Roman Life in the Days of Cicero - Alfred J. Church


The suppression of the "Great Conspiracy" was certainly the most glorious achievement of Cicero's life. Honours such as had never before been bestowed on a citizen of Rome were heaped upon him. Men of the highest rank spoke of him both in the Senate and before the people as the "Father of his fatherland." A public thanksgiving, such as was ordered when great victories had been won, was offered in his name. Italy was even more enthusiastic than the capital. The chief towns voted him such honours as they could bestow; Capua in particular erected to him a gilded statue, and gave him the title of Patron of the city.

Still there were signs of trouble in the future. It was the duty of the consul on quitting office to swear that he had discharged his duty with fidelity, and it was usual for him at the same time to make a speech in which he narrated the events of his consulship. Cicero was preparing to speak when one of the new tribunes intervened. "A man," he cried, "who has put citizens to death without hearing them in their defence is not worthy to speak. He must do nothing more than take the oath." Cicero was ready with his answer. Raising his voice he said, "I swear that I, and I alone, have saved this commonwealth and this city." The assembly shouted their approval; and when the ceremony was concluded the whole multitude escorted the ex-consul to his house. The time was not come for his enemies to attack him; but that he had enemies was manifest.

With one dangerous man he had the misfortune to come into collision in the year that followed his consulship. This was the Clodius, of whom we have heard something in the preceding chapter. The two men had hitherto been on fairly good terms. Clodius, as we have seen, belonged to one of the noblest families in Rome, was a man of some ability and wit, and could make himself agreeable when he was pleased to do so. But events for which Cicero was not in the least to blame brought about a life-long enmity between them. Towards the close of the year Clodius had been guilty of an act of scandalous impiety, intruding himself, disguised as a woman, into some peculiarly sacred rites which the matrons of Rome were accustomed to perform in honour of the "Good Goddess." He had powerful friends, and an attempt was made to screen him, which Cicero, who was genuinely indignant at the fellow's wickedness, seems to have resisted. In the end he was put upon his trial, though it was before a jury which had been specially packed for the occasion. His defence was an alibi, an attempt, that is, to prove that he was elsewhere on the night when he was alleged to have misconducted himself at Rome. He brought forward witnesses who swore that they had seen him at the very time at Interamna, a town in Umbria, and a place which was distant at least two days' journey from Rome. To rebut this evidence Cicero was brought forward by the prosecution. As he stepped forward the partisans of the accused set up a howl of disapproval. But the jury paid him the high compliment of rising from their seats, and the uproar ceased. He deposed that Clodius had been at his house on the morning of the day in question.

Clodius was acquitted. If evidence had anything to do with the result, it was the conduct of Cæsar that saved him. It was in his house that the alleged intrusion had taken place, and he had satisfied himself by a private examination of its inmates that the charge was true. But now he professed to know nothing at all about the matter. Probably the really potent influence in the case was the money which Crassus liberally distributed among the jurors. The fact of the money was indeed notorious. Some of the jury had pretended that they were in fear of their lives, and had asked for a guard. "A guard!" said Catulus, to one of them, "what did you want a guard for? that the money should not be taken from you?"

But Clodius, though he had escaped, never forgave the man whose evidence had been given against him. Cicero too felt that there was war to the knife between them. On the first meeting of the Senate after the conclusion of the trial he made a pointed attack upon his old acquaintance. "Lentulus," he said, "was twice acquitted, and Catiline twice, and now this third malefactor has been let loose on the commonwealth by his judges. But, Clodius, do not misunderstand what has happened. It is for the prison, not for the city that your judges have kept you; not to keep you in the country, but to deprive you of the privilege of exile was what they intended. Be of good cheer, then, Fathers. No new evil has come upon us, but we have found out the evil that exists. One villain has been put upon his trial, and the result has taught us that there are more villains than one."

Clodius attempted to banter his antagonist. "You are a fine gentleman," he said; "you have been at Baiæ" (Baiæ was a fashionable watering-place on the Campanian coast). "Well," said Cicero, "that is better than to have been at the 'matrons' worship.' " And the attack and repartee went on. "You have bought a fine house." (Cicero had spent a large sum of money on a house on the Palatine, and was known to have somewhat crippled his means by doing so.) "With you the buying has been of jurymen." "They gave you no credit though you spoke an oath." "Yes; five-and-twenty gave me credit" (five-and-twenty of the jury had voted for a verdict of guilty; two-and-thirty for acquittal), "but your thirty-two gave you none, for they would have their money down." The Senate shouted applause, and Clodius sat down silent and confounded.

How Clodius contrived to secure for himself the office of tribune, the vantage ground from which he hoped to work his revenge, has been already told in the sketch of Cæsar. Cæsar indeed was really responsible for all that was done. It was he who made it possible for Clodius to act; and he allowed him to act when he could have stopped him by the lifting of his finger. He was determined to prove to Cicero that he was master. But he never showed himself after the first interference in the matter of the adoption. He simply allowed Clodius to work his will without hindrance.

Clodius proceeded with considerable skill. He proposed various laws, which were so popular that Cicero, though knowing that they would be turned against himself, did not venture to oppose them. Then came a proposal directly levelled at him. "Any man who shall have put to death a Roman citizen uncondemned and without trial is forbidden fire and water." (This was the form of a sentence of exile. No one was allowed under penalty of death to furnish the condemned with fire and water within a certain distance of Rome.) Cicero at once assumed the squalid dress with which it was the custom for accused persons to endeavour to arouse the compassion of their fellow-citizens. Twenty thousand of the upper classes supported him by their presence. The Senate itself, on the motion of one of the tribunes, went into this strange kind of mourning on his account.

The consuls of the year were Gabinius and Piso. The first was notoriously hostile, of the second Cicero hoped to make a friend, the more so as he was a kinsman of his daughter's husband. He gives a lively picture of an interview with him. "It was nearly eleven o'clock in the morning when we went to him. He came out of a dirty hovel to meet us, with his slippers on, and his head muffled up. His breath smelt most odiously of wine; but he excused himself on the score of his health, which compelled him, he said, to use medicines in which wine was employed." His answer to the petition of his visitors (for Cicero was accompanied by his son-in-law) was at least commendably frank. "My colleague Gabinius is in absolute poverty, and does not know where to turn. Without a province he must be ruined. A province he hopes to get by the help of Clodius, but it must be by my acting with him. I must humour his wishes, just as you, Cicero, humoured your colleague when you were consul. But indeed there is no reason why you should seek the consul's protection. Every one must look out for himself."

In default of the consuls there was still some hope that Pompey might be induced to interfere, and Cicero sought an interview with him. Plutarch says that he slipped out by a back door to avoid seeing him; but Cicero's own account is that the interview was granted. "When I threw myself at his feet" (he means, I suppose, humiliated himself by asking such a favour) "he could not lift me from the ground. He could do nothing, he said, against the will of Cæsar."

Cicero had now to choose between two courses. He might stay and do his best, with the help of his friends, to resist the passing of the law. But this would have ended, it was well known, in something like an open battle in the streets of Rome. Clodius and his partisans were ready to carry their proposal by force of arms, and would yield to nothing but superior strength. It was possible, even probable, that in such a conflict Cicero would be victorious. But he shrank from the trial, not from cowardice, for he had courage enough when occasion demanded, not even from unwillingness to risk the lives of his friends, though this weighed somewhat with him, but chiefly because he hated to confess that freedom was becoming impossible in Rome, and that the strong hand of a master was wanted to give any kind of security to life and property. The other course was to anticipate the sentence and to go into voluntary exile. This was the course which his most powerful friends pressed upon him, and this was the course which he chose. He left Rome, intending to go to Sicily, where he knew that he should find the heartiest of welcomes.

Immediately on his departure Clodius formally proposed his banishment. "Let it be enacted," so ran the proposition, "that, seeing that Marcus Tullius Cicero has put Roman citizens to death without trial, forging thereto the authority of the Senate, that he be forbidden fire and water; that no one harbour or receive him on pain of death; and that whosoever shall move, shall vote, or take any steps for the recalling of him, be dealt with as a public enemy." The bill was passed, the distance within which it was to operate being fixed at four hundred miles. The houses of the banished man were razed to the ground, the site of the mansion on the Palatine being dedicated to Liberty. His property was partly plundered, partly sold by auction.

Cicero meanwhile had hurried to the south of Italy. He found shelter for a while at the farm of a friend near Vibo in Bruttii (now the Abruzzi), but found it necessary to leave this place because it was within the prescribed limits. Sicily was forbidden to him by its governor, who, though a personal friend, was unwilling to displease the party in power. Athens, which for many reasons he would have liked to choose for his place of exile, was unsafe. He had bitter enemies there, men who had been mixed up in Catiline's conspiracy. The place, too, was within the distance, and though this was not very strictly insisted upon—as a matter of fact, he did spend the greater part of his banishment inside the prescribed limit—it might at any moment be made a means of annoyance. Atticus invited him to take up his residence at his seat at Buthrotum in Epirus (now Albania). But the proposal did not commend itself to his taste. It was out of the way, and would be very dreary without the presence of its master, who was still at Rome, and apparently intended to remain there. After staying for about a fortnight at a friend's house near Dyrrachium,—the town itself, where he was once very popular, for fear of bringing some trouble upon it, he refused to enter—he crossed over to Greece, and ultimately settled himself at Thessalonica.

Long afterwards he tells us of a singular dream which seems to have given him some little comfort at this time. "I had lain awake for the greater part of the night, but fell into a heavy slumber towards morning. I was at the point of starting, but my host would not allow me to be woke. At seven o'clock, however, I rose, and then told my friend this dream. I seemed to myself to be wandering disconsolately in some lonely place when the great Marius met me. His lictors were with him, their fasces  wreathed with bays. 'Why are you so sad?' he asked me. 'I have been wrongly banished from my country,' I answered. He then took my hand, and turning to the nearest lictor, bade him lead me to his own Memorial Hall. 'There,' he said, 'you will be safe.' His friend declared that this dream portended a speedy and honourable return. Curiously enough it was in the Hall of Marius that the decree repealing the sentence of banishment was actually proposed and passed.

For the most part he was miserably unhappy and depressed. In letter after letter he poured out to Atticus his fears, his complaints, and his wants. Why had he listened to the bad advice of his friends? He had wished to stay at Rome and fight out the quarrel. Why had Hortensius advised him to retire from the struggle? It must have been jealousy, jealousy of one whom he knew to be a more successful advocate than himself. Why had Atticus hindered his purposes when he thought of putting an end to all his trouble by killing himself? Why were all his friends, why was Atticus himself, so lukewarm in his cause? In one letter he artfully reproaches himself for his neglect of his friends in times past as the cause of their present indifference. But the reproach is of course really levelled at them.

"If ever," he writes in one letter, "fortune shall restore me to my country and to you, I will certainly take care that of all my friends none shall be more rejoiced than you. All my duty to you, a duty which I must own in time past was sadly wanting, shall be so faithfully discharged that you will feel that I have been restored to you quite as much as I shall have been restored to my brother and to my children. For whatever I have wronged you, and indeed because I have wronged you, pardon me; for I have wronged myself far worse. I do not write this as not knowing that you feel the very greatest trouble on my account; but if you were and had been under the obligation to love me, as much as you actually do love me and have loved me, you never would have allowed me to lack the wise advice which you have so abundantly at your command." This is perhaps a little obscure, as it is certainly somewhat subtle; but Cicero means that Atticus had not interested himself in his affairs as much as he would have felt bound to do, if he (Cicero) had been less remiss in the duties of friendship.

To another correspondent, his wife Terentia, he poured out his heart yet more freely. "Don't think," he writes in one of his letters to her, "that I write longer letters to others than to you, except indeed I have received some long communication which I feel I must answer. Indeed I have nothing to write; and in these days I find it the most difficult of duties. Writing to you and to my dearest Tullia I never can do without floods of tears. I see you are utterly miserable, and I wanted you to be completely happy. I might have made you so. I could have made you had I been less timid . . . . My heart's delight, my deepest regret is to think that you, to whom all used to look for help, should now be involved in such sorrow, such distress! and that I should be to blame, I who saved others only to ruin myself and mine! . . . . As for expenditure, let others, who can if they will, undertake it. And if you love me, don't distress your health, which is already, I know, feeble. All night, all day I think of you. I see that you are undertaking all imaginable labours on my behalf; I only fear that you will not be able to endure them. I am aware that all depends upon you. If we are to succeed in what you wish and are now trying to compass, take care of your health." In another he writes: "Unhappy that I am! to think that one so virtuous, so loyal, so honest, so kind, should be so afflicted, and all on my account. And my dearest Tullia, too, that she should be so unhappy about a father in whom she once found so much happiness. And what shall I say about my dear little Cicero? That he should feel the bitterest sorrow and trouble as soon as he began to feel anything! If all this was really, as you write, the work of fate, I could endure it a little more easily; but it was all brought about by my fault, thinking that I was loved by men who really were jealous of me, and keeping aloof from others who were really on my side."

A Vestal Virgin.


This is, perhaps, a good opportunity of saying something about the lady herself. Who she was we do not certainly know. There was a family of the name in Rome, the most notable of whom perhaps was the Terentius Varro whose rashness brought upon his country the terrible disaster of the defeat of Cannæ. She had a half-sister, probably older than herself, of the name of Fabia, who was a vestal virgin. She brought her husband, to whom she was married about 78 B.C., a fair dowry, about three thousand five hundred pounds. We have seen how affectionately Cicero writes to her during his exile. She is his darling, his only hope; the mere thought of her makes his eyes overflow with tears. And she seems to have deserved all his praise and affection, exerting herself to the utmost to help him, and ready to impoverish herself to find him the means that he needed. Four letters of this period have been preserved. There are twenty others belonging to the years 50-47 B.C. The earlier of these are sufficiently affectionate. When he is about to return to Rome from his province (Cilicia), she is still the most amiable, the dearest of women. Then we begin to see signs of coolness, yet nothing that would strike us did we not know what was afterwards to happen. He excuses the rarity of his letters. There is no one by whom to send them. If there were, he was willing to write. The greetings became formal, the superlatives "dearest," "fondest," "best," are dropped. "You are glad," he writes after the battle of Pharsalia had dashed his hopes, "that I have got back safe to Italy; I hope that you may continue to be glad." "Don't think of coming," he goes on, "it is a long journey and not very safe; and I don't see what good you would do if you should come." In another letter he gives directions about getting ready his house at Tusculum for the reception of guests. The letter is dated on the first of October, and he and his friends would come probably to stay several days, on the seventh. If there was not a tub in the bath-room, one must be provided. The greeting is of the briefest and most formal. Meanwhile we know from what he writes to Atticus that he was greatly dissatisfied with the lady's conduct. Money matters were at the bottom of their quarrel. She was careless, he thinks, and extravagant. Though he was a rich man, yet he was often in need of ready money, and Terentia could not be relied upon to help him. His vexation takes form in a letter to Atticus. "As to Terentia—there are other things without number of which I don't speak—what can be worse than this? You wrote to her to send me bills for one hundred and eight pounds; for there was so much money left in hand. She sent me just ninety pounds, and added a note that this was all. If she was capable of abstracting such a trifle from so small a sum, don't you see what she would have done in matters of real importance?" The quarrel ended in a divorce, a thing far more common than, happily, it is among ourselves, but still a painful and discreditable end to an union which had lasted for more than five-and-twenty years. Terentia long survived her husband, dying in extreme old age (as much, it was said, as a hundred and three years), far on in the reign of Augustus; and after a considerable experience of matrimony, if it be true that she married three or even, according to some accounts, four other husbands.

Terentia's daughter, Tullia, had a short and unhappy life. She was born, it would seem, about 79 B.C., and married when fifteen or sixteen to a young Roman noble, Piso Frugi by name. "The best, the most loyal of men," Cicero calls him. He died in 57 B.C., and Rome lost, if his father-in-law's praises of him may be trusted, an orator of the very highest promise. "I never knew any one who surpassed my son-in-law, Piso, in zeal, in industry, and, I may fairly say, in ability." The next year she married a certain Crassipes, a very shadowy person indeed. We know nothing of what manner of man he was, or what became of him. But in 50 B.C. Tullia was free to marry again. Her third venture was of her own or her mother's contriving. Her father was at his government in Cilicia, and he hears of the affair with surprise. "Believe me," he writes to Atticus, "nothing could have been less expected by me. Tiberius Nero had made proposals to me, and I had sent friends to discuss the matter with the ladies. But when they got to Rome the betrothal had taken place. This, I hope, will be a better match. I fancy the ladies were very much pleased with the young gentleman's complaisance and courtesy, but do not look for the thorns." The "thorns," however, were there. A friend who kept Cicero acquainted with the news of Rome, told him as much, though he wraps up his meaning in the usual polite phrases. "I congratulate you," he writes, "on your alliance with one who is, I really believe, a worthy fellow. I do indeed think this of him. If there have been some things in which he has not done justice to himself, these are now past and gone; any traces that may be left will soon, I am sure, disappear, thanks to your good influence and to his respect for Tullia. He is not offensive in his errors, and does not seem slow to appreciate better things." Tullia, however, was not more successful than other wives in reforming her husband. Her marriage seems to have been unhappy almost from the beginning. It was brought to an end by a divorce after about three years. Shortly afterwards Tullia, who could have been little more than thirty, died, to the inconsolable grief of her father. "My grief," he writes to Atticus, "passes all consolation. Yet I have done what certainly no one ever did before, written a treatise for my own consolation. (I will send you the book if the copyists have finished it.) And indeed there is nothing like it. I write day after day, and all day long; not that I can get any good from it, but it occupies me a little, not much indeed; the violence of my grief is too much for me. Still I am soothed, and do my best to compose, not my feelings, indeed, but, if I can, my face." And again: "Next to your company nothing is more agreeable to me than solitude. Then all my converse is with books; yet this is interrupted by tears; these I resist as well as I can; but at present I fail." At one time he thought of finding comfort in unusual honours to the dead. He would build a shrine of which Tullia should be the deity. "I am determined," he writes, "on building the shrine. From this purpose I cannot be turned . . . . Unless the building be finished this summer, I shall hold myself guilty." He fixes upon a design. He begs Atticus, in one of his letters, to buy some columns of marble of Chios for the building. He discusses the question of the site. Some gardens near Rome strike him as a convenient place. It must be conveniently near if it is to attract worshippers. "I would sooner sell or mortgage, or live on little, than be disappointed." Then he thought that he would build it on the grounds of his villa. In the end he did not build it at all. Perhaps the best memorial of Tullia is the beautiful letter in which one of Cicero's friends seeks to console him for his loss. "She had lived," he says, "as long as life was worth living, as long as the republic stood." One passage, though it has often been quoted before, I must give. "I wish to tell you of something which brought me no small consolation, hoping that it may also somewhat diminish your sorrow. On my way back from Asia, as I was sailing from Ægina to Megara, I began to contemplate the places that lay around me. Behind me was Ægina, before me Megara; on my right hand the Piræus, on my left hand Corinth; towns all of them that were once at the very height of prosperity, but now lie ruined and desolate before our eyes. I began thus to reflect: 'Strange! do we, poor creatures of a day, bear it ill if one of us perish of disease, or are slain with the sword, we whose life is bound to be short, while the dead bodies of so many lie here enclosed within so small a compass?' "

But I am anticipating. When Cicero was in exile the republic had yet some years to live; and there were hopes that it might survive altogether. The exile's prospects, too, began to brighten. Cæsar had reached for the present the height of his ambition, and was busy with his province of Gaul. Pompey had quarrelled with Clodius, whom he found to be utterly unmanageable. And Cicero's friend, one Milo, of whom I shall have to say more hereafter, being the most active of them all, never ceased to agitate for his recall. It would be tedious to recall all the vicissitudes of the struggle. As early as May the Senate passed a resolution repealing the decree of banishment, the news of it having caused an outburst of joy in the city. Accius' drama of "Telamon" was being acted at the time, and the audience applauded each senator as he entered the Senate, and rose from their places to greet the consul as he came in. But the enthusiasm rose to its height when the actor who was playing the part of Telamon (whose banishment from his country formed part of the action of the drama) declaimed with significant emphasis the following lines—

What! he—the man who still with steadfast heart

Strove for his country, who in perilous days

Spared neither life nor fortune, and bestowed

Most help when most she needed; who surpassed

In wit all other men. Father of Gods,

His  house—yea, his!—I saw devoured by fire;

And ye, ungrateful, foolish, without thought

Of all wherein he served you, could endure

To see him banished; yea, and to this hour

Suffer that he prolong an exile's day.

Still obstacle after obstacle was interposed, and it was not till the fourth of August that the decree passed through all its stages and became finally law. Cicero, who had been waiting at the point of Greece nearest to Italy, to take the earliest opportunity of returning, had been informed by his friends that he might now safely embark. He sailed accordingly on the very day when the decree was passed, and reached Brundisium on the morrow. It happened to be the day on which the foundation of the colony was celebrated, and also the birthday of Tullia, who had come so far to meet her father. The coincidence was observed by the townspeople with delight. On the eighth the welcome news came from Rome, and Cicero set out for the capital. "All along my road the cities of Italy kept the day of my arrival as a holiday; the ways were crowded with the deputations which were sent from all parts to congratulate me. When I approached the city, my coming was honoured by such a concourse of men, such a heartiness of congratulation as are past believing. The way from the gates, the ascent of the Capitol, the return to my home made such a spectacle that in the very height of my joy I could not but be sorry that a people so grateful had yet been so unhappy, so cruelly oppressed." "That day," he says emphatically, "that day was as good as immortality to me."