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“Brutal” Honesty or Rhetorical Rewrite? Brut. Cic. ad Brut. 1.16 and 1.17

Tom Keeline

            In the summer of 43 BC Brutus wrote a scathing letter to Atticus about Cicero’s deplorable recent conduct, and then sent a similar missive to Cicero himself (Brut. Cic. ad Brut. 1.17 and 1.16)—or did he? Controversy over these letters’ authenticity has continued unabated since 1745, when Jeremiah Markland, in a spirited but misguided imitation of Bentley’s Dissertation upon the Epistles of Phalaris, condemned the entire Cicero–Brutus Briefwechsel as spurious. While the genuineness of the collected correspondence as a whole has long since been vindicated, the status of these two particular letters remains sub iudice. Shackleton Bailey 1980 made the most sustained case against them, building on Schmidt 1884, but Moles 1997 has mounted a vigorous defense of the problematic pair. My paper adds an overlooked piece of evidence to the debate, showing that the letter to Atticus (1.17) closely and inappropriately echoes a pair of phrases in one of Cicero’s letters to Cassius. Such reworked Ciceronian pastiche is absolutely typical of the rhetorical classroom, a further indication that these letters are a product of the declamatory schools.

            Shackleton Bailey 1980:11–12 had already objected to Cicero being made to call Casca a sicarius (“assassin”) in 1.17.1; after all, Cicero’s only criticism of the Caesaricides was that they had not gone far enough. Shackleton Bailey was right to point to this word and say “thou ailest here,” but he did not fully trace the etiology of the disease. The word could have come from a re-reading of Phil. 2.31 (“if Caesar’s killers were not liberators and saviors, they were worse than assassins,” plus quam sicarios). A more likely source, however, is Cic. ad fam. 12.3.1 (to Cassius, Oct. 44), where Cicero says that Antony judges both the conspirators and Cicero himself as sicarii. He then goes on to describe Caesar’s slaying as a “most beautiful deed” (pulcherrimi facti)—and the “Brutus” of our disputed letter, right after the inappropriate sicarius, equally inappropriately accuses Cicero of reviling that same pulcherrimum factum (1.17.1). This double coincidence of phrases in immediate succession strongly suggests that the author had Cicero’s letter in mind. He has thus twisted Cicero’s own words against him.

            Twisting Cicero’s words is standard procedure in rhetorical exercises about him. For instance, when Pompeius Silo advises Cicero not to beg Antony’s forgiveness in a suasoria, he asks Cicero, “Will not even your groans be free?” (ne gemitus quidem tuus liber erit?, Sen. suas. 6.4), reworking Cicero’s famous line at Phil. 2.64, gemitus tamen populi Romani liber fuit, in order to exhort him to resist Antony. In another specimen from the rhetorical classroom, the pseudo-Ciceronian Epistula ad Octauianum, “Cicero” is made to refashion against Octavian barbs that were originally intended for Antony: he begins the letter, for example, by saying that the senators can only cower in fear, the senate being cohortibus armatis circumsaeptus (epist. ad Oct. 1)—a clever echo of Phil. 2.112, cur armatorum corona senatus saeptus est?

            Once we recognize the traces of this schoolroom practice, much of letter 1.17 comes apart as a tissue of declamatory sententiae, studded with argutiae that would have been applauded in the declamatory arena. We should not, however, treat these compositions as failed forgeries; they were not intended to deceive, but rather to be appreciated for their rhetorical skill and self-conscious intertextual reworking of their sources.

            Moles writes that “many scholars, both rejectionists and believers, think that these letters have little or no historical value” (Moles 1997:161), but that is to confine “history” solely to eyewitness accounts of the political events of 43 BC. In fact such recreations are precious artifacts of cultural memory, and these letters are a vital document in studying the reception of Cicero: they, along with other “spurious” products of the rhetorical classroom, give us direct insight into how a later age thought and wrote about him. That is surely of some historical value.

Session/Panel Title

Roman Politics and Culture

Session/Paper Number

80.3

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