Today is the birthday of Marcus Tullius Cicero, Roman philosopher, politician, lawyer, orator, political theorist, consul, and constitutionalist. He came from a wealthy municipal family of the Roman equestrian order (lower than patricians, but not plebeians), and is widely considered one of Rome’s greatest orators and prose stylists.
His influence on the Latin language was so immense that the subsequent history of prose in not only Latin but European languages up to the 19th century was said to be either a reaction against or a return to his style. According to Michael Grant, “the influence of Cicero upon the history of European literature and ideas greatly exceeds that of any other prose writer in any language.” Big words. Cicero introduced the Romans to the chief schools of Greek philosophy and created a Latin philosophical vocabulary (with neologisms such as humanitas, qualitas, quantitas, and essentia) distinguishing himself as a linguist, translator, and philosopher.
When I was studying for the Advanced-Level exam in Latin in the sixth form in England I was required to write a Latin prose piece every week (which I hated), and it always had to be in the style of Cicero. Emulation of Cicero was so exacting that if I needed to use a new word, I had to look it up in an historical Latin dictionary and could use it ONLY if Cicero had (an ideal dating back to the humanist scholars of the Renaissance). All Latin, both before and after Cicero, was considered inferior by my teachers and the examiners. To tell the truth, I found Cicero dull and pedantic, and still do. I was happier with the likes of Virgil and Juvenal, because they dealt with battles and farming and feasting, not politics and rhetoric. I was even happier with Greek poetry and literature which just seemed to have more flow than their Latin counterparts. But I’ll give Cicero his due. He took an extremely workaday language and added some sparkles to enliven it – in the end, a lost cause in my humble and ignorant opinion.
Petrarch’s rediscovery of Cicero’s letters is often credited with initiating the 14th-century Renaissance in public affairs, humanism, and classical Roman culture. Polish historian Tadeusz Zieliński wrote, “Renaissance was above all things a revival of Cicero, and only after him and through him of the rest of Classical antiquity.” We need to be measured here, though. The philosophy of Plato and Aristotle were of much greater importance than that of Cicero, but Cicero opened the window through which his betters could be viewed. The peak of Cicero’s authority and prestige came during the 18th century, and his impact on leading Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke, David Hume, and Montesquieu was substantial. His works rank among the most influential in European culture, and today still constitute one of the most important bodies of primary material for Roman history, especially the last days of the Roman Republic.
Though he was an accomplished orator and successful lawyer, Cicero believed his political career was his most important achievement. It was during his consulship that Catiline (Lucius Sergius Catilina) and his co-conspirators attempted to overthrow the government through an attack on the city by outside forces. Cicero suppressed the revolt by executing five conspirators without due process (commonplace in Rome).
During the chaotic latter half of the 1st century BCE, marked by civil wars and the dictatorship of Gaius Julius Caesar, Cicero championed a return to traditional republican government. Following Julius Caesar’s death Cicero became an enemy of Mark Antony in the ensuing power struggle, attacking him in a series of speeches. He was proscribed as an enemy of the state by the Second Triumvirate and consequently executed by soldiers operating on their behalf in 43 BCE after having been intercepted during attempted flight from the Italian peninsula. His severed hands and head were then, as a final act of revenge by Mark Antony, displayed in the Roman Forum. Octavian, Caesar’s heir and later the first emperor, Augustus, is believed to have argued vehemently against the proscription, but ultimately conceded to Mark Antony’s wishes. However when Octavian subsequently turned on, and defeated, Mark Antony, he showed deep remorse for his part in Cicero’s death, and tried to make amends by protecting and supporting his son (Marcus Minor) despite the latter’s ever-changing political views.
My assessment here of Cicero’s legacy, while derivative, is fair, I believe, although perhaps tainted slightly by the years I spent laboring over his speeches as a teenager. Cicero has been traditionally considered the master of Latin prose, with Quintilian declaring that Cicero was “not the name of a man, but of eloquence itself.” Julius Caesar praised Cicero’s achievement by saying “it is more important to have greatly extended the frontiers of the Roman spirit (ingenium) than the frontiers of the Roman empire.” According to John William Mackail, “Cicero’s unique and imperishable glory is that he created the language of the civilized world, and used that language to create a style which nineteen centuries have not replaced, and in some respects have hardly altered.”
Cicero wrote a great deal on a variety of subjects. His writing was readily available and widely used in schools in classical antiquity, and, because of its fame, survived into the modern world with a relatively small percentage lost. A graffito found at Pompeii states, “You will like Cicero, or you will be whipped” – work of a disgruntled student, no doubt. Cicero was greatly admired by influential Church Fathers such as Augustine of Hippo, who credited Cicero’s lost Hortensius for his eventual conversion to Christianity, and St. Jerome, who had a feverish vision in which he was accused of being “follower of Cicero and not of Christ” before the judgment seat. This influence further increased after the Early Middle Ages in Europe, which more of his writings survived than any other Latin author. Medieval philosophers were influenced by Cicero’s writings on natural law and innate rights. Petrarch’s rediscovery of Cicero’s letters provided impetus for searches for ancient Greek and Latin writings scattered throughout European monasteries, and the subsequent rediscovery of Classical Antiquity led, in part, to the Renaissance.
His voluminous correspondence, much of it addressed to his friend Atticus, has been especially influential, introducing the art of refined letter writing to European culture. Cornelius Nepos, the 1st century BCE biographer of Atticus, remarked that Cicero’s letters contained such a wealth of detail “concerning the inclinations of leading men, the faults of the generals, and the revolutions in the government” that their reader had little need for a history of the period. Following the invention of the printing press, De Officiis was the second book to be printed, after the Gutenberg Bible. Historians also note Cicero’s influence on the rebirth of religious toleration in the 17th century.
While Cicero the humanist deeply influenced the culture of the Renaissance, Cicero the republican inspired the Founding Fathers of the United States and the revolutionaries of the French Revolution. John Adams said of him “As all the ages of the world have not produced a greater statesman and philosopher united than Cicero, his authority should have great weight.” Jefferson names Cicero as one of a handful of major figures who contributed to a tradition “of public right” that informed his draft of the Declaration of Independence and shaped American understandings of “the common sense” basis for the right of revolution. Camille Desmoulins said of the French republicans in 1789 that they were “mostly young people who, nourished by the reading of Cicero at school, had become passionate enthusiasts for liberty.”
On the other hand, no other ancient personality has inspired as much venomous dislike as Cicero, especially in more modern times. His commitment to the values of the Republic accommodated a hatred of the poor and persistent opposition to the advocates and mechanisms of popular representation. Friedrich Engels referred to him as “the most contemptible scoundrel in history” for upholding republican “democracy” while at the same time denouncing land and class reforms. Cicero has faced criticism for exaggerating the democratic qualities of republican Rome, and for defending the Roman oligarchy against the popular reforms of Caesar. Michael Parenti admits Cicero’s abilities as an orator, but finds him a vain, pompous and hypocritical personality who, when it suited him, could show public support for popular causes that he privately despised. Parenti presents Cicero’s prosecution of the Catiline conspiracy as legally flawed at the very least, and possibly unlawful. I have no trouble seeing Cicero as vain, arrogant and self serving. The First Catiline Oration is a model of pompous self-aggrandizement. He suffered the fate that all politicians deserve who switch allegiance based on self interest rather than principle. No doubt his defenders will disagree.
By default I turn, as always, to Apicius’ De re coquinaria for a Roman recipe. No doubt Cicero would shudder at the Latin in this cookbook written several centuries after his death in what is basically street Latin of the 4th or 5th century. You can get the gist without much trouble (assuming you read Latin), but there are obscure words in the text, and the precise nature of some ingredients is obscure. Here are a couple of recipes for sausages that could easily fit into the modern Italian kitchen. Modern cooks use SE Asian fermented fish sauce as a substitute for liquamen. Laser is an unknown ingredient although it is conjectured that it was asafoetida. From Apicius we know that laser was extremely expensive, but prized in cooking. I’d go with asafoetida as a substitute. My translations here are not terribly literal, but I hope they get the point across. Sausage making has not changed a whole lot in two millenia.
First is a recipe for brain sausage. Brains continue to be used for stuffed pastas in Italy, and I have made such quite often. Using brains as a stuffing, rather than “as is,” tends to soften the outcries of the squeamish. I parboil the brains when I use them, and prefer a meat grinder or food processor to a mortar. The method of boiling then frying sausages is one I use.
Ova et cerebella teres, nucleos pineos, piper, liquamen, laser modicum, et his intestinum implebis. Elixas, postea assas et inferes.
Pound eggs and brains, pine nuts, pepper, liquamen and a little laser, and use this mix to fill your casings (intestines). Boil the sausages, then fry them and serve.
Lucanian sausages are highly seasoned and then smoked. Use of ground fatty pork as the main ingredient has to be inferred because the text is not clear. Here’s an image of one of my efforts (using a big casing).
Lucanicas similiter ut supra scriptum est: Lucanicarum confectio teritur piper, cuminum, satureia, ruta, petroselinum, condimentum, bacae lauri, liquamen, et admiscetur pulpa bene tunsa ita ut denuo bene cum ipso subtrito fricetur. Cum liquamine admixto, pipere integro et abundanti pinguedine et nucleis inicies in intestinum perquam tenuatim perductum, et sic ad fumum suspenditur.
Lucanian sausages are made in the same way as above: grind up pepper, cumin, savory, rue, parsley, condiment [condimentum], laurel berries and liquamen. Make sure the paste [pulpa] is thoroughly mixed and blended [with minced pork]. To this mixture add whole peppercorns and nuts, fill your casings, and hang the sausages to smoke.