Why does the set text matter?

Born in 106 BC, Cicero reached his political maturity during a nasty period in Roman history: the reign of Sulla (82-79 BC).1 The dictator introduced a new practice into Roman politics: the mass-slaughter of Roman citizens by Roman citizens – and not just on the battlefield. Once Sulla had crushed armed resistance in the first full-blown civil war that Rome experienced (it proved trend-setting...), he proceeded to ‘proscriptions’ – the drafting of lists that contained the names of alleged enemies of the res publica, who then could be killed on sight. (Mutatis mutandis, such ‘hit lists’ seem to have remained in fashion ever since...) He used this procedure to purge the Roman elite of his personal enemies: several thousands lost their lives, slaughtered in cold blood. As Plutarch puts it in his Life of Sulla (31.1): ‘Sulla now [sc. after his appointment to the dictatorship] busied himself with slaughter and filled the city with deaths without number or limit.’

Cicero seems to have found Sulla’s civic bloodshed deeply disturbing. Arguably, his entire political career and intellectual efforts unfolded under the banner: ‘History Must Not Repeat Itself! Proscriptions? Never Again!’2 History, of course, did repeat itself: in 43 BC, the second triumvirate of Caesar Octavianus (a.k.a. Octavian, the future princeps Augustus), Mark Antony, and Lepidus again opted to ‘proscribe’ enemies: and their most famous victim was none other than Cicero. Ironically, Cicero lost his head at the hands of a clique he himself had helped to bring to power via his initial support of the young Octavian and his uncompromising stance towards Mark Antony in his last set of speeches, the Philippics. These constituted his last-ditch effort of a lifetime dedicated to the fight against the political ‘monsters’ (his idiom) that he perceived as threats to his beloved res publica, which he identified with the senatorial tradition of republican government. His speeches and treatises (and there are lots of them!) are filled with outbursts against ‘the tyrants’ of the late republic, who abused power, allegedly aimed at kingship, and sought to bring down the state: Verres, Catiline, Clodius, Caesar, Mark Antony – with Sulla figuring as the archetype of them all.

Cicero, then, went down in history as the incarnation of the free republic. (This is no exaggeration: after Brutus had sunk his dagger into Caesar on the Ides of March 44, he lifted his bloodied weapon in the air and called out: ‘Cicero!’) Yet in 66 BC, Cicero gave a speech, the pro lege Manilia or de imperio Gnaei Pompei, in support of a bill designed to give extraordinary powers to one of Sulla’s most notorious lieutenants, whom many suspected of desiring to pick up the mantle of the former dictator. The lex proposed by the tribune Manilius transferred supreme command of the war between Rome and Mithridates VI, the king of Pontus, to Gnaeus Pompeius (or ‘Pompey’), already then known as ‘the Great’ (Magnus) – but also, less flatteringly, as adulescens carnifex (‘youthful butcher’), a sobriquet he acquired for his role in the civil wars on Sulla’s side. Admittedly, Mithridates, the ‘poison king’, whom one scholar has hailed as ‘Rome’s deadliest enemy’, had proved himself a real nuisance in Rome’s attempt to establish imperial control over Asia Minor (roughly present-day Turkey).3 Hostilities dated back to the 80s and included the genocidal slaughter of 80,000 Roman citizens and their Italian allies during the ‘Asiatic Vespers’ in 88 BC. But despite some recent setbacks, there was arguably no strategic need to appoint Pompey (or anyone else) with the help of extraordinary measures. Indeed, one could forgive those members of Rome’s ruling elite who screamed a ‘Déjà vu!’ in protest: one of the past commanders who had had a go at Mithridates was none other than Sulla, who after a few inconsequential victories abandoned the campaign in order to march on Rome and sort out his internal enemies. Wasn’t Pompey a second Sulla in the making? Had he not just celebrated an unprecedented success over the pirates of the Mediterranean with the help of another extraordinary command, proposed by the tribune Gabinius? Had not Gaius Piso, in the debate over the mandate against the pirates, threatened Pompey with a senatorial sparagmos (‘a tearing to pieces’) if he continued to aim at kingship?4 Wouldn’t a further victory over Mithridates inflate him from Magnus to Maximus for sure and enable him to march on Rome with the same autocratic ambitions as his mentor Sulla?

The bill did not require Cicero’s support. No one forced him to speak, and it was hugely popular with the people anyway. All thirty-five tribes passed the bill, Plutarch reports (Life of Pompey 30). Besides, several senatorial peers much more distinguished than Cicero at the time had already spoken in its favour. So even if he felt strongly about Pompey’s appointment, he could have just kept his silence – instead of pushing at an open door that led him straight into a potential minefield: as he concedes in his peroration (§ 71, the last paragraph of the speech) his intervention may well have made him some enemies. Not only that – he decided to compound the problem (and amplify his voice) by disseminating a written version after the oral performance in the forum – again a deliberate choice: Cicero only published a selection of the speeches he gave. How truly amazing to find Cicero advocating concentration of power in one pair of hands, thus setting a precedent for some version or other of Caesar and Augustus!

In light of all this, you may legitimately ask: why in the world did he throw his (rhetorical) weight behind this bill, orally and, especially, in writing? And further: how did he manage to square his endorsement of the lex Manilia (which meant elevating Pompey above everyone else and giving him extraordinary powers) with his republican principles and convictions? (If he managed to do so: you’ll have to be the judge of that!) To make headway with these questions, we need to ask ourselves what was in it for Cicero at this particular moment in his career – and take a close look at his portrait of the perfect general (i.e. the ‘meat’ of the set text).

The pro lege Manilia was Cicero’s first persuasive speech to the people of Rome. He delivered it in 66 BC, at the age of 39, the year he was praetor, so an important serving magistrate, one step from the top post of consul. At the time, he was best known for his stunningly successful prosecution of the pretty awful Gaius Verres in 70 BC, as recorded (with a considerable dose of artistic licence) in his Verrine Orations. But in order to climb the highest rank of the cursus honorum (‘the course of offices’), i.e. the consulship, he had to start making his voice heard in the civic arena. The bill proposed by Manilius proved just the ticket for Cicero’s debut. And Cicero knew how to make an entry. Here is the opening paragraph of the speech (Man. 1):

Quamquam mihi semper frequens conspectus vester multo iucundissimus, hic autem locus ad agendum amplissimus, ad dicendum ornatissimus est visus, Quirites, tamen hoc aditu laudis, qui semper optimo cuique maxime patuit, non mea me voluntas adhuc, sed vitae meae rationes ab ineunte aetate susceptae prohibuerunt. Nam cum antea per aetatem nondum huius auctoritatem loci attingere auderem statueremque nihil huc nisi perfectum ingenio, elaboratum industria adferri oportere, omne meum tempus amicorum temporibus transmittendum putavi.

[Although it has at all times given me a special pleasure to behold your crowded assembly, and this place in particular has seemed to me to afford the amplest scope for action, the fairest stage for eloquence, nonetheless, fellow-citizens, this approach to fame, which the best have ever found most widely open, has hitherto been barred to me, not certainly by any wish of mine, but by that scheme of life which, from my earliest years, I had laid down for myself. For previously, seeing that I was debarred by my youth from aspiring to this proud position and was resolved to bring here nothing but the mature outcome of my talent, the finished product of my industry, I considered that my every hour should be devoted to my friends in their hours of peril.]

The moment is dramatic: Cicero, the acknowledged ‘king of the courts’ (that’s what his devotion to imperiled friends refers to), delivers his first-ever speech to the citizens of Rome, the Quirites, from the rostra, the speaker’s platform from which Roman magistrates negotiated with the Roman people (a procedure called agere cum populo; cf. ad agendum, sc. cum populo). Before Cicero settles down to business (his promotion of Manilius’ bill and its beneficiary, i.e. Pompey), he uses the occasion to position himself vis-à-vis his audience (cf. mihi, vester, mea ... voluntas, me, vitae meae rationes).5 The opening sentence is autobiographical with an apologetic subtext, arising from the need to justify why this is his first-ever contio-appearance. Cicero begins by stressing in superlative mode (iucundissimus, amplissimus, ornatissimus, though with his usual subjective hedge in mihi ... est visus) that his absence from the contio-scene had nothing to do with lack of esteem for the people of Rome or this particular institution. Rather, he butters up his audience with an elaborate captatio benevolentiae. He claims that, for him, of all the most agreeable things the most agreeable thing ‘by far’ (multo: a strategically placed ablative of the measure of difference) has always been a crowded (cf. frequens) citizen-assembly. And he adds to this rose-tinted view a more ‘objective’ recognition of the constitutional importance of this place and setting.

Such flattery of course only renders the question more acute as to why Cicero has never gotten round to actually delivering a speech here – until now. The second half of the sentence, introduced by tamen (with the direct address to the citizens functioning as pivot), tries to provide an answer. But the answer we get is curious, to say the least. Cicero sets up an opposition, or at least tension, between his inclination (voluntas) and the plan that from his earliest youth has informed his life (vitae meae rationes). While he was quite willing to step up, this mysterious plan prevented him from doing so (prohibuerunt). The final word of the sentence comes very much as a surprise. What was this plan, his audience will have started to wonder, that kept Cicero away from the speaker’s platform? For an answer, we have to wait for the next sentence.

Before this surprise ending to his opening sentence, Cicero embeds his own career-choices within Rome’s political culture more generally: aditus laudis, the gateway to fame, refers to the key ambition of every member of Rome’s ruling elite, namely public recognition in the form of laus and gloria, attained through the holding of public office in the service of the res publica and, simultaneously or subsequently, military commands. The Roman citizens elected their magistrates, and a public career was in principle open to any citizen rich enough to pursue it; but in practice most of the candidates who successfully stood for office hailed from families that could boast ancestors who had held magistracies in the past. Against this reality, Cicero, a so-called ‘new man’ (homo novus), i.e. someone without politically successful ancestors in his family tree, validates inborn talent (and hence merit): he claims that especially (cf. maxime) the best (cf. optimo cuique), by stepping up to the rostra, could make a career for themselves and acquire renown in Rome. This conflicts with Roman common sense: Joe Public would have thought that ‘the best’ would look to performing feats in warfare to acquire fame and recognition rather than seeking out the rostra. Obliquely, Cicero here ranks the orator (‘public speaker’) above the imperator (‘general’)!

What follows is even more mind-boggling: Cicero claims that only after he had turned himself into a perfect orator, by means of a combination of innate talent and the most strenuous training, did he consider it appropriate to appear in such a hallowed place as the rostra to address such a worthy audience as the Roman people! The reason why he hasn’t spoken before, it now emerges, are his own exacting standards: the Roman people deserve nothing but the best. Cicero didn’t appear on the rostra before he had been crowned ‘king of eloquence’: this implies that all the other, lesser speakers hold the people in less respect than he does – since they offer less than perfect oratory, falling below Ciceronian standards of ingenium, labor (cf. e-labor-atum and the explicit reference to meus labor in § 2), and industria.

Put differently, Cicero begins with the perfectus orator (himself) before moving on to the summus imperator (Pompey). He and Pompey thereby emerge as a complementary pair, each outstanding in his respective sphere – a complementarity Cicero would come back to some years later when he suggested to Pompey (who was none too pleased) that his suppression of the Catilinarian Conspiracy at home (domi) as dux togatus (‘a military leader dressed in the toga’, i.e. Rome’s civic apparel) compared favourably with Pompey’s victory over Mithridates abroad on campaign (militiae). The set up also underscores the ‘power of definition’ that comes with Cicero’s command of eloquence: in sketching a portrait of Pompey as perfect general, he simultaneously uses his understanding of the perfect general to define Pompey – what, according to Cicero, Pompey should be like. Playing (panegyric) adviser to those in power was a role Cicero rather fancied – and also tried later to play with Caesar and Octavian.

In the pro lege Manilia, to be sure, this aspect remains rather oblique. Cicero is at pains to stress that his principal motivation for stepping up is the wellbeing of the res publica and the Roman people. This, at least, is what he pronounces at the very end of the speech (§ 70):

testorque omnis deos, et eos maxime qui huic loco temploque praesident, qui omnium mentis eorum qui ad rem publicam adeunt maxime perspiciunt, me hoc neque rogatu facere cuiusquam, neque quo Cn. Pompei gratiam mihi per hanc causam conciliari putem, neque quo mihi ex cuiusquam amplitudine aut praesidia periculis aut adiumenta honoribus quaeram;

[And I call all the gods to witness – most especially the guardians of this hallowed spot who clearly see into the hearts of all who enter upon public life – that I am acting thus neither in deference to any man’s request nor with any idea of winning for myself by my support of this cause the favour of Gnaeus Pompeius, nor in the hope of gaining for myself from any man’s high position either protection from dangers or aids to advancement.]

No, his motives, Cicero goes on to say, are entirely unselfish, focused exclusively on public welfare – at significant personal cost (§ 71):

Quam ob rem quicquid in hac causa mihi susceptum est, Quirites, id ego omne me rei publicae causa suscepisse confirmo; tantumque abest ut aliquam mihi bonam gratiam quaesisse videar, ut multas me etiam simultates partim obscuras, partim apertas intellegam mihi non necessarias, vobis non inutilis suscepisse.

[Wherefore any effort I may have made in this cause, citizens, I protest has been made in the cause of my country; and far from seeming to have sought any popularity for myself, I am aware of having even incurred many enmities, some overt and some secret, which I might have avoided, though not without some detriment to you.]

Is Cicero protesting too much? Is he trying to pre-empt the impression that he had been bought or was just trying to muscle in on the bill to secure the gratitude and future goodwill of Pompey? Does the explicit denial not give the game away? Do we have to cancel out the negatives to get at the truth? What happens if we fiddle a bit with the prose: ‘I am acting thus neither in deference to any a man’s request nor and with any the idea of winning for myself by my support of this cause the favour of Gnaeus Pompeius, nor in the hope of gaining for myself from any man’s someone’s high position either protection from dangers or and aids to advancement’ – would that come closer to the truth? How cynical is your reading of these concluding – politician’s – paragraphs?

In this context we may note that not only the people, but also the ‘knights’, Rome’s ‘moneyed elite’, Cicero’s own social order with which he seems to have entertained mutually beneficial terms of reciprocity in his climb up the cursus honorum,6 were very much in favour of Pompey’s appointment. They had commercial interests in the region and sought a quick conclusion to the hostilities so they could pursue business and ‘farm’ taxes. Indeed, a passage in Velleius Paterculus (2.33.1), a historian writing during the reign of Tiberius, allows the inference that Manilius had been bribed by the knights to propose the bill.7 Whether this is true or not (and whether Cicero was in their pocket or not), there seem to have been a range of self-interested reasons for him to lend his rhetorical muscle to an initiative that was popular with the people (without being unanimously opposed by the senate), enabled him to jump on the MAJOR bandwagon in town (Gnaeus Pompeius MAGNUS), and was bound to find favour with his most loyal political supporters. Did it, does it, matter that this move, which could only bump up his own chances of up-coming election into the big time, meant a mode of panegyric elevation of a single individual difficult to reconcile with republican principles?


1 His earliest surviving speech, in defence of Publius Quinctius in a civil law suit, dates to 81.

2 So Flower (2006).

3 For a biography that pays due attention to the lurid and the sensational see Mayor (2009).

4 Plutarch, Life of Pompey 25.4. For a literary description of a sparagmos see your verse set text, the Pentheus-episode from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

5 For ‘ego’ (and its inflections) as a main theme of the speech see MacKendrick (1995).

6 Berry (2003).

7 MacKendrick (1995) 11.