Friday, July 9, 2010

The Positions We Are Given

Reading Everitt's Cicero, more things continue to strike me both about Cicero and rhetoric. Many have argued, myself included, that the ethos of the rhetor emerges from rather than proceeds rhetorical interaction. Ethos is as much a given as it is a got. This is clearly the case for Cicero whole struggle for and against various emergent ethoi his entire life. He worked hard to establish himself as a successful advocate. Once in positions of political power he worked to secure his reputation (by writing self-promotional works), which were often criticized by his opponents. He also struggled against his status as a "New Man": he lacked "then appropriate blue-blooded pedigree" (14). That is, his ethos continually reemerge within the shifting political climate of republican-becoming-imperial Rome.

Just as important, however, were the forces that shaped Cicero's political views and positions. Cicero moved from an optimate to populare on several occasions. He was sometimes with Pompey and sometimes with Caesar. He often represented both friends and enemies in the courts. History is harsh on those who are found, at different points in time, to occupy competing positions. And, often, rightly so. However, I would argue that our rush to judge harshly marks the instability of political views and position--including our own. In other words, we judge others for switching positions so that we might maintain the view that we pick at all.

The notion that we freely choose our views is easy to complicate in the case of Cicero because of how personal politics were in Rome. Tullia, Cicero's beloved daughter, chose for her third husband "a reckless and womanizing playboy" (200). Cicero did not approve. They were further, political implications. Cicero was, at the time, the governor of Cicilia (a position he was assigned in the wake of new laws about the duties of former Counselors). The previous governor, one Appius Claudius, had decided to stick around. This created several problems with respect to Cicero's ability to govern and protect the province. Cicero had "chosen" the diplomatic path: don't piss Appius off so that he might, at least, not work deliberately to make things difficult. This choice made sense given the fragility of the situation in Cicilia and in Rome. And the arrangement was working.

That is, until Tullia married the playboy Publius Cornelius Lentulus Dolabella, who was just then bringing Appius to trial "on a treason charge" (200). Cicero, by virtue of his daughter's marriage, found himself positioned against Appius. "Here I am in my province paying Appius all kinds of compliment, when out of the blue I find his prosecutor becoming my son-in-law" (200). This situation, thankfully, took care of itself when Cicero's term (his position) as governor ended. Cicero was also coming to terms with Publius as a son-in-law: "We all find him charming [...] He is clever and agreeable as you please. Other characteristics, of which you are aware, we must put up with" (200).

We are agents making choices to be sure; we are not, however, the only agents. Circumstance, the actions of others, often choose for us. This is not to say that we cannot struggle, but it is to argue that rhetoric (and its critics) must acknowledge that the moment, more often than not, seizes us. And, in such moments, we must muddle through, which seems to be the strategy that most aptly describes the life and times of Cicero.


  1. Interesting stuff. I haven't studied Cicero yet, but this is tempting. Out of curiosity, have you read any "modernist" or downright old-fashioned biographies of Cicero? I certainly haven't, but I wonder how different he might appear (as different as Plato's Socrates & Aristophanes'?).

  2. I have not. Everitt makes explicit that he is rather fond of Cicero, and that he sees his biography as a recuperation of Cicero's image. He draws primarily on contemporary sources, primarily Cicero's letters to Atticus, Cicero's various other documents, and histories written during and soon after the events. It is pretty lite reading. It has made me thirsty for meatier biographers, but I have very much enjoyed a treatment of Cicero that focuses on his life and times. It has contextualized Cicero for me in new ways.

    I think you would like Cicero. He was often frustrated by his own times and often sought solace in philosophy. You might, at times, disagree with his conclusions, but you might very well enjoy the man himself.

  3. I've wanted to chime in on this for awhile, so here's a quickie: isn't Cicero one of the unluckiest rhetors in history? It seems like no matter who this guy sided with, the other side always won. And I don't think its Cicero's fault. He was just a political jinx.