Lucky City

Mary Beard

  • Cicero: A Turbulent Life by Anthony Everitt
    Murray, 346 pp, £22.50, April 2001, ISBN 0 7195 5491 8

Marcus Tullius Cicero was murdered on 7 December 43 BC: Rome’s most famous orator, off-and-on defender of Republican liberty and thundering critic of autocracy. He was finally hunted down by lackeys of Mark Antony, a member of Rome’s ruling junta and principal victim of Cicero’s dazzling swansong of invective: more than a dozen speeches called the Philippics, after Demosthenes’ almost equally nasty attacks on Philip of Macedon, three centuries earlier. The chase had degenerated into an elaborate, occasionally comic game of hide-and-seek, with Cicero torn between holing up in his villa to wait for the inevitable knock on the door and making a speedy getaway by sea. Eventually the assassins caught up with him in his litter en route for the coast, slit his throat and packed off his head and hands to Antony and his wife Fulvia, as proof that the deed had been done. When the gruesome parcel arrived, Antony ordered that the remnants be displayed in the Forum, nailed to the spot where Cicero had delivered many of his devastating tirades; but not before Fulvia had taken the head on her lap, and – so the story goes – opened the mouth, pulled out the tongue and stabbed it again and again with a pin taken from her hair.

Decapitation, and its attendant embellishments, was something of an occupational hazard for front-line political figures in Rome in the hundred years of civil war that led up to the assassination of Julius Caesar. The head of Antony’s own grandfather was said to have graced the dinner table of Gaius Marius in one of the pogroms of the early first century BC. A cousin of Cicero had his severed head (‘still alive and breathing’, in Cicero’s words) presented to the dictator Sulla. And, in an even more baroque twist, the head of the unfortunate general Marcus Crassus, whose defeat by the Parthians in 53 BC counted as one of the worst ever Roman military disasters, ended up as a bit-part in a performance of Euripides’ Bacchae at the Parthian Court (Anthony Everitt sanitises this event when he refers to Crassus’ ‘skull’). Some Romans drew an uncomfortable connection between the characteristic head-and-shoulders style of portrait bust that decorated their ancestral mansions and the eventual fate of so many of the sitters. The colossal portrait head of Pompey the Great, carried in his triumphal procession through Rome in 61 BC, would in time be taken as an omen of his death: severed on the shores of Egypt in September 49, his head was kept and ‘pickled’ (Everitt in less euphemistic mode here), to be presented to Julius Caesar when he arrived in Alexandria a few months later.

The story of Fulvia’s violence against Cicero’s severed head has implications beyond the routine sadism of Roman political life. She had been married to Cicero’s two most bitter enemies (first the irritatingly charismatic Publius Clodius, who had forced Cicero into temporary exile only to be murdered himself by one of Cicero’s henchmen; and later Antony) and she now had the chance of her own, woman’s, vengeance. In rending his tongue with her hairpin, she was attacking the very faculty that defined men’s role in the political process, and Cicero’s power in particular. At the same time, she was transforming an innocent object of female adornment into a devastating weapon.

The sheer horror of Cicero’s murder and mutilation contributed to its mythic status in later Roman literature and culture. His death was a popular subject for Roman schoolboys practising the art of speaking, as well as for celebrity orators in after-dinner performances. Learner orators were required to deliver speeches of advice to famous characters from myth and history, or to take sides in notorious crimes from the past: ‘defend Romulus against the charge of killing Remus’; ‘advise Agamemnon whether or not to sacrifice Iphigeneia’; ‘should Alexander the Great enter Babylon, despite bad omens?’ Two of the most popular exercises, repeated in countless Roman schoolrooms and at innumerable dinner parties, involved advising Cicero on the question of whether or not he should ask for Antony’s pardon in order to save his own life; and whether, if Antony offered to spare him provided that he burn all his writings, he should accept the deal. In the cultural politics of the Roman Empire these problems were nicely judged – safely pitching one of the most brilliantly unsuccessful upholders of the old Republican order against the man who, as everyone came to agree, was the unacceptable face of autocracy; and weighing the value of literature against the brute force of life-or-death power. There was lustre, too, in the fact that Roman critics almost universally believed that Cicero had died an exemplary death. Whatever accusations of self-interest, vacillation or cowardice they might level at other aspects of his life, everyone reckoned that on this occasion he behaved splendidly: sticking his bare neck out of the litter, he calmly demanded (as heroes have continued to do ever since) that the assassin make a good job of it.

Judgments on the rest of Cicero’s achievements, in politics and writing, have fluctuated wildly. Some historians have seen him as an able spokesman for traditional political values, as Rome fell deeper into civil war and, ultimately, one-man rule. Others have condemned him for meeting the revolutionary problems facing the Roman state with empty slogans (‘peace with dignity’, ‘harmony of the social orders’). In the 19th century, reflecting on Cicero’s constant shifts of allegiance (ending up as a puppet of the autocrats he claimed to abhor), Theodor Mommsen dubbed him ‘a short-sighted egotist’. Anthony Everitt’s biography casts him instead as a sensible pragmatist, praising his ‘intelligent and flexible conservatism’. For scholars of the Enlightenment, his philosophical treatises were a beacon of rationality. In an extraordinary fable told by Voltaire, a Roman embassy to the Chinese imperial Court wins the admiration of the sceptical Emperor only after they have read him a translation of Cicero’s dialogue On Divination (which carefully dissects the practice of augury, oracles and fortune-telling); while ‘Tully’s Offices’, his treatise on duty (De officiis), was the ethical handbook of many 17th-century English gentlemen. But this admiration did not survive the rise of intellectual philhellenism; and for much of the 19th and 20th centuries Cicero’s philosophy, all six modern volumes of it, was dismissed as no more than a derivative compendium of earlier Greek thought, valuable – if at all – for the hints it offered of the Greek material lost since antiquity. Even Everitt, who gives Cicero the benefit of the doubt wherever possible, can only praise him here as ‘a populariser of genius’, unoriginal, but a ‘mature’ synthesiser.

There is, however, one incident in Cicero’s career that has always attracted more debate than any other: his suppression of the so-called Catilinarian Conspiracy during his Consulship in 63 BC. For Cicero, this was his finest hour. In later life, he rarely missed an opportunity to remind the Roman people that in 63 he had single-handedly saved the state from destruction. And he attempted to immortalise his achievement in a three-volume epic poem, entitled On the Consulship. Only fragments of this survive, and it is now most famous for a line often regarded as one of the worst pieces of Latin doggerel to have made it through the Dark Ages (‘O fortunatam natam me consule Romam’ – a jingle with something of the ring of ‘Rome was born a lucky city, when I as Consul wrote this ditty’). Not surprisingly, from antiquity on, others have held different views about exactly how much gratitude the Roman people owed Cicero.

Lucius Sergius Catilina was a young aristocrat, and – like many of his peers – he was deeply in debt, as well as frustrated by failure to win election to the political offices he thought his due. Through various underground sources Cicero learned by the late summer of 63 that Catiline was plotting a revolutionary uprising that was to involve burning the city down and – the real horror for Roman conservatives – cancelling all debts. As Consul, he put this information before the Senate, which declared a state of emergency. At the beginning of November, armed with further horrifying details and fresh, so he claimed, from a failed assassination attempt, Cicero denounced Catiline in the Senate and effectively drove him out of the city to his supporters in Etruria. A legion was despatched to deal with them – Catiline died in battle early the next year; the remaining conspirators in Rome were rounded up and, after a heated discussion in the Senate, were put to death without trial under an emergency powers decree. In triumph, Cicero shouted just one famous word to the crowds waiting in the Roman Forum: ‘vixere’ (‘they have lived’ – i.e. ‘they’re dead’).

The fate of these prisoners instantly became a cause célèbre. One of the sharpest political debates of the first century BC centred (as it often has since in other political regimes) on the nature of the emergency powers decree. In what circumstances should you declare a state of emergency? What exactly does martial law, a prevention of terrorism act or – in Roman terms – a Final Decree of the Senate allow the state authorities to do? How far is it ever legitimate for a constitutional government to suspend the constitutional rights of its people? In this case, the executions flouted the fundamental right of Roman citizens to a judicial trial (as Julius Caesar himself had recognised, when – with a characteristic stroke of imagination – he had argued in the Senate for the entirely unprecedented punishment of life imprisonment). For all his tub-thumping, for all his reliance on emergency powers, Cicero’s treatment of the conspirators was bound to catch up with him; as it did four years later, when he was driven into temporary exile by Publius Clodius on the charge of having put Roman citizens to death without trial. While Cicero was languishing in northern Greece, Clodius drove the knife in even further: he knocked down Cicero’s house in Rome and replaced it with a shrine to the goddess Liberty.

Other question-marks hang over Cicero’s handling of Catiline’s conspiracy. Many modern historians, and no doubt a few sceptics at the time, have wondered exactly how much of a threat to the state Catiline posed. Cicero was a self-made politician. He had no aristocratic connections and only a precarious place in the top rank of the Roman elite, among those families who claimed a direct line back to the age of Romulus (or, in the case of the Julius Caesars, back to Aeneas and the goddess Venus herself). To secure his position he needed to make a splash during his year as Consul. An outstanding military victory against some threatening barbarian enemy would have been best: failing that (and Cicero was no soldier), he needed to ‘save the state’ in some other way. It is hard now not to suspect that the Catilinarian Conspiracy lies somewhere on the spectrum between ‘storm in a teacup’ and ‘figment of Cicero’s imagination’. Catiline himself may have been a far-sighted radical (cancellation of debts could have been just what Rome needed in 63 BC); he might equally well have been an unprincipled terrorist. We cannot now tell. But there is a fair chance that he was driven to violence by a Consul spoiling for a fight and for his own glory. The ‘conspiracy’, in other words, is a prime example of the classic dilemma: were there ‘reds’ under the bed, or was the whole thing a conservative invention?

It is not only historians who have found the story of Cicero and Catiline intriguing. For the last four hundred years at least, dramatists, novelists, poets, painters and film-makers have explored the ambiguities of the Catilinarian Conspiracy, with heroic sagas of a noble statesman saving his country from ruin matched by romantic tragedies of a misunderstood visionary brought down by the forces of reaction. Ben Jonson’s Catiline, written only a few years after the Gunpowder Plot, portrays its anti-hero in lurid colours, charging him with rape, incest and murder: in Jonson’s Underworld, Charon has to demand a whole navy to ship Catiline’s victims across the Styx. But his Cicero turns out to be a droning bore: so much so, that at the first performance a good proportion of the audience walked out during his interminable denunciation of Catiline to the Senate (Catiline’s taunt in reply – ‘insolent tongue-man’ – must have called to mind Fulvia’s horrible attack on Cicero’s speaking parts). In complete contrast, Ibsen’s Catilina, his first play, published under a pseudonym in 1850, writes Cicero out of the action entirely: he never appears on stage and is hardly mentioned by name. Instead, fresh from the revolutionary excitements of 1848, Ibsen portrays Catiline as a charismatic leader desperately challenging the corruption of the world in which he lives – only to die in the final scene, in a gory suicide pact with his noble wife. The 20th century offered yet more versions of the story, from W.G. Hardy’s whimsical tale of Catiline’s affair with Publius Clodius’ sister (in Turn Back the River, 1938), to Steven Saylor’s enigmatically homoerotic protagonist (in Catilina’s Riddle, 1993). And then there’s Francis Ford Coppola’s forthcoming Megalopolis, which, according to the advance publicity, will combine a utopian vision of a futuristic New York with the themes of the Catilinarian Conspiracy. Exactly how remains unclear.

What keeps the story of Cicero and Catiline more vivid than so many other episodes of Roman political history is the simple fact that the texts of Cicero’s denunciations still survive. Inevitably, Cicero will have edited them before he put them into circulation, tidying up the loose ends, and inserting those brilliant one-liners that might have slipped his mind on the day itself. All the same, in the speech now known as In Catilinam I (the first speech ‘Against Catiline’), we have preserved, as closely as we could ever hope, the exact words used by Cicero in the Senate, as he drove Catiline out of Rome in November 63. They have had almost as exotic an afterlife as the Conspiracy itself, particularly the opening sentence: ‘Quo usque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra?’ (‘Whither at length wilt thou abuse our patience?’, to quote from Jonson’s version of the speech, that so bored his audience in 1611). This is now probably the best known Latin quotation after ‘Arma virumque cano …’ (‘Arms and the man I sing’); and it is still widely used, parodied and adapted in ways that indicate a clear sense of its original meaning.

Its fame goes back to antiquity. The schoolboys whose exercises included advising Cicero whether or not to ask for Antony’s forgiveness would almost certainly have been made to study this classic of Roman oratory very carefully indeed; they would probably have learned it by heart. So, too, would the schoolboy elite of the West from the Renaissance until about the middle of the 20th century. Hence, again, the popularity of the slogan ‘o tempora, o mores’, which occurs a little later in the first paragraph of the same speech. More startling is the currency of the opening line even today in both Latin and modern language translations, when only a handful of students can have studied Cicero’s oratory with any care. It may have something to do with the fact that since the 18th century the first paragraphs of In Catilinam I have been regularly used as the trial text for specimens of typesetting (and now of web pages). This may have kept the words somewhere in the cultural subconscious, but it can hardly be the whole explanation for its popularity.

From Africa to America, political frustration can still conveniently be framed in Cicero’s terms – just put the name of your own enemy in place of ‘Catilina’. ‘Jusqu’à quand Kabila abuserez-vous de notre patience?’ demanded one member of the Congolese opposition of the new President earlier this year. ‘How long, José María Aznar, will you abuse our patience?’ asked an editorial in El País in August 1999, criticising the Spanish Prime Minister for his unwillingness to bring Pinochet to trial. ‘Quo usque tandem abutere CRUESP patientia nostra?’ chanted strikers in Brazilian state universities last year to their Council of Rectors (CRUESP). Outside politics, too, the phrase proves wonderfully adaptable to a range of enemies and circumstances. In a notorious recent attack, Camille Paglia substituted the name of Michel Foucault for Catiline. And in the closing days of the Second World War a disconsolate lover (Walter Prude), separated by the demands of military service from his new wife (Agnes de Mille, choreographer of Rodeo, Oklahoma! and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), wrote: ‘How long, O Hitler, will you abuse our sex life!’ The irony in all this is that the political dynamics of the slogan’s original context have been consistently subverted. Cicero may have succeeded in writing himself into the political language of the modern world. But words which started life as a threat uttered by the spokesman of the established order against the dissident are now almost universally deployed the other way round: as a challenge from the dissident to the established order. Catiline should be smiling in his grave.

The fact that so much of Cicero’s work survives – not only speeches and philosophy, but rhetorical treatises and hundreds of personal letters too – makes him an obvious subject for a biographer. And indeed, over the last two millennia there have been countless attempts to write his life-story, in whole or in part. Cicero himself tried (unsuccessfully) to commission a well-known historian to produce an account of his Consulship, exile and triumphant return. Just after Cicero’s death, Sallust wrote a still influential monograph on the Catilinarian Conspiracy – using the incident as an exemplar of the moral decline of Rome in the late Republic. More to Cicero’s taste, no doubt, would have been the biography composed about the same time by his ex-slave and secretary, Tiro, alongside a companion volume of Cicero’s jokes. Neither of these has been preserved; but they certainly lie behind the surviving second-century biography by Plutarch (which includes a long list of some very unfunny ‘jokes’). Modern authors have taken up the challenge, with a rate recently, in English alone, of about one new biography every five years; each new attempt claiming some fresh angle, some plausible reason for adding to a biographical tradition that might seem crowded enough already.

Everitt’s aim is explicitly ‘rehabilitation’, a reaction to what he sees as a consistent undervaluing of Cicero’s political acumen: not as smart as Julius Caesar, maybe, but ‘he had clear aims and very nearly realised them; he was unlucky.’ Despite some nasty howlers in the Latin (why bother to use Latin words if you, or your editors, can’t get them right?), it turns into a businesslike tale, told with a sometimes engaging enthusiasm for its subject and a good eye for the spicier detail of late Republican life. At the same time, like most modern biographies of Cicero, it is also consistently disappointing. Everitt’s conventional ‘back-to-the-ancient-sources’ approach leaves him repeatedly at the mercy of the biographical and cultural assumptions of the one surviving ancient biography; hence his blithe assertion, following Plutarch, that at his birth Cicero’s mother ‘suffered few labour pains’ – a shorthand in the ancient tradition for the birth of an extraordinary child. It also leaves him time and again trying to fill the inconvenient gaps left by the ancient evidence, or desperately overinterpreting Cicero’s own words. His letters from exile, for example, are taken to indicate that he was having a ‘mental breakdown’; and from his large number of properties, we are asked to conclude that ‘Cicero greatly enjoyed buying houses’ (as if he was constantly scanning the property pages in the local paper). The result, almost inevitably, is a patchwork of ancient texts, sewn together with a thread of common sense, guesswork and sheer fantasy.

It is a missed opportunity. What we have been waiting for is not another ‘straight’ biography of Cicero; there are more than enough of those. Much more to the point would be a biographical account that tried to explore the way his life-story has been constructed and reconstructed over the last two thousand years; how we have learned to read Cicero through Jonson, Voltaire, Ibsen and the rest; what kind of investment we still have, and why, in a thundering conservative of the first century BC and his catchy oratorical slogans. Why, in short, is Cicero still around in the 21st century? And on whose terms? Quo usque tandem?