154. Selected Political Speeches by Cicero (between 66 and 44 BC)

154. Selected Political Speeches by Cicero (between 66 and 44 BC)

Plot:  Moving beyond his defendant’s role in the murder court, these speeches show Cicero employing his oratorical talents to win political points for himself or others. My copy is again a Penguin Black Classic translated and introduced by Michael Grant (ISBN 0140442146)

The first speech is in support of Cnaeus Pompeius (Pompey) being given sole conduct of the war against King Mithridates VI of Pontus (Anatolia). While Pompeius seems to have had an outstandingly successful military career in Spain and Gaul, as well as defeating the Third Slave uprising led by Spartacus and the effective eradication of rampant piracy throughout the Mediterranean, Cicero’s outrageous flattery style is so OTT as to cast him as the Hero of the Ages:

“not so much an envoy of Rome as some visitant from Heaven itself”  (page 54)

“surely some special design of the Gods must have brought him into being for the express purpose of successfully terminating all the wars of our time”  (page 55)

The second chapter is a set of four speeches revealing a conspiracy by Catilina, a former corrupt governor of Tunisia and unsuccessful runner for Consulship on several occasions, who now decided to grab power in Rome by more direct and violent methods, plotting mass assassinations including Cicero. Cicero’s spies discovered the plot, and Cicero calls him out in public in front of the Senate.

“The darkness of night no longer avails to conceal your traitorous consultations”   page 79

Although obviously preferring that Catilina be executed as in the good old days, Cicero publicly calls on him to leave Rome immediately so that “the city will be relieved of those copious pestilential dregs of the community who are your accomplices … a rabble of elderly down-and-outs, rustic debauchees, bankrupt country bumpkins…”.   Once Catalina leaves Rome, Cicero celebrates that “Rome has  … brought up and spewed forth this pestilential object from its system”.

This action has later repercussions on Cicero, as another of his enemies –  Clodius (who has suffered defeat and embarrassment from Cicero’s successful court orations) instigates Cicero’s exile for his role in executing the Catilinian ringleaders. Recalled to Rome by Pompeius after sixteen months, Cicero first defends a young man Marcus Caelius on charges of stealing from, and plotting to poison Clodius’ sister Clodia (a supposedly sexually rampant and completely immoral beauty who numbered the poet Catullus among her admirers), and then defending Clodius’ killer Milo after their gangs came to blows on the Appian Way.

These later speeches are more interesting not so much for the oratory (still with their liberal doses of irony, sarcasm and outrageous exaggeration and flattery) as for the background events : the failure of the Republic’s Senate and Assembly to control the mob violence and murders in Rome, the formation of the First Triumvirate and the shifting allegiances of key players around those three men. Cicero continued to support Pompeius, but once Crassus is killed in battle with the Parthians. Pompeius and Caesar would not stay friends for long.

The penultimate speech in this collection occurs after the Civil War between Pompeius and Caesar, and has Cicero praising the victor Caesar for his generosity in forgiving supporters of Pompeius (including Cicero himself) but also beseeching Caesar to continue to repair the economic and social life of Rome. It also seems that Caesar also had some warning or presentiment that his life was in danger from assassins at this time (46 BC), two years before his death.

The last speech in this book is known as the First Phillipic, the first of fourteen attacks by Cicero on Marcus Antonius (Marc Antony). This first one is apparently more moderate than subsequent ones, and in remarkably restrained style for Cicero, but nevertheless sealed his fate as an enemy of Antony – obviously Marc couldn’t take even mild criticism. Cicero would be killed by agents of the Second Triumvirate (Antony, Octavian and Lepidus), his head and hands cut off, and his tongue pierced with a hairpin by Fulvia, wife of Marc Antony and the widow of Clodius.

My thoughts:   Cicero is ranked by many as the ultimate orator, so I was expecting words and thoughts touching the sublime. Instead most of his speeches, particularly the politically motivated ones, are so completely exaggerated as to be laughable. Certainly he employs humour, wit and sarcasm throughout his speeches, but he is so lavish in praise of his clients that it becomes almost farcical. Of course, reading in translation from an ancient language would undoubtedly raise some vagaries, but this is stratospheres of level above what a modern day defending counsel would ever contemplate. It will be interesting to compare the style of his other works, particularly his other famous attacks on Marc Antony, and his personal letters.

Favourite lines/passages:

Firstly something we can all appreciate

“… For there is no other occupation on earth which is so appropriate to every time and every age and every place. Reading stimulates the young and diverts the old, increases one’s satisfaction when things are going well, and they are going badly, provides refuge and solace. It is a delight in the home, can be fitted in with public life; throughout the night, on journeys, in the country. It is a companion which never lets me down.”    Page 156

And for the sheer bitchiness, Cicero’s ‘praise’ of Clodia

“I never imagined I should have to engage in quarrels with women. Much less with a woman who has always been widely regarded as having no enemies, since she so readily offers intimacy in all directions”   page 184

“ every sort of pornographic rumour fits in perfectly with that lady’s reputation”  page 208

Personal rating:   Fun to read, hard to take seriously, yet interesting for the background events and personalities involved. 6.

The read in between:  The Innocence of Father Brown by G. K. Chesterton : ingenious short stories solved by a unusually bland detective and written in almost surreal style. Not my cup of tea, but ticks off my first read of Martin Edwards’ published list The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.

Next :  The Conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar.

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2 thoughts on “154. Selected Political Speeches by Cicero (between 66 and 44 BC)

  1. Me either. The ingenuity of many of the stories (which peters out by the end of the volume) make it worth the first read. I didn’t like Chesterton’s “Man who was Thursday” at all – I’m just not into surrealism in any form.

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