Cicero and political life in the Late Roman Republic Download

JACT Teachers’ Notes
AH 2.1 Cicero and political life in Late Republican Rome
1.1 Background information
The scope of this option is relatively limited in chronological scope and its focus is
firmly on political life at Rome. The earliest part of the sources (the beginning of the
extract from Plutarch’s Life of Cicero) deals with Cicero’s praetorship in 66 B.C.; the
latest is the pro Sestio, delivered in February 56 B.C.
Useful general works include Wiedemann’s Cicero and the end of the Roman
Republic and Patterson’s Political Life in the City of Rome (both in BCP’s Classical
World series) and Beard and Crawford’s invaluable Rome in the late Republic:
problems and interpretations (2nd ed., London 1999). There are two recent
‘Companions’ to the Republic as a whole, one from Blackwell (ed. Rosenstein and
Morstein-Marx) and one from Cambridge (ed. Flower); the former contains a
narrative chapter by Jeffrey Tatum on the period covered by this option with a very
useful and more or less up-to-date set of suggestions for further reading.
1.2 Sources and resources
Cicero, Against Catiline II. 17–23, IV. 7–10, 20–22
Quintus Cicero, Commentariolum Petitionis
Cicero, Selected Letters 3, 4, 7, 8, 9, 10, 14, 15, 16
Cicero Pro Sestio 96–105; Pro Murena 21–25; VII Cicero Pro Sestio 75–79
Sallust, Catiline 7–13, 20, 36–39, 51–52
Plutarch, Life of Cicero 9–23, Caesar 13–14, Pompey 47
Suetonius The Deified Julius 10, 19–20
The option covers only a small part of Cicero’s career but getting a grip on his
biography as a whole is probably helpful. Lots of biographies are available in English;
Rawson’s (Cicero: a portrait, London 1975) is very good (though its style can feel a
little dated) and not relentlessly political; Fuhrmann’s (Cicero and the Roman
Republic Oxford 1992) is more recent; the first of Mitchell’s two volume biography
(Cicero, the ascending years, London 1979) is exhaustive.
The selections from the speeches cover a range of audiences and situations. The
second speech against Catiline is delivered to the people in the forum, the fourth to
the Senate; pro Murena and pro Sestio are both from criminal trials, delivered to a
mixed senatorial and equestrian jury in the Forum. In every case the question arises of
the extent and nature of Cicero’s rewriting before dissemination of the text, and what
dissemination might mean. There is an excellent summary of the problem in the
introduction of Powell and Paterson’s Cicero the Advocate (Oxford 2004, 52-57); it’s
probably fair to say that the current consensus is that, in most cases, alterations
between delivery and publication are minor (but there may well be a degree of
scholarly self-interest in that conclusion). A particular problem arises with the
speeches against Catiline. In a letter from 60 BC (Ad Att 2.1; not unfortunately among
the selection specified for this option) Cicero describes a collected edition of his
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consular speeches, including the four against Catiline, which he is putting together.
The letter suggests, though probably doesn’t conclusively prove, that this is the first
time that the speeches have been circulated; if so, it’s possible that they have been
rewritten to reflect the conditions of 60 rather than 63. There are no obvious
anachronisms, but Cicero’s defensiveness (particularly evident in 4.20-22) may reflect
the increasing pressure he was coming under because of the execution of the
On the speeches against Catiline more generally there is much useful material in
Dominic Berry’s Oxford World’s Classics translation (Oxford 2006), both in his
introduction and in the notes. There is also now Dyck’s Green and Yellow
(Cambridge 2008) on the four speeches. The specific extract from the second speech
is an excellent example of Cicero’s scare-mongering by creating an impression of a
vast and shadowy group of disaffected individuals who threaten the state; it can be
read in parallel with and as the converse to Cicero’s identification of a very broad
category of decent citizens in 96-105 of the pro Sestio. What may in fact have
underlain his analysis in this speech is much more difficult to identify, though it does
point to heavy levels of debt and problems arising from Sulla’s confiscations and
allotment of land to his veterans at the end of the 80s and in the early 70s. The
passage is also a neat example of how logical inconsistency need not undermine
rhetorical effectiveness: Cicero starts out by suggesting that Catiline’s supporters are a
real threat but concludes by poking fun at Catiline’s effete young men.
The first of the two extracts from the fourth speech summarises the two proposals
about the conspirators that the Senate was deciding between. Cicero’s focus on Caesar
is notable here, as well as his self-presentation as entirely even-handed in his
approach to both proposals. The second is Cicero’s defence of himself – a key passage
in support of the thesis that there was rewriting before publication in 60, though it can
also be argued that it would have been obvious in 63 that there could well be a very
hostile response to the Senate’s decision to execute the conspirators and to Cicero’s
role in carrying that decision out.
The pro Murena was delivered between the second and third speeches against
Catiline, at some point in late November. There’s an excellent translation of the whole
speeches with useful introduction and notes in Berry’s World’s Classics translation of
some of Cicero’s defence speeches. The set passage is a very specific analysis of
military activity, oratory and jurisprudence as contributions to electoral success, from
which the wider context does not really emerge; but there are close links with the
Catilinarian conspiracy, because one of Cicero’s chief arguments in support of
Murena’s acquittal is that the safety of the state requires two consuls in office on
January 1st, since, if he is convicted, the elections for his replacement will not take
place in time for this to happen.
The complex background to the pro Sestio is best explored now via Kaster’s edition in
the Clarendon Ancient History series; this has a detailed introduction and exhaustive
notes relating to his translation of the speech in the same volume.
Most of the set letters are to Atticus; a close friend, obviously, but it’s worth
considering whether Cicero is really completely unguarded with him – Atticus knew
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everyone, as Cicero remarks at the end of letter 4. Later on in SB’s selection are some
of Cicero’s letters to his brother Quintus (19, 25, 26, 31, 35, 36) and he’s arguably
much franker, as well as more detailed, in them – though it’s a matter for debate
whether this is the result of tact or trust. Letter 7 is the exception, to Pompey; its
formality and tenseness are remarkable by contrast with the others.
Most of the set letters are also included in Walsh’s new Oxford World’s Classics
translation of selected letters (I provide a concordance below). This is an excellent
extra resource; it contains a somewhat wider selection of letters and the notes are
more extensive.
Opinion is still divided on whether Quintus Cicero is the author of this work; although
there are not any irrefutable anachronisms, those who argue for its authenticity need
to provide a context and purpose for publication. There is a brief summary of the
arguments for and against in the introduction to the work in Shackleton Bailey’s Loeb
translation (which is included in the volume of letters to Quintus and Brutus) and it
also provides some further bibliography. Most commentators have assumed that,
whoever the author, the treatise does at least provide reasonable information about
late Republican electoral practice; but cf. M.C.Alexander’s paper at the 2006 APA
(abstract available at; the article
itself is due for publication in Athenaeum 2009) arguing that the work is satirical in
Curiously enough, apart from Cicero’s letters, the Commentariolum is the only text
set in its entirety for this option and one can have fun with it as an example of a trend
in late Republican intellectual life to classify and organise knowledge: the project
undertaken ‘in order to bring into a single view by rational organisation matters which
in real life seem to be split up and undefined.’ But it’s less clear that it was prescribed
for this option with such questions in mind.
It is a pity that the specification still has Handford as the translation; that has now
been superseded by Woodman’s, also in Penguin. The best introduction to Sallust as a
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writer is the chapter in Kraus and Woodman’s New Survey on the Latin Historians
(Oxford 1997) and there’s a copious introduction to Woodman’s translation. For an
introduction to problems and issues relating to ancient historiography more generally,
Marincola’s Authority and Tradition in Ancient Historiography (Cambridge 1997) is
constantly stimulating. There are useful chapters on Sallust and related matters by
Levene and by O’Gorman in the Blackwell Companion to Greek and Roman
Historiography (Oxford 2007)
Plutarch and Suetonius
The extracts are fairly short so a detailed investigation of either author may not be a
priority. Plutarch (c. A.D.50 – c.120) has a very broad interest in Roman culture along
with a specific set of question about Cicero (who is paired with Demosthenes among
his biographies); Moles’ edition of the Life of Cicero (Warminster 1987) is very
helpful for that life and the sources that Cicero might have used. On Suetonius (c.
A.D. 70-130), there is the accompanying material in Edwards’ Oxford World’s
Classics translation, and Wallace-Hadrill’s study (Suetonius: the scholar and his
Caesars, London 1983) is a good starting point for any more detailed work.
Other sources
Asconius’ commentaries are very important; now available in the Clarendon Ancient
History series, ed. R.G.Lewis. Asconius’ commentary on the pro Cornelio is
absolutely vital to any understanding of what might have been going on in 66 (which
crops up in the beginning of the set part of Plutarch’s Cicero) and in toga candida is
key to the election campaign, as well as offering a useful counter to the
Commentariolum. The other major source for the period which doesn’t feature among
the set texts is Cassius Dio; the relevant books are 36-39, which survive in complete
form; there is a translation in volume 3 of the Loeb edition. There’s much of interest
in the unset parts of Sallust and in the speeches against Catiline and for Murena and
On the Command of Gnaeus Pompeius (also available in Berry’s Political Speeches
translation) sets the scene nicely for explaining Pompey. And, of course, there are lots
and lots more letters of Cicero from the relevant period – some of which are in SB,
and others in Walsh’s new translation.
2.1 Bullet points
the nature and workings of Republican politics in the late 60s and early 50s
Many specific issues are dealt with below. Other questions are the nature of political
participation – who votes?; the extent of rural and/or urban discontent – Sallust
suggests widespread problems, largely ignored by Cicero in the set texts (his agrarian
law speeches from 63 are an interesting contrast); and the integration or otherwise of
new Italian citizens. The Senate itself was around 600 men strong, at least in theory.
(The last censorship to be completed was that in 70, which had been notoriously
severe and had expelled 64 senators, including Cicero’s colleague as consul,
Antonius, and the Lentulus Sura who was among the five executed in 63; these
expulsions were probably a contributing factor to the electoral competition and
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bribery in the 60s. Attempts to complete censuses in 65 and 64 both ended in failure,
with the censors abdicating before they had completed the task.) The majority of
senators will not have held office higher than the quaestorship and will have been of
significance only in close votes; the so-called pedarii.
the role of the Senate, elections, the cursus honorum
One obvious question here is whether the Senate is being undermined or sidelined in
this period by individuals such as Pompey and Caesar. Cicero’s letters from 59 (14,
15, 16) suggest despair about constitutional government, but his concerns are not
primarily about the Senate’s role; the collapse of consensus more generally is the
focus. Other letters show us a political world in which what happens in the Senate is
regarded as vitally important e.g. the response to the sacrilege of Clodius (9, 10). Of
course, we could argue that Cicero is deluding himself about this, but since the
sources set for this option don’t really offer a way into the empire or military affairs
that’s probably not a question one can pursue in detail. On elections, the key text is
the Commentariolum; it can be supplemented by the extract from Pro Murena, which
ranks various specialisms in public life according to their popularity with the
electorate. (What Cicero says here is probably plausible to his audience, but also
entirely suited to his case and to his own concerns with personal reputation in Nov. 63
BC; his eulogy of oratory, in particular, is clearly self-serving). Constitutional
technicalities are important in the case of the adoption of Clodius by a plebeian in
order that he can stand for the tribunate of the people.
Lintott’s The Constitution of the Roman Republic (Oxford 1999) is the obvious
reference work for this area, and is particularly useful in establishing the Senate’s
function as, primarily, an advisory body for the executive; the details of assemblies
and offices are best pursued via the OCD.
The importance of the cursus honorum comes out most clearly in the set texts in the
material covering the elections of 63 B.C., and Cicero’s pride in being elected to the
consulship at the earliest possible date is palpable. Letter 3 in SB shows the level of
detail Cicero is applying to the problem of his election a year before the polls; the
clear age criteria for office holding meant that ambitious politicians would be eyeing
up potential rivals much earlier even than that (even if in practice men missed their
year for whatever reason). Cicero had almost certainly met both Catiline and Pompey
in his late teens; all three served with Pompeius Strabo during the Social War. (As a
curiosity, too, note how close Cicero, with a birthday on January 3rd, had come to
being eligible to hold each of his offices a year earlier than in fact in he could).
the importance of rhetoric and public speaking
The importance of oratory emerges from the Commentariolum, particularly the value
of defence advocacy as a means of securing support; it’s also prominent in the pro
Murena passage. Public meetings are frequently described in the set letters. All this is
useful support for approaches which emphasise the importance of popular
participation with politics as a corrective to older views which emphasise control
through clients and rigid factionalism. Millar’s The Crowd in Rome in the late
Republic (Ann Arbor 1998) is an account of the period from a strong advocate of a
democratic element within politics and chapters 4-6 provide a detailed narrative of
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politics at Rome; Morstein-Marx’s Mass Oratory and Political Power in the Late
Roman Republic (Cambridge 2004) offers a nuanced and challenging reading of
public meetings and their consensus-building function which is strongly to be
As no complete speech by Cicero is set, it’s more difficult to explore rhetoric as a
system and its practical application; but two recent collections of essays offer a
variety of readings of different speeches, namely Powell and Paterson’s Cicero the
Advocate (Oxford 2004) and Booth’s Cicero on the Attack (Swansea 2007). We do
get the speeches of Caesar and Cato in Sallust and, more generally, the debate on the
execution of the conspirators, as it can be traced in both Sallust and Cicero, is an
excellent example of oratory making a difference to political outcomes.
factions in Rome – optimates and populares, patrons and clients
The locus classicus for optimate definition is the pro Sestio, but increasingly the
special pleading of that section, and even its plain bizarreness, is being recognised;
Kaster’s edition of the pro Sestio is invaluable here. The focus in reading pro Sestio
should surely be on what Cicero hoped to achieve with such a broad definition of the
boni, though the question of how his audience were likely to respond to his claims is
also worth asking.
The obvious example of factionalism among the material set is the ‘first triumvirate’;
it’s vital to emphasise that the title is anachronistic and, unlike the second triumvirate,
Pompey, Caesar and Crassus had no formal position or formal unity. What makes
them different from earlier collaborations is i) Pompey’s resources, so far in excess of
anyone else’s ii) the subsequent history of Pompey and Caesar and – perhaps – iii)
their lack of concealment about what they were doing and the extent to which they
were exchanging favours to secure desired ends. As the bits of Plutarch make clear,
the three come together for personal and short-term gain (though sealed through
marriages) and their capacity to control events is not unchallenged, as letters 14-16
The most consistent evidence for patronage comes from the Commentariolum and
even that doesn’t really support a model in which it’s the dominant force in explaining
political behaviour. And the secret ballot makes everything particularly exciting.
the effects of competition between individuals and groups in Roman politics
The Commentariolum underscores intense electoral competition, and pro Murena
points to one effect, bribery; but arguably the vital point about this decade is that
competition is beginning to transcend conventional and established bounds. Examples
include Pompey’s ability to affect the consular elections in the late 60s at long
distance; the increasing importance of violence, as pro Sestio demonstrates; and of
course Catiline’s decision to resort to insurrection in 63. Assessing the effects of all
this is much more difficult within the specified time frame. The Catilinarian
conspiracy can be seen as the result of intense competition for economic resources
with the losers hoping to turn things round through violence; Sulla showed it could be
done. But within politics one could easily take a Gruenesque line and say that it’s
business as usual, with each year opening with magistrates regularly elected (it’s not
until 53 and 52 that the electoral process collapses) and even Pompey and Caesar
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finding that their capacity to control events is limited (note that Bibulus is elected as
Caesar’s colleague as consul – that hardly betokens total control by Pompey and
the growing influence of military leaders (including Pompey, Caesar and Crassus)
This isn’t particularly easy to document from the set sources (though letter 7 to
Pompey is good on his power and Cicero’s civilian response to it), at least in terms of
the connection between military power and political influence, and ideally would be
grounded in some wider exploration of Pompey’s earlier career. It’s important to
distinguish between Pompey, on the one hand, and Caesar and Crassus on the other;
Pompey’s campaigns in the East had not just transformed Roman public accounts,
they had made him personally wealthy in an unparalleled fashion. He’s very much the
senior partner at this period.
the Catilinarian conspiracy and Cicero’s role
There are various different approaches here. One line is comparison of the source
material; it’s the most densely documented event of the late Republic, with the
possible exception of the outbreak of civil war in 49, and both our major sources are
very clearly slanting their material in particular ways. Obvious points here include
Sallust’s sidelining of Cicero in favour of Caesar and Cato and the question of the
date of the Catilinarians.
Another approach is to explore what was actually going on in 63; one issue is
whether Cicero had a hand in creating as well as defusing a crisis; outright scepticism
about the conspiracy’s existence can’t be sustained, but there is clearly a point at
which Cicero decides that confrontation is inevitable, and from that point on there is
an argument that he wanted Catiline clearly to appear an enemy of the state. Another
area to explore the similarity between what Catiline tried to do and e.g. Aemilius in 78
or even Sulla in 88. One could argue that Catiline is working within a post-Sullan
framework where military force was used, successfully, to take control of Rome on
more than one occasion; that is, his enterprise may not be quite as irrational as Cicero
is trying to present it.
Catherine Steel