Lend me your ears... and the head attached

Cicero Denounces Catiline, fresco by Cesare Maccari, 1882–88 (Wikipedia)

Who is Cicero? The short answer is he’s like this famous orator who um well he was a Roman and he talked real good. A slightly longer answer is a man on the wrong end of whose tongue or pen you would not want to be, because his oratory was famously polemical. Hence on September 2nd we should remember, and to some extent celebrate, the first of the “Philippics” that made him famous and dead.

Huh? Dead. Yup. I’ll get to that. But first the Philippics.

It’s a term for a singularly harsh political denunciation. Or at least it used to be. And as you may notice, I’m sidling up to a commentary of the O Tempora O Mores kind about declining cultural standards in which we no longer remember such things and as a result our politics is at least as abusive but far less eloquent. Where’s any sort of Cicero today? Or Demosthenes?

I bring him in because the term “Philippic” originated with his denunciations of Philip of Macedon. Which didn’t work. Thanks in part to Demosthenes, Athens and Thebes did revolt against the dominance of Macedon but got walloped at Chaeronea in 338 BC and for all practical purposes lost its independence permanently.

Somebody assassinated Philip two years later for reasons that are unclear but apparently weren’t related to Athens. Demosthenes again persuaded the Athenians to revolt and again it failed, and with Macedonian agents hot on his heels Demosthenes committed suicide. History remembers him more favourably and rightly so. But his tongue was a double-edged weapon.

Still, I’m meant to be killing Cicero, right? So here we go.

He unleashed his tongue on Mark Antony, the guy who came to bury Caesar not praise him in Shakespeare. Cicero actually objected to the fact that Mark Antony hadn’t helped murder Caesar. And he gave him what for in classic style, even classical, including deliberately adopting Demosthenes’ own Philippics as a model.

He went on and on, 14 of these things in less than two years. And it rather backfired, I have to admit. For one thing, Mark Antony had him killed and his head and hands displayed in the forum to frighten opponents of Antony and his new buddies Octavian and Lepidus. For another, Cicero got so carried away over Mark Antony that he overlooked the danger of Octavian, even endorsing his raising of a private army.

In the end Mark Antony also overlooked the danger of Octavian, who defeated Antony and drove him to suicide, and shuffled Lepidus off into obscurity in which he at least lived out his days in humiliating peace.

As for Cicero, well, he sure gave a great speech. The sort we should imitate. Starting by being aware of it, and even studying it in schools. While also giving a little attention to the need to be a little more prudent about practical matters.