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Legal Humor and Republican Political Culture (Cic. De Orat. 2.284)

Cynthia J Bannon

Indiana University

In discussing humor in De Oratore (2.284), Cicero reports that Appius Claudius (cos. 130 BCE) played on the word liber, “free,” to mock L. Licinius Lucullus while debating the lex Thoria, a law on public land. The joke often figures in discussions of public land, although it reveals little about the law itself (Badian 1965, 195; for the lex Thoria see Cic. Brut. 136; App. BC 27; Roselaar 2010, 268). Instead, the joke is an important artefact of Republican political culture that shows how elites used humor to define aristocratic identity and to problematize political ideals, such as freedom and the rule of law.

            Appius responded with clever wordplay when Lucullus was accused of grazing his flock on public land:  non est inquit Luculli pecus illud; erratis—defendere Lucullum videbatur —ego liberum puto esse: qua libet pascitur (“that is not Lucullus’ flock; you’re mistaken” –he seemed to defend Lucullus—“I believe that it is free to graze where it likes”). His remarks could be understood as defending Lucullus because grazing public land was neither illegal nor unusual. Access to public land was, however, contested from the fourth century BCE struggle of the orders (e.g. Livy 6.39-42). In the late second century, around the time of Appius’ joke, Romans enacted laws on public land, such as the lex Thoria, the Gracchan laws, and the epigraphic lex Agraria (CIL I2.585). This contemporary political context activated multiple meanings of liber, legal and non-legal, in Appius’ word play. Lucullus’ flock was free to graze because public land was open to all Romans. But it was not free of expense, because the lex Thoria imposed a tax on public land. A third meaning plays on legal terminology to accuse Lucullus of taking public land for himself, i.e. making it private property (cf. liberare in Cic. Agr. 1.10; 2.57; Att. 1.19.4). Finally, Appius implies that Lucullus’s supporters are sheep, his free-grazing flock. 

            Ancient audiences got the joke because they recognized—or, Cicero implies, should have—the issues and practices behind it. With his word play, Appius performed elite identity and defined it through his mastery of law and rhetoric. In playing on the legal connotations of liber, he coopted the jurists’ interpretive skills, which were still an elite prerogative (Schiavone 2012, 105-27). The rhetorical exploitation of legal knowledge illustrates Cicero’s advice about the importance of law to the orator (De Orat. 1.165-203) as well as the power of humor to define the in-crowd (Corbeill 1996, 5; Fantham 2004, 186-208; Steele 2013). Appius’ quip played with appearances, as Cicero notes, he seemed to defend Lucullus while actually skewering him. He challenged Lucullus, still an aspiring senator at the time of the debate (not praetor until 104; Plut. Lucull. 1.1; Leeman et. al. 1989, 325): if you don’t know law and can’t use it to rhetorical effect, do you really think you belong in the senate? Further, the characterization of Lucullus’ followers as errant sheep inverts the trope of the leader as shepherd wisely guarding his flock, because it implies that the flock may not follow, viz. free to “to graze where they like” (for the trope, see Kronenberg 2009, 111-6). More than employing personal invective, Appius attacks Romans’ legislative power, a key issue in contemporary debates about freedom and governance (Arena 2012, 124-39). Like Appius’ original audience, Cicero’s audience is complicit in excluding Lucullus from the senate, smugly enjoying their own privilege and mocking the political freedom of citizen assemblies and their laws. In the end, modern audiences may have the last laugh by recognizing the cynicism of Appius’ humor which undermines the very aristocratic prestige that it vaunts (cf. Ando 2011, 83, 87-92). Ancient or modern, law makes us free only as far as rhetoric and legislative votes allow.

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Latin Prose Interaction

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