How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Teaching Homer

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In a bold attempt to arrest the sluggish lethargy of my blogging, I thought it might be worthwhile to consider making a break with tradition. As such, I’m going to try talking about a non-Ciceronian aspect of Classical literature that’s been on my mind lately. One of the great challenges that annually confronts a Latinist like myself at the start of the academic year is the need to teach Homer. This staple of the Classics forms the basis of Oxford’s teaching for undergraduates facing up to their first set of public examinations (the dreaded Mods). In light of the notion that all Classical literature (if not all literature in general) is a series of footnotes to Homer, I’ve always been keen to present my new students with Homer as their first assignment.

This is good and enjoyable for them, but is it good for me? If I have any competence at all as a teacher and researcher of the Classics, it is as a reader of Latin literature. The problem isn’t just that Greek pushes me a little bit out of my comfort zone (although the disappearance of the ablative case never ceases to make my heart sing); the main issue is that I’m used to analysing written texts. That is to say, my day-to-day existence involves studying words that an author carefully chose two thousand years ago and committed to a page in order to make some point or other in a more or less interesting way.

Homer isn’t like this. Although what we have to work with may be a written document (say, a Loeb edition of the Odyssey or an Oxford Classical Text of the Iliad), these texts are only a transcription of something far more fluid – Homer’s epics were composed and received orally. That is to say, we are dealing with the mere shadows of the extemporized live recitations of Archaic Greek poets.

Just as we would miss something essential to free-form jazz if we studied it solely through a notated transcription of a live performance, in the same way we cannot expect to understand the Iliad if we just read the words on the page. Trying to convince your students to understand that the various nuts and bolts of an oral epic (the repeated epithets, the recurring set-scenes, the limited vocabulary) are not barriers to thinking about these poems as great literature is the task of the first few weeks of each Michaelmas term.

The trick is to move past the stage where they see these unusual technical features as necessary infelicities that the poet would have dumped had he been able to write. One needs to understand that these repetitive phrases are the poetry. There are difficult and easy ways of making this point.

One of the easy ways is to focus immediately on the little repetitive formulae that are used to introduce the main characters or major locations: “swift-footed Achilles”, “grey-eyed Athene”, “the wine-dark sea”. It doesn’t take much prompting for students to grasp that there is a clear advantage to identifying certain gods and heroes with certain fixed epithets: it situates them in an accumulated literary history; it allows us to plug these figures into much larger networks; it means that the poet can subtly draw on larger traditions that orbit these archetypal characters.

Part of what makes this easy is the fact that we are, in fact, very used to this technique being used in folklore and fairy tales. Think of the “big, bad wolf”. A story-teller only has to mention these three words and they can rely on their audience already having a strong impression of who this character is; they can conjure up a vast array of stories about this villain from Red Riding Hood, to the Three Little Pigs, to the first series of the revamped Doctor Who.

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Really finding the poetry in these repetitions, though, means going further than just looking at the epithets. This is the point at which a Big Idea comes in: J. M. Foley’s ‘Traditional Referentiality’. Traditional Referentiality posits an audience that is fully aware of the whole tradition in which the oral poet is working; they know the other stories in the epic cycle; they know that the events of the Iliad will eventually be followed by the Odyssey and that they were preceded by a whole series of poems that have not survived antiquity. Moreover, the audience knows how these stories were narrated and how the various scenes in each poem would be depicted.

As such, to quote Geoffrey Kirk:

“[E]ach of these accustomed phrases, as it is dropped from the listener’s consciousness, is clustered with the heroic past, ennobled rather than staled by its archaic associations, and thick with echoes of other contexts, other heroes, other actions in other islands, under the impulse of other but still familiar gods.”

G. S. Kirk, Homer and the Oral Tradition, pg. 6.

My Homerist colleague Adrian Kelly has a fine example of this (although he would hate the Latinized names I am using here). In the course of the indiscriminate slaughter that Achilles is meting out to the Trojans in the aftermath of his beloved Patroclus’ death, he comes to fight Aeneas. The fight starts badly for Aeneas and the audience has by this point got a pretty good idea about what to expect when a Trojan comes up against a raging Achilles. In the middle of the fight, however, Aeneas picks up a rock to hurl at Achilles (Iliad 20.281ff.). This should cause the audience some surprise: in the course of the poem, the act of picking up a rock as a weapon has always marked a decisive turn of the tide of battle in favour of the rock-wielder. This puts the audience off their footing, suddenly the outcome of the fight looks a little more uncertain. Sure enough, the gods intervene to ensure that the fight ends with no casualties.

We can even push these echoes beyond the poem itself and see the bard making references to the traditions of other episodes in the cycle of epics that had been built up around the Trojan War. For example, book 2 of the Iliad sees a dispirited Agamemnon come close to calling off the whole Trojan War. Hera has to intervene to prevent this, ensuring that there wasn’t a “homecoming beyond fate” (ὑπέρμορα νόστος Il. 2.155). The word for homecoming (Nostos, as in nostalgia) must call to mind the Nostoi, another episode in the Epic Cycle recording the Trojan heroes’ troubled attempts to get home. Hera is intervening to make sure that the poet can continue to narrate the Iliad without having to skip ahead to a later chapter in the tale.

Let’s take one more simple example that would be accessible even to a fairly novice reader of Homer. Everyone knows that the Odyssey will end with Odysseus using a bow and arrow to slay the suitors who have been besieging his wife back home in Ithaca. So whenever the poet uses a conventional formula to describe Odysseus picking up a bow in any epic poem (such as the Iliad), the audience is reminded of how his story ends.

It’s not easy to think of an analogue for these effects in modern art. I suppose it’s somewhat like a particular character in a film series have their own theme music: when we hear it, we are reminded of other times we’ve heard that tune, and so we connect this moment with other incidents from that character’s life that we’ve had narrated to us. So think of hearing a snatch of Darth Vader’s theme music the first time you meet Anakin Skywalker as a boy on Tatooine.

ASIDE: It could be argued that Vince Gilligan achieves a similar effect in Breaking Bad through his consistent use of different colours in different scenarios. The reappearance of a certain colour in, say, Walter White’s wardrobe primes the audience to expect the scene to take on a certain tone, an expectation which the director can either gratify or frustrate:

Infographic: Colorizing Walter White’s Decay

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I would like to offer you one example of how Traditional Referentiality, as defined above, makes understanding the Iliad as an oral poem one of the most exciting experiences imaginable (at least for someone who grew up in a rural cul-de-sac).

In Book VI of the Iliad, the Trojan hero Hector, the greatest fully-human warrior in the poem, removes himself from the plain on which the Trojan War is being fought and enters the city he is defending. While he navigates his way through Troy, he meets a variety of characters who all in their own way explain why he is there and why he is fighting. He meets his mother Hecuba, his useless brother Paris, Helen (the semi-willing cause of it all), the wives of his troops (all clamouring for knowledge of their husbands’ well-being), and finally his wife and infant son, Andromache and Astyanax.

What makes Hector’s encounter with Andromache and Astyanax so moving is the fact that we know (and they know) that this is likely to be the last time he sees them – he is destined to die at the hands of Achilles at the end of the poem, setting in motion the chain of events that will eventually lead to the fall of Troy. The conclusion of this scene is particularly poignant. As Hector goes to kiss his baby son farewell, the infant is terrified of his father’s armour and recoils. The tension cast over of this scene by the spectre of Hector’s death is broken as mother and father laugh at their son’s confusion, while Hector removes his helmet and dandles his son for one last time.

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Moments of shared humanity are rare in the Iliad, and even more rare are glimpses of a world beyond the battlefield, a world that the audience could recognize as part of their own lived experience.

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To my mind, though, what makes the emotion of this episode almost unbearable is the fact that the audience knows the fate of baby Astyanax. Of all the atrocities committed in the sack of Troy, none provokes greater revulsion than the death of Hector’s infant son, hurled from the battlements by a marauding Greek warrior (by some accounts, the murder is committed by Odysseus himself).

We know that the sack of Troy was narrated as part of the cycle of Trojan epic poems (the lost Iliupersis – ‘The Fall of Troy’). I would like to consider this in light of what has been said above about Traditional Referentiality. That is to say, I would like to look at this scene in the context of the oral poet’s tendency to reuse certain phrases to link one moment in the Epic Cycle to another.

One and a half of the lines quoted above, I would like to suggest, could easily be reused by a poet narrating the Iliupersis:

ἂψ δ᾿ ὁ πάις πρὸς κόλπον ἐυζώνοιο τιθήνης | ἐκλίνθη ἰάχων… (Hom. Il. 6.467-8)

but back into the bosom of his fair-belted nurse the child | shrank shrieking…

I would like to suggest that as the audience hears these lines narrating how Astyanax recoils in terror from his loving father, the poet is aware that they are likely to have heard this phrase before, but in the grimly different context of that same child’s death.

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The audience is given a stereoscopic image to digest: we witness the tender last moment shared by this wartime family, but we are simultaneously presented with the atrocity that will claim this child’s life. I can think of no other medium where this stereoscopic effect could be achieved with this degree of subtlety, without the artist’s intrusion seeming too obvious and heavy-handed.

Even Cicero can’t compete with this.

The Special One

Towards the end of a term’s teaching on any literary text, I inevitably find myself dragging my students to the ever popular game of ‘Dream Casting’. That is to say, if you were to produce a film of this text, who would be your dream cast? As well as offering some interesting psychological insights into the students around the table, this is a fairly cast-iron way to make people think about what they consider to be the defining characteristics of the figures at the heart of these texts. Is Achilles a Schwarzenegger-style killing machine, or does his reflective and tortured nature require an Idris Elba? Would Tom Hardy or Daniel Craig make a better Aeneas? Is there any pair better suited to playing Odysseus and Penelope than French and Saunders?

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Playing this game with historical figures is a slightly different matter. For me, fixing a famous face to a figure from antiquity tends to be a more subconscious process. Something about that historical character reminds you of a modern day personage, and from that point on they will share a face. On this score (in no particular order): Alcibiades = Robert Downey Junior; Pompey = Glenn Cullen from The Thick of It; Cloelia = Ronda Rousey; Hannibal = Mads Mikkelsen (duh); and Julius Caesar = Kevin Pietersen.

Most of these identifications are based on passing similarities and probably hinder my understanding of these historical actors more than they help. There is, however, one identification that I’ve felt it was worth working on – I’ve deployed countless hours of psychic energy scrubbing away old mental images of Marcus Tullius Cicero to make room for one that would really reflect the infinite complications and contradictions of the great Arpinate.* All of the above is a rather long preamble to my confession: whenever I talk about Cicero I’m secretly thinking of him as José Mourinho.

*For the record, I scrubbed Tommy Flanagan, David Bamber (of course), Alan Rickman (in Love Actually mode) and (most recently) Peter Mandelson.

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As the Special One departs from Stamford Bridge, I thought I might dedicate a Christmas blog to explaining why Cicero and Mourinho fit together so neatly in my mind.

Part of this connection must rest on the difficulty of finding someone in the modern world who possesses a truly Ciceronian level of belief in themselves. Cicero notoriously consolidated the success of his tenure of Rome’s supreme magistracy by writing and publishing an epic poem. And not just any epic poem, but an epic poem starring himself as a semi-divine hero who averted Rome’s destruction through a combination of being beloved by the gods and being (though he does say so himself) quite simply brilliant. However much we might like to think that today’s politicians are a vain and boastful lot, not even Tony Blair’s semi-Messianic A Journey can quite live up to this.

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José Mourinho surely stands alone as the only public figure in the modern world whose publication of a self-congratulatory epic poem (no doubt about defeating Barcelona in the 2011 Champions League semi-final) would be met with a shrug and a muttered “Well of course he has…” The legendary Special One press conference that followed his initial appointment at Chelsea has more than a touch of the Cicero about it:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pybQAg2YUxY

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José and Marcus, of course, partially derive their immense levels of self-assurance from a fairly justified sense of pride in their achievements. Not many managers have won as many league titles as Mourinho and not many politicians could match Cicero’s claim to have stamped out a conspiracy that threatened Rome’s very existence. One rather suspects, however, that a propensity to boast has as much to say about a person’s insecurities as it does about their self-confidence.

Both Cicero and Mourinho would have reason to cherish a certain resentment against an establishment that, for all their respective achievements and services rendered, never truly accepted them as one of their own. For Cicero, this sense of being an interloper can be traced back to his place of birth and his family. As a man born in the relatively obscure town of Arpinum into a family that had never held office at Rome, Cicero was perpetually a ‘new man’. He could never muster the cultural prestige that automatically attached itself to someone born from, say, Claudian stock. For all his attempts to make a virtue of this (“I had to work for everything I have achieved” is as constant a refrain from Cicero as it is from a candidate in The Apprentice), it is not difficult to believe that Cicero’s near-constant attempts to promote himself stemmed from the fact that he had no prominent ancestry to fall back upon.

Lineage and birthplace may matter less for the modern day football manager than for thr Roman politician, but Mourinho too has suffered from a lack acceptance. The traditional story of how Anakin Mourinho was gradually transformed into the José we now know tends to begin in Barcelona where a young Mourinho worked as a translator for Bobby Robson.

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The young translator’s eye for the game, so it is said, led to him being given greater and greater responsibilities within Barcelona, both under Bobby Robson and in the tenure of his successor Louis Van Gaal, before he returned to Portugal  to be a manager in his own right.

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But did the interpreter-turned-coach ever truly feel he belonged to Barcelona? When Barcelona offloaded their manager at the end of the 2007-2008 season, the now established and decorated Mourinho felt his time had come. The club, however, appointed the inexperienced Pep Guardiola – a former Barcelona player with a far greater claim to be part of the club than their old translator. Cicero never ceased to take pride in besting the Roman elite that had never considered him to be truly one of their own. In much the same way, Mourinho has rarely shown greater pride in his achievements than when they have come at the expense of the club that spurned him.

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Alongside their shared status as outsiders, Cicero and Mourinho are also similarly minded in their approach to their day jobs. One of the distinguishing features of José Mourinho’s approach to management is the belief in total immersion that he picked up from his Sports Science Professor at Lisbon, Manuel Sérgio. Sérgio’s coaching philosophy dictates that it is not enough for a manager merely to know the ins and outs of a football match. To be truly successful, the coach must be skilled in psychology, they must be able to function as an orator, they must be capable of doing a journalist’s job for them, they must understand physiology. Mourinho’s success as a manager is as much the result of his ability to manipulate the media, get into the heads of referees and coax a winning attitude out of his players as it is down to his tactical expertise.

A similarly holistic approach to oratory underpins Cicero’s de Oratore. Cicero used this text to give a complete picture both of the importance of oratory and of what one needs to do to become a great orator. Surprisingly, Cicero does not dedicate much space in this work to the technical aspects of rhetoric, in fact he scarcely has anything to say on how to go about actually writing a speech. He instead emphasises that a truly successful orator must know more than just the technique (the ars) of speech-writing. An orator must know the law back-to-front, they must be experts in history, they must have a keen ear for poetry, they must understand politics, they must be able to grasp military affairs, and, most importantly of all, they must be steeped in philosophy.

In Cicero’s judgement, anyone could learn how to deliver a technically adept speech, but that technically proficient orator will always be bested by someone whose abilities extend beyond the speaker’s platform. To adapt this slightly, any coach can teach their defence how to create an offside trap, but that coach will always be bested by a manager who has already got inside the linesman’s head.

Young Cicero

For all of these biographical and philosophical similarities, there is one aspect of the lives of Marcus Cicero and José Mourinho that makes it impossible for me to picture the Arpinate without seeing the face of the Portuguese. Neither Cicero nor Mourinho is capable of functioning without a background of chaos and crisis. Ferran Soriano, the former CEO of Barcelona, had the following to say of Mourinho by way of explaining why Guardiola was their preferred choice for manager:

“Mourinho is a winner, but in order to win he guarantees a level of tension that becomes a problem.”

This is familiar to anyone who has read the back pages of a newspaper in the last decade or so. Wherever Mourinho goes one tends to find the usual litany of complaints against biased referees, personal jibes aimed at rival managers, public spats with key players, antagonistic barbs against the owners. Mourinho’s success seems to come from a sort of footballing Stockholm Syndrome, personally creating an atmosphere of suspicion and fear for his team, an atmosphere in which those on the inside feel that everything is stacked against them and only the Special One can lead them against these impossible odds, only José can show them how to overcome a system that is stacked against them.

Ultimately, I suspect that Cicero’s success rests on a similar rhetoric of crisis. What else are Cicero’s Catilinarian orations than the supreme example of a paranoid team talk? How could Cicero establish a political legacy for himself other than by conjuring up the image of a patrician conspiracy threatening to burn Rome to the ground and put the Senate to the sword? Even Cicero’s day-to-day court speeches are awash with images of bribed jurors, corrupt witnesses and diabolical prosecutors.

Much like his Portuguese counterpart, the only success Cicero could truly celebrate was one that had been achieved at the expense of a vast array of hidden and not-so-hidden enemies, a vast conspiracy that existed to keep him down, an overwhelmingly hostile force which would have to be invented if it could not be found.

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The poisonous atmosphere Cicero created in order to magnify the greatness of his Consulship ultimately engulfed him and led to his exile. José Mourinho’s similar knack for creating a seething atmosphere of tension and spite has equally overwhelmed him and sent him into the outer darkness. Exile, however, was not the end for Cicero. He returned to Rome relatively unchastened, and after some sulking eventually returned to the front of Roman politics. In his last great work, the Philippics, he successfully conjured up anew the paranoid mood of the Catilinarians and elbowed his way to the front of the fight against the monster he had made out of Mark Antony.

Similarly, I suspect we haven’t seen the last of José Mourinho, but I will leave the last word to a man who sits in a foul-mouthed mid-point between Marcus Tullius Cicero and José Mourinho…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XZM8q8n8cwQ

Malcolm

Better Call Cicero: 7 Ingeniously Dubious Defences

Yesterday saw the online launch of Vince Gilligan’s Better Call Saul – a prequel to his immensely popular bourgeois meth drama Breaking Bad. Gilligan provides his viewer with a glimpse of the early career of one of Breaking Bad‘s most popular supporting characters: Saul Goodman.

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Saul, masterfully played by Bob Odenkirk, is a sleazy, manipulative lawyer, forever twisting the letter of the law to allow his manifestly guilty clients to continue their lives of crime free from the hassle of law enforcement. And, as they say on Thought For The Day, this got me thinking: isn’t that a bit like Cicero?

So, in honour of Saul Goodman’s fierce determination that no case is truly un-winnable, I present you with Cicero’s top seven defences.

7) Pro Caelio

The case at the heart of number seven has already seen action in this blog. Cicero’s brief here was to defend Marcus Caelius Rufus on a charge of having conducted a campaign of terror against an Egyptian embassy that had come to Rome to protest the behaviour of their young king Ptolemy ‘the flute-player’; a campaign of terror which culminated in assault and murder.

Cicero, ever keen to note that attack is often the best form of defence, chose to ignore the murder and thuggery with which Caelius had been charged and instead set about convincing the jury that the prosecution was a sham set up by Clodia – a vengeful aristocratic woman seeking to destroy Caelius for putting an end to their affair.

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Cicero’s dedication to this tactic led to him crafting a speech that veers from indulgent platitudes of ‘we were all young once’ to pornographic depictions of Clodia’s love life. Cicero’s sheer bravado seems to have pleased the jury as they acquitted Caelius, apparently convinced that now his wild oats had been sown, he would become a productive member of society.

Caelius next appears in the historical record leading a revolt against Caesar under the standard of annulling the extravagant debts accrued by himself and his wealthy friends.

6) Pro Murena

Unfortunately my choice for sixth place shies away from the world of sex and murder. The case under consideration here is one of electoral bribery: Lucius Licinius Murena, who had just successfully run for Rome’s highest office, was charged by the losing candidate of having secured his victory through lavish bribery.

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Murena secured Cicero as defence counsel – an unusual move given that Cicero had spent the year tirelessly campaigning against the culture of, umm, bribery that beset Rome at election time. Rather than risk looking hypocritical, Cicero neatly the sidestepped the actual charges and attempted to convince the jurors that the chief prosecutor was only attacking Murena because he was a sore loser.

The tactic seems to have been successful, as Murena entered into office the next year. His first action as consul? Giving Cicero the right to speak first in all senatorial debates. Trebles all round!

5) Pro Sulla

In fifth place is a case of ground-shaking importance. Having concluded his consulship by doing battle with the nefarious forces of Catiline, Cicero spent the next few years dining out on the fact that it was he, ultimately, who had saved Rome from destruction. In order to keep this fact at the forefront of people’s minds, Cicero frequently appeared as star witness for the prosecution in the kangaroo courts that sprang up in the wake of the Catilinarian conspiracy, doling out justice to those accused (on whatever grounds) of having been sympathetic to Catiline’s cause.

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On one occasion, however, Cicero was forced to forgo his usual devastating appearance in the witness box when it emerged that a certain Publius Sulla’s links with Catiline were under investigation. Rather than appear as witness against this man, Cicero took up his case. His defence of Publius Sulla was simple and effective: “I quashed the Catilinarian conspiracy so I should know a thing or two about it, and you should take me at my word I say that this man was not a conspirator.” The jury swiftly acquitted Publius Sulla.

Surely this couldn’t have been the same Publius Sulla who had recently lent Cicero an enormous sum of money so he could buy a house? Surely it was.

4) Pro Sexto Roscio

At number 4 we have a case from Cicero’s youth; in fact, his first successful defence. Sextus Roscius, a young man with a violent past who was on the verge of being disinherited, was accused of having murdered his father in order to take sole possession of the old man’s estates (estates which might have been divided up among other living relatives had he had time to alter his will).

Seizing upon the fact that the death of Roscius senior had been exploited by some of the predatory profiteers who roamed Italy in the wake of the recent civil war, Cicero turned the prosecution’s case on its head and alleged that the very men who had brought Sextus Roscius to trial were, in fact, in cahoots with these profiteers and had themselves arranged the murder, planning to pin the blame on the innocent son. Needless to say, Cicero has no evidence for such a conspiracy beyond hearsay and conjecture.

The jury’s revulsion at the epidemic of property-theft that had gripped Italy in the preceding years was apparently enough to sway their verdicts. Although perhaps tellingly, no counter-prosecution seems to have been mounted…

And so a star was born.

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3) Pro Milone

The end is in sight. I would like to award the bronze medal for Cicero’s most ingenious defence to the Pro Milone. Milo had been charged with the murder of his great enemy Publius Clodius (who was, incidentally, the man who had sent Cicero into exile a few years earlier, no prizes for guessing why Cicero took up this defence). One of the major problems Cicero faced in this case was the fact that Milo was as guilty as sin.

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Cicero did not even attempt to argue that Milo didn’t kill Clodius. In fact, large sections of the speech are dedicated to explaining what a good thing it was that Milo had rid the state of this menace. His primary argument, though, is simple: he argues that Clodius started the fight and that Milo had killed him in self-defence. A smart move, since the only witnesses to the brawl were partisans who took part in it.

At first sight, it doesn’t seem particularly ingenious to base a defence around the issue of who started the fight in which Clodius was killed. But this is only because it ignores a crucial fact: Clodius wasn’t actually killed in the fight. Clodius was wounded in the fracas and retreated to a nearby inn. A few hours later, Milo sent some of his goons in to finish him off.

Nowhere in Cicero’s speech is this even alluded to. Relying on the fact that the defence speak last, Cicero attempts to make the jury forget this crucial issue by recasting the trial as one of who-threw-the-first-stone.

The reason this speech can only be awarded bronze, however, is that Cicero was unsuccessful. Milo was convicted, albeit by a single vote. The fact that Cicero ran it so close on such a flimsy pretext, however, is surely worthy of admiration. Bravo, MTC.

2) Pro Archia

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The silver medal is awarded to the Pro Archia. The man at the centre of this trial was a Syrian-born poet named Archias who had been living as a Roman citizen for years. The prosecution mounted their case having discovered that rather suspiciously there was not a single piece of documentary evidence supporting Archias’ claim to be anything other than a resident alien. Moreover, the only people willing to testify to Archias’ citizenship were friends of a Roman general named Lucullus. Not entirely coincidentally, Archias had recently composed a long poem in Greek about Lucullus’ heroic exploits in Asia.

Cicero’s defence speech has very little to do with citizenship, or even Archias. The majority of the Pro Archia is a long-winded discussion of the benefits poets bring to Rome. Cicero even goes so far as to say that he would not have been able to defeat Catiline had he not been able to go home after each hard day in the Senate to enjoy a book or two of poetry. In short, Cicero argues that even if Archias were not a Roman citizen, he ought to be made one since his poetry was really the only thing preventing Rome from burning to the ground or being overrun by traitors.

Cicero even alleges that Archias was writing a poem about his defeat of Catiline. Even though he managed to get Archias acquitted, Cicero’s waning political fortunes meant that this epic never materialized. Cicero was eventually forced to write one himself, and he was much mocked for it.

1) Pro Rabirio Perduellionis Reo

So, the final spot: Cicero’s most ingenious defence. The Pro Rabirio is a speech from Cicero’s consulship in which he defended an elderly senator named Rabirius on a charge of perduellio – an archaic form of treason that was tried directly before the people in a sort of court martial. The punishment was an exceptionally barbaric form of crucifixion (something Roman citizens were supposed to be exempt from). The reason this peculiar trial arose can be found in the exceptional political career of a young Julius Caesar. In an attempt to court the favour of the Plebs, Caesar intended to right an ancient wrong by executing the man responsible for the murder of the popular tribune Saturninus forty years previously. Cicero’s desire to remain in the good books of the aristocrats led him to take up the defence.

In spite of the fact that this unusual trial was to be judged by an angry mob rather than a jury, Cicero was successful – Rabirius escaped being nailed to a tree. How did he manage this? He cheated. Cicero ensured that the speech he gave was just long enough for one of his allies to climb a watchtower on the Janiculum and lower the red flag that was flying there – a sign that an invading army had been sighted. Panic ensued. The people who (as the law of perduellio dictated) had been gathered outside the city walls to pass judgement on Rabirius, fled to the safety of the city. In the confusion, the defence team quietly shuffled the old man away into a quiet retirement, far from Rome.

This was not perhaps the most edifying rhetorical spectacle Cicero ever engaged in, but for pure ingenuity one has to doff one’s hat to the defensive strategy of the Pro Rabirio Perduellionis Reo.

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So there you go, Cicero’s seven most ingenious defence arguments.

When legal forces have you cornered, better call Cicero.

Power, Corruption and Lies in Defence of Caelius

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I would be far from the first to claim that while Cicero may have on occasion told the truth, he rarely told the whole truth, and he never told nothing but the truth. There is, however, one lie that I feel Cicero has got away with for far too long.

I have been thinking about the Pro Caelio quite a lot recently, and it has repeatedly struck me that students of this text (from first years to graduates to professors) rarely keep a close eye on what this speech is actually about.

The bare bones of the case are quite easy to set out: at the start of April 56 BC, Marcus Caelius Rufus was hauled before a jury in the Roman Forum and charged with vis (that is to say, instigating violence against the best interests of the state). The chief accuser was a seventeen year old, Lucius Sempronius Atratinus, whose father was being pursued through the courts by Caelius. Atratinus was supported by two other orators: Lucius Herennius Balbus (a friend of Atratinus’ father) and Publius Clodius (possibly the famous tribune and enemy of Cicero). Caelius took the lead in his own defence, supported by his mentors Marcus Licinius Crassus and Marcus Tullius Cicero. Our Pro Caelio purports to be the speech delivered by Cicero to conclude the defence; a speech which is famous among classicists for its over-the-top denunciation of the sexual mores of the prosecution’s star witness, Clodia (a woman alleged to have been the inspiration for Catullus’ lover, Lesbia).

So far, so uncomplicated.

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My investigation of the falsehoods that can be found in this speech starts with the summary Cicero gives of the nature of Caelius’ prosecution at chapter 30:

Sunt autem duo crimina, auri et  veneni; in quibus una atque eadem persona versatur. Aurum sumptum a Clodia, venenum quaesitum quod Clodiae daretur, ut dicitur. Omnia sunt alia non crimina sed maledicta, iurgi petulantis magis quam publicae quaestionis.

(There are however, however, two accusations: one concerning gold and one concerning poison. In these accusations, one and the same person is involved. Gold was taken from Clodia, poison was sought to be administered to Clodia, or so it is alleged. All the rest are not accusations, they are slanders, more suited to a petty brawl than a court of law.)

This claim sits rather ill with the actual list of crimes for which Caelius was on trial: first, creating a civil disturbance at Naples; secondly, assaulting a group of Alexandrians at Puteoli; thirdly, damaging the property of a man named Palla; fourthly, theft and attempted murder of Clodia and a man named Dio; and finally the successful murder of Dio.

In spite of this rather alarming litany of crimes, Cicero nonetheless lists four of them as nothing more than maledicta. That is to say: the civil disturbance at Naples, the assault on Alexandrians at Puteoli, the damage to the property of Palla and the murder of Dio are nothing more than slanderous rumours. The only part of the case that Cicero is prepared to admit to being an actual accusation (a crimen) is the theft and attempted murder of Clodia and Dio (although his focus rarely strays from the former victim):

 Aurum sumptum a Clodia, venenum quaesitum quod Clodiae daretur, ut dicitur.

Cicero goes on to dedicate his speech to refuting the accusation that Caelius borrowed money from Clodia under false pretences, attempted to use it in order to bribe slaves to murder Dio, and then made an unsuccessful attempt to poison Clodia in order cover this up. Cicero engages in a prolonged character assassination of Clodia and (with apparent success) repaints these incidents as scenarios concocted by a jealous woman seeking revenge on Caelius for breaking off their affair.

All the rest, Cicero claims, is not even worthy of the term crimen, he will not deal with the malicious maledicta that swarm around what he claims to be the only real accusation that the court has heard.

However, when Cicero turns to dismiss the other charges (which he is lumping together as slander), there is no mention of beatings, rioting or murder. These charges are deftly swept away under the shadow of some other slanders:

‘Adulter, impudicus, sequester‘ convicium est, non accusatio.

(‘Adulterer, pervert, dealer in bribes’, this is the language of slander, not of prosecution.)

So let’s look back at those four other charges that Cicero is dismissing out of hand: civil disturbance at Naples; the assault on Alexandrians at Puteoli; the damage to the property of Palla; and the murder of Dio. Can we believe Cicero when he says that these charges are not the real meat of the case? One thing is for sure, they are unlikely to have anything to do with Clodia’s boudoir.

So what is going on here? Well, the one factor that links these remaining four charges is Egypt; specifically, the turmoil that followed the disintegration of the last Alexandrian kingdom that followed Ptolemy XII’s overthrow amidst a popular uprising in Alexandria. The Alexandrians who had been assaulted at Naples and Puteoli had come to plead with the Senate not to restore the kingdom to Ptolemy, who had fled to Rome with an enormous quantity of bullion with which to purchase support. These Alexandrians were led by the philosopher Dio, who was eventually assassinated in Rome on Ptolemy’s orders.

Is there a hint of this in the Pro Caelio? Not a jot.

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A popular move to explain Cicero’s omission of the central charges that had been laid against his client is to argue that since Cicero was the last of three speakers, it is likely that these charges had already been covered in one of the two previous speeches. To a certain extent this must be true. Cicero quite explicitly claims that Crassus had already answered three of the remaining charges (but apparently not the murder of Dio).

To leave it at that, however, just won’t do. As Augustus would later prove, creating a province out of Egypt had the potential to be a hugely lucrative mission: the spoils he brought back to Rome after the defeat of Cleopatra proved adequate, in his words, to leave a city he found made of brick as one clad in marble.

Cicero’s correspondence indicates that when he returned from exile in mid-57, he found himself plunged into a world in which little else was discussed. Indeed, one of his great problems was the fact that several of the most powerful figures behind his return from exile were all vying for this same job. Unwilling to offend anyone while his post-exilic position was still uncertain, Cicero put a great deal of effort into staying out of this bun-fight.

A hint of how much thought Cicero put into this matter can be seen in the fact that the longest surviving letter from Cicero’s correspondence (16 pages of Oxford Classical Text!) is a drawn-out and tortured apologia he sent to his friend Lentulus Spinther (who had been a key figure in rescuing Cicero from exile) explaining why he could no longer support his candidature to be the first Roman to lead an army into Egypt.

The Pro Caelio, I have argued, threw Cicero right into the centre of this debate. How to defend a man accused of being Ptolemy’s agent without offending at least some of the people to whom he was indebted for returning him from exile? This consideration must be key to Cicero’s decision to sweep aside the main charges against Caelius and focus on a character-assassination of one of the prosecution’s witness. It seems Cicero could rely on his audience being just as pruriently interested in the sex lives of the Roman elite as we are.

Forget the murdered envoys, tell us the one about the beach party again!

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The Unhealthy Sex Life of Marcus Tullius Cicero

Homer 

There are numerous unsavoury activities that one is forced to undertake if one wishes to make a study of the life and times of Marcus Tullius Cicero. A common one is having to read Cicero’s lamentably dull rhetorical treatise the de Inventione. A slightly more recherché barb in the soul is the necessity of drawing up a concordance to master the different numbering systems of the various editions of (and commentaries on) Cicero’s correspondence. My own personal nadir, however, came when I was compelled to have a good hard think about Cicero’s sex life. I’ll come to exactly how that happened in a bit. First, some background.

The traditional view of what might politely be termed ‘Cicero’s domestic affairs’ runs as follows. As a young man looking to get on the bottom rung of Rome’s political ladder, Cicero married a wealthy young Roman named Terentia. They had a long and largely happy marriage, in the course of which a daughter and a son were born. This union ended in divorce after about 35 years, shortly after which Cicero was briefly married to a much a younger woman named Publilia. This last marriage was dissolved very quickly, and Cicero ended his days as a placid old bachelor.

In my research into Cicero’s post-mortem reputation in antiquity, however, I have been forced to look into competing (and considerably more sordid) narratives of Cicero’s home life. I would like to present for the jury’s consideration the following two texts. The first is a speech preserved in a later history of Rome, the historian alleges that it was delivered by one of Cicero’s opponents in response to the Philippics, the famous invectives Cicero delivered against Mark Antony between 44 and 43 BC:

I have been led to make this digression, Conscript Fathers, in order that he [Cicero] might not get off on this score, either, without receiving as good as he gave to me. And yet he had the effrontery to find fault with Antony because of a mere drinking party, himself a drinker of water, as he claims, — his purpose being to sit up at night and compose his speeches against us, — even though he brings up his son amid such debauchery that the boy is sober neither night or day. Furthermore, he undertook to make derogatory remarks about Antony’s mouth — this man who has shown so great licentiousness and impurity throughout his entire life that he would not spare even his closest kin, but let out his wife for hire and was his daughter’s lover.” (Cassius Dio 46.18.5-6)

Strong stuff indeed. The second text is from the exercise book of an imperial schoolboy. ‘For 30 marks write an invective against Cicero in the persona of Sallust (marks will be awarded for spelling and grammar)’:

Or pray, Marcus Tullius, are your deeds and words unknown to us? Have you not lived such a life from childhood, that you thought nothing a disgrace to your body which any other’s desire prompted? Did you not in fact learn all your unchecked torrent of language under Marcus Piso at the expense of your chastity? It is, therefore, not at all surprising that you trade upon it shamefully, when you acquired it most shamefully. But, I suppose, your spirits are raised by the brilliance of your home, by a wife guilty of sacrilege and dishonoured by perjury, by a daughter who is her mother’s rival and is more compliant and submissive to you than a daughter should be to a parent.” (Pseudo-Sallust Invectiva in Ciceronem 2)

Possibly out of a desire not to think too hard about Cicero’s boudoir, scholars usually brush aside the specific allegations levelled in these texts without a second thought, on the grounds that such insults are commonplaces of invective and need have no bearing on Cicero’s actual home life. If we take all of the Roman allegations of incest that have come down to us at face value, it is argued, then we are dealing with a society in which almost anyone of any prominence had (at one time or another) bedded a member of his or her family.

Such a view is all well and good, and I think we would be right not to take these stylized orations as proof that Cicero was in fact guilty of debauching his daughter. I would like, however, to push the idea that while allegations of incest are far from unknown in the political speeches of the ancient world (as a result of this, PMQs have always seemed quite tame to me), there might be something to be said for the idea that Cicero’s reputation was especially dogged by the accusation.

Part of my reason for thinking this comes from the easy ammunition that Cicero provided to his opponents in the extraordinary closeness that existed between himself and his daughter (which even the sober Livy seems to have held to be a bit much). But what really makes me think that these allegations of sexual deviancy clung especially close to Cicero is the fact that Rome’s greatest poet was inclined to repeat them.

At the halfway point of Virgil’s national epic the Aeneid, Aeneas is being given a tour of the underworld by the Sibyl of Cumae. As part of this experience, he is given a description of Tartarus and the punishments that are being meted out there to the great villains of the ancient world. This description is largely made up of the traditional sinners from Greek myth (the Titans, Pirithous, Ixion, Sisyphus). However, the Sibyl ends her exegesis with a description of two anonymous figures:

Here’s one who sold his country for gold, and set up

a despotic lord, he  made laws and remade them for a price.

This one entered his daughter’s bed and a forbidden wedding night.

All of them dared monstrous sins, and did what they dared. (Vir. Aen. 621-4)

The first of this pair can be fairly easily identified as Mark Antony, since the Sibyl’s description of this figure is taken straight from one of Cicero’s famous invectives against him. The second may seem vague, but an ancient commentator on the text tells us that this is a reference to none other than Marcus Tullius Cicero.

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I’m inclined to believe this for two reasons. First, the commentator in question is not one of the Virgilian crackpots one usually encounters in the ancient commentaries, this is the learned and respectable Donatus. As a general rule, one pays attention to his comments. My second reason for thinking this to be a genuine piece of Tulliana is that I think reading this second character as Cicero provides us with quite a neat poetic situation. It seems awfully fitting to have the two great enemies of the Roman Republic sitting side-by-side in hell, both recognizable only by the other’s invective. What better comment could there be on the remorseless petty and personal squabbling that characterized the Republic? And what greater proof that Rome was lucky to have had Augustus come along and sweep it all away?

There is, of course, no evidence at all that Cicero had sex with his daughter, and so perhaps we should feel sorry for the damage his reputation suffered as a result of these allegations. Perhaps, though, we might stop and consider that in some ways he brought this on himself. Not because there was anything inappropriate in his affection for his daughter, but because of the short-lived second marriage I mentioned above.

Several factors stand in the way of Cicero’s second marriage winning a prize for Romance of the Century. The age difference is one: Cicero had passed the age of 60 when he divorced Terentia, while his second wife Publilia is reckoned to have been about 14 or 15. A second issue is the suspicion that surrounds the fact that when Cicero remarried he was in dire financial straits, while Publilia was very wealthy. A third issue might be the fact that the marriage was terminated almost as abruptly as it was undertaken. And a fourth niggle (and for me personally this one’s a clincher) would be the fact that Cicero knew Publilia because her father had entrusted her to his parental care on his deathbed – she was his ward.

 Up Pompeii

Those of us raised on a strict diet of Up Pompeii! and Caligula may assume that the lax sexual morals of the Romans made this sort of thing positively humdrum in the late Republic. However, there is no shortage of evidence to suggest that Cicero’s contemporaries found his behaviour as repugnant as (presumably) we do. Quintilian preserves the story that when it was put to Cicero that it really was not on for a man in his 60s to be marrying a teenage girl, he replied: “Well, she’ll be a grown woman tomorrow.” After typing that, I certainly feel a lot less sorry for Cicero later gaining the reputation of being an old pervert.

One last thought on this matter (since this has been a rather long and rambling post): there is one factor that (for me) really puts the seal on Cicero’s reputation as a lecherous old goat. In the aftermath of his disastrous second marriage, Cicero turned to the consolations of philosophy. In spite of this cerebral distraction, Cicero still seems to have found himself returning to scratch a Freudian itch. Note first the metaphor he uses in his description of government in his treatise On Duties:

For the administration of the government, like the office of a legal guardian, must be conducted for the benefit of those entrusted to one’s care, not of those to whom it is entrusted.” (de Officiis 1.85)

And note the reappearance of this idea in his near contemporary history of oratory, the Brutus:

But, as after the decease of Hortensius, we seem to have been left, my Brutus, as the sole guardians of an orphan eloquence, let us cherish her, within our own walls at least, with a generous fidelity: let us discourage the addresses of her worthless and impertinent suitors; let us preserve her pure and unblemished in all her virgin charms, and secure her, to the utmost of our ability, from the lawless violence of every armed ruffian.” (Brutus 330)

As a personal rule, I like to bring the word ‘Freudian’ into play only when I am totally stumped for an explanation (or, I suppose, if I am referring to the works of Freud: Sigmund, Lucian, Clement, etc.). My description of these passages, then, as ‘scratching a Freudian itch’ is a total cop-out. I cannot even begin to fathom why Marcus Tullius Cicero, fresh from a scandalous marriage to his teenage ward, would choose to make use of imagery such as this in two of his most major works that postdate this event in his personal life. Psychological trauma is all I’ve got, and there’s no real way to verify that hypothesis.

Suggestions on a postcard, please!

Cicero, Cincinnati and the Stars

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How did Ohio’s third biggest city get its name? In 1783, George Washington, the owner of the most famous Roman nose in the world, unconditionally surrendered his sword to Congress after he had used it (metaphorically) to win independence for the colonies that peppered the eastern seaboard of the American continent. He returned to a rustic life on Mount Vernon pledging not to take “any share in public business hereafter.” In so doing, he ignored the example set by the most recent victorious generals of the day (Cromwell, William of Orange), and emulated the Roman general Cincinnatus, whose story is well-known, but may bear retelling.

In 458 BC, the Roman general Minucius fell into a trap while fighting against Rome’s north-westerly neighbours, the Aequi. The panicking Roman Senate, sensing disaster, sought help from the retired former-Consul Cincinnatus. They found him on his farm and persuaded him to take up the emergency office of Dictator for six months in order that he might save Minucius, his trapped army and the Republic. Having achieved these objectives within sixteen days, Cincinnatus immediately laid down his powers and returned to his rustic life. General Washington’s decision to follow Cincinnatus’ example led (among other things) to the foundation of the Society of the Cincinnati, one of whose members, Arthur St. Clair, would go on to become governor of the Northwest Territory, in which role he rechristened the poorly-named city of Losantiville, Cincinnati.

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George Washington was not the only man to take inspiration from Cincinnatus. Cicero too made use of his example when he was attempting to glorify his Consulship. But where Washington followed Cincinnatus’ laying down of power, Cicero preferred to focus upon his assumption of it. In the longest fragment of his boastful poem celebrating the Consulship in which he claims to have saved the state from the machinations of the evil Catiline, Cicero has the Muse Urania tell him:

Those who joyfully occupied their leisure with noble studies

Profoundly understood their duties to the gods in their wise reflections,

And in shady Academe or dazzling Lyceum

They poured out brilliant theories from their fertile genius.

But having snatched you from these studies in the first flower of your youth,

Your country set you in the midst of that crowd where manly virtues are exercised.

Nevertheless, relieving your stressful worries in relaxation,

The time which is not taken up by your country

You have devoted to these pursuits and to us. (Div. 1.21-2)

Cicero presents us with the picture of him in his youth in a similar situation to that of Cincinnatus. Where Cincinnatus cultivated his farm before he was called to save the state, Cicero cultivated his mind. A minor hobby of mine is the rehabilitation of Cicero’s maligned poetry, and I think that we can see him doing something rather clever in these verses. I would argue that he uses quite a neat and cryptic pun in order to call to mind the similarity between himself and Cincinnatus.

The last two lines of the above quotation have generally been taken to be a vague reference to the trip Cicero took to Greece in his youth to study at the feet of the great philosophers. If we bear in mind the speaker, however, we can see that something far more specific is being referenced. Urania is not just a Muse, she is specifically the Muse of astronomy. To my mind, this forces us to read these verses as a reference not so much to Cicero’s general study of philosophy, but rather to his study of astronomy. Happily we know of a work bearing Cicero’s name that he wrote during his youth on exactly this subject: his celebrated translation of a Greek poem on the subject of the stars, the Phaenomena.

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But how does this relate to Cincinnatus? He, after all, did not spend his time on the farm either studying the stars or translating Greek poetry. Cicero’s pun lies in the imagery the Romans employed when they pictured Cincinnatus being called to leave his rustic life in order to save the state. It was far more specific than just him leaving the farm. For one reason or another, Roman authors, Cicero included, made use of the imagery of Cincinnatus being dragged away from the plough, the aratrum. This fact takes on a new significance when we consider the author of the astronomical work Cicero translated before fate dragged him away to the service of the state. His name was Aratus.

So while Cincinnatus was taken ab aratro to rescue the Republic, Cicero was taken ab Arato.

Ba-dum tish.

“When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Hide Under the Table.”

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As much as Cicero marked himself out as particularly in-tune with the ways of Rome’s great forefathers, he was in many ways a man ahead of his times. One way in which this was particularly true can be seen in his education. Although he hailed from the murky provincial backwater of Arpinum (a small town about 60 miles from Rome), Cicero’s father had the good sense (and moreover the necessary connections) to send his sons to Rome to receive an education in the houses of some of the city’s most venerable senators. So far, so traditional (although the fact that Cicero père was able to do this rather suggests that we should be cautious about accepting some of the stories about the family’s ignoble background that circulate in our sources). Cicero’s educational background really starts to differ from that of his peers when he reaches his mid-to-late 20s.

At this age, most young Roman statesmen-to-be would be itching to show off their oratorical training to a large audience and so make their names known to the populus Romanus. More often than not this meant sniffing around the forum for a high-profile magistrate returning from his province who might be prosecuted for some misdeed or other (preferably they would find one who was manifestly guilty, but this was by no means a necessary condition). Cicero, on the other hand, chose to eschew this path, he wouldn’t mount his first prosecution (his celebrated case against Verres) until he was in his mid-30s. Instead he chose to head back to education, boarding a boat to Greece with (amongst others) his brother, his cousin and his best friend, Atticus, in order to learn philosophy in the land in which it was born.

Decades later when his son was packing his bags for his own trip to Greece (by that point as central to a young man’s education as the Grand Tour was to become in the 18th Century), Cicero was composing the Brutus, a history of the development of oratory at Rome. At the end of this work, Cicero gives his readers a short biography of himself and takes stock of the trip to the Greek east he took in 79 BC:

I was in those days very slender and far from robust, my neck long and thin, that type of physique which is commonly thought of as incurring risk of life itself if subjected to the strain of hard work and heavy demands upon the voice and lungs. It gave the greater anxiety to those who were solicitous for my welfare that it was my habit to speak without variety of modulation and with voice and whole body at high tension. My friends and my physicians urged me to desist from pleadings altogether; but I resolved to run any risk rather than abandon my ambition for oratorical renown. However, having come to the conclusion that with relaxation and better control of my voice, as well as with modification of my general style of speaking, I should at once avoid risk to my health and acquire a more tempered style, – to effect this change in habit of speaking was the reason for my departure to the east. (Brutus 314, trans. Hendrickson)

Plutarch, the renowned Greek intellectual and biographer of Cicero, takes a predictable interest in the Arpinate’s interactions with his countrymen, and as such he is keen to note the role played by Greece in his education. The account he gives of the young Cicero’s excursion, however, has a different perspective from that given by Cicero himself:

About this time Chrysogonus, a freedman of Sulla’s, put up at public auction the estate of a man who, as it was said, had been put to death under proscription, and bought it himself for two thousand drachmas. Then Roscius, the son and heir of the deceased, was indignant and set forth clearly that the estate was worth two hundred and fifty talents, whereupon Sulla, enraged to have his actions called into question, indicted Roscius for the murder of his father (Chrysogonus having trumped up the evidence). No advocate would help Roscius, but all avoided him through their fear of Sulla’s cruelty, and so at last, in his destitution, the young man had recourse to Cicero. Cicero’s friends encouraged him to undertake the case, arguing that he would never again have a more brilliant or a more honourable opportunity to win fame. Accordingly, he undertook the defence of Roscius, won his cause, and men admired him for it; but fearing Sulla, he made a journey to Greece, after spreading a report that his health needed attention. (Plut. Cic. 3.4-6)

The knee-jerk reaction to stumbling across something like this, I think, is to assume that Plutarch’s account allows us to see through the self-interested spin of Cicero’s original and to perceive the none-too-flattering truth of the matter.

Readers of Cicero are, in almost all cases, quite right to be wary when it comes to trusting anything he says – the man was the arch-persuader and he is rarely entirely open about his motives. In this instance, however, I think we should be careful about following the story Plutarch repeats, for the very simple reason that if Cicero was indeed scared of Sulla’s retribution (and there are plenty of reasons to doubt even that part of Plutarch’s story), then the Greek east was quite possibly the stupidest place he could possibly have chosen to hide out. For starters, Greece was in a state of anarchy following its invasion (or perhaps liberation) by the Pontic King Mithridates; an invasion which began with the famous Asiastic Vespers, the coordinated slaughter of 80,000 Romans and Italians who were resident in the east.

The only reason it was possible for a young Roman to visit Greece or Asia at all in this period was because of the brutal reprisals the Roman army had been engaged in for the last ten years against Mithridates and his Greek allies. Not that this would have helped a young advocate fleeing Rome’s latest dictator, as these Roman forces had been commanded by Sulla and remained fiercely loyal to him and successors. The idea that Cicero would have relocated to Greece in order to avoid the wrath of Sulla makes about as much sense as Andrew Gilligan moving to downtown Fallujah in order to avoid the fallout of the Hutton inquiry.

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So where does Plutarch’s story come from? I have recently been working on reconstructing the propaganda of Cicero’s enemies, and I think that the ultimate source of this malicious story is to be found there. More specifically, I think that if we look closely at the context of Cicero’s refutation of the charge found in Plutarch, then we might be able to learn something about the milieu in which Cicero’s own (really rather effective) P.R. machine worked.

Cicero was writing his oratorical history (the Brutus) in 46 BC, the year in which Julius Caesar finally ended the civil war and set about reordering the state. Cicero’s own conduct in this conflict had been far from exemplary. After the Republican forces had lost the battle of Pharsalus and their commander Pompey had lost his head on a lonely Egyptian beach, it fell to Cicero, as the next highest ranking man in the camp, to take charge of the resistance to Caesar. His response was to bottle it. He refused the command (for which he was almost struck down on the spot by Pompey’s furious son) and departed for Italy in order to seek Caesar’s pardon, which he eventually obtained after an agonizing and humiliating wait on the outskirts of Rome.

And this was not the first time Cicero’s reaction to a dangerous situation had been to run away. Although Cicero’s writings on the subject often draw a veil over this, his miserable sojourn in Macedonia (58-57 BC) did not start out as a reaction to being exiled. In actual fact he ran away from the mere threat of prosecution by his great enemy Clodius and was only later formally exiled in absentia.

These two events were still fresh in the minds of Cicero’s contemporaries and are, I think, the foundations of the story we find in Plutarch. Cicero’s pardoning by Caesar was not a popular move and he was widely criticised as a turncoat, even his own brother and nephew joined in on the act. This defiant passage of the Brutus acts as a firm rebuttal of the suggestion that Cicero was a man lacking in resolve and constantia, attempting to scrub away the lingering perception that when trouble came knocking on the front door, Cicero would most likely be found scrambling out the back.

Far too often a lack of other evidence forces us to read Cicero in a vacuum. Seen in this way, he often comes across as a self-obsessed blowhard, perpetually tooting his own trumpet and endlessly recounting stories of his successes (an ancient Geri Halliwell). This has always struck me as difficult to square with the other picture we have of Cicero, that of a man who was preeminent in the field of reading the minds of his audience and winning them over to his side. One way to reconcile this paradox is to imagine Cicero existing and working amidst a constant barrage of criticism from his enemies and opponents: his self-promotion may have been fierce, but perhaps we would be wise to see it as only matching the vehemence of the storms of disparagement he faced.

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