Absolutely Correct

Between 58 and 50 BC, Julius Caesar fought two wars simultaneously: one resulted in his conquest of Gaul, the other in his conquest of the Latin language. His Commentaries on the Gallic War (Commentarii de Bello Gallico) were the record of the first conflict, and his weapon in the second. For as well as being an innovative, bloodthirsty and dangerously successful military commander, Julius Caesar was also a litterateur and grammarian. Of the great achievements that followed on the back of his Consulship in 59 BC, it is difficult to know which had a longer-lasting effect: his subjugation of France or his creation of a model of clear and readable Latin which is still held up for emulation today.

Amazon.com: Commentarii: Volume I: Bello Gallico cum A. Hirti Supplemento (Oxford  Classical Texts) (9780198146025): Caesar, Du Pontet, R. L. A.: Books

This was no mean achievement: although Latin had been developing as a literary language for a couple of centuries by the time Caesar picked up his pen, it had done so in fits and starts. Cicero’s oratorical history, the Brutus, provides a wealth of evidence to back up the idea that the world of Latin prose writing in Caesar’s day was a crowded marketplace of different vocabularies, sentence structures and grammatical ideas.

Julius Caesar’s reaction to the confusion that reigned in the world of Latin prose was not a million miles from the words of St Francis of Assisi recited by Margaret Thatcher on the steps of 10 Downing Street:

“Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.”

Margaret Thatcher Arrives At Downing Street (1979) - YouTube

In his de Analogia, a grammatical treatise written while out on campaign (inter tela volantia, as Fronto puts it, ‘written amidst flying missiles’), Julius Caesar laid out a method for resolving the manifold irregularities in the Latin that was spoken and written by his contemporaries. In sharp contrast to his contemporary Cicero’s preferred approach to achieving a uniformly correct form of Latin (which was to adapt one’s language to the speech patterns of the Roman aristocracy), Julius Caesar advocated either working out or creating grammatical rules which, by analogy, would allow everyone to distinguish correct Latin from incorrect Latin.

Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War were an attempt to put this theory into practice. The language of the commentaries is as clear, precise and elegant as you could imagine. I’ll offer two quotations as proof of this. The first is from Cicero’s Brutus, in which he praises the Commentarii for their unadorned beauty:

ualde quidem—inquam—probandos; nudi enim sunt, recti et uenusti, omni ornatu orationis tamquam ueste detracta. sed dum uoluit alios habere parata, unde sumerent qui uellent scribere historiam, ineptis gratum fortasse fecit, qui uolent illa calamistris inurere: sanos quidem homines a scribendo deterruit; nihil est enim in historia pura et inlustri breuitate dulcius. (Cic. Brut. 262.)

“Indeed,” I replied, “they’re very admirable – bare, straightforward, alluring, with all rhetorical elaboration stripped away, like a garment. He wanted others to have a source to use in writing history, but while he perhaps did a favour for fools who’ll want to apply their curling irons, he frightened off sensible people: for there’s nothing more pleasing in history than pure and lucid brevity. (Trans. Kaster)

The second is from Down With Skool!, Geoffrey Willans’ guide to surviving a 1950s Prep School, with the irrepressible Nigel Molesworth taking the role of cicerone:

They sa: “The gauls—galli—subject—go on molesworth oppugnant—what does oppugnant mean—they are atacking fossas. Ditches. What did you say molesworth? Why on earth attack a ditch? Keep your mind on the sentence. The gauls are attacking the ditches. What? I am quite unable to inform you molesworth for what purpose the Gauls wished to attack the ditches. The latin is correct. That sufices.

BBC Radio 4 Extra - 'Down With Skool': The Art of Molesworth

Caesar probably wouldn’t have approved of Molesworth’s spelling, but the sentiment was certainly one he could get behind. His desired form of Latin was rules-based and prescriptive, anomalies (like recalcitrant Gallic chieftains) were to be hunted down and removed. This was, after all, the man who reformed the calendar to ensure that each year contained precisely 365 ¼ days, and who (according to Suetonius at least) “intended to reduce the body of civil law and reorganize the best and most useful elements of that vast and amorphous collection into the smallest possible number of books.”

‘Order and method’, as the greatest of the Belgae would say.

Hercule Poirot - Wikipedia

This is all a rather longwinded way of saying: when you find a grammatical oddity in the works of Julius Caesar, you should be astonished. And I would like to share one with you.

This is the opening sentence of the third book of Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Civili (Commentaries on the Civil War):

Dictatore habente comitia Caesare, consules creantur Iulius Caesar et P. Servilius; is enim erat annus, quo per leges ei consulem fieri liceret. (Caes. B.C. 3.1)

In his role as dictator, Caesar held the elections, at which Julius Caesar and Publius Servilius were made consuls; for this was the year in which it was legally allowed for him to become consul. (Trans. Author’s own)

The meaning of this sentence is perfectly clear. There is, though, something off about the relationship between its first two clauses. The main clause is built around the passive indicative verb creantur (‘they are made’), while the introductory sub-clause is provided with a neat little construction known as the ablative absolute, the verbal part being the present participle habente (‘holding’).

The ablative absolute is a key and valuable part of Latin prose composition – it is a quick, precise and elegant means for the writer to add supplemental information to the main thrust of their sentence, be that concessive, causal, temporal, conditional or simply contextual. Its value as a construction is particularly clear in a sentence like the above, one which already has two main verbs (creantur and erat) and one more in a relative clause (quoliceret). So rather than having to pile on another main verb of another subordinate clause (as I have done in the translation), Caesar can maintain the concision and clarity which he felt were the keys to good Latin.

Except, except.

Except as well as being concise and clear, Caesar also held that the key to good Latin was following the rules, and avoiding irregularities of vocabulary (‘barbarisms’) and grammar (‘solecisms’). And he seems to have committed a cardinal sin here. There are two reasons why the ‘ablative absolute’ is called the ‘ablative absolute’, and they are both integral to its functioning as a recognizable grammatical concept. The first is that the subject and verbal part of the ablative absolute should be in the ablative, and the second is that it should be absolute, standalone. That is to say, the subject of the ablative absolute construction should not play a role in the main part of the sentence. And it is on this second count that Caesar seems to be uncharacteristically in breach of the rules.

The subject of the ablative absolute is Julius Caesar himself (Caesarehabente – ‘Caesar was holding’), and the subject of the main verb is also Caesar (creanturCaesar et P. Servilius – ‘Caesar and Publius Servilius were made consuls’). This is as cut-and-dried a solecism as you could want to meet, and would be met with a double underlining in red pen if submitted to Molesworth’s Latin Master.

So what’s going on here? How does a man with an unwavering commitment to grammatical exactitude end up breaking the main rule governing a construction he used possibly more often than any other? And how does this happen in such a prominent place – the opening sentence of the third book of his Commentaries on the Civil War? I would like to suggest that Caesar would argue that he is not making a mistake here, and that understanding why this ablative absolute is grammatically correct is crucial to understanding the central argument of his de Bello Civili.

The key to grasping what is going on here is an appreciation of something that is rarely noted about Julius Caesar’s behaviour during the civil war: his dedication to being punctiliously constitutional in his actions. Constitutional rectitude is not usually something one expects from a man invading his own fatherland to protect his wounded pride. Indeed, ‘Might is Right’ is at the heart of most interpretations of how the Roman civil war played out. Nevertheless, Caesar’s actions during the civil war and his writings afterwards both reveal a statesman keen to be at least seen to do things by the book.

Not long after he crossed the Rubicon, Julius Caesar’s constitutional problems began to rear their head. His most immediate issue concerned his imperium – his constitutional right to give orders (or rather, to expect that his orders would be obeyed). In constitutional terms, the right to give orders stemmed from the magistracy one held, each one coming with different limitations and stipulations. As Caesar marched through Italy to assert himself in Rome, he faced a problem. His imperium was dependent upon his Gallic Proconsulship, a temporal extension of the Consulship he had held ten years previously, and one which would automatically lapse when he crossed the sacred boundary of the city of Rome (the Pomerium).

Caesar’s quandary, then, was that having kicked off a civil war so as to use his army to solve the problems in Rome, he would lose his control of that army if he entered the city. For a while, Caesar put off confronting this issue by focusing on urgent military issues – chasing Pompey the Great and his allies out of Italy, and crushing the Pompeian forces in Spain. After almost a year, however, it became clear that Caesar could not any longer put off appearing in Rome to sort out some of the existing urban problems which had if anything grown worse in the twelve months that had followed his invasion.

On the face of it, the fact that Caesar’s imperium would lapse as soon as he crossed the Pomerium should have been one of the lower order problems faced by a man who had just kicked off a civil war. There was, after all, no lack of precedent (not least Pompey himself) for Roman generals sloughing off their Proconsular imperium as they entered Rome only to be invested with a sparkling new Consular imperium granting them the ability to wield power within the city. Caesar could even have looked back to his youth and remembered Sulla’s swift transition from a Proconsul in 83 BC to a Dictator in 82 BC.

These historical examples, however, offered cold comfort to Caesar. A constitutional principle governed how power was transferred in Rome, and it was which stood in the way of him following the lead of either Pompey or Sulla. Roman magistracies existed in a strict hierarchy, and elections for higher magistrates could not be conducted by those lower down the pecking order. In short, it took a Consul to make a Consul.

Caesar’s problem was that as soon as he had invaded Italy in January, both Consuls of 49 BC (along with most of the other senior magistrates) had fled Rome and Italy, and were by December sitting with Pompey in Greece considering how best to defeat Caesar. In the absence of any holders of Consular imperium, Caesar could not be elected Consul. As such, as soon as he crossed the Pomerium he would forfeit his legal right to give orders and would not be able to get it back.

Julius Caesar | Biography, Conquests, & Facts | Britannica

There was one exception to this rule. Since the Dictatorship was an emergency office specifically designed to be a magistracy outranking all other magistracies, it was by definition impossible for anyone but a wielder of inferior imperium to create it. In practice, however, this was little help to Caesar. Just because the Dictatorship had to be conferred by a magistrate of inferior imperium did not mean that any magistrate with inferior imperium could appoint a Dictator. All previous Dictatorships in Roman history had been appointed by the magistrate with the highest existing imperium. And in 49 BC, the world’s highest existing imperium was in Greece with Pompey.

This constitutional anomaly, however, gave Caesar his opening. While Caesar was returning victorious from Spain, his ally Lepidus, who as Praetor wielded the highest imperium in Rome, convened an assembly of the sovereign Populus Romanus (the Roman people) to pass a law allow making it legal for a Praetor to nominate a Dictator. Transparent fudge though this may have been, it did not violate any existing constitutional principle that Dictators could not be nominated by inferior magistrates, nor did it invert the constitutional hierarchy, as the Consuls were welcome to come back to Rome and use their superior powers to veto the Praetor’s nomination.

Once the Populus Romanus had passed this law, Lepidus duly nominated Caesar to the Dictatorship. What happened next is where things get interesting. As Dictator, Julius Caesar now had the constitutional right to do as he wished. He held the highest imperium in the world, and one which would not lapse if he entered the city of Rome. On the basis of this power he could pass whatever laws he liked and command whatever troops he wanted.

He laid down the office, however, after only 11 days.

Caesar perhaps feared that it would be a touch unpalatable to use the unstoppable might of the Dictatorship to conduct a war which he had justified on the grounds of his opponents’ over-mighty tyranny. Perhaps he wished to distance himself from the example of Sulla. Perhaps he disliked the faff that would be involved in renewing the time-limited powers of the Dictatorship. For whatever reason, Caesar restricted his use of the Dictatorship’s highest imperium to ensure that the annual election of new consuls could go ahead as usual.

This brings us to the passage of Caesar’s de Bello Civili mentioned above. Having secured the superior imperium necessary to hold elections for the Consulship, Julius Caesar was duly elected Consul: Dictatore habente comitia Caesare, consules creantur Iulius Caesar et P. Servilius. We are also now in a position to solve the grammatical mystery of this sentence.

Why does Caesar here and only here break the rule that the subject of an ablative absolute cannot also be the subject of the main clause? On the basis of his interest in constitutional propriety we can safely attribute it to the fact that as far as the author is concerned the two Caesars in this sentence are distinct entities. Julius Caesar was not made Consul by personal fiat, he was elected to this position in accordance with the constitution of the Roman state. One legal entity presided over the election, another triumphed in it. The validity of the action described in the sentence is the key to understanding the validity of the grammar used to convey it.

The positioning of this curious sentence is key to understanding the propaganda game Caesar is playing. This sentence does not just come after two full books of de Bello Civili, it comes after 7 books of de Bello Gallico and several decades experience of Caesar’s Latin. When confronted with a grammatical oddity like this at the start of Bell. Civ. 3, the reader is expected to realize that something is up, and should not proceed until they have figured it out.

What better and more reassuring message could Caesar present to the readership of his Commentaries on the Civil War than to say that he was no more inclined to break the rules of the constitution than he was to break the rules of Latin?

Beware the pedants, they know what they do.

Courage & Reconciliation

If there’s one thing the coronavirus has given me, it’s time. Time to think, time to reflect, time to remember. Time to imagine the places I would like to go but can’t, or shouldn’t. One place I long to visit, to stroll around, is my old College in Oxford, the oddly-named Brasenose, or to give it its full title the King’s Hall and College of the Brazen Nose. When I can do so, I know exactly where I will head. Passing through the main gate on Radcliffe Square I shall pass straight through the Old Quadrangle (the early 16th Century part of the College) and proceed to the Chapel, a mid-17th Century building in which I spent many happy undergraduate hours singing and praying with equal ineptitude.

Brasenose banner_0

Approaching the chapel door, I shall hover on the threshold and admire my favourite fixture in Brasenose – the inscribed memorial of Principal Thomas Yate, perched just above eye-level on your left as you enter. On an elegant, unassuming marble oval are written the words:

H[ic]. S[epultus]. I[acet]. THOMAS YATE, S[acrae]. S[cripturae]. Theologiae Professor, a Collegii huius sociis, quos anno MDCXLVIII, ob fidem Regi, Ecclesiae, ac Deo egregie praestitam proscriptio nobilitavit, in Principalem electus, a parricidis democraticis qui Academiam sub visitationis praetextu devastarunt exauctoratus, dignus quem viri optimi sibi praeficerent et pessimi opprimer[e]nt, Regiis auspiciis anno MDCLX postliminio* restitutus, iniuriarum immemor gregem sibi commissum non vi et imperiis sed benevolentia et exemplo rexit, literarum et pietatis studia promovit, aedificia instauravit, et rem familiarem auxit, tandem desideratissimus senex, collegii pater et patronus, et tertius tantum non fundator, post XX annorum pacatissimum in regimine decursum et vitae LXXVIII, positis hic corporis exuviis animam caelo reddidit, Apr. XXII Anno MDCLXXXI.

Here lies buried Thomas Yate, Professor of Holy Scripture and Theology. Elected Principal in the year 1648 by the Fellows of this College, to whom on account of the outstanding faithfulness they displayed toward King, Church and God their proscription brought renown, dismissed by the democratic assassins who laid waste Academe under the guise of a Visitation, worthy to be set up to rule them by the best men, and to be laid low by the worst, restored by principle of restitution in the year 1660 under royal auspices, forgetful of injustices he ruled the flock which had been entrusted to him with kindness and by example, not by force and with orders, advanced the studies of letters and religion, restored buildings, and increased the College’s patrimony. At long last, an old man very greatly missed, father and patron of the College, and almost its third founder, after a most peaceful course of 20 years at the helm and 78 of life, he laid down the earthly spoils of his body here, and gave up his spirit to heaven on the 22nd April 1681.

Translation my own, with (as ever) help from Llewelyn Morgan

*Any thoughts on the meaning of ‘postliminio’ here will be gratefully received.

The story that lies behind this memorial is an extraordinary one, and the language in which it is couched points to a desire both to acknowledge the injustices of the past and to move past them in a spirit of reconciliation.

The context for the curriculum vitae given here is that of Oxford during and after the English Civil War. On the basis of what I overhear from tour guides, I think it is relatively well-known that Oxford was associated with the Royalist cause during this conflict. It may be less commonly known that the court of Charles I was moved to Oxford after he was forced out of London, but any trip around the older Colleges will introduce you to quondam lodgings of princes and courtiers, and a visit to Christ Church will show you that before it was used for feasting in the Harry Potter films, the Hall played host to the King’s Parliament.


King Charles Gate, connecting Christ Church College (where the King had his court) and Merton College (where the Queen had her own)

In the summer of 1646, the successful Siege of Oxford delivered the city into the hands of the Parliamentarians. Although the King and the larger part of his court escaped, a reckoning was due, and it fell upon the University and the Colleges in the form of the Visitation. The Parliamentary Visitation of the University of Oxford began in the next year, it was an ideological purge set in motion to reform the political and religious aspects of the University that had led it to follow the wrong cause during the Civil War, and to root out any affection for those old values which remained within the institution. Excessively Royalist or insufficiently Puritan Heads of House, Professors and Fellows were interrogated and removed from their posts, and replaced by thinkers and administrators more congenial to the Parliamentarians’ tastes. In this cleaning of the Augean Stables, the Vice-Chancellor and Proctors were removed from their posts, Heads of House were ordered out of office, Professors holding various Chairs were investigated, arrested and replaced.

Wyck, Jan, 1645-1700; The Siege of Oxford

The Siege of Oxford, Jan Wyck.

Thomas Yate’s election as Principal of Brasenose College took place in the middle of this ideological purge. The post of Principal of Brasenose had been held until 1648 by the Royalist Samuel Radcliffe. Radcliffe had been in office for 30 years by the time the Civil War began, and when the Parliamentarian Visitors ordered him out of the College, he was old and infirm. After a year’s resistance, refusing to make way for Daniel Greenwood, a long-serving Puritan Brasenose Fellow whom Parliament appointed to succeed him, Radcliffe died, still housed in the Principal’s Lodgings he had inhabited since 1612. Following their deceased leader’s rebellious spirit, the most senior Fellows who remained in College resisted the soldiers who had been sent in to oversee an orderly transition to the Principal appointed by Parliament. They gathered together in a private room and elected a younger Fellow, the 45-year-old Thomas Yate, to the vacant position.

The Parliamentary Visitors took a dim view of this act of defiance. 13 of the College’s 16 Fellows were interrogated and expelled from their positions, Yate included. Greenwood took up the reins and started the slow process of putting the College back on its feet. Yate, on the other hand, absented himself from Oxford and kept his head down, taking up work as a solicitor. As Yate’s memorial acidly puts it: exauctoratus parricidis democraticis qui Academiam sub visitationis praetextu devastarunt – he was stripped of office by the democratic parricides (a reference to Parliamentarians’ subsequent execution of Charles I) who destroyed the Academy (the location of Plato’s school outside Athens) in the guise of a ‘Visitation’.

Thus far a miserable, if familiar, tale. What follows, however, is rather more uplifting. With the Restoration and the return of Charles II in 1660, many of the Heads of House the Parliamentary Visitors had imposed upon the Oxford Colleges were themselves expelled from their posts. In spite of his careful governance of Brasenose, Greenwood was no exception. In tandem with the expulsion of three Fellows appointed under the Visitation, he was relieved of the office of Principal. Twelve years after his election in 1648, Thomas Yate finally became the ninth Principal of the King’s Hall and College of the Brazen Nose.

unknown artist; Thomas Yate, DD, Benefactor, Principal (1648)

Thomas Yate, Principal of Brasenose College

The sense of indignation at Yate’s exile is evident in the language of the inscription outside the Chapel. The people who removed him in 1648 are the worst men, pessimi, they are parricidae democratici (and it’s hard to know which of those words is meant to carry the more venom). However, alongside these barbs composed on Yate’s behalf by the Fellowship, there is another side to Yate’s Principalship that shines through in his memorial – the spirit of reconciliation, and a desire to heal and move past the divisions of the Civil War. Accounts of Yate’s years as Principal show his firm desire to continue the work begun by his Parliamentary predecessor. The 12 years for which Daniel Greenwood had governed the College had not been easy ones for Brasenose’s finances. Working closely (if, one presumes, uneasily) with the Royalist Bursar John Houghton (one of the three Fellows interrogated but not expelled by the Vistiors), Greenwood invested sensibly and sought legacies, finally putting the College in a position to grow and move out of debt. The very building Yate’s memorial graces only stands there today thanks to the building programme of Greenwood and Houghton. Thomas Yate did not turn his back on his predecessor’s legacy in a spirit of anger, he did not signal the ideological triumph of his own side by eradicating the Parliamentarians’ contributions to his College’s growth. Yate did not shun the Royalist Houghton for treacherously working with the Puritan Principal, he kept him on as Bursar, he completed Greenwood’s building projects, he did not renounce the legacies secured in those difficult 12 years nor repudiate the money Cromwell’s regime had invested in the College, and he did not eradicate the four lectureships Greenwood had instituted.

Even more extraordinarily, a letter survives from the Bursary of John Houghton in which he debates the merits of Thomas Yate’s argument that his deposed Puritan predecessor should be allowed to continue living at Brasenose’s expense in Black Hall, a College building located on what is now Radcliffe Square. For all the unimaginable heat and violence in their political surroundings, Greenwood, Houghton and Yate understood the need to cooperate, live and work with each other in order to preserve the institutions and structures that allowed the spirit of academic inquiry to survive and, later, flourish.

Yate’s active choice to close the bitter struggle that had created a 12-year gap between his election as Principal and his assumption of that office is deeply to his credit. As his monument explains, he was immemor iniuriarum (he put his grievances behind him) and he eschewed force and barked orders (vis and imperia) in his leadership of the fractured College, preferring to lead by example and with humanity (exemplum and benevolentia). It is, then, far from empty flattery for the Fellows to memorialize their deceased master Thomas Yate as ‘almost the third founder of the College’ (tertius fundator), after the two men responsible for Brasenose’s creation William Smyth and Richard Sutton. Through forgiveness and forbearance, he had secured the College’s future existence, and laid down an example for the Commonwealth.


William Smyth and Richard Sutton, Founders of Brasenose College



Choosing to live peacefully with the past, seeking reconciliation with opponents, and cherishing the collegiality and diversity of conscience, background and politics that supports true academic inquiry: those are truly foundational virtues. So here’s to Thomas Yate, Professor of Holy Scripture and Theology, Principal and Fellow of Brasenose College, an exemplum to us all.

The Prince and the Pauper

Monument Men

This is a story of two men, and two monuments. This is also a tale about identity and elitism; assimilation and difference; royalty and revolution. At its heart is a swashbuckling adventure that would be at home in the most pumped-up of Hollywood movies; on its peripheries is an encapsulation of how the political apparatus of an Italian city state adapted itself to rule a vast Mediterranean empire.

The contrast between the two monuments could not be more stark. The first is a familiar sight to anyone who has glanced at the Athenian skyline. It is the imposing remains of the so-called Philopappou Monument: a 30-foot engraved marble mausoleum, sitting atop of 10-foot plinth, prominently located on the top of a hill facing the Acropolis. The Greek Ministry of Culture lovingly preserves the site, and it is listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.


Philopappou Monument, Athens

The second monument is a blunt contrast. It is an inscribed plinth for a (now missing) statue, standing only a few feet tall and lined up alongside many others in the courtyard of an erstwhile temple of Jupiter in the modern Lebanese city of Baalbek.


                                         Epitaph of Gaius Velius Rufus, Baalbek

The disparity between these two monuments in many ways suitably maps out the differences between the men they respectively commemorate. The first was erected by the family of Gaius Julius Antiochus Epiphanes Philopappos, honouring the memory of an exceptionally well-connected aristocrat and philanthropic benefactor to the city of Athens, a one-time holder of the Consulship at Rome and a long-time friend of the Emperor Hadrian. Far from this grandeur, the second stone commemorates a solider, Gaius Velius Rufus, a man who had served with distinction as a Centurion under (at least) three successive emperors and across (at least) a half-dozen provinces.

For all their apparent differences, however, the lives of these two men were fundamentally entwined, on both a personal and structural level. Telling the story of how these two lives came to dovetail together will take us from the walls of Jerusalem to the inner sanctum of the imperial palace; from the gleaming splendour of Athens to the roaring might of the Euphrates.

Pappy Dearest

Although a mouthful to say, the name Gaius Julius Antiochus Epiphanes Philopappos is the key to understanding this story. This complicated nomenclature is more than just a name, it’s a biography. The first part of his name (the praenomen and nomen), Gaius Julius, denotes the legal element of the man’s identity. It signals that he is a Roman citizen, and moreover it shows that his citizenship can be traced back to a grant given to his family by the Emperor himself (in this case, the Emperor Tiberius, himself an adopted member of the gens Julia). The next part of his name is made up of two cognomina, which trace his paternal ancestry: Antiochus is the name of his grandfather, and Epiphanes is the name of his father. The final part of his name (his agnomen) is the most personal of all, it is used to denote some personal characteristic that defines his identity. Philopappos (Φιλόπαππος) is a combination of two Greek words: ‘philo’ (lover of, devotee of; cf. philosopher – lover of wisdom) and ‘pappos’ (grandfather). So who was this grandfather to whom Philopappos was so devoted that he was named after this fact?

As it happens, we are relatively well-informed about Philopappos’ grandfather. Antiochus, or (to give him his regnal title) Antiochus IV of Commagene, was royalty. The kingdom he inherited comprised of a small area in modern Turkey, salvaged from the disintegration of the Seleucid empire in the second century BC by his ancestor Ptolemaeus. Even as Roman hegemony swept through Asia Minor in the late Republic and early Empire, the rulers of Commagene preserved the independence of their kingdom. They achieved this by allying themselves closely to Roman interests in the region, serving as a useful buffer between Rome and the Parthian empire, proving more reliable than their eastern-facing neighbours Osrhoene and Sophene.


The Syrian Kingdoms

Commagene’s independence as an ally rather than a subject of Rome was, however, fragile. Upon the death of Antiochus IV’s father in 17 AD, the kingdom was briefly incorporated into the Roman province of Syria by the emperor Tiberius (at which point the royal family were rewarded for their loyalty with Roman citizenship). This, however, was reversed twenty years later by Tiberius’ successor Caligula, who returned Antiochus IV to the throne and restored Commagene’s independence.

The story of how Antiochus IV came to be the last king of Commagene can be pieced together from Tacitus and the Jewish historian Josephus. They locate the Fall of the House of Antiochus to the period of the Great Jewish Revolt against Rome (66-73 AD). Although this revolt took place far from the borders of Antiochus’ kingdom, he nonetheless demonstrated the pro-Roman loyalty that was characteristic of his ancestry.

Tacitus’ record of the year 69 AD notes the aid Antiochus IV gave to Vespasian, the general entrusted with the task of crushing the revolt:

Before 15th July the whole of Syria had sworn allegiance. The party also gained the support of Sohaemus, with all the resources of his kingdom and a considerable force, and of Antiochus, the richest of the subject princes, who owed his importance to his ancestral treasures.

Tac. Hist. 2.81

Antiochus’ choice to throw in his lot with Vespasian looked amply perspicacious once his military successes in Judaea had elevated the general to the principate amidst the chaos of the Year of the Four Emperors. Indeed, Vespasian’s coronation seems to have increased the king’s zeal for aiding the Roman forces in his backyard. To such an extent, in fact, that in 70 AD he sent his eldest son Epiphanes to fight alongside the troops Vespasian had left to storm Jerusalem under the command of his own son, the future Emperor Titus. Josephus takes up the tale:

Meanwhile there appeared on the scene Antiochus Epiphanes, bringing with him, besides numerous other forces, a bodyguard calling themselves “Macedonians,” all of the same age, tall, just emerged from adolescence, and armed and trained in the Macedonian fashion, from which circumstance indeed they took their title, most of them lacking any claim to belong to that race. For of all the monarchs owing allegiance to Rome, the king of Commagene enjoyed the highest prosperity, before he experienced reverse; but he too proved in old age how no man should be pronounced happy before his death. However, the father’s fortunes were at their zenith at the time when his son arrived and expressed his surprise that a Roman army should hesitate to attack the ramparts; something of a warrior himself, he was of an adventurous nature and withal so robust that his daring was seldom unsuccessful.

Jos. BJ V.460-463

Contained within Josephus’ description of Epiphanes’ valiance, however, is a cryptic nod in the direction of the future troubles that lay in wait for the kingdom of Commagene.

The Last King of Commagene

For all his conspicuous loyalty towards the emperor, his heir, the senate and the people of Rome, Antiochus IV’s rule over Commagene was not destined to survive Vespasian’s reorganization of Rome’s eastern provinces. Having elevated himself to the throne through the military grip he had accrued over the eastern portion of the Empire, Vespasian set about dismantling any existing arrangements that could allow somebody else to do the same.

In 72 AD, under the pretence of fearing the friendliness of the king’s relationship with the Parthian empire, Vespasian sent a legion into Commagene to inform Antiochus IV that his rule had been terminated, and that his kingdom was to be integrated once again into the Roman province of Syria. The calculation behind this is easy enough to discern. Commagene occupied a large fertile plain and controlled Samosata, a key crossing-point over the Euphrates. Such a strategically vital position provided whoever controlled Commagene with an enormous amount of power over Rome’s security. If the king of Commagene’s loyalties were to be captured by a thrusting general who had eyes on the principate, then the emperor would suddenly find himself in hot water.


Bridge Over Troubled Water, Samosata, Commagene

Josephus records that neither the Commagenian populace nor King Antiochus put up any resistance to the arrival of the Roman Sixth Legion Ferrata:

Their invasion was unopposed, not a man throughout the country wishing to lift a hand against them. Antiochus, confronted with the unexpected tidings, never entertained a moment’s thought of a war with Rome, but decided to quit the realm, leaving everything as it was, and to abscond in a chariot with his wife and children, hoping thus to clear himself in the eyes of the Romans of the charge under which he lay.

Jos. BJ VII.227-229

Although Josephus depicts the annexation of Commagene proceeding with an air of calm but firm resolution, both on the part of the invaders and their victims, it just so happens that a near contemporary document survives from this region, presenting a somewhat different picture.

The earliest extant piece of Syriac literature, the Letter of Mara bar Serapion, preserved as an early Christian text, gives a very different picture of how occupation was greeted by some of those Commagenians who did not wish to live under Roman rule.

You have heard, moreover, concerning our companions, that, when they were leaving Samosata, they were distressed about it, and, as if complaining of the time in which their lot was cast, said thus: ‘We are now far removed from our home, and we cannot return again to our city, or behold our people, or offer to our gods the greeting of praise!’ Wise was it that that day should be called a day of lamentation, because one heavy grief possessed them all alike. For they wept as they remembered their fathers, and they thought of their mothers with sobs, and they were distressed for their brethren, and grieved for their betrothed whom they had left behind…

But, if the Romans shall permit us to go back to our own country, as called upon by justice and righteousness to do, they will be acting like humane men, and will earn the name of good and righteous, and at the same time will have a peaceful country in which to dwell: for they will exhibit their greatness when they leave us free men, and we shall be obedient to the sovereign power which the time has allotted to us. But let them not like tyrants, drive us as though we were slaves. Yet, if it has already been determined what shall be done, we shall receive nothing more dreadful than the peaceful death which lie in store for us.

For all Josephus’ emphasis on a willing and loyal Commagenian populace, this letter provides a far darker picture – one suggesting that there was at least a section of the community unwilling to contemplate life under Roman rule, a section of the populace who exiled themselves to Parthian territory and whom the occupying Romans forcefully barred from returning.

In spite of this contradiction, Mara bar Serapion’s evidence of dissatisfaction with Roman rule actually helps to make sense of the rest of Josephus’ presentation of the Roman occupation of Commagene. For all his claims of peaceful acceptance on the part of Antiochus IV and the populace, the King’s sons Epiphanes and Callinicus did not relinquish their patrimony with the same equanimity once shown by a younger Antiochus IV when his kingdom was absorbed into the Roman Empire upon the death of his father more than half a century earlier:

Even in these straits, however, the king could not be induced to take any hostile action against the Romans, but lamenting his lot was content to submit to whatever suffering might be in store for him. His sons, on the contrary, with the advantages of youth, military experience, and unusual physical strength, could not lightly brook this calamity without a struggle; Epiphanes and Callinicus, accordingly, had resort to arms. In the fierce contest which ensued, lasting the whole day, the princes displayed conspicuous gallantry, and their troops had sustained no diminution of strength when night parted the combatants. Yet, even after such an issue of the conflict, Antiochus could not bring himself to remain, but accompanied by his wife and daughters fled to Cilicia, thereby breaking the spirits of his own troops; for, regarding him as having pronounced sentence on his realm, they mutinied and went over to the Romans, and despair was manifest on all faces.

Jos. BJ VII.231-236

His sons’ decision to commit to battle with Roman troops removed any certainty that Antiochus IV might have had about returning to the carefree existence he had enjoyed as a Roman citizen in his youth.

His (performative) decision, however, to enter the nearest Roman garrison in chains in the company of his wife and sister (the same person), and his daughter was a smart one – when news of his degraded state was conveyed to Vespasian, the Emperor insisted that his old ally be treated with the dignity and respect he had enjoyed as king, and that he be conveyed to Greece to enjoy a life of luxury at the expense of the new Flavian court.

That, then, is the story of the grandfather so beloved by Philopappos. A man born heir to a kingdom, raised a Roman citizen, unexpectedly made king in his youth, only to be returned to Rome in his old age. There is, though, a loose thread to this part of the tale. Although Antiochus had taken as much of his family with him as he could, there was still the question of his two sons, Epiphanes and Callinicus – the young men who had attacked the Roman legion sent in to take possession of the kingdom they had hoped to inherit.

The boys, despairing of their futures, had no intention of following their father’s example and entrusting themselves to Rome’s mercy. He, after all, had surrendered himself immediately to the authorities; they had taken up arms against Roman imperium; they had made themselves hostes, enemies of the state. Fearing for their safety, Epiphanes and Callinicus fled east. Crossing the Euphrates, they fled past the site of Crassus’ famous defeat at Carrhae seeking the protection of the Parthian Empire.

Fighting for Distinction

This is the point in the story at which we introduce our friend from the second monument. Gaius Velius Rufus was in all likelihood a native of the town in which his funerary monument was erected – Heliopolis, a Roman colony founded by the emperor Augustus in what is now Lebanon.

The epitaph attached to the plinth described above serves as Rufus’ Curriculum Vitae:

To Gaius Velius Rufus, son of Salvius, who served as:

primus pilus [Lieutenant Colonel of the Twelfth Legion Fulminata;

prefect of a vexillatio [task force] of nine legions I Adiutrix, II Adiutrix, II Augusta, VIII Augusta, VIIII Hispana, XIIII Gemina, XX Victrix, XXI Rapax;

tribune of the Thirteenth Urban Cohort;

leader of an army created in Africa and Mauritania to suppress the nations that live in Mauretania;

and was given rewards by Imperator Vespasian and Imperator Titus during the Jewish War – a wall crown, torques, phalerae, armillae;

and also given rewards – a mural crown, two spears, two banners;

and again given, during the war against the Marcomanni, Quadi, and Sarmati – against whom he conducted an operation across the realm of Decebalus, king of the Dacians – a mural crown, two spears and two banners;

and who acted as Procurator [non-senatorial governor] of the emperor Caesar Augustus Domitian in the Pannonian and Dalmatian provinces;

and as Procurator and highest penal authority in Raetia.

He was sent on a military mission into Parthia and brought to the emperor Vespasian Epiphanes and Callinicus, the sons of king Antiochus, and a large band of men liable for tribute.

To this man has Marcus Alfius Fabia Olympiacus, son of Marcus, aquilifer [carrier of the eagle] and veteran of the Fifteenth Legion Apollinaris, erected this monument.


Epitaph of Gaius Velius Rufus

As impressive Rufus’ list of appointments was, this monument to his life nonetheless separated one achievement out of its chronological order and placed it in a grammatically separate clause. His claim to fame, the bedrock of status, was his leadership of a mission into enemy territory to find the refugee princes of Commagene and reunite them with Antiochus IV and the rest of the royal family in Roman territory.

How did Rufus find himself in the position of being asked to undertake such a dangerous and unusual assignment? A clue is supplied an earlier part of the inscription:

He was given rewards by Imperator Vespasian and Imperator Titus during the Jewish War – a wall crown, torques, phalerae, armillae.

Rufus’ selection, then, was not a random choice. Vespasian and Titus’ crushing of the Jewish Revolt brought numerous opportunities for brave and skilled soldiers to demonstrate their abilities and rise through the ranks. Judging by the number of awards Rufus received in the course of this conflict, he seems to have seized this opportunity with eager hands.

Gaius Velius Rufus had served in Judaea with distinction first under Vespasian, and then under Titus, showing himself to be an exceptionally gifted and talented soldier. He was born and bred in the Fertile Crescent, and so could claim a degree of local knowledge that would have been exceptionally rare for a Roman citizen soldier. It is even possible that he had served alongside Epiphanes and his so-called ‘Macedonians’ in the latter stages of the Jewish War. His epitaph’s reference to his service in the Urban Cohort may even suggest that he was sufficiently well-connected with the Flavians that he had been brought back to Rome to serve in the new Emperor’s Praetorian Guard.

Instead of this, however, he was entrusted with a specific and dangerous mission, to bring the princes Epiphanes and Callinicus back to their father. Vespasian’s reasons for taking such care in choosing the right man for this mission was not simply a matter of him being overwhelmed with tender fatherly feelings. There was a strong element of Realpolitik involved in ensuring that two young men with a legitimate claim to a vital piece of Roman territory were not in a position to be used by a hostile power with a strong interest in creating instability on Rome’s eastern border.

Josephus’ account of the situation runs as follows:

Ten horsemen, in fact, were all that crossed the Euphrates with the two brothers; thence they proceeded unmolested to Vologeses, king of Parthia, by whom they were treated not with disdain, as fugitives, but with every mark of respect, as though still enjoying their ancient prosperity.

Jos. BJ VII.236-237

Vologeses’ decision to treat the Princes in a manner suggesting that he acknowledged the validity of their claim to throne of Commagene was a cause for immediate concern. Confusion, however, was created by the next report to reach Rome from Parthia indicating that in spite of his initial demonstration of favour, the king was content for the princes to be reunited with their father. Under these conditions of uncertainty, it is no surprise that the man chosen for the task was a tried and tested, capable solider, a man with strong links to the local area, and one personally known both to the emperor and to the princes.

When he accepted the mission, Gaius Velius Rufus can have had no idea whether Vologeses would have changed his mind by the time he reached the palace, nor whether the princes would show any inclination to leave their new Parthian home. The only thing he could be sure of was the fact that he would be alone, cut off from contact with his superiors, and forced to act on his own initiative far beyond the frontiers of the Roman empire.

Heart of Darkness

Although Rome and Parthia were at peace when Rufus was sent on this mission, he was going into Parthian territory less than ten years after Rome had struck a humiliating peace treaty ending five years of bloody warfare – battles fought over the very terrain he was to set to traverse. He had no way of knowing how long this treaty would last, and in the event of it breaking down while he on the other side of the border, he would be left to his own devices in the company of two princes for whom such an anti-Roman conflict could prove very beneficial.

Precisely how Rufus carried out his mission is unknown to us: neither Josephus nor his epitaph provide much in the way of detail. We can, though sketch an outline of what such a mission would entail, and show just how arduous such a mission would have been.

Before he could even see Parthian territory, Rufus was faced with a three to four-week journey to reach Commagene, depending on whether he was travelling from Rome as a praetorian, or whether he was still a centurion in Judaea. Aside from the fact that Commagene offered Rome’s best crossing-point over the Euphrates into Parthian territory, this starting point also offered the opportunity for Rufus to speak with those who had seen the princes last, offering a rare opportunity to gain some independent verification of the state of mind in which he could expect to find Epiphanes and Callinicus. How were they likely to react to the appearance of Roman Centurion? Would they flee? Would they put up a fight?

Once he had gathered intelligence and crossed the Euphrates, leaving Commagene and Roman territory behind him, Rufus was reliant on Parthian sources to reach Vologeses and the princes. This was not necessarily an easy task: the Parthian empire was vast, stretching from the borders of modern Turkey as far as eastern Iran. Josephus does not inform us of whereabouts in Parthian territory Vologeses was keeping his guests.

Our best clue lies in the fact that Rufus’ epitaph makes clear that his mission took him into Parthia, not just to its borders (his mission was ‘in Parthiam’ rather than ‘in Parthia’). This implies that the boys were not brought to any of the neutral border states that served as a buffer between Roman and Parthian territory. A second clue can be found in Josephus’ claim that the boys were kept in a manner befitting their royal status, which could suggest their presence in one of the royal capitals, where it would be easiest to keep them in the manner to which they were accustomed.

If this idea is incorrect and the princes were with Vologeses as he travelled around his empire, then we should imagine Rufus travelling along the old Royal Road built by Persian kings of old, scanning the horizon for bandits and following news of the ever moving location of the king’s military entourage. If, however, the princes were with Vologeses in the capital Ctesiphon, then our picture suddenly takes on more than a shade of Heart of Darkness or Apocalypse Now.

The easiest route to Ctesiphon from Roman territory was to travel by boat down the Euphrates. Progress was slow and only safely attempted during daylight hours. Estimates vary, but on a very good day Rufus may have managed to travel 75 km downriver. Between Samosata and Ctesiphon, the Euphrates flows for over 1,000 km.


Gaius Velius Rufus in Action

A month of travelling down the Euphrates as it snaked its way through Parthia in the company of a picked band of fellow soldiers and a native guide was at least a journey that only risked Rufus’ own life. Making the return journey upstream in the conspicuous company of two royal youths was another matter. As well as their boat’s pace slowing to a crawl as they fought against the river’s natural inclination to run to the sea, this leg presented a number of potential human problems as well.

However keen Josephus might be to suggest that the princes were eager to be reunited with their father, there was no way for Rufus to know whether or not the princes considered themselves (not without cause) to be the victims of a Roman state determined to punish them for attacking the legion sent to deprive them of their kingdom. Every morning Rufus woke up on the banks of the Euphrates to find that Epiphanes and Callinicus had neither fled the scene nor slit his throat was a minor victory.

An accompanying problem, of course, was the loss of anonymity that went hand-in-hand with transporting Epiphanes and Callinicus. While a Roman Centurion in Parthia could never hope to blend in completely with the local scene, he stood a far greater chance of doing so when he was not accompanied by two young royals who would fetch a more than ample ransom for an enterprising group of bandits prepared to ambush this small party as it crawled along towards the frontier.

Josephus informs us that Rufus wisely foreshortened his journey home by not taking the potentially volatile step of bringing the princes back through their now former kingdom of Commagene – a region they would never step foot in again. The city of Zeugma offered a sensible alternative location for Rufus disembark his royal consignment. From there an easy route could be taken via Antioch back to the capital.

Josephus is on hand to round off the tale with a happy ending:

Caesar having then graciously granted them safe conduct, they [Epiphanes and Callinicus] came to Rome, where they were promptly joined by their father [Antiochus IV] from Sparta; and there they took up their abode, treated with every mark of honour.

Jos. BJ VII.243

Reward and Rehabilitation

Such is the tale of Gaius Velius Rufus’ dashing extraction of the Commagenian princes from the heart of the Parthian empire. But this is more than just a story taken from a particular moment in a particular part of the Roman empire. So often in the history of the ancient world, these tantalizing snapshots of interesting lives disappear leaving us to guess at their endings. However, thanks to the survival of the funerary monuments described above, we are fortunate enough to be able to trace the rest of the stories of Gaius Velius Rufus and the princes of Commagene.

The success of Rufus’ mission proved that Vespasian’s confidence in his soldier was well-placed, and it proved to be a stepping stone for a magnificent career, as detailed on his funerary monument. Shortly after his return, he was elevated to the position of primus pilus (first spear) in the Twelfth Legion Fulminata (a rough equivalent of a modern Lieutenant Colonel), making him the highest ranking Centurion in the legion, as well as its ninth most senior overall.

From this point of distinction, he continued to rise at an extraordinary rate of knots. As his epitaph makes clear, he was present at almost every major theatre of war in the reigns of Vespasian and his two sons, being decorated every step of the way for his valour and bravery. This eventually culminated in Rufus being made procurator (administrator) of three provinces under Domitian – a supreme achievement for a man whose career had begun as a common soldier.

A sign of how great Rufus’ achievement was can be seen in the fact that many successful procurators found themselves adlected into the senate by the emperor as a reward for their service. The brutal end of Domitian’s reign could well be the reason why Rufus never achieved this mark of distinction himself. But even if he never personally donned the senatorial latus clavus (a toga decorated with a broad purple band), we can see from the funerary monuments that flank his own in Baalbek that his homonymous son did receive this honour and that his family was further ennobled in the next generation with the consulship.

Such was the life of Gaius Velius Rufus, what of the royal family of Commagene? By the time he was reunited with his sons, Antiochus IV could see his life stretched out gloriously behind him. Josephus tells us that he and his sister/wife lived out their remaining years in a manner befitting their formerly royal status. But what of their children?

Antiochus’ daughter Iotapa, whom he took with him to Rome when he fled Commagene to seek Vespasian’s pardon, suffered no great disruption to her life of royalty – she was married in Rome to the heir to the new Armenian king Tigranes, a man with the strikingly un-Armenian name Gaius Julius Alexander. A subtle means by which Rome could keep some control over a kingdom that it had ceded to Parthia in their latest peace treaty.

Unlike their royal sister, however, the fugitive princes, now returned to Roman territory, had to learn how to live as citizens. The younger brother Callinicus immediately disappears from our records, but Epiphanes’ adaption to Roman life is rather more fully-known, and can tell us a great deal about how status was negotiated in the upper echelons of the Roman elite.

Epiphanes swiftly accrued fame and status through his royal father and his personal place of favour in the court of Vespasian. This immediately marked him out as a suitable connubial match for anyone seeking to burnish their credentials as an up-and-coming member of the Roman elite. Ultimately he did not end up marrying the scion of a Roman senatorial family, but rather a Roman of Alexandrian extraction, Claudia Capitolina, whose family had never stepped foot in the senate house.

What was the claim to fame of this thrusting new non-senatorial dynasty to which Epiphanes was lending his royal blood? What made Claudia Capitolina a suitable match for Commagenian royalty? Prince Epiphanes’ new father-in-law was, in fact, a procurator; a man named Tiberius Claudius Balbillus who, just like our friend Gaius Velius Rufus, had proved his mettle rising through the ranks of the army and been entrusted with a series of important administrative positions under successive emperors.

After serving with distinction in the emperor Claudius’ invasion of Britain in 44 AD (to the extent that he was rewarded with the hasta pura in Claudius’ triumph), Balbillus was sent to his native Egypt to practice his administrative skills as the director of the Great Library. Having proved himself there, he was promoted under Claudius to procurator of the grand province of Asia, after which the emperor Nero entrusted him with the most important position that could be held by a non-senator – the prefecture of Egypt.

Once the Julio-Claudians had been swept away and replaced by Vespasian’s Flavian court, Balbillus returned to Rome with his daughter to ingratiate himself with the empire’s new masters. Against this background, both Epiphanes and Balbillus found it to be in their interests to merge their families via a dynastic marriage of the dashing young prince and Balbillus’ daughter.

The Man Who Would Be King

At this point it would be sensible to leap forward in time to the monument with which we began, the extraordinary mausoleum erected over 40 years later in 116 AD to honour the memory of Gaius Julius Antiochus Epiphanes Philopappos.


The Philopappos Monument, Athens

Even in its partially collapsed state, Philopappos’ monument is an impressive display. Moreover, it remains easy enough to read and interpret.

The monument’s artistic vision unites the past and the present of its honorand. The frieze running along the bottom commemorates the status Philopappos reached in life. He did not simply live the quiet life of luxury that might befit a king without a kingdom, he maintained and exercised power through a series of magistracies both in Rome and throughout the empire: a trip up the cursus honorum that culminated in his elevation to the consulship in 109 AD. The commemorative frieze depicts the grand procession which marked his assumption of this office:


Consular Frieze on Philopappos’ Monument

Philopappos can be seen riding a four-horse chariot towards a group of senators, who expectantly await his arrival.

The Latin inscription confirms Philopappos’ pride in his civic achievements:

C. ∙ Iulius C. f. Fab(ia) ∙ Antiochus ∙ Philopappus ∙ cos., frater ∙ Arvalis ∙ allectus ∙ inter praetorios ∙ ab ∙ Imp(eratore) ∙ Caesare Nerva ∙ Traiano ∙ Optumo ∙ Augusto ∙ Germanico∙ Dacico

Gaius Julius Antiochus Philopappus, son of Gaius, of the Fabian tribe, consul, and Arval brother, admitted to the praetorian rank by the emperor Caesar Nerva Trajan Optimus Augustus Germanicus Dacicus.

But as important as his civic achievements were, this monument tells the viewer that Philopappos remained proudest of his royal blood.

Towering over the frieze and its accompanying inscription once stood three giant statues, depicting three significant members of Philopappos’ family. Only two currently remain, but the monument can be confidently reconstructed:


Reconstruction of Philopappos’ Monument

Seated in the centre, of course, is Philopappos himself, the man whose life is commemorated by this mausoleum. Flanking him on either side are two other figures, denoting a claim to elite status that transcends what he achieved in his life as a Roman magistrate. On his right-hand side sits a man we are already familiar with – his paternal grandfather, Antiochus IV, the last king of Commagene. On his left sits another figure. Not his civilian father, as one might expect, or even his own heir, but rather an august historicl figure: Seleucus I Nicator, successor of Alexander the Great, founder of the Seleucid dynasty, and ultimate fount of Philopappos’ royal blood.

Although it is now missing, a 15th Century traveller to Athens recorded the inscription that once crowned the monument – an inscription that underlines the respective importance of Philopappos’ royal and civic claims to elite status. In enormous lettering, glaring across the Attic landscape at the Acropolis, it read:

βασιλεὺς Ἀντίοχος Φιλόπαππος.

King Antiochos Philopappos.

The mausoleum’s message is clear: this is not just a monument dedicated to the memory to one of the many great men produced in Rome and sent out to rule the empire. This monument commemorates something altogether rarer and more awe-inspirer: a king.


View of Philopappos’ Monument from the Acropolis

But for all Philopappos’ pride in his royal heritage, he did not see fit to pass over his more Roman marks of distinction in silence. Even for a man descended from Macedonian royalty, a man who proclaimed himself a basileus (king), Philopappos’ claim to elite status still shared a support with that of the descendant of the simple soldier who was sent into Parthia to retrieve his fugitive father: the claims of both men to elite status depended on their services to the state.

Philopappos’ Monument stands as a testimony in stone to the competing marks of distinction that elevated one to the elite in the Roman empire. Placed side-by-side with the modest funerary monument of Gaius Velius Rufus we can see two competing narratives of how one became elite in the Roman empire; or, to put it another way, how one narrated one’s elite status in the Roman empire.

For Rufus, membership of the elite was something that was achieved by rising up a hierarchical ladder, carrying out a series of services on behalf of the emperor and being appropriately awarded with tokens of distinction at each stage. Reaching the very top may not be possible in one lifetime, but an advanced status could be handed down the generations, ensuring that one’s sons and grandsons all started the journey a few rungs closer to the top. It is a route to elite status that would have been instantly recognizable to Cicero a century earlier, or Cato the Elder a century before that.

Philopappos, by contrast, is engaged in a different game. A simplistic way of understanding his claim to elite status is to think in terms of a currency exchange. As a member of a Hellenistic royal family he has a cache of one form of elite status which he sought to convert into a Roman denomination. The awe his royal blood inspired granted him immediate access to the imperial family and swift elevation to various major Roman magistracies.

But this cannot be the whole story. As his monument makes abundantly clear, Philopappos did not simply replace his Hellenistic elite status with a Roman one: his complex memorial trumpets his dual claims to elite status. By becoming consul, Philopappos does not claim to be relinquishing his kingship. He is both Hellenistic and Roman; Gaius Julius and Antiochus; ultimately, he is king and consul.

What makes this monument so striking and so memorable is precisely Philopappos’ failure to properly synthesize both halves of his elite identity. The two sides of Philopappos’ claim to elite status do not add up to a coherent whole. The monument pulls in two separate directions. Certianly one cannot take this man to be anything other than a member of the elite, just as one cannot take Gaius Velius Rufus to be anything other than a member of that same elite. But while Rufus looks comfortable and at home in his elite status, Philopappos seems anything but.

The Sapphic Princess

To my mind, it is the left-hand plinth of Philopappos’ monument that makes him look most ill at ease with his hybrid elite identity. The presence of his paternal grandfather on his right only draws attention to the absence of his maternal grandfather on his left. How can one not miss the erasure of Tiberius Claudius Balbillus, the soldier who rose through the ranks until he was suitably elite to marry the one-time heir of the kingdom of Commagene? Did the knowledge of this arriviste’s equally important place in his family tree not sit comfortably with basileus Antiochos Philopappos?

By an intriguing quirk of fate, we can compare Philopappos’ presentation of his elite status with a very close analogue – someone who felt far more at home in the same hybrid elite status. And that is Philopappos’ little sister, Julia Balbilla.

Balbilla’s gender prevented her from expressing her elite identity through the cursus honorum of magistracies that was open to her brother and other male members of her family. She nevertheless seems to have had no trouble using other channels to assert herself as a distinguished member of elite society. Her skills as a poet and lady of letters allowed her to move gracefully through the courts of Trajan and Hadrian, eventually attaching herself as a companion (a sort of lady-in-waiting) to Vibia Sabina, the wife of the emperor Hadrian.

It was while she was accompanying the emperor and his wife on a tour of Egypt that Julia Balbilla left us with a memorial of her own perspective on the elite status she shared with her royal and consular brother. Twenty years after her brother had expressed the zenith of his Roman elite status in his tenure of the consulship, Balbilla found herself nestled in the imperial entourage visiting one of Egypt’s great wonders, the Colossi of Memnon:


The Colossi of Memnon, Luxor

The association of these two obviously Pharaonic statues with Memnon was a result of a miracle performed by one of them. In 27 BC, an earthquake split the northernmost colossus, which had hitherto stood more or less undamaged for 14 centuries, down the middle of its torso. A consequence of this damage was that every morning the air trapped in this gap heated up at a much slower rate than the air surrounding the statue. The subsequent imbalance in temperatures meant that when dawn arose over the valley, the statue would emit a sound that Pausanias compared to that of the string of a lyre breaking. As such, the colossi were named after Memnon, the child of the goddess of the Dawn.

In late November of 130 AD, as Hadrian, Vibia Sabina and the rest of the court marvelled at the wonder they had witnessed, Balbilla set about composing some Greek verses in Sappho’s Aeolic dialect which were then carved onto the legs of one of the statues. She wrote four poems in total commemorating what the imperial family had witnessed, and in the second she set about describing herself:

When in the company of august Sabina

I was beside Memnon.

Son of Dawn and reverend Tithonos, Memnon,

    seated opposite Zeus’ Theban city,

or [should I call you] Amenoth, Egyptian king,

    as the priests claim, learned in the ancient stories,

greetings! And speaking out, favorably welcome her too,

    the noble wife of the emperor Hadrian.

A barbarian man cut off your tongue and ears,

    the godless Kambyses. But surely, with his wretched death,

he paid the penalty, pierced by the same point of the sword

    with which he, pitiless man, killed the divine Apis.

But I don’t think that this statue of you could ever perish,

    and I sense in my heart a soul hereafter immortal.

For my parents and my grandparents were pious,

    Balbillus the wise and Antiochus the king:

Balbillus was the father of my mother the queen,

    and King Antiochus was my father’s father.

From their race, I, too, have obtained noble blood,

    and these are my writings, Balbilla the pious.

The poem begins recounting the stories of ancient Egypt, known to us from Herodotus’ recollection of what he was told when he visited the region. Having traced these stories down to the present day (Hadrian’s visit obviously being the high point of the Valley of the Kings’ history), she turns to consider herself, and what has led to her being part of this entourage. To do this, she considers her lineage.

While her brother was content to erase his maternal ancestry from public record in his own monument, Julia Balbilla sees no contradiction in being simultaneously the scion of a Hellenistic Royal bloodline and the child of hard-grafting social-climbers.

And how does she achieve this synthesis? While her brother noted the competing and ultimately incompatible masculine virtues striving on either side of his elite identity, Balbilla seeks to identify a quality present on either side of her bifurcated family tree that can unite them both. The virtue she lands upon is εὐσέβεια, pietas: a word signifying a combination devotion and obedience, praised as much in public life as it was in the private sphere.

For all Philopappos’ command of the Attic skyline might suggest that he was properly tuned into the vast empire that the Romans had spread across the Mediterranean and beyond, it was his little sister who best had the measure of what held it together. The reason her epitaph is coherent in a way her brother’s isn’t is ultimately down to the fact that his conception of elite virtue was far more anachronistic than hers.

Philopappos’ monument stresses the fact that he embodies historical aristocratic qualities. On the one hand he boasts of a virtue that derives from his unparalleled royal birth (eugeneia); on the other, he demonstrates his aristocratic credentials through his unmatched civic deeds (euergetism).

While these virtues never lost their value under the Roman empire, and, indeed, they never stopped propelling young men into the elite, the age in which they made up the sum total of what it meant to be a member of the elite had passed. Under the empire, it was never enough simply to be a well-born performer of great deeds – elite status ultimately depended upon the patronage of the emperor. All boasts of elite status achieved through eugeneia and euergetism were fundamentally passing over an vital and necessary component of what it meant to be an elite in the Roman Empire: your elite status had not been earnt, it had been granted.

Julia Balbilla’s epigram captures this feature of elite life in the empire perfectly. She acknowledges the fact that she had inherited many noble qualities from both sides of her family, as much from her royal father as from her arriviste mother. However, what truly ennobled her ancestors and what ennobles her was not the royal blood she inherited or the afterglow of her ancestors’ great deeds. What made them true members of the imperial elite was their eusebeia, their cultivation of and devotion to and power greater than their own – the power of the Emperor.


This, then, is not just the story of one family. It is a story that could be repeated across the empire, as kings and their families struggled and succeeded in making sense of how their royalty could be maintained alongside showing the correct level of deference to the superior power of the emperor. Although few royal scions are as well represented as Philopappos and Balbilla, we have no great shortage of evidence suggesting that similar strategies were employed by other royals.

In Judaea, we see Herod Agrippa, the grandson of Herod (of New Testament fame), negotiating the continuation of his family’s elite status within Roman society by marrying his daughter Drusilla to the procurator of the province. This was Antonius Felix, whom (according to the Acts of the Apostles) Drusilla would beside as he judged the case of St Paul in Caesarea. And this was the the same Drusilla who, Pliny tells us, later left Israel only to perish alongside her son in the eruption of Vesuvius. But in contracting this marriage, the king of Judaea was not just marrying off his daughter to a man who was not himself of royal blood; he was going one step further in his attempt to preserve his family’s elite status by grafting it onto a man who’s claim to greatness lay not in birth, but in service to the imperial household. Antonius Felix was not just any procurator and he was not just low-born – he had been born and brought up as a slave.


St Paul Pleading before Felix and Drusilla, Hogarth

To see another variation on this pattern we might turn away from the east and look north towards the perilous pitfalls of the Alps. There, as Hannah Cornwell has recently shown, we can read on a magnificent arch, high up on an Alpine pass, king Cottius’ attempt to preserve his royal identity alongside his new-found subordination to the emperor Augustus. Unlike the dynastic marriages undertaken by his royal cousins in the east, Cottius did not employ overtures of marriage to try to woo the imperial administrator sent in to oversee the emperor’s new domain. Instead, he boasts of having taken the job of prefect for himself!


Cottius’ Alpine Arch

It is no great novelty to suggest that the success of the Roman empire lay in the alacrity with which it incorporated its subjects into the citizen body. Routes to citizenship were readily available to slaves through manumission, and to the freeborn through service in the auxiliary corps. A parallel but rather more complex phenomenon, though is to be seen in how Rome dealt with those who had reason to think themselves to be above it all; those whose claims to status predated the growth of the Roman empire. How were these elites persuaded that they could maintain their status while submitting to the Roman yoke?

The twists and turns that these royals had to perform to express the duality of their elite identity is as close as we can get to a glimpse into the psyche of these complicated, fascinating and hubristic characters.

Men like Philopappos must have felt conflicting emotions about sharing the consulship with men like the descendants of his father’s rescuer, the soldier of fortune Gaius Velius Rufus.

Herod Agrippa too must have entertained some doubts as he walked hi royal daughter down the aisle to be married to an ex-slave.

Cottius must have wondered whether his royal father would have accepted a salary from Rome to collect a foreign tribute from his own people.

The fact, though, that ultimately all of these great royal families chose to play the game – to do what was necessary to plug themselves into the elite network that emanated from the court of the emperor – shows just how prestigious this Italian city state had become, and helps to explain why an enterprise that should have long ago collapsed under its own contradictions would prove to be so enduring.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Teaching Homer


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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?


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.

CrossCross 2

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.


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:



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.


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.

Van Gaal

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.


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.


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…



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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


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.


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.


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!


The Unhealthy Sex Life of Marcus Tullius Cicero


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.


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


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.