When one day the head of Cicero was brought to them [sc. Antony and his wife Fulvia] — he had been overtaken and slain in flight —, Antony uttered many bitter reproaches against it and then ordered it to be exposed on the speakers-platform more prominently than the rest, in order that it might be seen in the very place where Cicero had so often been heard declaiming against him, together with his right hand, just as it had been cut off. And Fulvia took the head into her hands before it was removed, and after abusing it spitefully and spitting upon it, set it on her knees, opened the mouth, and pulled out the tongue, which she pierced with the pins that she used for her hair, at the same time uttering many brutal jests.
Cassius Dio 47.8.3–4
Like few other periods in (ancient) history, late-republican and early-imperial Rome pullulated with memorable personalities. The years that saw the fitful transformation of a senatorial tradition of republican government into an autocratic regime produced a gallery of iconic figures that have resonated down the ages: Julius Caesar (‘Cowards die many times before their deaths | the valiant never taste of death but once’), Marcus Tullius Cicero (‘But for my own part [what he said] was Greek to me’), Marcus Brutus (‘This was the noblest Roman of them all’), Gaius Cassius (‘Men at some time are masters of their fates’), Marcus Antonius, a.k.a. Mark Antony (‘Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears’), and Octavian, the future princeps Augustus (‘The time of universal peace is near’), have all remained household names, partly because they have continued to inspire creative individuals also in post-classical times — not least Shakespeare.
They are certainly good to think with, evoking Big Issues and Ideas, such as Civil War and Dictatorship (Caesar), Republican Liberty (Cicero), Tyrannicide (Brutus and Cassius), Power and Love (Antony and Cleopatra), and Empire (Augustus).
Consisting of selections from Philippic 2, the text set by OCR offers an excellent introduction to, intervention in, and commentary on this period of turmoil and transition. Composed in the autumn of 44 BCE, the year of Caesar’s assassination, it includes a sustained attack by Cicero on Mark Antony, who was consul at the time — but whom Cicero suspected of aiming at autocratic power, another tyrant-in-waiting. Philippic 2 is conceived as Cicero’s (imaginary) response to the verbal abuse Antony had hurled at him in a meeting of the senate on 19 September, but was in all likelihood never orally delivered: Cicero unleashed his sh•tstorm as a literary pamphlet sometime towards the end of the year (late November or December). Further efforts followed, all aimed at pushing a reluctant senate and the people of Rome into a violent confrontation with Antony, whom Cicero deemed (and managed to transform into) Public Enemy No 1. But when political fortune swung, Cicero found himself on the killing list of a triumvirate comprising Antony, Caesar Octavianus (the future Augustus), and M. Aemilius Lepidus (‘a slight unmeritable man | meet to be sent on errands’).
And thus the maestro of the needling tongue was heading for decapitation — and Fulvia, Antony’s wife at the time, made sure (or so Dio Cassius’ story goes) that the reprisal stuck also postmortem, pricking republican libertas and eloquentia to death. Against the orator who knew how to use his word as sword, the sword got the final word. (Or has it? Ask yourself: why am I reading Cicero on Antony, not Antony on Cicero…? And you also might want to challenge the all-too-easy binary between word / sword in other ways as well: arguably the warmonger here was Cicero, while Antony, too, had considerable talent as orator.)
Much, then, is at stake with this text, and it is not easy to do it critical justice. The ‘double whammy’ of Philippic 2 — ‘as on the one hand lengthiest and most hysterically warped, and on the other hand undelivered fake up’ — invites analysis from a range of perspectives.
To begin with, the text is a historical document: the speeches are crammed full with facts and figures about the political culture of republican Rome and, more specifically, the changes that happened in the wake of Caesar’s victory in the civil wars and his rise to the dictatorship. This calls for some basic orientation about author, title, date, circumstances of composition, and whatnot (1). Secondly, the abusive pyrotechnics Cicero fires off in Philippic 2 should not blind us to the fact that the speech is carefully scripted rhetoric and repays close study as a literary artifact designed to intervene in a specific historical situation: it is meant to change (our perception of) reality, even though it would be a mistake to think that (m)any of the salacious secrets Cicero shares with us about (say) Antony’s supposedly sordid sex life have a factual basis (2). Finally, Cicero also conceived of Philippic 2 as a monument of eloquence and political activism designed to outlive its context of production — and invites us to consider his speech as enacting a mode of politics and as a personal manifesto of political eloquence that possesses trans-historical relevance and universalizing import (3).