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Speech as Medicine in Ciceronian Oratory

Brian Walters

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

At Cat. 2.17 Cicero shifts his attention from Catiline himself, now safely outside Rome’s walls, to the conspirator’s followers, to whom he offers, to the extent possible, to apply the cure of his own advice and oratory (medicinam consili atque orationis meae...afferam). Cicero’s use of medical metaphor to cast his Catilinarian opponents as sicknesses afflicting the body politic and his own policies as cures (e.g., Cat. 1.11, 1.30-1; 2.1-2, 2.11; Sul. 53, 76) has received ample attention (e.g., Leff; Gildenhard; Walters; Mebane). The connections that Cicero makes between speech and medicine have attracted less notice. Examining Cicero’s characterization of oratory as medicina for an ailing body politic—and the partisan limits of such claims—this paper reveals the important role that one particular metaphor about speech played in legitimizing and contesting rival ideologies in the struggles to manipulate and define the res publica (cf. Hodgson) in the late first century BCE.

Links between speech and medicine, of course, were common in republican Rome, and not merely in political oratory. Skill at speaking was of prime importance for would-be doctors, in whose person persuasiveness and medical competence could often be confused (Edelstein; Nutton). The Elder Pliny plays on this notion (at HN 26.12-20) to denigrate Asclepiades of Bithynia, the most influential medicus of the late republic, as a teacher of rhetoric (orandi magister) who owed his reputation as a doctor to eloquence. Cicero is more positive in assessing the speaking ability of Asclepiades (De Orat. 1.62; cf. Orth), and an anecdote that perhaps goes back to Varro has the doctor snatching a man “almost from death’s doorway” by little more than speech (Apul. Fl. 19: velut ab inferis postliminio; cf. Cels. 2.6.15; Plin. HN 7.124; Rawson). Cato the Elder includes incantations in a remedy for dislocations and fractures (Agr. 160).

But by appropriating for his oratio and consilium the force of medicina Cicero also taps into a political commonplace. The exact phrasing at Cat. 2.17 is without parallel, but the underlying sentiment is well attested. In forensic oratory, political advice (consilium) was often figured as relief for the res publica, with verdicts imagined as remedies (e.g. S. Rosc. 154; Div. Caec. 70; Sest. 135). Claims that position speech itself (oratio) as an explicit cure (medicina) are harder to come by, but Joy Connolly (2007) has offered persuasive theoretical models for how this functioned. Moreover, the story of Menenius Agrippa’s fable (Liv. 2.32.8-12, linking the body politic’s health to persuasive oratory), or Cicero’s assertion at Fam. 4.4.3, seemingly connecting an envisioned rebirth of the res publica with the delivery of the Pro Marcello, or the parallel deaths of eloquence and the republic in the Brutus (cf. Dugan) reveal pervasive notions in the late republic about the salutary force of public speech—all couched in organic or medical metaphor.

The medicine of oratory could be equally viewed as harmful on partisan lines. Thus, Cicero chastises Albinovanus at Sest. 135 for the medicine that he urged judges to apply to the body politic (medicinam adhiberetis rei publicae), claiming that the remedy the prosecutor proposed is butchery not medicine: non ea est medicina, cum sanae parti corporis scalpellum adhibetur atque integrae; carnificina est ista et crudelitas. Catiline, had he still been in Rome to hear it, would have no doubt reacted similarly to Cicero’s so-called medicinal speech; concern for the body politic’s wellbeing was, after all, central to his revolutionary rhetoric (Mur. 51; cf. Sal. Cat. 20.7) Scholars have begun to take seriously the conflicting perspectives and appeals to the res publica in late republican politics (Hodgson; Morgan). Given the capacity of res publica to attract metaphors (Drexler), metaphor will have played an outsized role in such disputes. Figuring speech as medicine—or not—turned the very medium of these disputes at times into a polemical and partisan scalpel.

Session/Panel Title

The Politics of Linguistic Metaphors in Latin

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