Category Archives: Philosophy

Did he really say it?

There is a quote by Marcus Tullius Cicero that has been making the rounds at blogs for a few years, mostly on the side of the hard right  and Libertarians, usually invoked in the context of an imposing Marxist or “one-world-government” takeover with the occupant of the White House being in on the plot:

“A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and carries his banner openly. But the traitor moves amongst those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself.  For the traitor appears not a traitor – he speaks in accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their arguments, he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men.   He rots the soul of a nation, he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of the city, he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist. A murderer is less to fear. The traitor is the plague.”

 On the face of it, it sounds possibly authentic. the cadences are there and the use of trios of phrases that was a hallmark of the Ciceronian style. If it wasn’t written by him, it was written by someone who at least superficially knew his style. Further, the subject matter of the passage is similar to some attested Ciceronian work. Cicero was known to use the disease metaphor in dealing with specific traitors, in 1 In Catilinam 31 he likens the Republic to a man delusional with fever, the pathogen in question being Lucius Sergius Catilina and his partisans within the city of Rome, and in the other speeches does discuss the danger of having men like Catilina within the city walls. (Catilina was accused by Cicero of having tried to destabilize the Roman Republic in 63 BC, the results of a bitter election battle for Consul the previous year.) For instance, 2 In Catilinam 5:

As for these men [Catilina’s remaining men including Publius Lentulus Sura] whom I see flitting about in the Forum, standing in front of the Senate-house, even coming into the Senate…these I would have preferred him to have taken with him as his soldiers. Remember that, if they remain here, it is not so much his army we have to fear as those who have deserted it. They are all the more frightening because they are unmoved in spite of the realization that I know their plans.

— (from the Loeb Classics Library edition, tr. C. MacDonald. Emphasis mine.)

 But did he actually say it? I can’t find any links to the quote that provide a cite beyond the date it was supposedly said (about which more below). In the speeches that I have read of Cicero’s, the phrase does not appear. The phrasing also seems a bit off from Cicero’s style. It seems to be too conspiratorial, too paranoid, too whispery for a man whose speeches usually are more ringing and showy — his speeches against Catilina are a bombastic denunciation, laying bare everything he knows about the Senator’s plans to destroy the city. Cicero did not do much of anything in sotto voce, if his biographers are to be believed. And that quote looked like it was meant to be read in sotto voce.

 If the quote were genuine, it is a passage that would have stood critical scrutiny in journals and scholarly works — Cicero has been a wellspring for scholars since the days of Macrobius’ Saturnalia (which cribbed liberally from de re Publica and de Legibus and from which many passages from the fragmentary works were recovered). Most other Cicero quotes are featured not exclusively in blogs and reader comment sections, but also in academic works, and in legal texts, and in speeches unto this day of politicians. Nowhere does this quote seem to appear in any work of the sort.

Most of the cites claim Cicero made the statement in 42 BC in a document called “Speech in the Roman Senate.” Two things are wrong with this. I’ll handle the lesser point first.

Cicero was not known for giving nondescript titles to his speeches. “Speech in the Roman Senate” does not appear as a work by him in any known list of his works, mostly because the nearest Latin equivalent, in Senatu habita, literally meaning “delivered in the Senate,” was a tag on such speeches to show the circumstances of the work’s provenance, for instance In Catilinam prima in Senatu habita. His speeches were instead directed for, or against, or on something, like In Catillinam (“Against Catilina”) or Pro Murena(“For Murena”) or De Imperio Cn. Pompeius (“On the Military Command of Gnaeus Pompeius”). The closest thing to such a speech title was Post Reditum in Senatu, which was Cicero’s first speech in the Senate after his exile at the hands of Publus Clodius Pulcher was abrogated, though this was in 57 BC. The quote does not appear there, thought it would have been a prime opportunity for Cicero to have made the remark. 

The more important point follows. There is no way he could have conceivably given a speech in 42 BC. He was not in a condition to speak in 42 BC, having been murdered on the orders of Marc Antony on December 7, 43 BC. Some bloggers, realizing the problems of having a dead man give a speech in the Roman Senate, backdate this to 45 BC, but that presents other problems for authenticity. In 45 BC, Gaius Julius Caesar was still firmly at the helm of the Roman ship of state, and probably would have, given his stated clemency campaign, thought a “traitors in our midst” hysteria counterproductive. There is no real evidence that Caesar, outside of a few troublemakers and recidivists, bothered to enact a purge on the model of the Marian/Saturninian massacres or the Sullan Proscription.  Cicero himself was despondently sitting out much of the Senate proceedings, devoting his time to philosophical works like De Re Publica and De Legibus, and writing a treatise on correct behavior to his son Marcus. He was also in mourning that year for his beloved daughter Tullia, and history records that this was another reason for his somewhat uncharacteristic silence. He did make a few fawning speechs on Caesar’s behalf and in Caesar’s interest (one of Cicero’s failings was that he proved to be a moral coward when faced with overwhelming authority or force — for instance his collaboration with the Triumvirate, which he politically loathed), but for all intents and purposes,  Cicero didn’t return to full public life until after Caesar’s assassination and the delivery of the 14 Philippics against Marc Antony (the speeches that sealed his doom) in 44BC.

Even charitably attributing the quote to his son, also Marcus Tullius Cicero, doesn’t work. The younger Cicero was away from Rome in 42 BC, having fled Antony’s armies after the disastrous Battle of Philippi of that year. And Cicero junior was not known for having the rhetorical genius of his father — there are few, if any, surviving works of his. He’s arguably best known for being the target of de Officiis (“On Obligations”), the above-mentioned treatise that Cicero was working on at the time of his death as a “kick in the pants” to his son, who was spending much of his time in Athens carousing and slacking on philosophical and rhetorical studies (much to his father’s chagrin).

Given all of this, I can only assume that the quote falls in the same category as the infamous “Franklin Prophecy” (an attempt to put in the mouth of — of all people! — Benjamin Franklin an antisemitic rant) or the faked “quotation” from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesarthat surfaced, unbidden, after 9/11 as an indictment of the Bush Administration, or Lincoln’s supposed warning about capitalism.

The dead cannot contradict or deny the words we put into their mouths. But let’s get an expert opinion on this:

Quidem concessum est rhetoribus ementiri in historiis ut aliquid dicere possint argutius. (Indeed, rhetoricians are permitted to lie about historical matters so they can speak more subtly).

  • M. Tullius Cicero, Brutus 42.

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