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The Medium is (Part of) the Message: Cicero on the Use of Tabellae by the Catilinarian Conspirators

Robert McCutcheon

In December 63 BCE, Roman soldiers, on orders from the consul Cicero, intercepted several letters written on wax-tablets (tabellae), which the Catilinarian conspirators had given to the Allobroges’ ambassadors in an effort to forge an alliance with this tribe.  In the Third Catilinarian, Cicero carefully describes the physical features of these tabellae as he narrates to the populus how he confronted the conspirators before the senate with this proof of their treachery (10-11).  Cicero states that he had each conspirator acknowledge their seal (signum) before cutting the string (linum) binding shut these letters and then had each defendant confirm that these epistulae contained their handwriting (manus).  In this paper, I investigate why Cicero places such emphasis on these features of the conspirators’ tabellae

Traditionally, scholars have regarded wax-tablets as the medium used for “short, informal notes” and business correspondence (Shackleton Bailey 12; see also Büchner 1208, Luck, Achard 138-139, Guillaumont, and White 64).  While these tabellae would not appear to match such a typology, the conspirators’ use of them has attracted little attention.  Butler sees Cicero’s precise description of these letters as related to his efforts “to synthesize and contextualize documentary evidence” in his speeches and make such evidence “available to the more general discourse of signs.”  In contrast, Jenkins discounts the tabellae’s materiality by suggesting their purpose is “to transform the epistolary language back into orality;” that is, to make the conspirators testify without actually allowing them to speak.  In their treatments of the Third Catilinarian, neither Vasaly nor Habinek comment on this curious use of tabellae.  Indeed, no study queries why the conspirators used this medium for these important letters.

Yet in Roman society wax-tablets were an old and venerable medium used for a variety of diverse functions: votive offerings, treaties, contracts, and wills.  In her 2004 monograph, Meyer explores how the longstanding employment of wax-tablets in the religious sphere invests this medium with an aura of authority which, she contends, Romans later exploited by using this same medium for their wills and contracts in order to sanctify these legal and commercial transactions.  In a separate article, Meyer speculates that wax-tablet letters in Latin comedy and elegy may have enjoyed a similar sociology.  

Accordingly, I argue that Cicero emphasizes the physical features of the conspirators’ tabellae in the Third Catilinarian in order to underscore the serious and binding nature of the treasonous alliance, into which the conspirators had attempted to enter, by reminding his audience of this aura of authority with which wax-tablets endowed important textual transactions.  In particular, the procedure of identifying the letter’s seal before commencing with cutting the linum and then having the conspirators acknowledge their manus resembles the ritual which surrounds the opening of a contract or a will.  Likewise, the interaction between the Allobroges’ ambassadors and Catiline’s lieutenants approximates the ritualized redaction of promises in tabulae transactions.  Earlier in this speech, Cicero recounted how the conspirators had provided an oath (iusiurandum) and litterae for the Allobroges’ ambassadors (9).  In Sallust’s history, however, the oaths sworn and the letters given were one and the same (iusiurandum quod signatum ad civis perferant [Cat. 44]).  This confusion over where the iusiurandum ended and the litterae began is interesting, since it mirrors the procedure in votive offerings and contracts, in which it was the redaction of a speech act (the oath) onto wax-tablets that made an obligation binding.  

Finally, I give renewed attention to how Cicero incorporates the presence of a newly erected statue of Jupiter on the Capitoline into the rhetoric of this speech (cf. Vasaly).  I suggest that Ferry’s observation that Cicero subtly links the exposure of the conspirator’s letters with Jupiter’s will through his use of the same term (signum) to refer to both this statue and the seals on the tabellae takes on increased importance given that the cultural authority for wax-tablets originally derived from their employment in the religious sphere.

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Documentary Fallacies

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