You are here

Exile as a Mode of Genius: Metellus Numidicus and the Performance of Exile

W. Jeffrey Tatum

Eschewing gestures of anger or despair, Metellus Numidicus fashioned his image in exile as a model of equanimity: he was Camillus, not Coriolanus, a posture he exhibited by way of his observed behaviour in Rhodes and especially through his public epistles (Gell. 17.2.7; 15.13.6). His strategy was so effective that, for the post reditum Cicero, it became a crucial model of self-­justification. Although Cicero’s appropriation of Metellus’ exile has preoccupied classicists more than its model, important progress has been made nonetheless (e.g. R. Degl’Innocenti Pierini, Maia 52 [2000] 249f.; G.P. Kelly, A History of Exile in the Roman Republic [2006]; H. van der Blom, Cicero’s Role Models: The Political Strategy of a Newcomer [2010]), and this work stimulates further discussion. By focusing on one passage, Cic. Planc. 89, I endeavour in this paper to unpick a heretofore unrecognized element in Metellus’ exilic self-­fashioning whereby his posture of reasonableness became a weapon he could deploy against Marius.

Here, as elsewhere, Cicero likens himself to Metellus in his desire to spare the lives of citizens, a recurring refrain in Cicero. Now it seems clear that Metellus advertised his preference for a peaceable exile over civic disruption (Ap. B.Civ. 1.31, perhaps influenced by Cicero), but the language of Planc. 89 seems to go beyond just this claim. Here, I suggest, Cicero has lifted Metellus’ pronounced animadversion on killing even wicked citizens (illos ipsos improbissimos civis interfici noluit) from a different context: an attack, expressed in his correspondence, on Marius’ execution of Saturninus and his followers after their surrender of the Capitol. Metellus will hardly have excused Saturninus, but in drawing a distinction between himself and Marius, aided by the image of dispassionate and dignified lawfulness he had cultivated during his exile and through his public correspondence, which inscribed his friendship and solidarity with fellow figures amongst the nobility, Metellus was able to implicate himself and the optimates in a unified political posture of reasonable, and legal, soundness – over against Marian extremes.

It is has long been noticed that Marius, who should have emerged after the events of 100 BC as the senate’s saviour, suffered a setback that at the very least cost him the censorship (Plut. Mar. 5.6), although the explanation for this remains controversial. Metellus’ posture of lawful opposition to lawlessness (exemplified by his performance, including his literary performance, of exile), and his disapproval of unnecessary Marian violence (scripted in his correspondence), combined to give his anti-Marian supporters a compelling rationale for concentrating the invidia associated with Saturninus’ death on Marius instead of the senate. If this suggestion is correct, it contributes to an explanation of the markedly anti-­‐Marian nature of the Livian tradition on the fall of Saturninus (reflected also in Plutarch), characterized by its sensational emphasis on citizen slaughter. It also offers at least a partial solution to Marius’ decline after 100 BC. In a sense, Metellus, in exile, triumphed over his enemies, through his masterly performance of a good exile. Which doubtless appealed to Cicero, even if Metellus’ example also entailed difficulties for the consul of 63 BC. This perhaps explains Cicero’s initial inclination to link the precedent of Metellus with that of P. Popilius Laenas – until, of course, Ciceronian eloquence could transform Metellus’ account of his exile into a congenial element in his own.

Session/Panel Title

Roman Exile: Poetry, Prose, and Politics

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy