Monday, 3 August 2015


I have been reading the letters of Marcus Tullius Cicero, the great Roman advocate and orator. In his introduction to this edition, the editor, L. P. Wilkinson, told the following delightful anecdote:-

     A student looked up "Cicero" in the Encyclopaedia Britannica and found by accident the following entry:
   "Cicero: a town in Cook County, Illinois, bounded on the north, east and south by Chicago".

     Wilkinson thought this was a splendid metaphor for the career of the Roman Cicero. On three sides he faced politicians who were really just gangsters: Catiline and Clodius at the start of his career; Mark Antony at the end (Sulla, Pompey and Caesar were hardly any better, though on a much larger scale); and on the fourth side he found snobbish aristocrats who never fully accepted him because he was a "novus homo": literally a "new man": someone from an obscure provincial background without any famous ancestors. (He was also encumbered with a silly name: "Cicero" meaning "chickpea"!)

    In view of Cicero's political vacillations, his extreme vanity, and his tendency to irritate his contemporaries by forever bragging about his achievements, he was perhaps fortunate to survive as long as he did in this world of street violence, military coups-d'etat, bloody purges and civil war. Julius Caesar pardoned his support for Pompey; but eventually his luck ran out, and in the year 43 BC, at the age of 63, he was murdered on the orders of Mark Antony. His head and hands were cut off and nailed up in the forum, the scene of his greatest triumphs. Over a hundred other prominent Roman citizens were killed at the same time, without the least semblance of judicial process. Cicero fondly believed that he had a friend in the 19-year-old Octavian, Caesar's heir, and soon to be better known as the Emperor Augustus, but Octavian made no attempt to save him.

    The Roman historian Plutarch, in his life of Cicero, tells us that his last unsuccessful attempt to flee was betrayed by a young slave called Philologus. Later, Mark Antony, feeling pangs of remorse, compensated by handing over Philologus to Cicero's sister-in-law, who then tortured him to death with hideous cruelty. Plutarch considers that by this action, "Antony did show one sign of decent feeling". It cannot be stressed too much how deeply Roman standards of ethics differed from ours!

Footnote: The town of Cicero was notorious in the late 1920s as the headquarters of Al Capone's gang. I have sought to find in this a metaphor for the career of the Roman Cicero; but without success.

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