I am taking a break from the eloquence of Cicero to read Pliny’s relatively undramatic letters. Cicero’s court cases are almost too exciting. I am impressed and yet terrified by his bold prosecution of Verres, a gangster-governor of Sicily who stole both public and private art and bribed the jury of the court in Rome. I’d never had the slightest interest in Verres before.
Yet there’s something to be said for simplicity. Pliny (61 A.D.- 113 A.D.) favors a plain, minimalist style. This wealthy Roman lawyer and successful politician was best-known as a writer of polished letters composed for publication.
Among Pliny’s most famous letters are a brilliant account of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D.;a trio of ghost stories ; a charming story of a boy who swam with a dolphin; and a letter asking the emperor Trajan for advice on how to deal with Christians while Pliny was governor in Bithynia.
But I’ve especially enjoyed a witty poem by Martial quoted in a letter written on the occasion of the poet’s death. Pliny writes that he has a whole volume of poems Martial wrote for him. (He was one of Martial’s patrons.)
Below is my prose translation of Martial’s playful Latin poem. Here, he advises the Muse not to knock on Pliny’s “clever” or “eloquent door” while drunk (literally in an “inebriated time”). I would love to preservethe fun of Martial’s“transferred epithets,” i.e., adjectives transferred from persons to inanimate objects, but it doesn’t quite work in English. Instead of changing the “eloquent door”to “eloquent Pliny,” I prefer a magical talking door. When you’re drunk, mightn’t you hear a talking door? But it is too wordy in English.
Here is Martial’s advice to the Muse.
Don’t knock while sloshed at Pliny’s door.He devotes whole days to harsh Minerva, while he prepares a case for the ears of 100 men (the centumviral court where wills and property cases are heard). Posterity and the ages will compare this to the writings of Cicero. But it’s better to visit when the evening lanterns are lit:this is your hour, when Bacchus (god of wine) maddens, when the rose rules, when the hair drips with unguents.Then let even the severe Catos* read me.
Ancient Rome was violent and decadent.If you’ve binge-watched the TV series Rome or perused Mary Beard’s best-selling history SPQR, you know that Rome seethed with wars, civil wars, conspiracies, gang warfare, assassinations, exile, poisonings, insanity, promiscuity, lead poisoning, and capricious emperors.
War veterans in ancient Rome obviously suffered PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), but the psychological cost of exile is also treated in Roman history and literature.In Virgil’s Aeneid, the traumatized hero-warrior Aeneas survives the fall of Troy but then must reluctantly lead the survivors into exile—because the gods force him to.
And Ovid, the frivolous, brilliant poet, was capriciously exiled by the emperor Augustus in 8 A.D. for carmen et error (a poem and an error).In letters written in the form of poetry, Tristia (Sad Things) and Epistulae ex Ponto (Letters from the Black Sea), the urbane Ovid begs his friends to intercede on his behalf, because he does not thrive among barbarians in Tomis on the cold shores of the Black Sea. But he died in exile in 17 A.D.
And then there’s Cicero, the most eloquent lawyer and orator in Rome, who was elected consul (the highest office) in 63 B.C. He boasted of his achievements, especially of having crushed the revolutionary conspiracies of Catiline.But in 58 B.C., he went into exile in Greece, mainly because of the political machinations of his enemy Clodius (which also benefited Julius Caesar).
Cicero’s letters home are pathetic.He wonders:has the government stripped his wife Terentia of their land and property?Are the children all right?
O desperate me! O ruined me! What now?Should I ask you to come here,a sick woman, exhausted in body and mind?Should I not ask?Should I be without you?I think I should deal with it thus:if there is hope of my return, let me know and help manage the affair; but if, as I fear, it has not been settled, come to me any way you can.And know this:if I have you, I will not seem entirely lost.But what will become of Tulliola [their married daughter]? You must see to it:I have no counsel for you.But however the matter turns out, my unhappy little one’s reputation and marriage must be saved.What else? What should my son Cicero [age 6] do?May he always be in my embrace and protection.I cannot write more now.My sorrow prevents it.
Near the end of the letter, he courageously writes,
We have lived; we have flourished.Not our vice but our virtue has ruined us.There is no sin, unless it is that I did not lose my life along with honors.
Cicero returned from exile to his beloved, deadly dangerous Rome in 57 B.C. He continued to write and deal with other powerful men until he was put to death in 43 B.C.
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.
Clodia Metelli is probably the most famous Roman villainess of the mid-first century B.C. Think of her as a cross between Cruella De Vil and Lucrezia Borgia. Like the bitches and witches of ancient poetry, Clodia had a reputation as a seductress, schemer, and murderer. No one had anything good to say about her. Cicero called her “the Medea of the Palatine.”
Yet I have always liked Clodia. We know very little about Clodia. What we know comes from ancient rumors, gossip, poetry, second-hand history, and professors’ hypotheses. The only primary source of her biography is Cicero’s character assassination of Clodia in his speech Pro Caelio, a defense of his former student Caelius, who was accused of vis (political violence) and involvement in a political murder.
Cicero does not address the charges against Caelius. Instead, he lavishes almost the entire speech on vilifying Clodia, who he claimed trumped up the charges as a revenge on her former lover. The speech is an invective–and this is an actual literary form in ancient Rome. But the charge against Caelius was grave–participating in the murder of an Alexandrian embassy that opposed the restoration of Ptolemy XII to the Egyptian throne–and does not quite seem like a lover’s revenge.
The ancient world was well-known for its sexism. Men held the political reins in the Roman republic, just as they do in our sagging chariot of a quasi-republic. The good women in Livy’s history tend to commit suicide to protect their virtue; the most powerful in ancient history are the sexy villainesses. There was Cleopatra, the seductive queen who brought the Roman Republic down, if you look at it from a certain angle, and who was also the model for Dido in Virgil’s Aeneid; there’s Livia, the emperor Augustus’s wife, a political strategist and reputed poisoner who, as a seductive young woman, so fascinated Augustus that he ordered her then-husband to divorce her so he could marry her.
I have read Cicero’s witty, polished oration Pro Caelio thrice, and admire Cicero’s elegant periodic sentences more each time. He embellishes his labyrinthine prose with with poetic figures of speech, alliteration, assonance, consonance, anaphora, hendiadys, asyndeton, chiasmus, the works. In Latin you read Cicero for the style as well as the content.
But during my recent rereading of the Latin, I found Cicero’s misogyny so brutal that I had to take frequent breaks. Perhaps it is painful because character assassination is such an integral part of our culture these days. Cicero does not need to prove his accusations against Clodia, he just has to put them out there.
All his accusations stem from sexuality. The speech is a nightmare of locker-room talk made public. He accuses Clodia of incest with her brother Clodius Pulcher and of poisoning her husband (the latter is a stock sexual joke in Roman comedy). Cicero plays with the sexual double standard: he says it was acceptable for Caelius, “barely out of adolescence” (he was actually 26 at the time of the trial), to play with a licentious life-style, but that Clodia, 36, was a perverted older woman who lured young men into her garden. According to R. G. Austin, the editor of the Oxford commentary on Pro Caelio, Caelius and Clodia had an affair for two years. And he says Cicero’s speech finished Clodia: that she is heard of no more afterwards.
I can well believe that, though Cicero provides no proof. What have sexual relationships with Caelius and other men have to do with a charge of vis? Fama volat (Rumor flies), as Virgil writes some years later.
Here’s what Cicero’s got against Clodia. He writes,
“Accusers discuss your orgies, affairs, adulteries, trips to Baiae (a resort), beach picnics, banquets, Bacchanalian revels, musical entertainments and band concerts, and boating parties.”
(I wonder: why would a woman with such a varied social and sexual life remain fixated on an ex-boyfriend who is in a lot of political trouble?)
After accusing Clodia of incest with her brother Clodius Pulcher, Cicero impersonates Clodius and pretends to chide her about Caelius, who, by the way, moved into her allegedly degenerate neighborhood after leaving home. Cicero glosses over that. Cicero has Clodius say,
“Why have you begun to make a great scene about such a small thing? You caught sight of a young man in the neighborhood. His beauty and height, his face and eyes struck you. You wanted to see him more often; you were often in the same park; you, a noble woman, wished to bind fast that son of a niggardly and tenacious father with your money. You could not. He kicked, spat, drove you away, and did not think your gifts were worth much. Confer yourself on another. You have gardens on the Tiber at that place where all the youth come prepared for swimming. Here you may choose new matches every day. Why do you care about this man who spurns you?”
I am humiliated just reading it. What must Clodia have felt?
There is conflict of interest here, not an issue they considered in ancient times. Caelius is an enemy of the man who prosecuted the case, and both Caelius and Cicero were enemies of Clodia’s brother, Clodius Pulcher.
By the way, some classicists (not so many nowadays) believe Clodia is the model for Lesbia, the charming but promiscuous girlfriend in Catullus’s poems. I do not, but I’ll write about that another time.
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.
If you studied Cicero in the early-to-mid-20th century, you undoubtedly read Cicero’s First Oration against Catiline. In the last quarter of the century, when I studied Cicero, professors assigned more “relevant” orations to entice us, and still later, I taught Pro Archia, Cicero’s brilliant defense of the liberal arts (which I wrote about at Mirabile Dictu).
You’ve got to love Cicero, even if you hate Cicero. Yes, he was pompous, pushy, and ambitious, but he was such a damned good writer. And in his four Orations against Catiline (which I enjoyed), his vilification of Catiline seems over-the-top. (Cicero could have done a dark Dostoevskian character sketch if he’d been a novelist.) Cicero claims that Catiline is a murderer, an assassin, a conspirator against Rome, a former governor of Africa who ripped off the people, and, as if that weren’t enough, says he raped a Vestal Virgin (who was Cicero’s wife’s sister).
But if you want to know both sides of the story, you’ve got to read Francis Gallassi’s Catiline, The Monster of Rome: An Ancient Case of Political Assassination. In this short nonfiction page-turner, Galassi writes an impassioned defense of Catiline, and accuses Cicero of character assassination. After all, Catiline and Cicero were political rivals: they both ran for consul for the year 63 B.C. Cicero won.
I was glued to this book, which reads like an entertaining if slightly unpolished historical novel. What will happen next? I kept wondering. And though Galassi is not the only historian to question Cicero’s case, he has devoted this clear, coherent book to Catiline’s defense. He depicts Catiline as an impoverished aristocrat, a soldier, and an aspiring liberal politician who wanted to reform the government and favored popular causes like agrarian reform.. And he was a threat to the conservative optimates (aristocrats) and senators, among whom Cicero was an up-and-coming New Man. After the senate blocked an election which might have passed some of Catiline’s reforms, Catiline and other prominent men, including Caesar, conspired to take over the government.
Was Catiline a hero? Well, I don’t know. Rome was a bloodbath back then. So I didn’t entirely buy Galassi’s argument, but I found it fascinating.
And it really makes me want to reread Cicero’s orations against Catiline.
And can anyone forget the first line of the First Oration, “How long, Catiline, will you abuse our patience?” (In Latin it is: Quo usque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra?)
So many people abuse my patience. In fact, I think I’m going to be saying this a lot now.