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In defence of the word: Works of Cicero

Cicero is the first martyr to free speech, preferring to die rather than permanently capitulate

Is it relevant to channel Cicero at this moment when reasoned argument appears to have little value? Perhaps not. But let us pretend that debate and discourse are still relevant and have use, even in this nation and in these times. In any case, Cicero is relevant for another reason: he is the first martyr to free speech, preferring to die rather than permanently capitulate.

His crime was to publicly oppose dictatorship and one-man rule. The man he opposed was, of course, Julius Caesar and later Mark Antony. What we think of as parliamentary debate has its origins in the speeches given by men in Greece and Rome. And the exemplar of this form of defiant communication is Marcus Tullius Cicero.

Unadorned prose

He made translations of Plato, wrote tracts on philosophy and religion, and was a prolific correspondent, penning many letters. But it is for his rhetoric that he is justly famous, not only in his time but also in ours. His legal speeches — against Verres, for Quinctius, among others — and his political speeches — against Mark Antony, in particular — have survived and come down to us as textbook examples of quality style.

Cicero wrote unadorned prose. He praised Caesar’s writing style, quite similar to his, though he opposed his politics. Cicero’s writing was transparent and direct and so effective that by words alone he could get potential dictators to flee Rome (the Catiline Orations of 63 BC).

Three years later, in 60 BC, Caesar invited Cicero, who was widely respected, to join as fourth member of the initial triumvirate he led with Pompey and the wealthy financier Crassus. Cicero declined, remaining loyal to the idea of the Republic.

Harassed, he went into exile and focussed on his writing.

When Caesar broke with Pompey, Cicero sided with the latter believing that he would be more republican than the great warrior. Alas, at the Battle of Pharsalus, Caesar’s smaller but vastly more competent force routed the legions of Pompey (in an engagement reminiscent of the rebel Aurangzeb’s victory over the Mughal banners at Samugarh).

Dying with dignity

Caesar entered Rome triumphant — in the actual sense of the word — and was elected dictator for life. He pardoned Cicero, who had returned to the city. On 15th (Ides in Roman) of March, Caesar was assassinated by Romans who wanted the republic restored. Cicero initially reconciled with them, siding with some against the others. This did not last, and inevitably his fierce rhetoric against Mark Antony made him a target again. Cicero was hunted down and executed.

Like Saddam Hussein at the gallows, Cicero went to his death with great dignity. “There is nothing proper in what you are about to do,” he told his executor, “but please try to kill me properly.” He was beheaded and his hands and head were put on display. It is said that Mark Antony’s wife pulled out Cicero’s tongue from his head and stabbed it, as vengeance against his words.

After the fading of Rome and the rise of Christianity, for more than a millennia, his works were all but forgotten. The Arab scholars who ignited the European Renaissance of the 12th century had more interest in science and philosophy than rhetoric and literature. They were reintroduced by the Italian scholar Petrarch. His discovery of Cicero’s letters is thought to be one of the catalysts for the 14th-century Italian Renaissance.

The church recognised Cicero’s qualities and deemed him to be virtuous even though a pagan, an act of great pragmatism by the Christians. This has helped preserve his works for us. We can revisit them in these times and take inspiration and comfort from the fact that those who defiantly used words against weapons, the ages have not forgotten.

Aakar Patel is a columnist and translator of Urdu and Gujarati non-fiction works.

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2020 10:09:31 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/in-defence-of-the-word-works-of-cicero/article30524774.ece

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