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Forgotten Monuments: Cicero’s de Consulatu suo and the Catilinarian Conspiracy

Mary Franks

York University

In this paper I argue that Cicero’s de Consulatu suo, an auto-biographical epic poem that survives now only in fragments, was inadequate as a monument to Cicero’s role in the Catilinarian conspiracy and did not allow Cicero to become part of the exemplary tradition of the conspiracy.

In nearly every one of Cicero’s speeches delivered after his consulship he brags that he saved the republic (for example Cic. Mur. esp 49-53; Dom. 75; Sest. 89-98; Pis. 3-6).  Unfortunately for Cicero, it seems that his own evaluation of the events of 63 was not shared by the remainder of Roman Society.  He was exiled for his execution of the conspirators in 58 and his dreams of a monumental epic poem written by one of Rome’s leading poets, fell flat (Cic. Att. 1.16.15).  Cicero was then forced to monumentalize his own actions and write the de Consulatu suo

While other Roman aristocrats were permitted to set up monuments to their own victories without incurring severe criticism, Cicero’s own self-aggrandizement was largely the subject of ridicule by the elites. Ps. Sallust’s invective against Cicero reveals that the self-praise wore thin on many (5-6). Cicero’s victory was a tarnished one, and he was exiled for the very actions he thought so praiseworthy, namely the execution of Roman citizens.  Cicero naturally presents the Lex Clodia as a personal attack and that his de facto exile was opposed by the Roman people in general.  Furthermore, Cicero’s house, in its prominent location on the Palatine (itself a monument, see Beck 2009; Roller 2010), had been destroyed by Clodius and replaced with a shrine to Libertas.  Following Cicero’s return, Clodius’ shrine was removed and Cicero’s house rebuilt at public expense, leaving a lasting monument not to Cicero, but to the political turmoil of the late republic. 

Roller (2004) has developed a model for what he deems “exemplary discourse.”  His model asserts that for an actor or an event to become exemplary first an act must take place in public where it is judged by the primary audience as good or bad.  Next, a monument of some kind must be set up to commemorate the deed and, finally, a secondary audience must view the monument and remember the deed.  Roller designed his model to deal primarily with exempla that exist in a literary context and that are already part of the historiographical tradition.  Therefore, his model does not account for the importance of the non-elite in the secondary audience.  My paper looks at Cicero’s attempt to follow the Roman exemplary tradition and evaluate the possible reasons for its failure, namely that Cicero’s poem was not a lasting monument for anyone other than the literate elite. 

I will argue that the de Consulatu suo was an ineffective monument because it was aimed only at the literate elite, completely disregarding the largest, and I argue the most important, demographic of the secondary audience: the non-elite, non-office holding class of the Roman people.  The Roman elite did set up monuments to compete directly with one another, but the most important audience was the voting audience.  Most of the voting audience could appreciate a statue or a temple, but its access to written works was limited by overwhelming illiteracy.  I argue that the marginal success of the de Consulatu suo demonstrates that the non-literate section of this audience was a decisive factor in the success of an exemplum (i.e. entry into the exemplary tradition).

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Cicero Poeta

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