London: Penguin Books, 1972, p. 20.

12.^ See Second Philippic (28).

13.^ To Atticus (343). Quoted in Cicero. Delphi Complete Works of Cicero. Delphi Classics, 2014. Kindle Edition, Location 95999.

14.^ On Duties (2.23). Ibid, Location 79477.

15.^ Manuwald, Gesine. Cicero: Understanding Classics. London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2015, p. 11.

16.^ Second Philippic (12). Ibid, Location 27326.

17.^ Second Philippic (63) Printed in Cicero. Political Speeches. Translated and with Introductions and Notes by D.H. Berry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006, p. 250.

18.^ On Duties (3.21). Quoted in Cicero. Delphi Complete Works of Cicero. Delphi Classics, 2014. Kindle Edition, Location 86194.

19.^ Quoted in Berry (2006). Further references to the Second Philippic are from this edition and noted parenthetically.

20.^ Tempest (2011) p. 205.

21.^ Cicero wrote to Atticus on November 5, 44 that “I get a letter from Octavian every day, begging me to undertake the business, to come to Capua, once more to save the Republic, and in any case to go at once to Rome. To Atticus (16.11). Ibid, Location 97182.

22.^ Cicero (47-8). Quoted in 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, pp. 370-2.

23.^ Ibid (48), p 372.

24.^ Letter to John Adams: Monticello, 1819. Quoted in Letters of Thomas Jefferson Concerning Philology and the Classics. Ed. Thomas Fitzhugh. University of Virginia Press: 1919, p. 26.

25.^ Cicero. The Republic and the Laws (2.46). Translated by Nial Rudd Oxford and New York: Oxford World’s Classics, 1993, p. 33.

26.^ Manuwald, Gesine. Cicero: Understanding Classics. London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2015, p. 14.

27.^ Quoted in Manuwald (2015) pp. 137-8.

28.^ Wilson-Okamura, David Scott. Virgil in the Renaissance. Cambridge University Press, 2010, p. 9.