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Cicero, Philippic 2, 44–50, 78–92, 100–119

Ingo Gildenhard


§ 114: Caesar’s Assassination: A Deed of Unprecedented Exemplarity

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1The paragraph falls into two halves. In the first (Quod si se… impetum fecerunt), Cicero looks back: he assesses the assassination of Caesar against similar events in Roman history, reaching the conclusion that the recent act of tyrannicide outshines all precedents. In the second (quod cum ipsum factum… esse contemnendam), he explores the future implications of what the liberators did: they set an example for others to imitate and will reap immortality through everlasting glory as a reward for their deed. Both topics — exemplarity and immortality through memory — warrant some comments. (A third ‘big idea’ Cicero here gestures to in passing is the notion of conscience: see below).

2Exemplarity: in ancient Rome, historical precedents mattered — as did the desire to outperform ancestral benchmarks of excellence, i.e. doing something unprecedented, not least to leave a mark on the collective memory of the civic community (and perhaps become exemplary in turn). A good way to validate controversial deeds was to argue that — however novel — they were in conformity with ancestral norms, re-enacting, at least partially, exemplary deeds from the past. In this paragraph, Cicero tries to situate the murder of Caesar within Rome’s exempla-discourse, citing various historical precedents for the use of violence as a legitimate means in domestic politics. He thereby gives the impression that expelling or killing a (would-be) tyrant is a norm and practice co-extensive with the Roman republic. That was not the case: politically-motivated murder (and its justification) were hotly contested issues in Roman political thought, but only from 133 BCE onwards, when the pontifex maximus Scipio Nasica, without the backing of the consuls, took the lead in bludgeoning Tiberius Gracchus and several hundred of his supporters to death on the charge that he aimed for tyranny. This was a watershed moment in Roman politics, which arguably ruptured the republican political system irredeemably: with the genie of extreme physical violence as a means of politics out of the bottle, instances of politically-motivated bloodshed and episodes of full-scale civil war continued to occur until Octavian’s final victory over Antony at Actium in 31 BCE, which signaled the end of the libera res publica. ‘Tyrannicide’ never became consensual: ‘It was, in fact, an illegal procedure advocated as a last-ditch solution by the late-Republican optimates, and as such, it was opposed and contested by large sections of Roman society’ (Pina Polo 2006: 72). In the Philippics and On Duties (de Officiis), Cicero does his best to validate the practice both in historical and ethical terms. Desperate times call for desperate measures (or do they?), and Cicero acts as cheerleader to endow them with a veneer of historical and moral legitimacy (should we chime in?).

  • 91 The thrust of the argument here is not dissimilar to the rhetoric that animates the first speech a (...)

3Moreover, when it comes to the issue of politically motivated violence, Cicero suggests that the ground has shifted. In the past, violent action was directed against either a king who ruled at a time when kingship was an acceptable form of government at Rome (the case of Tarquinius); or aristocrats who aspired to kingship during republican times, but were unable to realize their ambition before being stopped dead in their tracks (the cases of Sp. Cassius, Sp. Maelius, and M. Manlius, see on § 84). By contrast, Brutus, Cassius, and their co-conspirators killed someone who had managed to instal himself as king at a time when this form of rule was deemed to be utterly unacceptable. They thereby rose up against a novel, extreme form of tyranny. The lesson here is complex: their glory is greater than those who did away with earlier strongmen — yet Cicero also implies that they acted (too) late. Their blow for freedom shines the brighter since they rescued Rome from actual enslavement; but Caesar ought to have been eliminated before he could impose tyranny on Rome. In the wake of this unprecedented achievement, a return to what Cicero here portrays as the ancestral practice of killing would-be tyrants (like Antony) emerges as doubly sanctioned by the ambiguous exemplary value of Caesar’s assassination, which is praiseworthy for its unprecedented benefits in terms of restoring freedom to the community, but implicitly blameworthy since drastic action ought to have been taken much earlier. Put differently, there is a call to arms built into the text.91

  • 92 See in particular the by now classic studies by Flaig (1995) (2003) and Flower (1996).

4Immortality: Traditionally, aristocratic immortality in republican Rome consisted in ensuring posthumous presence within various modes and media of commemoration. The patrician-plebeian ruling elite that emerged in the late fourth and early third centuries developed specific ways of constituting and remembering the past (a prime source of identity and legitimacy in pre-modern societies), which chimed well with, indeed was an integral part of, the political system and its peculiar culture. Rooted in individual families but oriented towards the res publica at large, these commemorative practices focused on the preservation of the names of former office-holders and their deeds and took place in a variety of media and settings. Imagines, tituli, stemmata, laudationes and pompae funebres formed a complex system of storage and reactivation, permanent display and ephemeral enactments, perfectly aligned with the competitive instincts of, and need for cohesion within, an oligarchic ruling elite that placed equal emphasis on merit and past family achievement within a wider civic context and invested heavily in intense communication with the larger populace. Successful magistrates and generals further inscribed their names and achievements into the topography of the city by means of monuments and statues, the display of spoils and strategically dedicated temples; together, the houses of noble families and the public spaces of the city thus formed an impressive, if by and large uncoordinated ‘landscape of memory’.92

5But as we have seen (above 350–52) in the course of the last centuries of the republic, imaginative Romans explored the interface (or indeed the possibility of cross-over) between the human and the divine sphere, which opened up new modes of posthumous existence, with Caesar finally managing outright deification in the eyes of many. Cicero too flirts with various unconventional forms of life after death (in some of his works he asserts that the souls of the most outstanding statesmen are immortal) and, as we have seen, makes at least some concession to Caesar’s new status to keep Octavian sweet — even though he rejects the notion that Caesar has become a god elsewhere in the strongest possible terms. (One of the ways in which he negotiated the divide between human and divine is the strategic use of the ambiguous attribute divinus: see below.) In our paragraph, he alludes to the idiom and imagery of apotheosis (perhaps not least so as not to fall too short of the new standards of elevation set by Caesar and his followers) before claiming everlasting fame for the liberators as the proper republican reward for their outstanding deed.

6Extra information:
Tyrannicide and anti-tyrannical activism also have a distinguished Greek background, both in practice (Harmodius and Aristogeiton: see Azoulay 2017) and theory (in particular Plato, who in turn inspired his disciple Chion of Heraclea to put theory back into practice with the assassination of the tyrant Clearchus who ruled in his hometown). Cicero eloquently evokes the heroization that tyrant-slayers received in Greece at pro Milone 80. Milo, Cicero argues, deserves similar reverence for his slaying of the quasi-tyrant Clodius:

Graeci homines deorum honores tribuunt eis viris qui tyrannos necaverunt — quae ego vidi Athenis, quae in aliis urbibus Graeciae! quas res divinas talibus institutas viris, quos cantus, quae carmina! prope ad immortalitatis et religionem et memoriam consecrantur — vos tanti conservatorem populi, tanti sceleris ultorem non modo honoribus nullis adficietis sed etiam ad supplicium rapi patiemini? confiteretur, confiteretur, inquam, si fecisset, et magno animo et libenter, se fecisse libertatis omnium causa quod esset non confitendum modo sed etiam vere praedicandum.

[The Greeks accord honours of the gods to those men who have slain tyrants. What have I seen at Athens and in other cities of Greece! What religious adoration put in place for such men! What musical compositions, what songs! They are worshipped almost at the level of observance and commemoration distinctive of immortality. Will you not only not bestow any honours upon the preserver of such a great people and the avenger of such a great crime, but even suffer him to be dragged away for capital punishment? Had he done the deed, he would confess — indeed confess proudly and gladly — that he had done for the sake of everyone’s liberty a deed that he ought not merely to confess, but in truth proclaim far and wide.]

7Quod si se ipsos illi nostri liberatores e conspectu nostro abstulerunt, at exemplum facti reliquerunt: quod as connecting particle — here introducing a simple conditional clause stating a fact (hence the indicative) — often has an adversative force: ‘But if…’. The main clause begins with the particle at, which ‘after negative or [as here] virtually negative conditional clauses’ (OLD s.v. at 13b) means ‘at least’, ‘at any rate’, ‘yet’. The si-clause contains stylistic touches, such as alliteration (si se, ipsos illi) and chiasmus (nostri liberatores conspectu nostro), and a deluge of pronouns or pronominal adjectives (se, ipsos, illi, nostri, nostro), which only partly compensates for the fact that Cicero here expresses a truth he considers awkward and unfortunate: to preserve peace, the liberators had left the capital. But they did leave behind a ‘benchmark of excellence ready for imitation’ or, more succinctly, a ‘precedent’ (exemplum): the killing of the tyrant (facti: genitive singular of the perfect passive participle of facio dependent on exemplum), lit. ‘the example of the deed’ (= of that which has been done).

8liberatores: Cicero’s standard term for the conspirators throughout the Philippics, starting with 1.6. The label turns Caesar into a tyrant who had enslaved the Roman people. This view was by no means consensual — quite the contrary: ‘In the immediate aftermath of his death, Caesar alternated between tyrant, martyred popular politician, and god, but a solution was not quickly found’ (Flower 2006: 108).

9illi quod nemo fecerat fecerunt: fecerat is pluperfect, fecerunt perfect: ‘they did what no-one had (ever) done (before)’. The sentence neatly picks up on the phrase exemplum facti: fecerat and fecerunt form a polyptoton with facti (see also below: impetum fecerunt, quod… ipsum factum, pulcherrimi facti); and Cicero’s assertion that the killing of Caesar was unprecedented reinforces exemplum. There were other attacks on (would-be) tyrants (as Cicero goes on to explain), but they all differed in important respects from what the liberators achieved.

10Tarquinium Brutus bello est persecutus, qui tum rex fuit cum [regem] esse Romae licebat: the oldest and most famous instance of opposition to tyranny was the expulsion of the last of the legendary kings of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, by Lucius Iunius Brutus, which initiated a period of warfare (bellum) between Rome and the supporters of Tarquinius, as he tried to regain his throne. (Cicero here conflates the act of expulsion with the subsequent warfare.) But the parallel is not precise: Tarquinius’ reign belongs to a period back when (tum… cum) kingship still happened to be an acceptable form of government at Rome, which it ceased to be afterwards.

11Extra information, courtesy of John Henderson: The idea that Brutus was repeating historical destiny by ‘regicide’ was lurking in his family self-image all along, and the important distinction that Tarquin wasn’t assassinated in the ‘regifuge’, so the libera res publica wasn’t born in civil bloodshed, was blurred right away, as in Horace’s version of what he claims became a popular anecdote about the showdown between the liberators and the second triumvirate, Satires 1.7.33–35: ‘per magnos, Brute, Deos te | oro, qui reges consueris tollere, cur non | hunc Regem iugulas? operum hoc, mihi crede, tuorum est’ (‘By the great gods, I implore you, Brutus, since it is in your line to take off kings, why not slay this Rex? This, believe me, is the task of your family’). Didn’t both Brutuses ‘get rid of kings’!

12Tarquinium Brutus bello: the inversion of accusative object and subject places the emphasis on the tyrant and yields an alliteration (Brutus bello).

13cum [regem] esse Romae licebat: licebat is an impersonal verb (‘it was permitted…’), taking the infinitive (regem) esse as subject. (regem needs to be supplied from the previous clause; for the accusative, see Gildersleeve & Lodge 420: ‘The Infinitive, when it stands alone, involves an indefinite Accusative Subject, and the Predicate of that Subject is… in the Accusative Case’. Hence: regem esse = to be king.)

14Romae: locative (‘in Rome’).

15Sp. Cassius, Sp. Maelius, M. Manlius propter suspicionem regni appetendi sunt necati: hi primum cum gladiis non in regnum appetentem, sed in regnantem impetum fecerunt: Cicero moves on to the classical trio of so-called adfectatores regni (‘men aiming for kingship’), who all came to a sticky end: see above § 84. hi refers to the liberatores. Spurius Cassius (thrice consul, twice triumphator, suspected of royal ambition, hence killed — in 485 BCE), Spurius Maelius (a plebeian suspected of using his wealth to install himself as king — hence killed in 439 BCE by the Master of the Horse Gaius Servilius Ahala), and Marcus Manlius Capitolinus (consul in 392 BCE, rescued Rome from the Gauls in 390/387 BCE, helped by the geese — hence Capitolinus, killed in 384 BCE for harbouring royal ambition) were all still in the process of striving for kingship (cf. regnum appetentem — ‘someone striving for kingship’, which applies to all three). By contrast, the liberators attacked someone who was already ruling as king (regnantem).

16The three exempla Cicero mentions form an ‘authoritative and canonical’ set of Roman citizen traitors from early republican times (Flower 2006: 45), who acquired new relevance in the wake of 133 BCE (the year Scipio Nasica killed Tiberius Gracchus and many of his supporters under suspicion of tyranny: see above). As Flower (2006: 46) explains:

… the final versions [of their stories] produced in the late Republic, which are the only ones now extant, had been substantially recast to reflect the political conflicts and the violence of contemporary Rome. While this observation affects much of the account of the early Republic, it applies in a very special way to these three incidents, which had also come to be associated with each other in an ahistorical manner. It was precisely the stories of the disgraced traitors that took on a completely new relevance with the death of the Gracchi and throughout the series of conflicts that marked the most prominent stages of the Republic’s decay, from the introduction of the senatus consultum ultimum to justify the attack on Gaius Gracchus and his associates, to the civil carnage under Marius and Sulla, to the outlawing of Catiline and the summary execution of his supporters. Assassination and judicial murder became commonplace in a development that could only be made sense of with reference to ancestral precedents.

17propter suspicionem regni appetendi: the genitive dependent on suspicionem, here the gerundive phrase regni appetendi, expresses the evil suspected (OLD s.v. 1b). The gerundive (a verbal adjective) is passive, so a literal translation would be ‘because of the suspicion of kingship to-beaspired-to’ = of aspiring to kingship. (The equivalent gerund expression would be… regnum appetendi, with regnum the accusative object of the verbal noun appetendi.)

18sunt necati: = necati sunt (third person plural perfect indicative passive).

19hi… non in regnum appetentem, sed in regnantem impetum fecerunt: Cicero uses the idiom impetum facere in + accusative, which here consists of the two present active participles appetentem and regnantem. So the first in goes with appetentem and not with regnum (which is the accusative object of appetentem). As Mayor (1861: 155) notes: ‘Genitives and adverbs are often interposed between the preposition and its case; occasionally the object governed by an adjective or [as here] participle comes between it and the preposition on which it depends’.

20primum: the adverb (‘for the first time’) underscores that the liberators were setting a precedent.

21cum gladiis: Cicero equips the assassins with proper swords (onward Roman soldiers…) rather than the daggers they will have used, perhaps in part to counter the label sicarii (‘murderers that use daggers to stab innocent victims in the back’) that some attached to the conspirators. In addition, as John Henderson points out to us, this phrase has been a pulse throughout the speech — since § 8, let alone 19, and goes straight to the ‘point’ that this scenario may look like it’s a normal meeting of the senate but actually it’s a war zone in a city that’s a war zone, where the gunfree zone of metropolis and temple are tellingly violated.

22quod cum ipsum factum per se praeclarum est atque divinum, tum expositum ad imitandum est, praesertim cum illi eam gloriam consecuti sint quae vix caelo capi posse videatur: quod is a connecting relative (= et id), modifying ipsum factum: ‘and this very deed…’. cum does not introduce a subordinate clause, but correlates with tum: this adverbial cum introduces ‘one of two co-existing or co-ordinate circumstances of actions’, with tum indicating ‘the more particular or noteworthy circumstance’: OLD s.v. cum 2 14: ‘not only’, ‘as well as’. In the main clause (quod… est) Cicero plods along heavily and emphatically with homoioteleuton in-um: c-um, ips-um, fact-um, praeclar-um, divin-um, t-um, exposit-um, imitand-um, before lifting (his prose) off into the sky from praesertim cum onwards. In this and the following sentence Cicero outlines two different kinds of reward that Caesar’s assassins received for their deed: external recognition that manifests itself in quasi-deification; and internal satisfaction deriving from the awareness of having performed an act of outstanding heroism.

  • 93 See, respectively, Thesaurus Linguae Latinae 5.1.1619, 48ff. and 5.1.1624, 11ff.

23praeclarum… atque divinum: The semantics of divinus range from the literal (in the sense of ad deum, divinitatem pertinens/ a deo originem ducens) to the metaphorical. In the latter sense divinus loses its essential association with the divine and becomes synonymous with more mundane markers of distinction such as praeclarus, eximius, or mirabilis.93 Suggestive ambiguities arise when the adjective is made to refer not to the gods, but to human beings, their capacities, or their deeds (as is the case here). In those instances it remains unclear whether the literal or the metaphorical meaning of the attribute is in force. The ambiguity appealed to Cicero, both here and elsewhere in his oeuvre: it enabled him to evoke the possibility of deification or association with the divine in the literal sense, without committing himself to a mode of religious elevation to which he strongly objected. See further Gildenhard (2011: 266–67).

24expositum ad imitandum est: factum continues to be the subject, expositum est is the verb: the deed ‘has been put on display for imitation / to be imitated’. The preposition ad (followed by a gerundive) expresses purpose.

25illi: the liberatores.

26quae vix caelo capi posse videatur: the antecedent of quae is eam gloriam, ‘which seems scarcely able to be contained within the vault of heaven’ (Lacey). Cicero underscores the hyperbole via alliteration (caelo capi) and qualifies it with his favourite hedge (videatur). Cf. Att. 14.6.2 = 360 SB (12 April 44), cited below. In his correspondence with Atticus, he is much more outspoken and calls the liberators ‘heroes’ (= semi-divine; see Att. 14.4.2 = 358 SB: nostri autem ἥρωες quod per ipsos confici potuit gloriosissime et magnificentissime confecerunt — ‘Our heroes achieved all that lay with themselves most gloriously and magnificently’) or even ‘gods’ (14.11.1 = 365 SB, cited below). This (Greek) idiom would have been inappropriate in an oration. (Despite the fact that Philippic 2 was not delivered, Cicero tends to abide by the protocols of the genre, partly to maintain the fiction of live performance.)

27etsi enim satis in ipsa conscientia pulcherrimi facti fructus erat, tamen mortali immortalitatem non arbitror esse contemnendam: the subject of the etsi clause is satis, which governs — across a massive hyperbaton — the partitive genitive fructûs. The hyperbaton entails the thematically appropriate juxtaposition of facti and fructus, reinforced by alliteration. The verb of the main clause is non arbitror which introduces an indirect statement with immortalitatem as subject accusative and esse contemnendam as infinitive. mortali is a dative of agency with the gerundive. Its placement right next to immortalitatem produces yet another figura etymologica in this paragraph. immortalitas glosses gloria (‘eternal fame’) from the previous sentence.

28in ipsa conscientia pulcherrimi facti: in his philosophical writings and orations, Cicero invested much in the notion of conscience (conscientia) — understood as an instance that assesses innocence and guilt in absolute, objective terms and rewards the former while punishing the latter. Here the liberators reap the benefit of knowing that they performed a ‘most beautiful’ deed — or so Cicero asserts, ignoring those for whom the murder might have looked suspect, erroneous, or even criminal.

29Extra information:
Cicero’s correspondence with Atticus from April and May 44 BCE bears eloquent witness to how divided the Romans were over Caesar’s assassination. Some constituencies are portrayed as being overjoyed. See e.g. Att. 14.6.2 = 360 SB (12 April 44):

nihil enim tam σóλοικον quam tyrannoctonos in caelo esse, tyranni facta defendi. sed vides consules, vides reliquos magistratus, si isti magistratus, vides languorem bonorum. exsultant laetitia in municipiis. dici enim non potest quanto opere gaudeant, ut ad me concurrant, ut audire cupiant mea verba de re <publica>.

[It is the acme of incongruity that the tyrannicides should be lauded to the skies while the tyrant’s actions are protected. But you see our Consuls and the rest of our magistrates, if these people are magistrates, and the apathy of the honest men. In the country towns they are jumping for joy. I cannot tell you how delighted they are, how they flock to me, how eager they are to hear what I have to say on the state of the country.]

30In Rome, however, people were hard at work singing the praises of the dead dictator and condemning his murderers (Att. 14.11.1 = 365 SB; 21 April 44):

ἀκολασíαν istorum scribis. an censebas aliter? equidem etiam maiora exspecto. cum [equidem] contionem lego de ‘tanto viro,’ de ‘clarissimo civi,’ ferre non queo. etsi ista iam ad risum. sed memento, sic alitur consuetudo perditarum contionum, ut nostri illi non heroes sed di futuri quidem in gloria sempiterna sint sed non sine invidia, ne sine periculo quidem. verum illis magna consolatio conscientia maximi et clarissimi facti; nobis quae, qui interfecto rege liberi non sumus? sed haec fortuna viderit, quoniam ratio non gubernat.

[You write about the licence of these people. What did you expect? I look for still worse to come. When I read a public speech about ‘so great a man,’ ‘so illustrious a Roman,’ I can’t stomach it. Of course this sort of thing has become a joke. But remember that is how the habit of pernicious speech-making grows, so that those heroes, or rather gods, of ours will no doubt be glorious to all eternity, but not without ill will or even danger. However they have a great consolation in the consciousness of a grand and glorious deed. What have we, who are not free though the king is slain? Well, we must leave all this to chance since reason has no say.]

31In a letter from 22 April 44, he expresses his worries about the Caesarians in the company of Caesar Octavianus and counterbalances their threats by resorting to the same language of external renown and immortality in memory as well as internal bliss on account of the conscientia of their deed as here (Att. 14.12.2 = 366 SB):

ita multi circumstant, qui quidem nostri<s> mortem minitantur, negant haec ferri posse. quid censes cum Romam puer venerit, ubi nostri liberatores tuti esse non possunt? <qui> quidem semper erunt clari, conscientia vero facti sui etiam beati.

[There are too many around him (sc. Octavian). They threaten death to our friends and call the present state of things intolerable. What do you think they will say when the boy comes to Rome, where our liberators cannot go safe? They have won eternal glory, and happiness too in the consciousness of what they did.]

32But the lives of the assassins continued to be in danger. By the beginning of May, he praises Dolabella for his intervention against Caesarian rioters and ps-Marius’ monument to Caesar (above 349–50) (Att. 14.15.1 = 369 SB, 1 May 44):

sustulisse mihi videtur simulationem desideri, adhuc quae serpebat in dies et inveterata verebar ne periculosa nostris tyrannoctonis esset.

[He seems to me to have quashed that affectation of regret for Caesar which was spreading from day to day. I was afraid it might become a danger to our tyrannicides if it took root.]

33Julius Caesar had made sure he was an indispensable part of the future — so many directly owed him so much.


91 The thrust of the argument here is not dissimilar to the rhetoric that animates the first speech against Catiline: in the light of historical precedents of private figures taking vigilante action against potential tyrants and revolutionaries, Cicero portrays his inactivity as consul as potentially embarrassing; OR (as John Henderson puts it) as executive head of state he threatens an extreme immediate emergency crackdown by doing an ‘I’ m at the end of my tether and ready to crack at any moment’ shtick on the basis that a consul’s declaration of a crisis is a felicitous speech-act.

92 See in particular the by now classic studies by Flaig (1995) (2003) and Flower (1996).

93 See, respectively, Thesaurus Linguae Latinae 5.1.1619, 48ff. and 5.1.1624, 11ff.