'Cicero had a tongue like a sword'

It is the most famous speech from Roman antiquity. We write November 8, 63 BC and Consul Marcus Tullius Cicero speaks in the Senate. He addresses Senator Lucius Sergius Catiline, who is secretly preparing a coup d’état. “How much longer, Catiline, will you abuse our patience? How much longer will this rage of yours poke fun at us? How long will your boundless guts stir?”

With this speech and three subsequent speeches, Cicero saves the republic. Catiline’s conspiracy is unmasked and his army is defeated. Cicero is now at the height of his power, but fails to maintain his position in the years to come. In the civil wars that bring down the Roman Republic, he always chooses the losing side – first against Caesar, and after he was murdered against Mark Antony. Cicero hopes for the protection of his pupil Octavian – from 27 BC. Emperor Augustus – but he drops him at this crucial moment. In 43 BC. men cut off Antonius Cicero’s head. Antonius’ wife sticks needles in his tongue, in revenge for the speeches against her husband.

No other author from the Roman period has survived as much material as Cicero. It concerns speeches, philosophical texts and letters. Anyone who learns Latin will have to deal with him. This is also the case with Leanne Jansen, lecturer in the history course at Leiden University. “Most people think of Cicero as a bit of a bloated bastard, with his long sentences and his constant self-talk. I also had that as a student, but I started to appreciate him more and more during my research.”

That research concerned the repercussions of Cicero’s actions in the early Roman Empire, the first three centuries AD. Jansen wanted to know how Roman historians such as Sallust, Plutarch and Cassius Dio judged the famous statesman and author. She recently obtained her PhD for this research with the dissertation Cicero, Statesmanship and Republicanism in Roman Historiography† Her main conclusion: Roman historians felt that Cicero used his rhetorical talent too much to promote himself. This clashed with the image they had of the ideal Roman politician. that had to virtusvirtue, to have the highest priority – and not to make too much noise.

Did this trend immediately manifest itself in Sallust, who wrote about Catiline’s conspiracy shortly after Cicero’s death?

Surprisingly, Sallutius only refers to one speech by Cicero, while they were all published. He chooses to omit the rest and to focus mainly on the official role of Cicero, that of consul, the annually elected highest administrator of the republic. Cicero is not a hero in Sallust’s story, as he saw himself, but a man who knows how to use the power of his position in the right way. The pursuit of fame of politicians like Cicero is not much for Sallust; that lust for prestige was precisely disastrous for the republic. The hero in its history is Senator Cato the Younger, who was known for his integrity and loyalty to the republic.”

Did historians in the following period, under the first emperors Augustus and Tiberius, make the same judgment?

“The interesting thing is that much of Cicero is written positively at this time, even though he had opposed Julius Caesar, the ancestor of the ruling imperial family. Marcus Velleius Paterculus, for example, turns out to be a true fan of Cicero. He feels that he has been seriously wronged. In a passage about Cicero’s death, Velleius writes that he cannot contain himself, and launches a fierce diatribe against Mark Antony.

“Beautiful is also an anecdote that Plutarch tells about Emperor Augustus. He catches his nephew with a book by Cicero. The boy tries to hide the book, but Augustus reassures him: it’s fine to read Cicero.”

Yet in the later imperial period, with authors such as Plutarch and Cassius Dio, the way in which Cicero was written changes.

“That’s right. The fact that Cicero, as a great statesman, committed himself to the preservation of the republic, is also undisputed by these authors. They also think that Cicero is a brilliant rhetorician, but question the way he uses his grammar. His eloquence creates conflict, while the emphasis should be on harmony and self-control, according to these historians. They have an aversion to scheming and party formation. Every politician should know where the limits of his power lie.”

To what extent could these authors write what they wanted? It is obvious that the emperors at this time wanted to keep politicians in their place. Then you, as a historian, are not going to sing the praises of an ambitious senator.

“Plutarch and Cassius Dio were both involved in the public administration of the empire: Plutachus in the city in Greece where he lived and Cassius Dio in the Roman Senate. They felt a great responsibility for the proper functioning of the state. Politicians who caused too much animosity did not fit in this.

“Because that’s what Cicero did. He had a tongue like a sword and took great pleasure in humorously humiliating his opponents. A Roman politician could not let that pass, otherwise his honor would be done. And so his rivals reacted very strongly to Cicero’s performance.

“He was also bad at making alliances. After his year as consul, he failed to join the right party. He thought that Octavian Augustus would support him because he was his intellectual mentor, but in doing so he misjudged Octavian’s brutal power politics.

“Cicero overestimated the power of the sword of his tongue now that he no longer held the authority of any official office. Caesar still forgave him, but Mark Antony did not later. And because Octavian had made an alliance with Antony, he made him take revenge on Cicero.”

In fact, these later historians draw the same conclusion about Cicero as many schoolchildren and students: he could talk nicely, but he was a huge asshole.

“Yes, you can say that. But even though Cicero was a bitch, he did everything he could to save the republic. He did, while other politicians didn’t have that guts and looked out of the woods. Roman politicians were used to solving problems with meetings, but at the end of the republic men appeared on the scene and disputed power with weapons. In the end, Cicero couldn’t compete with that either.”

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