Philippics 2.47 essay

After wrapping up his opening anecdote in his imaginary biography of Antony, Cicero continues with a transitional paragraph that lays out his approach to the rest of the material. As in § 43, he stresses that he has to leave out a lot. Some of the stuff that Antony got up (or down) to is simply beyond the pale: the sort of X-rated material no person with any sense of decency would be able to put into words. And there is also a feeling of urgency: Cicero is loath to linger too long on Antony’s youthful depravities in his hurry to get to his conduct during the civil wars, which is of greater relevance in the here-and-now (even though it is also more familiar to his audience — or so Cicero claims). The paragraph is therefore highly reflexive in outlook, as Cicero comments explicitly on some of the moral and rhetorical considerations and contextual coordinates (such as the purported degrees of familiarity of his audience with different aspects of his subject matter) that shape his discourse.

The technical terms for gesturing to material without treating it fully are occultatio (‘obfuscation’) or praeteritio (‘a passing by and over’; paralipsis in Greek). An excellent ancient discussion of this useful ploy can be found in the so-called Rhetorica ad Herennium, a rhetorical treatise written in the early first century BCE (4.37):

Paralipsis / Praeteritio occurs when we say that we are passing by, or do not know, or refuse to say that which precisely now we are saying, as follows: ‘Your boyhood, indeed, which you dedicated to intemperance of all kinds, I would discuss, if I thought this the right time. But at present I advisedly leave that aside. This too I pass by, that the tribunes have reported you as irregular in military service. Also that you have given satisfaction to Lucius Labeo for injuries done him I regard as irrelevant to the present matter. Of these things I say nothing, but return to the issue in this trial’. Again: ‘I do not mention that you have taken monies from our allies; I do not concern myself with your having despoiled the cities, kingdoms, and homes of them all. I pass by your thieveries and robberies, all of them’. This figure is useful if employed in a matter which is not pertinent to call specifically to the attention of others, because there is advantage in making only an indirect reference to it, or because the direct reference would be tedious or undignified, or cannot be made clear, or can easily be refuted. As a result, it is of greater advantage to create a suspicion by Paralipsis / Praeteritiothan to insist directly on a statement that is refutable.

Compare the more recent discussion found in Farnsworth (2011: 166–67):

The usual purposes that the device serves include these: a. To gain credit—though not too much—for discretion or propriety while still setting loose an indiscretion or impropriety. … b. To leave the substance of a sentiment, or a piece of it, to the listener’s imagination, and so enhance its force. The fantasy of what the complete version of the thought would have been may be more powerful than a plain statement of it. … c. To limit debate over a controversial utterance by offering it as only half-said; when the speaker denies fully saying it, he hopes to make a rebuttal seem uncalled for, and to assign himself a relaxed burden of proof. … d. Amusement. The paradox inherent in a good use of praeteritio can be a source of humor and charm, at least when it does not take itself too seriously.

All four aspects identified by Farnsworth are in play in our passage: (a) Cicero comes across as a paragon of propriety (his commitment to verbal restraint stands in explicit contrast to Antony’s sexual and rhetorical incontinence) by not delving into the sordid details of his adversary’s sex life, while at the same time cashing in on the allure of scandal with his lurid insinuations of unspeakable filth. (b) He thereby invites the audience to indulge their imagination — not least in conjuring up and putting together the organs and orifices he passes over in silence: any scenario they can think of, however lewd, Antony is bound to have acted out. The result is insinuation porn, which enables him to keep his mouth squeaky clean and the minds of his audience satisfyingly dirty. (c) Given that Cicero here operates with artistic license rather than sound empirical evidence, the mode of intimation renders him less vulnerable to the objection that he is making it all up. (d) He also benefits from the humour inherent in the ‘gossip’s trope’ — which he combines with a serious message:

Cicero has just told an unusually gross (but plausible) lie about Antony’s sexual habits as a young man. The decorum, the tact, and the modesty of the speaker, compounded with the hint that this sort of material is endless, are audacious and funny, but the sexual depravity is presented as being only a prelude to perversions of the political intelligence, a theme which again offers inexhaustible material. Here moral indignation is coupled with decorum — it is the perfection of gravitas. Or rather, it is gravitas mimed, a droll imitation of the real thing, an action designed to irritate the victim and amuse the audience, for if praeteritio is not urbane, casual, mocking or witty — as it always is when Cicero has his wits and his nerve — it is nothing. 

Throughout Philippic 2, Cicero uses the sexual as code for the political. According to the logic that leopards don’t change their spots, Antony’s erotic escapades prefigure his behaviour in civic life: there is no reason to assume that someone who so conspicuously lacks the virtues expected of a Roman statesman in his youth miraculously acquired them later on. As Cicero goes on to argue, the juvenile delinquent indeed grew up into an uninhibited creature of inordinate appetites who lusts after drink and sex, money and power — the more the better. Antony is not just a menace to morals but to society at large.