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

Edited by Ingo Gildenhard

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Philippics 2.114 essay

Paragraph 114 falls into two halves. In the first (Quod si se  … impetum fecerunt), Cicero looks back: he assesses the assassination of Caesar against similar events in Roman history, reaching the conclusion that the recent act of tyrannicide outshines all precedents. In the second (quod cum ipsum factum … esse contemnendam), he explores the future implications of what the liberators did: they set an example for others to imitate and will reap immortality through everlasting glory as a reward for their deed. Both topics — exemplarity and immortality through memory — warrant some comments. (A third ‘big idea’ Cicero here gestures to in passing is the notion of conscience: see below).

Exemplarity: in ancient Rome, historical precedents mattered — as did the desire to outperform ancestral benchmarks of excellence, i.e. doing something unprecedented, not least to leave a mark on the collective memory of the civic community (and perhaps become exemplary in turn). A good way to validate controversial deeds was to argue that — however novel — they were in conformity with ancestral norms, re-enacting, at least partially, exemplary deeds from the past. In this paragraph, Cicero tries to situate the murder of Caesar within Rome’s exempla-discourse, citing various historical precedents for the use of violence as a legitimate means in domestic politics. He thereby gives the impression that expelling or killing a (would-be) tyrant is a norm and practice co-extensive with the Roman republic. That was not the case: politically-motivated murder (and its justification) were hotly contested issues in Roman political thought, but only from 133 BCE onwards, when the pontifex maximus Scipio Nasica, without the backing of the consuls, took the lead in bludgeoning Tiberius Gracchus and several hundred of his supporters to death on the charge that he aimed for tyranny. This was a watershed moment in Roman politics, which arguably ruptured the republican political system irredeemably: with the genie of extreme physical violence as a means of politics out of the bottle, instances of politically-motivated bloodshed and episodes of full-scale civil war continued to occur until Octavian’s final victory over Antony at Actium in 31 BCE, which signaled the end of the libera res publica. ‘Tyrannicide’ never became consensual: ‘It was, in fact, an illegal procedure advocated as a last-ditch solution by the late-Republican optimates, and as such, it was opposed and contested by large sections of Roman society’ (Pina Polo 2006: 72). In the Philippics and On Duties (de Officiis), Cicero does his best to validate the practice both in historical and ethical terms. Desperate times call for desperate measures (or do they?), and Cicero acts as cheerleader to endow them with a veneer of historical and moral legitimacy (should we chime in?).

Moreover, when it comes to the issue of politically motivated violence, Cicero suggests that the ground has shifted. In the past, violent action was directed against either a king who ruled at a time when kingship was an acceptable form of government at Rome (the case of Tarquinius); or aristocrats who aspired to kingship during republican times, but were unable to realize their ambition before being stopped dead in their tracks (the cases of Sp. Cassius, Sp. Maelius, and M. Manlius, see on § 84). By contrast, Brutus, Cassius, and their co-conspirators killed someone who had managed to install himself as king at a time when this form of rule was deemed to be utterly unacceptable. They thereby rose up against a novel, extreme form of tyranny. The lesson here is complex: their glory is greater than those who did away with earlier strongmen — yet Cicero also implies that they acted (too) late. Their blow for freedom shines the brighter since they rescued Rome from actual enslavement; but Caesar ought to have been eliminated before he could impose tyranny on Rome. In the wake of this unprecedented achievement, a return to what Cicero here portrays as the ancestral practice of killing would-be tyrants (like Antony) emerges as doubly sanctioned by the ambiguous exemplary value of Caesar’s assassination, which is praiseworthy for its unprecedented benefits in terms of restoring freedom to the community, but implicitly blameworthy since drastic action ought to have been taken much earlier. Put differently, there is a call to arms built into the text. 

Immortality: Traditionally, aristocratic immortality in republican Rome consisted in ensuring posthumous presence within various modes and media of commemoration. The patrician-plebeian ruling elite that emerged in the late fourth and early third centuries developed specific ways of constituting and remembering the past (a prime source of identity and legitimacy in pre-modern societies), which chimed well with, indeed was an integral part of, the political system and its peculiar culture. Rooted in individual families but oriented towards the res publica at large, these commemorative practices focused on the preservation of the names of former office-holders and their deeds and took place in a variety of media and settings. Imaginestitulistemmatalaudationes and pompae funebres formed a complex system of storage and reactivation, permanent display and ephemeral enactments, perfectly aligned with the competitive instincts of, and need for cohesion within, an oligarchic ruling elite that placed equal emphasis on merit and past family achievement within a wider civic context and invested heavily in intense communication with the larger populace. Successful magistrates and generals further inscribed their names and achievements into the topography of the city by means of monuments and statues, the display of spoils and strategically dedicated temples; together, the houses of noble families and the public spaces of the city thus formed an impressive, if by and large uncoordinated ‘landscape of memory’. 

But as we have seen (above 350–52) in the course of the last centuries of the republic, imaginative Romans explored the interface (or indeed the possibility of cross-over) between the human and the divine sphere, which opened up new modes of posthumous existence, with Caesar finally managing outright deification in the eyes of many. Cicero too flirts with various unconventional forms of life after death (in some of his works he asserts that the souls of the most outstanding statesmen are immortal) and, as we have seen, makes at least some concession to Caesar’s new status to keep Octavian sweet — even though he rejects the notion that Caesar has become a god elsewhere in the strongest possible terms. (One of the ways in which he negotiated the divide between human and divine is the strategic use of the ambiguous attribute divinus: see below.) In our paragraph, he alludes to the idiom and imagery of apotheosis (perhaps not least so as not to fall too short of the new standards of elevation set by Caesar and his followers) before claiming everlasting fame for the liberators as the proper republican reward for their outstanding deed.

Extra information:

Tyrannicide and anti-tyrannical activism also have a distinguished Greek background, both in practice (Harmodius and Aristogeiton: see Azoulay 2017) and theory (in particular Plato, who in turn inspired his disciple Chion of Heraclea to put theory back into practice with the assassination of the tyrant Clearchus who ruled in his hometown). Cicero eloquently evokes the heroization that tyrant-slayers received in Greece at pro Milone 80. Milo, Cicero argues, deserves similar reverence for his slaying of the quasi-tyrant Clodius:

Graeci homines deorum honores tribuunt eis viris qui tyrannos necaverunt — quae ego vidi Athenis, quae in aliis urbibus Graeciae! quas res divinas talibus institutas viris, quos cantus, quae carmina! prope ad immortalitatis et religionem et memoriam consecrantur — vos tanti conservatorem populi, tanti sceleris ultorem non modo honoribus nullis adficietis sed etiam ad supplicium rapi patiemini? confiteretur, confiteretur, inquam, si fecisset, et magno animo et libenter, se fecisse libertatis omnium causa quod esset non confitendum modo sed etiam vere praedicandum.

[The Greeks accord honours of the gods to those men who have slain tyrants. What have I seen at Athens and in other cities of Greece! What religious adoration put in place for such men! What musical compositions, what songs! They are worshipped almost at the level of observance and commemoration distinctive of immortality. Will you not only not bestow any honours upon the preserver of such a great people and the avenger of such a great crime, but even suffer him to be dragged away for capital punishment? Had he done the deed, he would confess — indeed confess proudly and gladly — that he had done for the sake of everyone’s liberty a deed that he ought not merely to confess, but in truth proclaim far and wide.]

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