Felicitas, or how not to ‘Sull(a)y’ Pompey47

Cicero has reached the last of the four qualities he considers essential attributes of the perfect general: after scientia rei militaris, virtus, and auctoritas, he turns his attention to felicitas, which signifies ‘divinely sponsored success’. As we already had occasion to note in our commentary on § 41, an outstanding individual’s special relationship with the gods (or, indeed, his semi-divine status) was difficult to reconcile with the principle of oligarchic equality, which underwrote the senatorial tradition of republican government. After Sulla’s dictatorship, no-one in Rome needed a reminder of this fact: in his autobiography, the autocrat professed to confer with supernatural beings rather than his consilium before making important decisions, considered himself to be in a special relationship with Aphrodite/Venus, and added the attribute ‘felix’ to his name, thereby claiming felicitas (‘divine support’) as a permanent, personal possession.48 This act of nomenclature went down in the annals of Rome as a revolting outrage. Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79), writing more than a century after the fact, still remonstrates as follows when commenting on it (Natural History 7.137):

unus hominum ad hoc aevi Felicis sibi cognomen adseruit L. Sulla, civili nempe sanguine ac patriae oppugnatione adoptatus. et quibus felicitates inductus argumentis? quod proscribere tot milia civium ac trucidare potuisset? o prava interpretatio et futuro tempore infelix!

[The only human being who has so far added ‘Felix’ to his name was L. Sulla, who, sure enough, secured it through civil bloodshed and an attack on his country. Indeed, what evidence for his luck led him on? That he had been able to put so many thousands of citizens on hit lists and have them slaughtered? A disgraceful justification, with evil consequences for the future!]

It was precisely the fear that Pompey would turn into another Sulla (who, after all, had established his dictatorship upon his return from a war against Mithridates) that fuelled opposition to the lex Manilia and the appointment of Pompey among aristocratic circles. At the same time, divine support was an absolutely crucial element in the panegyric promotion of a military commander. In the early portion of his speech, Cicero himself had made this point, when he praised Lucullus for his virtus, but lamented the absence of fortuna from his military operations. One of the most fascinating aspects of §§ 47-48 is accordingly how Cicero tries to square the circle of claiming extraordinary felicitas for Pompey while avoiding the impression that Pompey is an alter Sulla in the making. A key ploy, at least initially, is his differentiation of felicitas into a traditional variant and its permutation (indeed perversion) by Sulla. The differences may be tabulated as follows:

Traditional felicitas Sullan felicitas
Verbal acknowledgement Gingerly, by others Boastful self-ascription
Status Precarious quality Secure possession
Duration Temporary (hostage to fortune) Permanent (fortune taken hostage) (perpetuum)
Examples from history Maximus, Marcellus, Scipio, Marius and others Sulla (unmentioned, but clearly implied)

In § 47 Cicero speaks out strongly in favour of the traditional conception, within general reflections on the discursive protocols to be observed when felicitas becomes the topic of public speech. Given that felicitas belongs properly to the supernatural domain (it is a gift from the gods), human beings, he argues, should observe the same reverent respect owed to divine matters in other contexts. In the light of these considerations, Cicero brands any attempt on the part of a human being to claim felicitas for himself as an intolerable act of hubris, liable to provoke the anger of the gods. The target of his criticism is easy to idenify: Sulla. The dictator did what Cicero claims must not be done, i.e. proclaim himself felix and to consider felicitas a personal and permanent possession. Remaining conspicuously unnamed in Cicero’s list of Roman statesmen who were blessed with divine support, Sulla nevertheless looms large in these paragraphs, an exemplum malum best condemned to oblivion, a spectre called up only to be exorcised. After thus sketching out the range of possibilities, from the positive exempla of generals that were blessed with special fortune according to some divine plan (divinitus) to the unidentified exemplum malum Sulla, Cicero proceeds to suggest that Pompey is a special case that does not fit conventional categories. He does not share in Sulla’s hubris of making felicitas an aspect of his self-promotion; but his luck significantly outclasses that enjoyed by any other Roman general. Indeed, in § 48 it emerges as unprecedented and off the scale.