MARCUS TULLIUS CICERO


Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) is too well known to demand much of an historical introduction. His anti-Sullan operations, his speeches against Cataline the slave unionist, his at times almost-balanced relations with Caesar, his attack on the infamous Clodius, brother of Clodia (Catullus' Lesbia, see Cicero's speech "Pro Caelio)), and the details of his multifarious political career are documented in every work on Roman history. Suffice it here to survey the ten volumes of 500 pages each which constitute the printed works of Cicero in a modern (e.g. Teubner) series.

The speeches are the best known, since they constitute in this country a part of the high-school required reading in Latin. The elaborate style was derived from models over several centuries of Greek rhetorical discipline and speechmaking, which Cicero took seriously. Thoroughly acquainted with the Ten Attic Orators and the theoreticians, he adapted their language to Latin, favoring the flowery or as it was then called, "Asiatic" style, which became a synonym for Ciceronian rhetorical style.

Tiro, a diligent slave perfected a system of Latin shorthand, which served to preserve fairly accurately Cicero's speeches. A number of medieval MSS in "Tironian annotation" survive, containing much of the master's speeches and perhaps more than we are aware of, since the specialization required for a study of this exoteric field deters all but the most laborious of scholars. The list of extant speeches is immense, the text fills several volumes. The commonly read speech against Cataline and Pro Archia Poeta represent the very tip of the iceberg; Catullans should read the Pro Caelio, while a serious historian has to peruse all the speeches carefully.

If one opens the pages of the American Congressional Report of a century ago, one will find Ciceronian periods completely dominating the verbal art. The tripartite sentence, the verb at the end jamming in the punch meaning home suddenly with delayed force, the aposiopeseis., the overstatements in sarcastic vein, the tricks and devices of rhetorical discipline are all too evident. Indeed Cicero was praised since the Renaissance as the supreme orator, his golden voice of persuasion was assumed to be the business of any congressional orator, since the schools had reinforced this view from the days when the first Latin paradigms were learned. This was the great period of English and American Rhetoric.

In the 20th c. this ground to an end. As we reminisce, the accents of Ciceronian eloquence now sound quaint, as antique as the gingerbread decoration on overdeveloped Victorian mansions. Nowadays we have moved into a new type of rhetoric, which relies on short, pungent phraseology, interspersed with long pauses for the radio or TV audience to catch up, and written mostly in the language of the people, with only so much "highfalutin' speechifying" as a politician thinks will confirm him as thoroughly American. The days of Ciceronian diction are gone, probably forever, and when we read his grand speeches, we have to disassociate ourselves from the world around us. This makes the speeches a bit foreign, tedious and finally boring, unless one can develop a taste for the niceties of an antique style which has passed into cultural oblivion.

The essays are different. Written in a more relaxed style, they employ Cicero's fine ear for diction and atmosphere, and are always enjoyable to peruse. The Tusculan Disputations are pleasant and charming, the De Senectute is reasonable and well put, the De Divinatione and De Natura Deorum have pertinent information on what the Romans knew and felt. The writings on rhetoric and the nature of the good public speaker appeals generally to specialists in Ancient Rhetoric, since these writings promulgate a doctrine for teaching rhetoric to students of all abilities, avoiding the notion that Rhetoric is the compilation of what gifted verbal artists of the past have performed, and nothing more. Just so in music, the science of Harmony is merely the codification of what the great composers have previously done, and when taken as prescription, both Rhetoric and Harmony in academic settings produce imitative exercises of no special merit.

The essays do show throughout a sense of style and a delicate feeling for amicable argumentation. They get points across smoothly, conferring a feeling of comfortableness with the subject matter. It is no wonder that Cicero's verbal style became the standard for writing in the Roman world, and continued as an academic standard of urbane elegance until Latin ceased to be written in the last century. But in the end the preference for Ciceronian style became such an academic standard, that it stifled the development of other modes of prose writing, and writing in Latin eventually suffered a serious impoverishment. Beside Cicero, Apuleius seems outlandish and tastelessly extravagant, finally his style is hardly evaluated as anything but a deviation from a norm, the Ciceronian norm.

The study of Cicero's speeches leads one directly into the political history of the years between 80 B.C. and 43 B.C., but they are also examples of legal rhetoric of a highly developed style, and provided models for speechmaking and rhetoric throughout the later Roman Empire and for the modern world since the Renaissance. It might be said that in l9th c. America fluency with the Ciceronian forms was a prerequisite to legal and political success. Perusal of pages of the Congressional Proceedings from the latter half of the l9th c. shows how deeply American politicians took their Latin schooling and how well they adapted the flowery Ciceronian style to their uses. Lincoln, to his credit, was one of the few who resisted the Ciceronian flood of words, in favor of an American purist style oriented toward thoughtful compression and dignity. The preservation of so much of Cicero's speechmaking is owing to the diligence of Cicero's adroit note-taking secretary, Tiro, who developed a rudimentary shorthand (known as Tironian annotation) of which we have many MS examples. In this century political speechmaking has tended to favor simplicity and conciseness, rendering Ciceronian floweriness less interesting to lawyers and politicos than to professional Classicists, some of whom still relish the Ciceronian style as an art form. Caesar had already set standards for a pure and simple Roman style of writing in his Commentaries, written after 52 B.C., and was considered the leader of the Attic (that it purist) style, as against the Asiatic (or florid) style developed by Cicero and others. (See the notes under "Caesar" for more about this subject.)

Cicero's position as a philosopher is weak. He seems to have read everything of importance in Greek thought, he has arranged everything in accessible and tasteful order, but there is something ordinary about his conclusions. If we see Cicero as a popularizer rather than as a thinker, we do him better justice. Lucretius gravitated intellectually toward the important, the imaginative and the arresting, while in the same generation Cicero inclined toward the pleasant, the reasonable and the commonplace.

But the Orations and Essays do not fill the ten volume set. The other third comprises a vast collections of letters, apparently put together by the faithful secretary-servant Tiro, and preserved intact though the history of the Roman world. Volume after volume the chronicle of Cicero's involvement in public life rolls forth, his relationships with everybody of note in the political and social world, the letters to and from his wife and dear daughter, his letters from important men whom we know otherwise by name only, his comments on his good son and his errant nephew, his delicate correspondence with Tiro, the complaints about thieving slaves and his good-natured forgiveness. ..... it is all there in an amazing helter-skelter of real correspondence on real occasions. Compare this with Pliny the Younger's Letters, which are carefully groomed essays derived from one-time letters, very interesting but lacking the human immediacy of the Ciceronian archive.

Ninety percent of the letters are purely political, many of these are whiny and complaining, many are openly ingratiating, much of this correspondence is valuable for the historian but boring for the literary reader. But there is so much there that even the ten percent which carries human and social interest is a large tome. The letters are written in a relaxed and informal, in a nice colloquial style, they are interesting not as specimens of the art of fine writing, but as documents from a man of wide scope (if not deep penetration), written on the spot as messages to real people. Social history and the history of the Roman family benefit greatly from Cicero's frankness. Rising even above the art of letters, are such human documents as Cicero's correspondence on his daughter Tullia's death, his relationship with his wife and his family of slaves. Wryly memorable are his account of a drinking part with a noted call-girl of the time, and his embarrassment when she became friendly with him. He felt obliged to leave, go home and write someone an account of this unusual and uncomfortable evening. Memorable is his entertaining at his home Caesar, who came for a visit with some thousand of his soldiery, to be entertained, fed and boarded at Cicero's villa (and expense), with his account of how the evening with the great general went, and in conclusion his comment as the guests left that Caesar was not the kind of guest to whom you would say :"Do drop by on the way back... "

The correspondence, ensconced in Tyrell and Purser's six volumes of infinitely commented text, is so large that one finds it hard to know by which door to enter. A careful selection of the letters which reflect personal life and values, social history, and the little things which at last we are beginning to see as constituting the warp and woof of history, can be made. From these we can draw one of the rare informal sketches of a person who lived in the Greco-Roman world, in fact this source is probably as unique as it is authentic. Some letters are so simple and direct that they can be used for first-year Latin students; others are worthy of the attention of humanists who know the nuances of the language well. In the Orations, we perceive the fine legal mind and the courtroom persuasiveness of the politician; in the essays we have access to the comments and lucubrations of an educated Roman gentleman; but in the letters we can at last perceive the personality of Cicero, the mark of a genuine Roman mind, and the feelings of a man who was in his personal correspondence at last open to his friends, and above all, open to himself.

And how different is the language of the Letters from that of the Speeches. Simple, direct, informal, untortuous in their sentence structure, here are materials in the short notes suitable for beginning Latin students, as well as personal letter-essays of great feeling which stand as monuments to a great politician's human integrity. The only problem in dealing with Cicero's correspondence is knowing where to look in such a mass of disordered material. Teachers looking for new materials for students on various levels will find Tyrell and Purser's classic edition with detailed commentary and indices a useful mine, from which fresh and interesting materials can be drawn. It seems entirely too rigid for the taste of these times to adhere inflexibility to the traditional readings from Cicero, which are based on many speeches and a bit of the essays, while the mass of the humanly interesting letters is left unopened. In this day of computer editing the costs of getting out new materials in Latin is so small, as compared to the investment involved in printed editions, that there seems no excuse for clinging to the well-worn traditional path of Latin readings.

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William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris