Cicero /
Philippic 2.44–50, 78–92, 100–119

Edited by Ingo Gildenhard

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Philippics 2.113 essay

The previous paragraph ended on the dictum that only a life in harmony with the wider civic community guarantees personal safety. Cicero now explores what this general truth implies for the occasion at hand. A range of political agents (both individual and collective) and entities (populus Romanus, gubernatores rei publicae, res publica, adulescentes nobilissimi) are ready to take a stand against Antony if he persists in behaving like an enemy of the state. Cicero’s tone — set up by another instance of mihi crede — remains aggressively didactic. But the paragraph ends on another gnomic pronouncement. Cicero differentiates between (desirable) pax and (intolerable) servitus and asserts that libertas, without which there cannot be any genuine pax, is a value to die for. His discourse here rises above the level of invective and turns into a personal manifesto about the principles of communal life. His guiding ideas, which will resonate throughout his peroration, are worth a more detailed look, in particular his notion of ‘freedom’ (libertas), which has a complex historical pedigree. Cicero combines at least four different ways of thinking with and about the term:80 

(1) Legal: ancient Rome (just like ancient Greece and other cultures across the ancient Mediterranean) was a slave society, and the institution of slavery shaped every aspect of Greco-Roman life (including literature).81 

The most basic meaning of libertas thus concerns the legal distinction between free persons and slaves (with ‘freed(wo)men’, i.e. individuals who had once been enslaved but gained manumission, an intermediary category). As the Digest of Justinian puts it: ‘all humans are either free or slaves’ (1.5.3: omnes homines aut liberi sunt aut servi). This fundamental social divide ultimately informs all the other meanings of libertas. The foundational importance of the distinction between free / slave for the cultural imaginary of ancient Rome invited metaphorical exploitation, even when legal status was not literally at issue. Invoking libertas implied that those deprived of it were reduced to the lowest form of existence, that of slaves. (Modern definitions often work with the idea that slavery is tantamount to ‘social death’.) 

(2) Political: in the civic sphere, two distinct understandings of libertas — one associated with the ruling elite, the other with the people — shaped the practice of politics in republican Rome: 

  • (i)  for members of Rome’s ruling elite libertas consisted primarily in the absence of a tyrant or, put differently, the preservation of oligarchic equality that ensured more or less equal opportunities to vie for offices and military commands in the pursuit of power and glory.
  • (ii)  for the citizen body more generally, libertas manifested itself primarily in a set of rights and privileges that found expression in the notion of popular sovereignty (not least in passing legislation), the exercise of suffragium (voting), the magistracy of the tribune of the plebs (tasked originally and primarily with protecting the common citizen from abuse by magistrates), and the right to provocatio (i.e. the right of each citizen to appeal to the people against a magistrate who threatened to enforce capital or physical punishment).

With Caesar’s rise to the dictatorship and his subsequent assassination, both of these traditions fused in interesting ways: they found emblematic articulation in both Caesar’s self-promotion and that of his assassination. 

To start with Caesar: his decision to go to war, he argued, was in part designed to protect libertas, in both the elite and the popular understanding of the term. He pulls off this conceptual caper at Bellum Civile 1.22, which features himself in conversation with one of his senatorial adversaries, Lentulus Spinther: 

Cuius orationem Caesar interpellat: se non maleficii causa ex prouincia egressum, sed uti se a contumeliis inimicorum defenderet, ut tribunos plebis in ea re ex civitate expulsos in suam dignitatem restitueret, ut se et populum Romanum factione paucorum oppressum in libertatem uindicaret. 

[Caesar interrupts his speech, observing that he had not crossed the boundary of his province with any evil intent, but to defend himself from the insults of his enemies, to restore to their position the tribunes of the people who had been expelled from the civic community in the course of this affair, and to assert the freedom of himself and the Roman people who were oppressed by an oligarchic clique.] 

Caesar contends that the senatorial grouping around Pompey formed an oligarchic clique that abused their power so as to deprive himself and the Roman people of their libertas. In his case, the lack of freedom consisted in the refusal of Pompey and his followers to recognize his achievements according to meritocratic criteria: Pompey, so Caesar insinuates in Bellum Civile 1.3, comported himself like a tyrant who would not tolerate a rival, thus violating the principles of oligarchic equality, equal opportunity, and the economy of merit that made up the ‘optimate’ understanding of freedom in politics. (Elsewhere, he prefers to make this point with reference to his dignitas — a notion indicating (earned) rank and standing within the ruling elite, which he here uses with reference to the constitutional status of the tribunes of the people.)82 The ‘popular’ loss of liberty (and notional enslavement of the people) manifested itself above all in the flight of some of the tribunes of the plebs (one of them Antony) from Rome to Caesar’s camp because they feared for their safety after interceding in senatorial proceedings on Caesar’s behalf: this ‘expulsion’ of magistrates charged with upholding the rights of the common citizen served Caesar as a perfect pretext to pursue his personal agenda by violent means: he could claim to be protecting the rights, privileges, and sovereignty of the Roman people.83 Caesar continued to style himself as a proponent of liberty even after gaining autocratic power. Following the Battle of Munda in 45 BCE, the senate honoured him with the title Liberator for having freed Rome from the evil of civil war.84 

Caesar’s assassins, of course, tried to pull off exactly the same conceptual move as the dictator: they w(h)etted their daggers to restore libertas both for themselves and the commonwealth at large, with freedom from tyranny benefitting both the ruling elite (senatus) and the people (populus Romanus). By choosing the label liberatores for the assassins, Cicero might even have been inspired by Caesar’s — from his point of view perverse — cooption of the title Liberator and the ideology of libertas as ideological veneer for his tyrannical regime. It also enabled him to maintain that the assassins freed Rome from Caesar (and are therefore deserving of the highest praise) without, however, restoring libertas to the res publica since Caesar’s underlings, in particular Antony, remain in charge.85 

(3) Philosophical: after Caesar all but eliminated political libertas (as understood by Cicero), Cicero began to invest in a philosophical notion of freedom, which, in its purest form, does not require a political (or any other) context for its realization: it rests entirely in an internal disposition of virtuous self-sufficiency, embodied by the Stoic sage. Cicero elaborates the idea in his fifth Paradoxon Stoicorum, which maintains Solum sapientem esse liberum, et omnem stultum servum (‘That only the wise man is free, and that every foolish man is a slave’). The fools include all those who are beholden to desires — whether for wealth, political office, or military commands. In his treatise On Duties (de Officiis), composed at the same time as the Philippics, Cicero builds on this Stoic notion of libertas, to develop an understanding of freedom tailor-made for the political struggles of the day. This sense of liberty continues to denote primarily an individual’s ‘freedom from (enslaving) passions’, in particular the desire for glory (Off. 1.68):86 

cavenda etiam est gloriae cupiditas, ut supra dixi; eripit enim libertatem, pro qua magnanimis viris omnis debet esse contentio. nec vero imperia expetenda ac potius aut non accipienda interdum aut deponenda non numquam. 

[As I said before, we must also beware of desire for glory; for it robs us of liberty, and in defence of liberty a high-spirited man should stake everything. And one ought not to seek military commands; rather they ought sometimes to be declined, sometimes to be resigned.] 

In this passage, Cicero turns the individual who desires gloria and imperia (read: a potential tyrant) into a slave of his passions, while at the same time elevating libertas (both philosophical and, importantly, as we shall see, political) into a priceless good for those ‘high of spirit’. For in this treatise, Cicero imbricates philosophical reflection about the self and its disposition with politics broadly conceived as part of a larger effort to come to terms with the paradox that the same desire for glory and military commands that animated Rome’s rise to imperial greatness also caused the downfall of the libera res publica. To combat the threat of tyranny (a regime that annihilates libertas) Cicero here hammers out a civic ethics in which each individual citizen is co-responsible for protecting the community and the commonwealth from enslavement. The contemporary thrust of his philosophical reflections resonates throughout the work, as in Off. 2.23–24 — a passage worth quoting in full not least since it also offers a philosophical take on the discussion of security in the previous paragraph: 

Omnium autem rerum nec aptius est quicquam ad opes tuendas ac tenendas quam diligi nec alienius quam timeri. praeclare enim Ennius ‘Quem metuunt oderunt; quem quisque odit, perisse expetit’. multorum autem odiis nullas opes posse obsistere, si antea fuit ignotum, nuper est cognitum. nec vero huius tyranni solum, quem armis oppressa pertulit civitas ac paret cum maxime mortuo interitus declarat, quantum odium hominum valeat ad pestem, sed reliquorum similes exitus tyrannorum, quorum haud fere quisquam talem interitum effugit. malus enim est custos diuturnitatis metus contraque benivolentia fidelis vel ad perpetuitatem. (24) sed iis, qui vi oppressos imperio coercent, sit sane adhibenda saevitia, ut eris in famulos, si aliter teneri non possunt; qui vero in libera civitate ita se instruunt, ut metuantur, iis nihil potest esse dementius. quamvis enim sint demersae leges alicuius opibus, quamvis timefacta libertas, emergunt tamen haec aliquando aut iudiciis tacitis aut occultis de honore suffragiis. acriores autem morsus sunt intermissae libertatis quam retentae. quod igitur latissime patet neque ad incolumitatem solum, sed etiam ad opes et potentiam valet plurimum, id amplectamur, ut metus absit, caritas retineatur. ita facillime quae volemus et privatis in rebus et in re publica consequemur. etenim qui se metui volent, a quibus metuentur, eosdem metuant ipsi necesse est. 

[But, of all motives, none is better adapted to secure influence and hold it fast than love; nothing is more foreign to that end than fear. For Ennius says admirably: ‘Whom they fear they hate. And whom one hates, one hopes to see him dead.’ And we recently discovered, if it was not known before, that no amount of power can withstand the hatred of the many. The death of this tyrant, whose yoke the state endured under the constraint of armed force and whom it still obeys more humbly than ever, though he is dead, illustrates the deadly effects of popular hatred; and the same lesson is taught by the similar fate of all other despots, of whom practically no one has ever escaped such a death. For fear is but a poor safeguard of lasting power; while affection, on the other hand, may be trusted to keep it safe for ever. But those who keep subjects in check by force would of course have to employ severity — masters, for example, toward their servants, when these cannot be held in control in any other way. But those who in a free state deliberately put themselves in a position to be feared are the maddest of the mad. For let the laws be never so much overborne by some one individual’s power, let the spirit of freedom be never so intimidated, still sooner or later they assert themselves either through unvoiced public sentiment, or through secret ballots disposing of some high office of state. Freedom suppressed and again regained bites with keener fangs than freedom never endangered. Let us, then, embrace this policy, which appeals to every heart and is the strongest support not only of security but also of influence and power — namely, to banish fear and cleave to love. And thus we shall most easily secure success both in private and in public life. Furthermore, those who wish to be feared must inevitably be afraid of those whom they intimidate.] 

To appreciate the pronounced political dimension of Cicero’s philosophy, it is important to note that the philosophical understanding of freedom, i.e. being in rational control of one’s emotions, does not inevitably lead to socio-political activism, an interest in justice, and a diehard dedication to keeping the commonwealth ‘free’. The Stoic thinker Seneca the Younger (4 BCE–65 CE), for instance, writing during the reign of the emperor Nero, uses libertas in the philosophical sense to propound the paradox that a master beholden to his passions is enslaved, whereas his slaves, if they manage to master their emotions and live according to reason, are free. Given that this philosophical freedom is freedom in its supreme form, it is immaterial for Seneca if these philosophically free individuals are legally speaking slaves or live in conditions of political servitude (under a tyrannical regime).87 By contrast, in On Duties Cicero repeatedly criticizes this kind of ‘self- centred’ philosophical conception of freedom as not good enough: for him, self-control in the form of freedom from noxious desires forms the basis for political engagement designed to ensure the libertas of the civic community and the res publica as well. 

In the Philippics, Cicero, from the outset, looks back in admiration to the assassination of Caesar as a blow for liberty.88 Initially, Antony gave hopeful signs that he would support the restoration of a free and peaceful citizenry and a senate unaffected by anxieties (Phil. 1.4, 31). But (according to Cicero) it soon emerged that the aimed for the same tyrannical power and position (dominatus) as Caesar, enslaving the people in a reign of fear. Against this threat, Cicero marshals the Philippics to establish a universal consensus among the assassins of Caesar (hailed as liberators — liberatores), the rest of the senate, and the people of Rome (as well as Caesar’s adoptive son Caesar Octavianus) to ensure the (political) annihilation of the fledging tyrant Antony in the name of (universal) peace and freedom. The end of Philippic 2 (starting with § 113) is the first time this agenda comes fully into focus. Libertas will remain a rallying cry throughout the rest of the corpus, as Cicero tries to muster support for the violent reconstitution of the libera res publica through the killing of any would-be tyrant, irrespective of whether he addressed the senate or the people (though with certain differences in emphasis). As Cowan (2008: 151) notes, ‘Libertas in the Philippics was used broadly enough to accommodate widely differing understandings of the term (both “optimate” and popularis visions are accounted for) and could, therefore, serve as a platform for trying to generate consensus’. Our paragraph is an excellent illustration of the way in which Cicero tries to merge the elite and the popular sense of (political) libertas: he starts out by imagining the Roman People as the political agent who will confront Antony (Eripiet et extorquebit tibi ista populus Romanus...), but then gradually shifts to the senatorial collective (utinam salvis nobis), singles out generic individuals to whom the Roman people entrust the helm of the state (habet populus Romanus ad quos gubernacula rei publicae deferat), and ends up by hailing members of the traditional senatorial elite (adulescentes nobilissimi) who will take decisive political action on behalf of the commonwealth. (The choice of adulescentes is suitably vague and can conveniently comprise both the liberators who killed Caesar and Caesar’s adoptive son Octavian — elsewhere referred to as iuvenis.) 

It is important to note, however, that Cicero’s claim that the Roman People were much invested in libertas as a political ideal was by and large wishful thinking: ‘Cicero’s assertion to the contrary notwithstanding [Fam. 10.12.4; Phil. 3.32], it is on the whole true that after the assassination of Caesar the Roman People showed little enthusiasm for the cause of republican freedom’.89 

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