Do We Need War Memorials? Cicero Honors the Dead


As a pacifist, I take a dim view of the war culture. Military holidays and war memorials celebrate death and killing. If you’re a lucky warrior, you return unmaimed but with PTSD; if you’re unlucky, you are metamorphosed into a name on a war memorial.  (Dead civilians are overlooked.)

And yet I wonder:  Why do I read war literature?  Am I a hypocrite to prefer Homer’s Iliad to the Odyssey (I think the Iliad is the better poem); to love Tolstoy’s War and Peace; think Virgil’s Aeneid is the best poem ever written; and realize that Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War may be more informative than Winston Churchill’s six-volume history of World War II, which I once read during a long illness?

Oddly, it is Cicero the orator who has compelled me to appreciate the value of the war memorial. I recently read his Fourteenth Philippic, the last of a series of fourteen orations against Antony (the Roman general who fell in love with Cleopatra). In this speech to the senate in 43 B.C., Cicero proposed that a war memorial be established to honor the generals and legions who had recently—and temporarily—defeated Antony in three battles.  Cicero and Antony were bitter enemies.

The history of this time is complicated, so the following paragraph from Michael Grant’s excellent History of Rome can be your Who’s Who for  the Philippics.

After Caesar’s murder, his right-hand man Antony, consul in 44 B.C., used a variety of methods, including the falsification of the dead man’s papers, to gain control of events; and he took steps at the same time to arouse the people against the assassins, Brutus and Cassius, who before long retreated to the east. Yet for all the growing power and popularity of Antony, who in spite of a taste for riotous living was a politician and general of considerable gifts, Cicero, true to his distaste for autocrats large and small, attacked him fiercely in a series of brilliant speeches, the Philippics.

I was very moved by Cicero’s argument that the monuments comfort the families. And so I have translated a Latin paragraph into English for you.  Cicero is an elegant writer, but his sentences are very long, and he employs figures of speech that elucidate the Latin but seem incongruous in modern English. He often uses a  a figure called hendiadys (which means “one through two”) in which he uses two words to express one  idea.   The following paragraph is actually two very long, graceful Latin sentences;  the first is seven lines, the second ten tines.  And since Latin is concise, this English translation is longer than the original. Such a great writer!  But he is not read in English, because even the best writers cannot capture the effects.

Anyway, here’s my translation  of a paragraph of Cicero’s argument.

But since, O senators, the gift of glory is bestowed on the greatest and bravest citizens by the honor of a monument, let us comfort the dead men’s relatives, to whom this is the best consolation: their parents, who have given birth to these protectors of the republic; their children, who will have examples of courage in their family; their wives, who are deprived of men so brave that it is better to honor them than mourn them; and their brothers, who will realize that, just as they are similar in body, so they are in mind. And I wish that we could wipe away all tears by our ballots and votes; or publicly give these relatives such a speech, that they would put aside their grief and mourning. I wish they could rejoice instead: though many different kinds of death fall to men, the finest has befallen theirs. Their men are neither unburied nor deserted—and to die for one’s country is is not considered pitiable— nor were they cremated in a humble tomb with their ashes scattered, but they are covered by public gifts and works and a building which will be an altar of courage to hand down to the memory of  eternity.

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