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Negotiating Exile: The Ship-of-State in Cicero’s Post-Reditum Speeches

Julia Mebane

University of Chicago

In the summer of 57 BCE, Cicero received the news for which he had long been waiting: a law was to be put before the assembly recalling him from exile. Setting out from Dyrrachium on 4 August, the day of the vote, he arrived in Rome later that month. When he reached the Porta Capena, he found the streets teeming with people shouting his name and applauding wildly. In the Forum and on the Capitoline, the crowd was even more remarkable: in foroque et in ipso Capitolio miranda multitudo fuit (Att. 4.1.5). Or, at least, that is how he described it in a carefully constructed letter sent to Atticus on 10 September. In reality, Cicero was in a far more vulnerable position than his triumphant prose suggests (Lintott 2008). Beyond his dire financial circumstances, indebtedness to Pompey and the new consuls, and enmity with Clodius, he was faced with a crisis of civic legitimacy. He had, after all, been publicly rejected by the populus Romanus on whose behalf he claimed to speak (Morstein-Marx 2004). Justifying his re-entrance into the political sphere consequently became one of the defining problems of his post-reditum oratory (Steel 2007).

Understudied due to their rather unappealing combination of arrogance and self-pity, Cicero’s post-reditum speeches are nonetheless a valuable source for his evolving philosophy of civic legitimacy in the mid-50s. Foremost among the rhetorical strategies that he used to reassert his position in the republic was the metaphor of the ship-of-state. Drawing on tropes extending back to Alcaeus and Theognis (Brock 2013), he portrayed the Roman republic as a vessel foundering on the stormy seas of discord. Pirates—namely, Clodius, Piso, and Gabinius—had snatched the helm from the senate and were headed straight towards naufragium. To save the ship from sinking, Cicero had no choice but to disembark. Sacrificing himself on behalf of the res publica, he reframed his exile as a devotio that paradoxically confirmed his right to act on behalf of the populus Romanus (Dyck 2004).

This paper argues for the ship-of-state metaphor as a meaningful thread that weaves together the diverse collection of speeches falling under the post-reditum label. Despite differences in their subject matter, audience, and date, De Domo Sua, a speech delivered before the pontifical college in 57, Pro Sestio, a defense speech made in the criminal courts in 56, and In Pisonem, an invective launched in the senate in 55, offer strikingly similar narratives of the ship-of-state in crisis. In each speech, there is a navis in perilous danger (Dom. 24; Sest. 45; Pis. 20), a storm looming on the horizon (Dom. 137; Sest. 25; Pis. 9), pirates who have snatched the helm (Dom. 24; Sest. 46; Pis. 10), and the threat of naufragium (Dom. 129; Sest. 16; Pis. 4). Such nautical crises serve two purposes in the orations: they recast factional strife as a valiant struggle for the survival of the res publica and they implicitly position Cicero as the rightful helmsman of the ship-of-state. Only under his pilotage, the orations suggest, can the republic steer clear of the perilous waters of partisan politics.

Because the master image of the ship-of-state enabled Cicero to counteract the humiliation of his exile and lay claim to the helm of the republic, it became foundational to the rhetorical persona that he constructed in the 50s. More than that, it influenced the political philosophy that he crafted in the same years. For in De Republica and elsewhere, he began to imagine a gubernator rei publicae, a citizen of preeminent virtue responsible for guiding the republic on its proper course (Zarecki 2014). This ideal statesman, I suggest, was developed in productive dialogue with the helmsman of his post-reditum speeches. Traversing the generic boundaries between philosophy and oratory, Cicero’s nautical metaphors ultimately provided a language for both thinking about and acting upon political ideas.

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Roman Republican Prose and its Afterlife

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