Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Cicero's "In Defense of the Republic": Introduction (Part 1 of many)

Book two of my summer reading is "In Defense of the Republic," a collection of the great arguments of Cicero.

Part 1: the introduction.  I.e.: The Romans were some freaky, freaky dudes.  No, seriously... freaky dudes...

Bust of Sulla (Wikipedia.)  It was under Sulla's dictatorship that Cicero first gained prominence as an orator.   Cicero lived during a particularly turbulent time in Rome.

So while writing up the big summary of "Beyond Freedom and Dignity," I realized some weak points to reading the book in full and providing a summary at the end.

First, the blog post was lengthy.  Even though I don't really expect people to actually read my blog posts, not even I am interested in reviewing a vast wall of text.

Second, because I reviewed it at the end and did not take notes in the margins, I lost a lot of my original thoughts and points of interest.

So, this time I'm doing it differently.  I'm going to provide a review for each major section (as I define it) as I read them.  That will make the notes fresh for me and keep the blog posts shorter.

The introduction to the Penguin Classics "In Defense of the Republic" is quite long but very good.  I actually learned a great deal about Rome that I didn't know before.

Rome's Criminal Justice System

The first thing that really struck me - or maybe just struck me the hardest - was that despite having a population between 500,000 and 2 million in the Italian region alone (discussion on the range here), Rome had no real criminal justice system.  None, nada, zippo, zilch.

There was no police force whatsoever.  What was a "crime" was decided by important private citizens.  If you weren't important enough and couldn't find someone important to take your case, even if you were a citizen - even a patrician citizen - you were basically on your own.  Whatever happened to you was not considered a crime.

Trials themselves were bizarre, circus-like affairs.  Originally juries were made of citizens, but the dictator Sulla declared that juries were to only be made up of senators.  The average size of a jury was 75, but it could soar into the hundreds for important trials.  Most trials took place in the Forum, which was open air.  Crowds would gather, hooting and shouting in response to what the orators said.

The man who presided over the trial was called the praetor.  Unlike a modern judge, he did not explain the laws or procedures to the jury.  He was simply there to observe that the trial conformed to general procedure and that there wasn't an unseemly level of bribery (although the translator emphasizes that a certain level of bribery was expected.)  In fact, the only way that juries conformed to modern juries was that decisions were done by secret ballot and that the evidence that would be presented was logged before the trial commenced.

To me, this was horrifying.  I'm a small woman - fit and fast, but small and female.  My first thought was the phrase "gangrapicus maximus!!!"  Imagine a city with a population in the hundreds of thousands with literally no police force.  None.  And if you weren't important enough for the important people to notice you literally anything could be done to you.

Rome wasn't "governed," it was merely a series of bullies bullying one another into submission!

Me observing the transit of Venus last week at an exhibition hosted by a library in Fairbanks, AK.  I am not a big person.  The idea that in ancient Rome there was absolutely no police or anything resembling a criminal justice system makes me wonder why so many people hold up ancient Rome as a light of civilization in a barbarous ancient world.
All of this is pertinent to Cicero's story because Cicero was an orator, which means that he was often called upon (hired, asked, occasionally as they say in the military "voluntold") to argue cases in the Forum.  Four of the arguments in my book - Against Verres, In Defense of Archias, In Defense of Sestius, and In Defense of Milo - are arguments of this type.  To me it's particularly interesting because criminal justice is always interesting to me.

Roman Politics

In his adult life Cicero lived through Sulla, The First Triumvirate (Julius Caesar, Crassus and Pompey), the very brief dictatorship of Caesar, and The Second Triumvirate (Antony, Octavian and Lepidus).  He was eventually assassinated by Antony in one of the great proscriptions of the time period.  A proscription was, apparently, the enemies list of the new leaders.  The head and hands of Cicero were taken and placed on display in the Forum.

Now, there's lots of fun to be had in that bit of history.  But most of it we learned the basics of in junior high or high school.  So I'd love to cover an example of the shear freaky nature of the Romans and cover something that wasn't covered in junior high (at least in my class): the Bona Dea Affair.

Freaky Romans: The Bona Dea Affair

Once upon a time there was a guy named Clodius who had more ambition than brains.  Clodius wanted to know more about what was going on in the house of Caesar.  So, he did what any normal Roman man would do and... dressed up like a woman.  To sneak into a woman-only sacred ceremony known as the rites of the Bona Dea ("Good Godess.")

Perhaps it was Clodius's 5 o'clock shadow that gave him away - or his giant Adam's apple, or any of the other things that I imagine it was hard to cover using circa 60 BCE make up.  Regardless of what tipped off the women, he was discovered.

Julius Caesar was pissed, so he then did what any normal man would do and... promptly divorced his wife.  This is where "Caesar's wife must be above suspicion" apparently comes from.

Because Caesar was important - this was shortly before The First Triumvirate - Clodius went to trial.  Cicero was placed in an awkward position because although Clodius was supposedly his friend, Caesar voluntold Cicero to argue against Clodius.

Well, Cicero did a great job.  Including in the public debate in the forum that Clodius was... banging his sister.  No joke.

Whether or not Cicero knew or really thought Clodius was banging his own sister is a matter of debate.  It was, however, believable to those who knew Clodius that the cross-dressing would-be spy could also be banging his sister.

Tragically for Cicero, Clodius was set free.  Cicero had lost the argument.  Four years later when Clodius was made a tribune he passed a law that stated that anyone who had executed a Roman citizen without trial should be exiled from Rome.  Cicero, who had executed some conspirators against his friend Catiline without trial, was basically transformed into a fugitive overnight.  Not the move that finally got Cicero killed, but it was a near miss.

So, not only did Clodius think that he could pull off cross-dressing convincingly, even though most of Rome was convinced he was sleeping with his sister, he still got a consulship.

Could someone explain what made the Romans "civilized"?

A Little More

So, I'm excited to be reading some of the great speeches of Rome - speeches that people read in Rome a hundred years later as examples of how to speak and argue.  I'm particularly interested because I've read a good deal of ancient speeches and arguments and, let me tell you, many don't hold up very well two thousand years later - and some hold up spectacularly.

I'm also excited to learn about the world as they saw it.  What the Romans thought was important and worth fighting for.  What they saw as "good evidence" and "bad evidence."

Cicero gave orations in predominately in three locations: the Senate, the courts and the Assemblies.  The Assemblies were great mobs, sometimes called for voting, other times just called for the entertainment of having propaganda shouted at them by great orators.  It makes sense; it would be a little like if we had no TV and had to actually go watch Dan Rather say the news live.

So far my impression is that the Romans were militarily advanced, artistically advanced, debaucherous, vindictive bullies.  Let's see if that evolves.


  1. very entertaining recap! Never read these.

  2. I have to admit, I'm also excited to learn what Romans considered a "scandal."

    Could you imagine John Edwards or Mitt Romney being accused of sleeping with their sister and then still being elected???

  3. I must admit, I have 'Oklahoma' running through my brain: "It's a scandal, it's a outrage."