This blog post is part of my ongoing “60 Books in 60 Days” encounter with the Penguin Great Ideas series–the Guardian’s book site of the week and mentioned on the Penguin blog. (Their latest post comments on the first 20.) From mid-December to mid-February, I will read one book in the series each night and post a blog entry about it the next morning. For more on this beautifully designed series, visit Penguin’s page about the books.
An Attack on an Enemy of Freedom
by Cicero (106-43 BC)
“Senators, after the deeds that I have done, death actually seems to me desirable. Two things only I pray for. One, that in dying I may leave the Roman people freeâ€”the immortal gods could grant me no greater gift. My other prayer is this: that no manâ€™s fortunes may fail to correspond with his services to our country!”
Blistering speeches against the dictatorial ambitions of Mark Antony by one of the greatest statesmen of his age.
A strong orator and writer, the senator and lawyer Roman Cicero was a fervent supporter of return to a republican government, having believed that emperors had seized too much power. These speeches against Mark Antony took place in the aftermath of civil war and the rule of Julius Caesar. Although I believe Cicero was well-respected by the people, he must surely have known that his speeches could lead to the ultimate penalty of death–and they did, as he was added to a list of enemies by Mark Antony, and eventually killed by assassins, if I’m remembering my history correctly.
What I do remember clearly is William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and there’s a strange doubling effect in “The First Philippic against Mark Antony” when Cicero mentions, for example, “I for my part was overcome by shame at returning to the city which Brutus had just left.”* (Cicero likes Brutus, by the way, seeing him as a liberator of the people.) Cicero also does a good job of doubling in this sense: Like a novelist recapping events from a first novel in the text of the second, he’s able to provide the proper context for his argument against Mark Antony–even, largely, for a modern reader.
Part of this context consists being reminded of how slowly things took place compared to today, although to a person used to such things, travel must have seemed, relatively, fast. There is much talk of “favourable winds” and “fair winds” and “no winds speedy enough.” In Cicero’s description of his various journeys–transitions, really, between his main points–we get a little bit of insight into the mechanics of daily life for a man of his position.
There’s also an odd sense of Spy versus Spy or Hatfields versus McCoys in some of the text. Cicero describes “an injustice Antony did me yesterday…why did he drag me to yesterday’s Senate meeting? Was I the only absentee? Were the numbers of those present lower than on many previous occasions?” (One gets the sense throughout the text that from Mark Antony’s point of view Cicero was a huge pain in the ass.) When Cicero sends a letter to Mark Antony to say he’s not coming, Antony declares “in your hearing, that he would come to my house with a demolition squad.” As Cicero points out, “This was a remarkably ill-tempered and immoderate way to talk.”
It certainly is, but in the entire back-and-forth, you begin to see the outlines of a long prior dispute between the two–either that, or, in Cicero, the hurt, truly, of a friend who feels as if his friendship has been abused. (“I am his friend, and, because of a service he rendered me, I have always insisted on maintaining that this is so.”) But on some level, it’s also a remarkable statement about the relative power of Cicero and Antony. Cicero sends a letter. Antony sends in the wrecking crew.** From this distance in time, it’s almost funny in the abstract, if you can think of it as a cartoon.
But the stakes soon rise exponentially. The title piece, subtitled “The Second Philippic Against Mark Antony”, is a clear threat to Antony, opening with an allusion to prior enemies of Cicero, and then, “Antony, you are modelling your actions on theirs. So what happened to them ought to frighten you; I am amazed that it does not.” Then he backtracks a bit. “But you,” he says, “I have never injured, even in words. And yet, without provocation, you have assailed me with gross insults.” There’s an element of vanity here, or of craftiness, depending on whom among the senators this speech was meant to convince. Because there’s so much that’s personal here, which becomes less petty and more understandable when Cicero says, “You did me a favor, you object. Certainly; I have always admitted the instance that you quote…However, the favour was this, was it not?–that you did not kill me at Brundisium.” He goes on to say, “Nevertheless, let us imagine that you could have killed me. That, Senators, is what a favour from gangsters amounts to. They refrain from murdering someone: then they boast that they have spared him!” (The choice of “gangsters” by the translator seems curious, but is repeated; therefore, I must believe that there were gangsters in Italy around 43 BC.)
The rest is a litany of Mark Antony’s crimes, sometimes couched in calm language and sometimes not. Sometimes, too, Cicero seems to go off on a tangent, here criticizing a trifle, compared to the rest of the list: “Really, your speech was demented, it was so full of inconsistencies.” He even taunts Antony: “At one point you tried to be witty. Heaven knows this did not suit you. And your failure is particularly blameworthy, since you could have acquired some wit from that professional actress known as your wife.” These personal insults are fascinating to me. I don’t know whether they suggest a man at his wit’s end, a man who knew his audience well, a man using the standard rhetoric of the times, or a man who simply felt he and his country had been sorely wronged. Regardless, by the end of the second philippic there’s the sense of a man with his back up against the wall, desperate to use every trick at his disposal to save himself, while still firing off salvos in defense of the Roman version of democracy.
I expected in Cicero’s speeches to find a portrait of a man increasingly embattled who believed so much in his cause–a Roman empire more fairly ruled (by the standards of the times, i.e., possibly not much worse than today)–that he was willing to put everything on the line. I did find that, but I also found something much more complex, because although Cicero’s devotion to Idea is in the text, so too is a kind of devotion to ego and pursuit of a personal irritation with Mark Antony. Regardless, this is powerful, vibrant material, at times pulse-pounding.
* My first trip to Los Angeles a couple of years ago resulted in a similar kind of “ghosting.” Everywhere we went, especially along Mulholland Drive, I kept thinking, “I know this side street. I know this diner. I know this whatever.” Suddenly it dawned on me that I had a very selective knowledge of Los Angeles from all my reading of noir crime fiction set there.
** Wrecking crew?! I knew the Romans had cement, great engineers, but it hadn’t dawned on me (at least recently) that there’s an element of the modern in their civilization.
Cicero would’ve devoured the U.S. Congress for breakfast, spit out the vice president for lunch, and had the president impeached by dinner.
Question for Readers
What one person, in the public or your private life, could so enrage your emotions as to drive you to write a scathing condemnation of them?(If from your private life, call them “Joe” or “Josephine” for the sake of politeness.)
Next up, God’s Revelations and the Book of Job…