Text #9680Editorial comment by Laura Knight-Jadczyk
The next day, Caesar stood by silently as Cicero proclaimed to the people of Rome the “proof” of Catilina’s guilt: that he had fled from Rome early that morning! Never mind that Cicero had essentially ordered him to do so! He told them that Catilina had left…
Blazing with audacity, breathing forth crime, wickedly plotting the destruction of his country, threatening you and this city with sword and fire. … Catilina ought long ago to have been put to death…
This was the Second Catalinian Oration.
What is fascinating is how certain Cicero was that now, Catiline was gone, there was no further danger within the city!
No injury will now be prepared against these walls within the walls themselves by that monster and prodigy of wickedness. And we have, without controversy, defeated him, the sole general of this domestic war. For now that dagger will no longer hover about our sides; we shall not be afraid in the campus, in the forum, in the senate-house,—aye, and within our own private walls.
The only way Cicero could possibly have been certain of that would be if he, himself, was the author of the conspiracy theory. But Cicero thought of everything. He knew that the disbelievers would be asking: why did you let him go if he was so dangerous and you had proof? And who was to blame? All of those who had not listened to Cicero when he first pointed the finger at Catilina. The appropriate actions had not been taken because it was…
Not approved by all of you …if I had punished him with death I would have been overwhelmed with odium.
He dismissed Catilina’s co-conspirators, his alleged “army of rebels” as “a collection of ruined old men, of boorish high-livers, or rustic spendthrifts” who had united in an “incredible alliance of crime” due only to desperation over their debts. And of course, they were to blame for those debts, naturally. Almost twenty years later, Cicero would recall that “never were measures for the repudiation of debts more strenuously agitated than in my consulship. Men of every sort and rank attempted with arms and armies to force the project through.” Cicero, of course, took no measures to deal with the problems, instead, as he declared with pride that baffles the human mind “I opposed them with such energy that this plague was wholly eradicated from the body politic.” Cicero, as the agent and mouthpiece of the oligarchs, into whose company he had sold his soul to be admitted, never entertained a single proposal to relieve the distress of humanity. “If my consulship is to destroy these men since it cannot cure them, not some short time but many ages will be added to the life of the state.”
He was wrong, dead, dead, wrong. In fact, the solutions of Cicero and his mentors, repression and massacre, actually hastened the end of their rule and the death of the Republic.
Interestingly, Cicero exposes that he was rather conscious of what he was doing and that it was evil. He was hoping that he had driven Catilina into the arms of Manlius, the old Sullan centurion in Etruria who was the leader of the veteran protestors there. But he acknowledged that if Catilina actually went into exile that “men will say not that this man was stripped of his armor of audacity by me, not that he was dazed and terrified by my vigilance nor thwarted in his hope and purpose but uncondemned and innocent he has gone into exile, driven out by the force and threats of a consul, and if he follows this course there will be those who will wish to think him not a criminal but an object of pity and me not a most watchful consul but a most cruel tyrant.” But he didn’t let this worry him for long, he was too focused on exalting his own power and victory over Catilina who he had driven out of Rome. He wrote:
On this side fights modesty; on that shamelessness; on this chastity, on that wantonness; on this honor, on that fraud; on this righteousness, on that crime; on this steadfastness, on that madness; on this honesty, on that deceit; on this self-restraint, on that lust; and finally on this side justice, temperance, fortitude, prudence, all the virtues, contend with injustice, extravagance, cowardice, recklessness, all the vices; lastly, abundance with poverty, good reason with bad, sanity with insanity and, finally, fair hope fights against deepest despair.”
“Such language would recall to Caesar and to other intellectuals in the audience a classic description by Thucydides of class violence in the Greek world, when “words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them” according to the side employing them. “Reckless audacity,” declared Thucydides, employing a term frequently used in Cicero’s recent orations, “came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation [for which Cicero pretended to take himself to task], specious cowardice; moderation [a virtue which Cicero rejected in his call for Catilina’s summary execution] was held to be a cloak of unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question [Cicero blocked investigation of charges], inaptness to act on any… The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected [according to Cicero, of guilt by association]… Thus the greatest of Greek historians characterized for all generations to come the distortion in language in times of repression of discontent, a distortion exemplified in Cicero’s harangues.” (Kahn)
It was obvious what Cicero was after. He hoped that he could goad Catilina and other discontented persons to revolt so that he could repeat Sulla’s performance of restoration of the absolute authority of the inner circle of the senate, though without massacres and proscriptions; and all before the end of his term as consul and definitely before Pompey reached Rome! He’d been trying to get this thing going for almost a whole year!
The greatest perils well be averted without any tumult and a rebellion and a civil war, the greatest and most cruel within the memory of man, will be suppressed by me alone, a leader and commander wearing the garb of peace.
How blind could he be? It could be said that the greatest and most cruel civil war within the memory of man was caused by Cicero almost single-handedly because, not only did he do nothing when he had the chance as consul, when Caesar came to power, he used all his wiles and cunning to subvert his efforts to reform and resuscitate the Republic. It could even be said that his cunning, insinuating, suggestive rhetoric was directly responsible for the plot to assassinate Caesar. What a filthy, disgusting creature he was.