Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Philosophy Reformed Irenicism

“A Learned Man and a Lover of His Country”

Today, December 7, is the anniversary of the murder/assassination of the great Roman statesman Cicero. He was far from perfect, but a reasonable person can still express some measure of gratitude for his erudite and variegated work. I append here Plutarch’s account of his ignominious and underhanded demise from his Life of Cicero.

So then Quintus, not many days afterwards, was betrayed by his servants to those who were in search of him, and put to death, together with his son. But Cicero was brought to Astura, and finding a vessel there he embarked at once and coasted along as far as Circaeum, with the wind in his favour. From there his pilots wished to set sail at once, but Cicero, whether it was that he feared the sea, or had not yet altogether given up his trust in Caesar, went ashore and travelled along on foot a hundred furlongs in the direction of Rome. 6 But again losing resolution and changing his mind, he went down to the sea at Astura. And there he spent the night in dreadful and desperate calculations; he actually made up his mind to enter Caesar’s house by stealth, to slay himself upon the hearth, and so to fasten upon Caesar an avenging daemon. But a fear of tortures drove him from this course also; then, revolving in his mind many confused and contradictory purposes, he put himself in the hands of his servants to be taken by sea to Caieta, where he had lands and an agreeable retreat in summer time, when the breath of the Etesian winds is most pleasant.

The place has also a temple of Apollo, a little above the sea. From thence a flock of crows flew with loud clamour towards the vessel of Cicero as it was rowed towards land; and alighting on either end of the sail-yard, some cawed, and others pecked at the ends of the ropes, and everybody thought that the omen was bad. Nevertheless Cicero landed, and going to his villa lay down to rest. Then most of the crows perched themselves about the window, cawing tumultuously, but one of them flew down upon the couch where Cicero lay with muffled head, and with its beak, little by little, tried to remove the garment from his face. The servants, on seeing this, rebuked themselves for waiting to be spectators of their master’s murder, while wild beasts came to his help and cared for him in his undeserved misfortune, but they themselves did nothing in his defence. So partly by entreaty, and partly by force, they took him and carried him in his litter towards the sea.

But meantime his assassins came to the villa, Herennius a centurion, and Popillius a tribune, who had once been prosecuted for parricide and defended by Cicero; and they had helpers. After they had broken in the door, which they found closed, Cicero was not to be seen, and the inmates said they knew not where he was. Then, we are told, a youth who had been liberally educated by Cicero, and who was a freedman of Cicero’s brother Quintus, Philologus by name, told the tribune that the litter was being carried through the wooded and shady walks towards the sea. The tribune, accordingly, taking a few helpers with him, ran round towards the exit, but Herennius hastened on the run through the walks, and Cicero, perceiving him, ordered the servants to set the litter down where they were. Then he himself, clasping his chin with his left hand, as was his wont, looked steadfastly at his slayers, his head all squalid and unkempt, and his face wasted with anxiety, so that most of those that stood by covered their faces while Herennius was slaying him. For he stretched his neck forth from the litter and was slain, being then in his sixty-fourth year. Herennius cut off his head, by Antony’s command, and his hands — the hands with which he wrote the Philippics. For Cicero himself entitled his speeches against Antony “Philippics,” and to this day the documents are called Philippics.

When Cicero’s extremities were brought to Rome, it chanced that Antony was conducting an election, but when he heard of their arrival and saw them, he cried out, “Now let our proscriptions have an end.” Then he ordered the head and hands to be placed over the ships’ beaks on the rostra, a sight that made the Romans shudder; for they thought they saw there, not the face of Cicero, but an image of the soul of Antony. However, he showed at least one sentiment of fair dealing in the case when he handed over Philologus to Pomponia, the wife of Quintus. And she, having got the man into her power, besides other dreadful punishments which she inflicted upon him, forced him to cut off his own flesh bit by bit and roast it, and then to eat it. This, indeed, is what some of the historians say; but Cicero’s own freedman, Tiro, makes no mention at all of the treachery of Philologus.

I learn that Caesar, a long time after this, paid a visit to one of his daughter’s sons; and the boy, since he had in his hands a book of Cicero’s, was terrified and sought to hide it in his gown; but Caesar saw it, and took the book, and read a great part of it as he stood, and then gave it back to the youth, saying: “A learned man, my child, a learned man and a lover of his country.” 6 Moreover, as soon as he had finally defeated Antony, and when he was himself consul, he chose Cicero’s son as his colleague in the office, and it was in his consulship that the senate took down the statues of Antony, made void the other honours that had been paid him, and decreed besides that no Antony should have the name of Marcus. Thus the heavenly powers devolved upon the family of Cicero the final steps in the punishment of Antony.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.