Why Cicero Isn’t My Type–and Yet I Love Him

“Cicero and Clodia,” by suburbanbeatnik

Cicero isn’t my type, and yet I love him.

It’s the literary side that appeals to me.  If  he can say something elegantly three times ( a triad), he does it. That’s classical literature, but not everyone can pull it off.

Cicero was the most eloquent orator and politician in ancient Rome (first century B.C.). He was also a savvy lawyer who defended some dicey characters in court, and vilified others who may have been guiltless.  In my favorite speech, Pro Caelio (For Caelius),  Cicero defended his protegé, Caelius,  who had gotten into a hell of trouble, and was prosecuted in 56 B.C.  for vis (political violence) and involvement in the murder of an  Alexandrian embassy opposing the restoration of Ptolemy XII to the throne in Egypt.

To defend Caelius, Cicero had to employ all his dexterity.  Whenever possible, he deflected attention from Caelius to others.   The fact that Caelius had been a  friend of Catiline, a radical who had conspired  against the Roman government, and against whom Cicero had delivered four orations, was natural, Cicero says:  all the upper-class young men were drawn to talented, charming  Catiline, before they knew his true character. (N.B. You can read more about Catiline in my post on Francis Galassi’s book, Catiline, The Monster of Rome).

But then Cicero goes rogue and gets vindictive. He claims the charges were concocted by Clodia Metelli, a rich, powerful, older woman who used to be Caelius’s girlfriend.  He says she wanted revenge.

I know, I know: I could never agree with sexist Cicero politically. Though I was not quite the Clodia Metelli of the Midwest, there is a triad of reasons we would have been on opposite sides: (1) I was a radical feminist— who as  a bored, bewildered teenage Lolita living with a lesbian Humbert Humbert, a  teacher who’d seduced me, finally found solace in classics and reading Cicero.   (2)  As a feminist in grad school, I was Volunteer Coordinator for IPCAL (Indiana Pro-Choice Action League), a job I doubt Cicero would have approved, because it took me away from classics.  (3)  I’ve written numerous controversial articles about feminism, which, again, take me away from Cicero.  And I’ve always defended Clodia.

I’m thinking about Cicero, because I’m rereading Pro Caelio.  I am also reading Marilyn K. Skinner’s brilliant book, Clodia Metelli, The Tribune’s Sister.  Skinner writes an entire chapter on Cicero.  She says,

Though he had, as far as we know, not much face-to-face contact with Clodia Metelli, Cicero will be the man mentioned most often in this biography, because he is our only contemporary source about her….  While his allegations about Clodia in Pro Caelio and other speeches were once accepted as factual, we will see that they cannot be taken literally.  As a defense speaker, Cicero’s obligation was to persuade, not to report truthfully.  His practice of reading a sinister purpose into observable public behavior does allow us, however, to reconstruct the conduct that gave rise to such claims.

I should mention that some classicists believe Clodia was the model for Lesbia,  the bitchy girlfriend in Catullus’ poems.  I do not.

I am utterly absorbed right now in Cicero’s world.

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