Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The Sword of Cicero

Cicero's sword was his razor-sharp mind, tongue and pen. Cicero's biography by Plutarch (John Dryden's translation, 1683) notes that "to make his orations more striking, he neglected decorum and dignity. [...] To use this sharp raillery against opponents and antagonists in judicial pleading seems allowable rhetoric. But he excited much ill feeling by his readiness to attack anyone for the sake of a jest."

Plutarch supplies numerous examples:
  • When Munatius, who had escaped conviction by his advocacy, immediately prosecuted his friend Sabinus, he said in the warmth of his resentment, “Do you suppose you were acquitted for your own meets, Munatius, and was it not that I so darkened the case, that the court could not see your guilt?”

  • When from the Rostra he had made an eulogy on Marcus Crassus, with much applause, and within a few days after again as publicly reproached him, Crassus called to him, and said, “Did not you yourself two days ago, in this same place, commend me?” “Yes,” said Cicero, “I exercised my eloquence in declaiming upon a bad subject.”

  • At another time, Crassus had said that no one of his family had ever lived beyond sixty years of age, and afterwards denied it, and asked, “What should put it into my head to say so?” “It was to gain the people’s favor,” answered Cicero; “you knew how glad they would be to hear it.”

  • When Crassus expressed admiration of the Stoic doctrine, that the good man is always rich, “Do you not mean,” said Cicero, “their doctrine that all things belong to the wise?” Crassus being generally accused of covetousness.

  • One of Crassus’s sons, who was thought so exceedingly like a man of the name of Axius as to throw some suspicion on his mother’s honor, made a successful speech in the senate. Cicero on being asked how he liked it, replied with the Greek words, Axios Crassou.

  • When Crassus was about to go into Syria, he desired to leave Cicero rather his friend than his enemy, and, therefore, one day saluting him, told him he would come and sup with him, which the other as courteously received. Within a few days after, on some of Cicero’s acquaintances interceding for Vatinius, as desirous of reconciliation and friendship, for he was then his enemy, “What,” he replied, “does Vatinius also wish to come and sup with me?”

  • When Vatinius, who had swellings in his neck, was pleading a cause, he called him the tumid orator; and having been told by someone that Vatinius was dead, on hearing presently after that he was alive, “May the rascal perish,” said he, “for his news not being true.”

  • Upon Caesar’s bringing forward a law for the division of the lands in Campania amongst the soldiers, many in the senate opposed it; amongst the rest, Lucius Gellius, one of the oldest men in the house, said it should never pass whilst he lived. “Let us postpone it,” said Cicero, “Gellius does not ask us to wait long.”

  • There was a man of the name of Octavius, suspected to be of African descent. He once said, when Cicero was pleading, that he could not hear him; “Yet there are holes,” said Cicero, “in your ears.”

  • When Metellus Nepos told him, that he had ruined more as a witness, than he had saved as an advocate, “I admit,” said Cicero, “that I have more truth than eloquence.”

  • To a young man who was suspected of having given a poisoned cake to his father, and who talked largely of the invectives he meant to deliver against Cicero, “Better these,” replied he, “than your cakes.”

  • Publius Sextius, having amongst others retained Cicero as his advocate in a certain cause, was yet desirous to say all for himself, and would not allow anybody to speak for him; when he was about to receive his acquittal from the judges, and the ballots were passing, Cicero called to him, “Make haste, Sextius, and use your time; tomorrow you will be nobody.”

  • He cited Publius Cotta to bear testimony in a certain cause, one who affected to be thought a lawyer, though ignorant and unlearned; to whom, when he had said, “I know nothing of the matter,” he answered, “You think, perhaps, we ask you about a point of law.”

  • To Metellus Nepos, who, in a dispute between them, repeated several times, “Who was your father, Cicero?” he replied, “Your mother has made the answer to such a question in your case more difficult;” Nepos’s mother having been of ill repute.

  • [Metellus Nepos'] son, also, was of a giddy, uncertain temper. At one time, he suddenly threw up his office of tribune, and sailed off into Syria to Pompey; and immediately after, with as little reason, came back again. He gave his tutor, Philagrus, a funeral with more than necessary attention, and then set up the stone figure of a crow over his tomb. “This,” said Cicero, “is really appropriate; as he did not teach you to speak, but to fly about.”

  • When Marcus Appius, in the opening of some speech in a court of justice, said that his friend had desired him to employ industry, eloquence, and fidelity in that cause, Cicero answered, “And how have you had the heart not to accede to any one of his requests?”

  • Marcus Aquinius, who had two sons-in-law in exile, received from him the name of king Adrastus.

  • Lucius Cotta, an intemperate lover of wine, was censor when Cicero stood for the consulship. Cicero, being thirsty at the election, his friends stood round about him while he was drinking. “You have reason to be afraid,” he said, “lest the censor should be angry with me for drinking water.”

  • Meeting one day Voconius with his three very ugly daughters, he quoted the verse,

    He reared a race without Apollo’s leave.

  • When Marcus Gellius, who was reputed the son of a slave, had read several letters in the senate with a very shrill, and loud voice, “Wonder not,” said Cicero, “he comes of the criers.”

  • When Faustus Sylla, the son of Sylla the dictator, who had, during his dictatorship, by public bills proscribed and condemned so many citizens, had so far wasted his estate, and got into debt, that he was forced to publish his bills of sale, Cicero told him that he liked these bills much better than those of his father.

Plutarch concludes: "By this habit [Cicero] made himself odious with many people."

Cicero lived by his sword and he died by it:

In the aftermath of the assassination of the Roman dictator Julius Caesar on 15 March 44 BC in a conspiracy led by Brutus and Cassius, Mark Antony, a close associate of Caesar, assumed control of Caesar's political and military forces. Meanwhile, Cicero, a stauch republican, was thrust into the role of leader and spokesman of the Roman Senate. Octavian, Julius Caesar's 19-year-old great nephew, adopted son, and designated heir, arrived in Rome on 6 May 44 BC and set about trying to wrest control of Ceasar's legacy from Mark Antony. Cicero saw this as an opportunity to divide the anti-republican Caesarean faction. In 44 and 43 BC, he made a series of scathing speeches denouncing Mark Antony (the so-called Philippics) and threw in his support with Octavian. Cicero quipped: "laudandum, adolescentem, ornandum, tollendum" ("the young man should be praised, honoured, and then done away with"; the last word "tollendum", meaning either "to be done away with" or "to be exalted"). It was a quip Cicero would live, and die, to regret.

Cicero's plan back-fired. Octavian and Mark Antony reconciled and, in alliance with Lepidus, formed the Second Triumvirate on 26 November 43 BC. The three men drew up a list of more than 200 people who were to be killed. Cicero's name was at the top.

Cicero, an elderly man of 63 by this time, half-heartedly fled Rome. He was caught by his assassins on 7 December 43 BC, as he was leaving his villa in the Mediterranean resort of Formiae on a litter (a covered, curtained couch carried by slaves), on his way to catch a ship to Greece. His last words are said to have been, "There is nothing proper about what you are doing, soldier, but do try to kill me properly." Cicero was Ciceronian to the very last.

Plutarch records a poignant incident that occured long after these events (Loeb Classical Library edition, 1919):
I learn that [Octavian], a long time after this, paid a visit to one of his daughter's sons; and the boy, since he had in his hands a book of Cicero's, was terrified and sought to hide it in his gown; but [Octavian] saw it, and took the book, and read a great part of it as he stood, and then gave it back to the youth, saying: "A learned man, my child, a learned man and a lover of his country."

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