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The Death of Cicero

"All honest men killed Caesar....some lacked design, some courage, some opportunity: none lacked the will."

Cicero, Philippics

In despair over the state of affairs, Cicero set out for Greece on July 14, four months after Caesar's assassination, but, criticized by his friend Atticus, abandoned his journey and returned to Rome on August 31. A meeting of the Senate was called by Antony for the next day to propose a new honor to the slain dictator. Pleading exhaustion, Cicero did not attend and was assailed for his absence. When Cicero did appear the day after (in Antony's absence), he delivered the first of what would be fourteen Philippics. Named after the speeches given by Demosthenes against Philip II of Macedonia, they argued against tyranny and for the restoration of the Republic.

That did not happen. Cicero was killed in 43 BC as part of the proscription. Brutus and Cassius were defeated the next year at Philippi and committed suicide, as did Antony and Cleopatra after their defeat at Actium. Rome would be ruled by an emperor.

Fulvia, Antony's wife, who had been married to Clodius, Cicero's implacable enemy, vented her hatred on the dead orator as well. Cassius Dio (XLVII.8.4) writes that, before the head and right hand of Cicero were exposed on the Rostra, she took the head in her hands and spat on it. Then, setting it on her knees, opened the mouth and, with pins from her hair, pierced the tongue that had argued so eloquently against her husband.

Proud of his role in the murder, Popilius, the military tribune who had been sent to kill the man who once had defended him in court, set up a statue of himself wearing a wreath, sitting beside the severed head of Cicero, a gesture that so pleased Antony that he added a bonus to his award (Dio, XLVII.11.2). Perversely, Antony then handed over the man who had betrayed Cicero to the tribune. Philologus had been educated by Cicero and was a freedman of Quintus, Cicero's brother. He was given up to Pomponia, who, even though she and Quintus were divorced, forced the man to cut off his own flesh bit by bit, roast the pieces, and eat them (Plutarch, Life of Cicero, XLIX).


The enmity of Publius Clodius Pulcher for Cicero stemmed from an incident that had occurred almost twenty years before, in 62 BC, when Clodius, who was enamored of Caesar's wife, Pompeia, had disguised himself as a woman in an attempt to see her at Caesar's residence, where the mysteries of Bona Dea were being celebrated. He was discovered there and a scandal ensued. As pontifex maximus, Caesar divorce Pompeia, who had to be above even the suspicion of adultery. Clodius was charged with sacrilege but insisted that he was not in Rome at the time, an alibi that Cicero contradicted when he testified that he, himself, had spoken with the intruder that day. Intriguingly, it was thought that the testimony had been at the insistence of Terentia, Cicero's wife, to allay her suspicious that Clodius' sister Clodia wanted to marry her husband (Plutarch, Life of Cicero, XXVIII-XXIX; also Life of Caesar, IX-X). As to the beautiful Clodia, she was supposed to have slept with her own brother, poisoned her husband and was a lover, as well, of Catullus, who famously wrote of her as the "Lesbia" of his poems. Replaced in her affections by Marcus Caelius Rufus, the scorned lover lashed out in a poem to him.

"O, Caelius, my Lesbia, that Lesbia, Lesbia whom alone Catullus loved more than himself and all his own, now in the cross-roads and alleys serves [glubit] the filthy lusts of the descendants of lordly-minded Remus" (LVIII).

The Latin verb glubo is defined by the Oxford Latin Dictionary as "to strip the bark from," although, in this context, the meaning is uncertain, and it is not known exactly how Catullus meant this wood was being peeled (which is why translations of the verb are so varied). In 56 BC, when Caelius Rufus, who lived in an apartment block owned by Clodius, eventually grew distant, Clodia took him to court, charging that he had attempted to poison her. Cicero successfully defended his friend and protégé, using the defense (Pro Caelio) to avenge himself on Clodius as well. Clodia, herself, was attacked as this "Medea of the Palatine" (VIII) or, in a phrase from Caelius himself, a quadrantariam Clytaemestram, a "Clytemnestra who sold her favours for a farthing," from quadrans, the smallest coin denomination (a quarter of an as) and the nominal price of admission to the baths (Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, VIII.6.53; Pro Caelio, LXII; Plutarch, Life of Cicero, XXIX.5). Yet, in spite of this enmity, Cicero writes to Atticus in 45 BC inquiring about buying her house and gardens, although he doubts that Clodia will sell (XII.42.2)!

In 58 BC, Clodius was elected tribune, for which he had made himself eligible by petitioning to change his status from that of patrician to plebeian. He then proposed that any official who had executed a citizen without due process of law was to be exiled. Cicero, who, as consul five years earlier, had executed several participants in the conspiracy of Catilina (including Lentulus, Antony's step-father) , was obliged to take refuge in Thessalonica. Clodius had Cicero condemned and his property confiscated, burning down his magnificent house on the Palatine (as well as his villas) and erecting in its place a shrine to liberty (Plutarch, Life of Cicero, XXXIII.1; Dio, XXXVIII.14-17, XXXIX.11). Their contents were appropriated by the consuls, marble columns from the house on the Palatine being carted through the street, and the decorations and very trees of the villa at Tusculum transferred to the neighboring consul's property (Cicero, De Domo Sua, LXII). When, sixteen months later, Cicero returned from exile and was able to begin rebuilding on the site, having argued that, since Clodius' adoption into a plebeian family was illegal, his actions as tribune were illegal as well, Clodius' gang drove away the workmen and later attacked Cicero, himself, in the street. The enmity continued when an earth tremor prompted the soothsayers to pronounce that some divinity must be angry because a consecrated site was being used for a residence, and Clodius argued that it must be Cicero's (Dio, XXXIX.20).


Writing to Atticus on July 8, Cicero was amazed to find that the games which Brutus was sponsoring were to be in "July," the new name given to the month of Quinctilis. "Good heavens! 'Nones of July'! Confound their impudence! But one can be losing one's temper all day long. Could anything be more unseemly than 'July' for Brutus? Nothing that I've ever seen" (Letter 409). And, indeed, Brutus was "quite extraordinarily upset," as Cicero writes two days later (Letter 411).


References: Cicero: Letters to Atticus (Vol. IV) (1999) translated by D. R. Shackleton Bailey (Loeb Classical Library); Catullus (1988) translated by J. W. Mackail (Loeb Classical Library); The Latin Sexual Vocabulary (1982) by J. N. Adams; "Clodia Metelli" (1983) by Marilyn B. Skinner, in Transactions of the American Philological Association, 113, 273-287..

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