O tempora, o mores!


There has been quite a bit of kerfuffle in the past week about Senator Ted Cruz’s recent speech against President Obama that was more or less lifted directly from the first of Cicero’s speeches against Cataline (with changes marked in red, the full transcript of the doctored text can be found here):

‘When, O Catiline President Obama, do you mean to cease abusing our patience? How long is that madness of yours still to mock us? When is there to be an end of that unbridled audacity of yours, swaggering about as it does now? Do not the nightly guards placed on the Palatine Hill border — do not the watches posted throughout the city — does not the alarm of the people, and the union of all good men and women — does not the precaution taken of assembling the senate in this most defensible place — do not the looks and countenances of this venerable body here present, have any effect upon you?’

Delivered to the Senate in 63 BC, this speech focused on revealing the plotting of Lucius Sergius Catilina, a nobleman and senator, to kill Cicero, a number of other senators, and seize power for himself.

Of course, as any Classicist can tell you, the point of Cicero’s speech was to expose the plot of Cataline, and thus Cruz’s use of it places himself in the role of the noble statesman (Cicero, who was consul at the time), and Obama as the treasonous, illegitimate and self-appointed destroyer of the Republic (Cataline). This comparison to the current US president is not exactly a valid one – part of what got Cataline’s toga in a twist was losing what he perceived as his birthright, the office of consul, to Cicero – a novus homo, the previous year. Cataline’s subsequent attempts to get elected were so corrupt Cicero enacted a law to prevent his actions of bribery and forceful persuasion. If we truly want to draw a modern political parallel, G.W. Bush circa the second week of November 2000 would be more apropos than a sitting president in his second term. Regardless, as others have already pointed out, Cruz’s use of this speech is a misappropriation of its true intent at best, and dangerous, threatening rhetoric at worst. Indeed, his likening of a president to a man planning revolution such as Cataline seems far more treasonous an act, regardless of politics.

I have never held a great fondness for Cicero, despite recent work on his letters, but I do find his use in a modern political setting fascinating, in as much for his own presence as for the profound influence the Roman Republic has had on modern democracy. Most people will trace the American democracy to Athens, who obviously invented the concept of government by and for the people. However, I have always thought, regardless of the original intention of our much revered (and often greatly mis-understood) founding fathers, that the true design of the government is an oligarchy, and one that Cicero would have adored. Apparently I’m not alone in this conclusion. Cicero was, after all, a member of the optimates, a group of men including Sulla, Cato, and others, who were determined to not only safeguard but increase the power of the Senate and the aristocracy, limiting the power of the people’s assemblies, the tribune of the plebs, and restricting access to land, the grain dole, citizenship and debt relief. The opposite group, the populares, (think, at their earliest, the Gracchi brothers) were locked in a political struggle throughout the end of the Republic with the likes of Marius, Pompey, and Caesar fighting on behalf of the people. The assassination of Caesar by other members of the Senate (i.e. the optimates), of course, leads to civil wars, the rise of Octavian, and the eventual creation of the Empire, which was a monarchy in all but name. So I guess if Senator Cruz and his ilk have their way, at least we have a coronation to look forward to.





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