Rome in the news: O tempora! o mores!

In a truly bizarre turn of events, US Senator Ted Cruz has delivered  an address against President Obama. This in itself isn’t that weird. It’s the particular speech he chose to give that’s odd: a modified version of the First Catilinarian. Ignoring the fact that the ‘average American’ probably has no idea who either Cicero or Catiline is (outside of misty memories of HBO’s Rome), Cruz — or his speechwriters — have made a number of unlikely editorial choices. 

(The speech as delivered, with comparison to the Ciceronian original, can be accessed here. All cited content from Cruz’ speech is taken from the WaPo site.)

Just to be clear, I am not posting this to mock Ted Cruz, defend Ted Cruz, or correct anyone’s (modern) political opinions, be they left, right, or other.  I’m not even going to defend Cicero, whose actions in this case were perhaps not spotless. But I am planning to criticize the speechwriters for missed opportunities, and fill in the historical record for anyone who doesn’t spend all day reading Cicero.

First, the background. Rome’s government was rather different from American government, in that it was not bicameral and was bicipial. By that I mean that, in American terms, the Romans had two presidents and only one house of congress. These “presidents” were called consuls, they served only one one-year term every decade (ideally), and Cicero was one when he delivered this speech against Catiline. Catiline, in fact, was his failed electoral opponent who was accused (by Cicero) of gathering an army of rebels to invade Rome and kill the senators. It’s not entirely clear how serious Catiline was about this project, but by Cicero’s day the city had been invaded by grumpy politicians with armies several times. So Catiline was potentially a threat. Cicero’s ultimate goal of stopping the conspiracy was successful, surprisingly so, because no crime had been committed yet. This would eventually get him into trouble, but that’s neither here nor there.

It’s important to stress that Cicero lived in Rome’s Republican era, so Cruz’ claim that Obama is a king is relevant here (at this period, Romans weren’t too keen on them either). Also important to realize? This speech has nothing to do with social policy, and I disagree with Jesse Weiner that Catiline was an advocate for anyone but himself. On the other hand, Ted Cruz’ persona of ultraconservative protectionism fits quite well onto Cicero’s own. The Roman orator generally disdained those who were not boni: rich, of high social status, and a desire to limit political agency to those who were like them.

Some of the changes to Cicero’s speech are easily comprehensible, and I won’t go into them in great detail. Changing “men” to “men and women” is obviously politically savvy; similarly, references to Rome and its monuments must be replaced by references to US culture and history. Such adaptations are not particularly interesting. Similarly, the calls for Catiline’s death must be removed in order to equate Obama and Catiline, because otherwise Cruz would run the risk of treason. More interesting changes come towards the end:

Dictates! Aye, he comes even won’t even come into the Senate. He takes a will not take part in the public deliberations; he is watching and marking down and checking off for slaughter he ignores every individual among us. And we, gallant men and women that we are, think that we are doing our duty to the republic if we keep out of the way of his frenzied attacks

In the age of the NSA, wouldn’t it be wiser to keep the claim of constant watchfulness?  (Interestingly, Cruz does retain Cicero’s earlier claim to his own constant watchfulness and awareness at the beginning of the speech.)

What? Did not that most illustrious man, Publius Scipio, the Pontifex Maximus, in his capacity of a private citizen, put to death Tiberius Gracchus, though but slightly undermining the constitution? And shall we, who are the consuls Senate, tolerate Catiline President Obama, openly desirous to destroy the whole world with fire and slaughter the Constitution and this Republic? For I pass over older instances, such as how Caius Servilius Ahala with his own hand slew Spurius Maelius when plotting a revolution in the state how the IRS plotted to silence American citizens. There was — there was once such virtue in this republic, that brave men and women would repress mischievous citizens with severer chastisement than the most bitter enemy. 

This section is just interesting in general. In Cicero, we get two exempla (examples of a great deed from the past) and a praeteritio, which is a rhetorical trick in which you say something by not saying it. (Example: “Not to mention the expense!” — well, but you just did.) The exempla are two examples of killing men who tried to become king — since this is the element of the First Catilinarian that Cruz has tried to tone down all along, it’s perhaps not surprising that they’re missing here.

The praeteritio is more interesting, though, since Cicero ‘passes over’ a bunch of older examples that he expects his audience either won’t know or won’t care about. Where Cicero mentions these as quickly as possible and then moves on, Cruz’ entire speech is essentially a “very old exemplum“: Cicero.

This appeal to antiquity paradoxically undercuts his point. Cicero omits a long list of precendents because his main aim (stopping Catiline) is urgent, and the praeteritio offers forward motion while suggesting a long tradition supports Cicero’s actions. Cruz’ speech, in contrast, focuses on the tradition, which suggests that perhaps the actions are less urgent than he’d like them to seem.

I’ll end with a suggestion for Cruz and his speechwriting team. Cicero delivered this speech against a potentially treasonous civilian while he was one of the two heads of state. Cruz himself is a magistrate (a senator), delivering the speech against a head of state with whose policies he fundamentally disagrees. If he wants to look to Cicero, the Catilinarians are the wrong model. May I suggest, Senator Cruz, that you read the Philippics instead?


H/t, as usual, to Mike Vasta.

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Rome in the news: O tempora! o mores! by is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


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