Is Cicero’s Greatest Work Fake News?

Nic Fields

5 mins

05 Feb 2019

The last agonising years of the Roman Republic produced a gallery of iconic characters that still resonate to this day: Caius Iulius Caesar, Marcus Tullius Cicero, Marcus Iunius Brutus, Caius Cassius Longinus, Marcus Antonius (the ‘Mark Antony’ of Shakespeare and history), and Caius Octavius (better known to us as ‘Octavian’), have all remained household names.

Three of them, Cicero, Mark Antony, and Octavian, are the main characters in the events that lead up to, and follow, the two civil war battles fought outside Mutina during the month of April 43 BC.

Octavian: Cicero’s puppet?

With the advent of Octavian, who was busy eroding Mark Antony’s support among the Caesarian veterans, Cicero saw a way to finally restore the Republic as it had been, the only form of government in which he himself could function effectively.

It was a rapidly changing world for Cicero and the senatorial élite. In the confused aftermath of Caesar’s death, Cicero and Antony, who was consul at the time, found themselves on opposing sides of an increasingly bitter and dangerous battle for political control.

The death of Caesar caused chaos and confusion in the capital.

At that moment in time, the elder statesman believed that it was his star that shined most brightly. The ideologue Brutus, however, was very sceptical about Cicero’s plan to support Octavian, the young heir of Caesar. Brutus saw it opening up a Pandora’s Box.

Cicero prided himself on his reputation as a wit. Caesar himself had appreciated this, and while he was in Gaul he had ordered that Cicero’s witticisms be sent to him post-haste. Even when we translate his well-wrought words from antique Latin to modern-day English, his style is still superb.

Let us take for instance his quip of the day, namely

“the young man must get praises, honours, and – the push”

Cicero’s senatorial colleagues got the gag, for it satisfactorily summed up the general feeling behind their motives at the time – they thought they could control Octavian by keeping him inside their tent – though not all agreed.

Marcus Brutus, who did not see Octavian as a naïve and ineffectual youth who could be easily manipulated, as Cicero seemed to think him to be, warned Cicero that Octavian was more dangerous than Mark Antony. His warning was not heeded.

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Cicero’s ‘fake news’

We should stop a second so as to remember what Cicero had to say about Mark Antony. Put bluntly, Cicero on Antony is full of malice and misinformation.

In his incendiary pamphlet now known as the Second Philippic, a consummate piece of literary craftsmanship for sure, Cicero busies himself with sexual perversions, lust for fame, profligacy and profiteering.

He piles accusation upon accusation – many of them without a smidgen of evidence – and happily paints in the strongest colours Antony as a “drink-sodden, sex-ridden wreck” who never passes a day “without orgies of the most repulsive kind”, and continues by highlighting his reputation as a toy boy and a male prostitute who hangs out with brigands, pimps, mimes and other such riffraff. Strong stuff indeed.

Shakespeare liked to use two devices to get his characters to reveal their true selves: he either put them in disguise or got them drunk. By contrast, Cicero liked to use invective to blur the distinction between truth and lies, reality and fiction.

Arguably, Cicero’s line of attack in the Second Philippic has certain affinities with the here and now ‘post-truth’ politics, for much of what he cooks up in the pamphlet is ‘fake news’.

A marble bust of Marc Antony – the victim of Cicero’s stinging attacks in his Philippics.

Degrading Antony

Mind you, it is fair to say that Mark Antony had a certain bullish charm spiced with a touch of military swagger and savage menace. He was exactly what you imagine a fighting consul of Rome should be like, first and foremost a hard-drinking, hard-living soldier, Mars and Bacchus in one.

Yet Cicero paints this man of action as a decreasingly engaging figure, particularly one who behaves “as a robber of gold and silver – and of wine” or who disgraces himself at a public meeting by:

“flooding his lap and the whole platform with the gobbets of wine-reeking food he had vomited up”

Every individual is a prisoner of their tastes. Antony was a prisoner of his. But he was no weak-kneed slave of his desires beholden to the wrong sort of crowd.

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These charges of sexual deviancy and three-day benders in the company of the ill-repute clung especially close to Antony and to this day his standing continues to suffer as a result of these allegations.

It goes without saying that the hand that holds the pen writes history, but you may want to ask yourself: was Cicero comfortable in the knowledge that the blistering orations he delivered against Mark Antony would for ever be known as his gift to the world?

Yes, I do believe so; in time the fourteen speeches, the Philippics, would also become known for their political affiliation rather than their juicy entertainment factor too.

A bust of Marcus Tullius Cicero, one of history’s greatest orators. Credit: José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / Commons.

“The truest marks of infamy”

Cicero himself predicted correctly his impact on Antony’s public reputation:

“I will brand him with the truest marks of infamy, and will hand him down to the everlasting memory of man”.

Invective bluster may have been an art and convention in Rome (it possessed no libel laws), yet Cicero’s character assassination of Antony through verbal abuse was unrivalled in its ferocity and vitriol.

The seasoned orator knew how to use his word as a sword, and though the sword got the final word, to this day we read Cicero on Antony, not Antony on Cicero. Domestic scandal sells, or so it is said, but few ancient personalities have captured the zeitgeist with quite the popularity as the “naughty life” of Mark Antony.

Dr Nic Fields is a former Royal Marine turned classical scholar and now freelance author specialising in ancient military historian. He has been writing for Osprey Publishing since 2003. His latest title for their Campaign series is Mutina 43 BC: Mark Antony’s struggle for survival.

Top Image Credit: Cicero attacks Mark Anthony at the Senate (Artwork by Peter Dennis, (C) Osprey Publishing)