Cicero: Rise to Prominence

Cicero is perhaps one of the best known of the ancient Romans.  This is due to the fact that much of what he wrote during his lifetime was published abroad during the ancient world and then was meticulously copied and recopied during the Middle Ages and thus was preserved.


What brought Cicero to prominence was a law case.  The case was begun to be heard in 70 BC.  The rebellion by Spartacus had just been put down; in fact, the bodies of the 8,000 or so slaves, who had been crucified on the Appian Way as it wends its way from Capua to Rome, may still have been hanging on their crosses.


The case involved the question of whether a governor by the name of Gaius Verres had abused his office.  Cicero represented wealthy Sicilians who wanted to prosecute Gaius Verres for his depredations and thefts and who wanted compensation for their losses.  Verres had hired a number of famous orators and lawyers to defend him.


Both sides prepared for a long trial. Yet, just two weeks into the trial, Gaius Verres decided that his case was hopeless, because Cicero was doing such a fantastic job. While the court was in a break for as holiday, Verres left Rome and put himself into a voluntary exile. He did not, however, give up any of his ill-gotten gains.


Cicero, because he had done so much preparation for the trial and because he did not want to waste his work, published his opening speeches in the case and also the speeches he would have delivered had the trial continued. The full text of the case survives today, because it was a model of how to denounce an enemy. Cicero wrote an account which told in graphic detail, utilizing numerous examples, of the cruel acts of exploitation, theft, and depredation which Verres had committed. Cicero painted a picture of the greed, lust, and cruelty of Verres for women, for works of art, and for money. In fact, later in 43 BC, Mark Antony put Verres on a proscription list, because Verres would not let Antony have some of his Corinthian bronzes.


Cicero portrayed Verres as a governor who fudged the taxes of his province, who debauched young virgins, who profited from the corn supply, and who systematically stole art works from their rightful owners. In contrast, Cicero presented examples of victims who had been exploited or hurt by Verres.   Including in the recital was the story of a Roman citizen, named Publius Gavius, who was thrown into prison, tortured, and crucified, on the pretext that he was a spy for Spartacus. This was especially appalling behavior, because a citizen could not be subjected to any of these acts. Cicero brought to bear every possible weapon in his arsenal, in order to convict Verres, including jokes and puns upon the name Verres, which means either ‘hog’ or ‘snout in the trough’.


It was this case that made Cicero’s reputation.  His defeat of numerous other well-known and well-respected orators and lawyers marked him as a man with whom to be reckoned. His self-promotion through the publication of this case, not only of what was said, but would have been said, was a stroke of genius.




Some Additional Thoughts on Literacy in Anciet Rome

Over a month ago, I wrote two blogs concerning the level of literacy in Ancient Rome. While thinking recently about Cicero, I also began thinking about his letters. Hundreds of them were published at some point and circulated throughout the Roman Empire. This alone seems to say that there was some level of desire to read well written works and that there existed administration for such well written works. So, ion thinking about Cicero and his writing, I again encountered the issue of the level of literacy in Ancient Rome.


In the taverns in Pompeii, which I recently visited, there were murals upon the walls, which depict, in one case, a fight over a dice throw in a game of chance. The mural is like a comic book in that there are, in essence, bubbles above the heads of the characters portrayed with their spoken words set forth detailing the argument and how ultimately the bar owner escorts the two men arguing out of the tavern. Given the fact that taverns were where the common man, the working man, congregated after a day’s work done, these murals were intended to be read and understood by the common man.


Likewise in Ostia Antica, which again I recently had the chance to visit, there is a tavern called the Bar of the Seven Sages. On the walls, the Seven Great Sages of the ancient world are presented. Each one is labeled in Greek and each one is presented with a ‘philosophical’ quote on bodily functions. Thus, Solon of Athens apparently advises that “To shit well …” one should “…stroke[d] his belly.”  This could be viewed on one level as a typical joke by commoners against elites. But as Mary Beard put is so concisely in her brilliant work, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, “But it is more complicated than that. These slogans do not only assume a literate audience, or at least enough literates among the customers to be able to read the slogans to the non-literates. In order to devise the joke here you had to know something about the Seven Sages; if Thales of Miletus meant absolutely nothing to you, then his advice on defecation was hardly funny. In order to take a swipe against the pretentions of intellectual life, you had to know something about it.”


The life of a common person in Rome seems to have more literacy in it that maybe has been imagined before. Many people had epitaphs. These often told a fair amount about the person. I previously have commented upon the tombstone of a Roman centurion. Yet these epitaphs were also written about non-soldiers. Some were written in poetry. Poetry was a difficult form of writing because poems written in Latin had to follow a set of complex rules.


In daily life, one game which was played involved moving pieces around a board. On the board to mark the spots of the course of the game, were six words of six letters. Invida puncta iubent felice ludere doctum (The nasty dots on the dice compel even the skilled player to play by luck) read one board. Another reads: Parthi occisi britto victus ludite Romani, or “The Parthians slaughtered, the Britons conquered, play on Romans!” A third game board: Circus plenum clamor populi gaudia civium or “The circus is packed, the people shouts, the citizens are having fun”. These games boards and their slogans could only be enjoyed fully by someone who could read and appreciate them.


On the walls of Pompeii are not only electioneering graffiti, but also at least fifty quotes from Virgil’s Aeneid. In one case there is graffiti parodying Virgil’s Aeneid’s first line. The first line of the Aeneid in Latin reads ‘Arma virumque cano’ (the arms and the man I sing) which was parodied by one graffiti writer as ‘Fullones uluamque cano, non arma virumque’ (The fuller and their owl I sing, not the arms and the man). Fullers were the cloth makers and the symbol of their guild or trade was the owl. Again for one to get the joke, one had to have some knowledge of Virgil’s poem.


Admittedly, what I have presented here is all anecdotal evidence, but given the prevalence of this evidence, I think one can draw the conclusion that there had to be a fair level of literacy that was not just confined to the City of Rome itself. A fairly high level must have existed in the smaller communities such as Ostia, which might have had 60,000 inhabitants, and in Pompeii, which had something like 20,000 inhabitants.  This does not resolve the issue, but I think this raises some more questions.

Happy Birthday Rome! It’s your 2769th Birthday!

Happy birthday Rome! April 21, 2016 is the 2769th birthday of Rome.  It is also the 2nd anniversary of this blog!

The founding date of Rome is traditionally April 21, 753 BC.

Two years ago, I discussed the ‘official’ story of the founding of Rome starts with the twins, Romulus and Remus. I refer you to that blog if you want to refresh your memory as to their story.

There is another story, however, and this story was the one which Gaius Julius Caesar favored, because it placed his clan in the spotlight.

Virgil wrote The Aeneid during the reign of Augustus.  Virgil wanted to glorify Augustus, who claimed ancestry through Gaius Julius Caesar, because Gaius Julius Caesar had adopted Octavian as his son in his will. In The Aeneid, the survivors from the fallen city of Troy banded together under Aeneas, the warrior-hero who brought both his elderly father, Anchises, carrying him through the flames of the burning city on his back, and his young son, leading him by the hand.  Aeneas and his band underwent a series of adventures throughout the Mediterranean Sea.  Among these adventures was a dalliance with Queen Dido, the Queen of Carthage, Rome’s future greatest enemy. (So Rome created its greatest enemy?)  Aeneas, at every step of his voyage from Troy to Rome, makes the right choice, the pious choice.  He is the model of Roman piety and honor.  He cares for his father.  He places the family above self.  He leads his band to safety.  He resists temptation.

The Trojans, soon to be Romans, were believed to have landed southwest of Rome: probably at Laurentum or maybe at Lavinium, a place named for Lavinia, the daughter of King Latinus, whom Aeneas married.  Unfortunately, Lavinia was betrothed to a man named Turnus, who then went to war with Aeneas to win back Lavinia.  Of course, Aenenas wins the war and slays Turnus, thus securing bloth the right to Lavinia and the right to stay in the area.

Why did Gaius Julius Caesar favor this story?  First, Aeneas was descended from the Goddess Venus, thus any descendant of Aeneas was of divine origin. Second, the son of Aeneas was named Ascanius, but was also known Julius.  This son went on to found a line of kings in Alba Longa. Thus, Gaius Julius Caesar could claim to be descended from both Venus (and thus be divine) and a line of kings. Heady stuff for an ambitious man!

As I pledged two years ago, in this blog, I will continue to bring you tales of Rome, news of the latest archaeological digs, relevant scholarship about Rome, reviews of current literature, and interesting facts about early Christianity, as well as to answer questions which you the reader, might pose. I hope you will join me in Ancient Rome, the home of Casting Lots.



Cicero: Father of His Country or Something Else? Part III

Last week, we compared and contrasted the protagonist and the antagonist of the Catiline Conspiracy.   We also focused on the significance of the elections for consul of 64, 63 and 62 BC and how they fit into the story.

The story of the Catiline Conspiracy was a subject for many ancient writers, including Sallust (Gaius Sallustius Crispus) which was written within 20 years or so of the events. Sallust’s Bellum Catilinae (The War Against Catiline) is perhaps our most important source, other than Cicero’s writings, mainly his letters to his friend Atticus (Titus Pomponius Atticus) and his attempted epic poem celebrating his achievement.   This week we will examine some of these other sources to see how other writers treated the matter and how those sources were received by the public at large, and to see what further light they may shed on the figure of Cicero.

Sallust in writing his Bellum Catilinae used the figure of Catiline as a moral story. To Sallust, Catiline was what was wrong with Rome. Yet Sallust did present a balanced view of Catiline. For example, he noted Catiline’s bravery in battle and his incredible ability to withstand deprivations such as hunger, cold and lack of sleep. But having praised these characteristics of Catiline, Sallust portrays Catiline as the emblem of a Rome gone wrong from greed and lust of power. Sallust puts this in the context of Rome having eliminated all serious opposition in the Mediterranean, because Rome had destroyed and razed Carthage some 80 years before, as well as in the same year having defeated and looted Corinth. These events inflamed this greed, because now that the Romans were all-powerful, there was nothing to constrain Roman avarice and excess.

Next let’s turn to Cicero’s writings.   In his letters to Atticus, Cicero writes that at first he had friendly relations with Catiline. He mentions that he even contemplated defending Catiline in the courts in 65 BC.   Of course, his letters also outline the full story of the Catiline Conspiracy.

During the conspiracy, Cicero delivered speeches which he transcribed. The one delivered on November 8, 63BC contained what became one of the best known and most oft-quoted of Roman quotations: “Quo usque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra?” (“How long, Catiline, will you go on abusing our patience?”) This was followed by an almost equally famous line: “O tempora, o mores” which literally means “Oh the times! Oh the morals!” but could be rendered more as “What an evil time we live in!”

Cicero also tried his hand at writing an epic poem on the subject. While we do not have the entire poem, we do have some seventy lines of it. We have these lines not only because other Roman writers quoted them, but also because Cicero quoted himself in later works.   The first line of his poem clearly reveals the over-the-top and self-aggrandizing flavor of the poem: “O fortunatam natam me consule Roman” which the famed historian translated as “Rome was such a lucky state/ Born in my great consulate”. Apparently, these lines become something of an object of scorn because they were quite often parodied. That fact alone gives us some indication of how Cicero’s actions were viewed by the Roman people.

Cicero seems not to have been aware that there was unrest with his decision to deal with Catiline and his supporters. Once, Cicero made the decision in December 63 BC to execute Catiline’s supporters, relying only upon the emergency powers he been granted, Cicero trod triumphantly before the masses and announced (to what he characterized as a cheering crowd) “Vixere!” which means “They have lived!” (which is certainly a unique way to say, “They are dead!”)

We must add to this analysis that Cicero was exiled from Rome in 58 BC, after a law was passed that held that anyone who had executed Romans without a trial had to banished. This indicates that there was some level of discontent with Cicero’s decision, which with time festered into action being taken against him.   Certainly, not all was well within Rome and certainly not all in Rome viewed Cicero’s actions favorably. It should be noted that this exile took place during the time that the First Triumvirate was in control raises additional questions which must be analyzed.

We shall return to Cicero and the Catiline conspiracy in the future, because all there is simply more to learn from this event.

Cicero: Father of His Country or Something Else? Part II

Last week, we discussed the Catiline Conspiracy by recounting the story told more or less from the viewpoint of Cicero.


Before we continue our exploration of this subject, we should perhaps compare and contrast Cicero and Catiline.   This is helpful for not only is there a great contrast between these two individuals, but also because it might highlight what caused the rift between these two men.


In 63 BC, both of these men were at the top or very near the top of Roman politics. This is perhaps the only characteristic that they shared in common.


Catiline came from a distinguished older family, which traced its origins back to the founding fathers of Rome.  The forefather of Catiline was supposedly Sergestus who fled with Aeneas from Troy. Later, his great-grandfather was a hero in the war against Hannibal. While this was heroic enough, Sergestus did this with a prosthetic hand, being thereby the first man with prosthesis to be a warrior.  Catiline had been elected to a series of offices ascending the steps towards the consulship. Yet, there was also a darker side to Catiline. He was believed to have murdered his first wife and his son. Both of these crimes were done so he could have sex with a virgin priestess. Nonetheless, he had stood for election for consul in both 64 BC and 63 BC, the latter time being beaten by Cicero.


Now, campaigning for consul was a very expensive proposition. Lavish generosity in the form of gifts (we might think them bribes) was a necessity to be elected. This costly campaigning had presumably bankrupted Catiline. (This is not too dissimilar to Gaius Julius Caesar who had borrowed quite heavily to win the consulship of 60 BC and saw the consulship as the way to pay back his enormous debt which threatened him with bankruptcy.)


Cicero, by contrast, while from a wealthy family, heralded from a small town some 70 miles outside of Rome called Arpinum. None of his ancestors had apparently been elected to office in Rome. In fact, his background was used against him in the elections with rivals labeling Cicero ‘a part-time citizen’ and a mere ‘lodger’ in Rome. Cicero’s one key advantage was that he had great oratorical ability. He had built up a reputation as a highly sought after advocate in the courts in Rome. In fact, at one point Cicero even considered defending Catiline in the courts. His work in the courts had also given him a strong network of high-level relationships upon which to call.

Cicero defeated Catiline for the consulship of 63BC in the elections which took place in 64 BC. In the summer of 63 BC, two important things happened. First, it was approximately at this time that Cicero first caught wind of Catiline’s plot against Rome. Second, Cicero decided to postpone the elections for consul for 62 BC.


The significance of the latter decision was that Catiline was yet once again standing for election for consul for 62 BC. Having come in third in the last election (after Cicero and Gaius Antonius Hybrida, both of whom had become consul and thus were ineligible to stand for election for the consulship for 62 BC, Catiline may have thought that it was ‘his turn’ to be consul and may have considered himself the front runner for the position. Being consul was one way, perhaps the best way, to repay one’s debts. . (By the way, Gaius Antonius Hybrida was the uncle of Mary Antony.)


The way that Cicero instituted his decision to postpone the elections was done in a manner that was quite dramatic and potentially quite embarrassing to Catiline. Cicero showed up at the polls with an armed guard, while Cicero was wearing a military breastplate which was clearly visible under his toga.


This all leads me to wonder how much of the Catiline Conspiracy was born of a political rivalry between Cicero and Catiline. Did Cicero not want Catiline to win the next consulship because he wanted to deny Catiline the reins of power out of petty vengeance? Did Cicero think a man such as Catiline, because of his unsavory background, was unworthy to be the first man in Rome?


We will continue to explore the Catiline Conspiracy in our next blog with a deeper examination of our source materials, as well as a look at how Rome reacted to Cicero’s actions.


Cicero: Father of His Country or Something Else? Part I


Photo by  Glauco92

The portrait of Marcus Tullius Cicero that comes down through the ages is one of a man who reached the pinnacle of success in Ancient Rome and later was caught between two almost elemental forces: Pompey and Caesar. He was a man of letters and philosophy; he was a lawyer and a statesman; but he is the man who put Rome above all other considerations. Of course, most of this flattering portrait is drawn by Cicero himself. So, let us look more closely at this man, what he did, and what he said.


Cicero clearly reached the pinnacle of success in 63 BC. He was consul, which was quite an achievement for a ‘new man’, that is a man who was not from an old, established, aristocratic family which had produced consuls previously.


Opposing Cicero was Lucius Sergius Catilina, known more familiarly as Catiline. Catiline is portrayed as a disgruntled aristocrat, who was bankrupt (because he had campaigned twice unsuccessfully for the consulship).  His plotted against Rome, which plot included burning the city down, as well as assassinating all elected officials (including Cicero!) By these acts, Catiline hoped to have all debts written off and also to emerge as the leader of Rome. To carry this out, Catiline had assembled an army outside of Rome which was just waiting for his signal, when Cicero ferreted out the plot.


All of this is taking place behind the backdrop of the looming consular elections for the consulship of 62 BC, over which Cicero must preside as a final act of his consulship and wherein Catiline is yet a candidate again. It should be noted that Cicero defeated Catiline for the consulship of 63 BC.


In late summer of 63 BC, the Cicero has postponed the consular elections for the 62BC consulship. While in October 63 BC, the Senate has granted Cicero emergency powers: he is authorized “to make sure that the state should come to no harm”.


In what has to be almost one of the most dramatic moments in Roman history, Cicero confronts Catiline in the Senate on November 8, 63 BC. The Senate that day met in the Temple of Jupiter in the Roman Forum. One’s imagination can picture the scene. Several hundred Roman Senators in their togas bordered with a purple edge denoting their power and status, sit as the Senate, while Cicero, ever eloquent, denounces Catiline, outlining the plot in detail, reminding the august body of Catiline’s notorious past, and mixing in a little humility by admitting that he, Cicero, wished that he had discovered the plot sooner. Then Catiline rises and speaks in his own defense, but finds that his rebuttal is not strong enough to overcome Cicero’s oratory.


That night, Catiline leaves Rome. About a month later, Cicero again summons the Senate. This time the agenda is to determine the punishment of those supporters of Catiline in Rome, who have been captured. Surprisingly, Gaius Julius Caesar makes an impassioned plea that these conspirators should be imprisoned. This is a most unusual suggestion, because until this time the punishments in Rome, as in most of the rest of the ancient world had been fines, exile, or death. People were not held in custodial prisons, except for the time they awaited their execution. The record has two different versions of what Caesar was urging the Senate to do: 1. Life imprisonment; and 2. Custodial incarceration until such time as a proper trial could be held, once the crisis was over.


Cicero, however, decides that the emergency powers he had been granted in October of 63BC are authority enough for him to put these conspirators to death without even a trial.


Within a few weeks thereafter, Rome’s legions defeat Catiline’s army and the crisis is averted. Cicero is declared the father of the fatherland. It is surely his finest hour.


That is the story we know as the Catiline Plot; however, most of what we know comes from the pen of Cicero. In our next blog, we will examine this story and see if we can find other threads that might shine further light on this matter and on the true personality of Cicero.