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Messalla Corvinus’ Ciceronian Career

Messalla Corvinus is usually mentioned today as a patron of Tibullus’ and Ovid’s poetry, but was renowned as one of the leading orators of his day in antiquity, even called a successor (if not a rival) to Cicero.  In this paper, treating Messalla’s overlooked career qua orator, I argue that he sought political prominence and crafted his public image in much the same way that Cicero had.  I suggest that this illustrates the persistence of cultural norms outlining the figure of the orator in Roman politics.  The parallels between his career and Messalla’s, I posit, suggests that there is more continuity in the public lives of orators of the Republican and Augustan eras than is often thought. 

Cicero himself spoke highly of Messalla’s eloquence – and of the Republican sentiments he expressed with it – in a letter of recommendation sent to Brutus in 43 BCE (Fam. 1.15.1).  Just as Cicero had learned his craft from Crassus, Antonius, and other practicing orators as a young man, Messalla apparently found a mentor in Cicero in the early stages of his career.  Messalla’s mild speaking style was distinctive and much praised by later rhetoricians (see e.g. Tac. Dial. 17.1-18.2), to such a degree that the emperor Tiberius chose him as a stylistic model (Suet. Tib. 70.1).  He, like Cicero if to a lesser extent, thus exemplified and even advanced the literary art of oratory.  His publication of memoirs, works on grammar, and poetry and his patronage of poets suggest a broader participation in intellectual culture, reminiscent of Cicero’s writings in various genres and engagement with figures like Catullus, Varro, and even his brother Quintus’ poetic efforts.  This kind of activity was not specific to Cicero, but as Cicero both embodied the paradigmatic orator and enshrined the concept in the literary record with his published speeches and written works, his influence in particular seems relevant to Messalla’s career.  Politically, too, Messalla and Cicero share some common features: Messalla, like Cicero, balanced his republicanism with a healthy dose of pragmatism and bowing to political expedients, siding with Caesar’s assassins, with Antony, and with Octavian in turn as the tumultuous events of the second triumvirate unfolded (Plut. Brut. 53, Vell. Pat. 2.71.1). 

This pattern of concurrences sheds new light on Messalla’s offering of the title of pater patriae to Augustus in 2 BCE (Suet. Aug. 58.1-2); Augustus had declined the title before, but took Messalla’s proposal as an expression of general, genuine support among both senate and people, and tearfully accepted. Messalla’s role as the auctor of this proposal directly parallels Cicero’s relationships with Caesar and Pompey.  Cicero, himself hailed as pater patriae, had also cultivated a role as intermediary between senate and dynast on multiple occasions, first with Pompey in the 60s, with Caesar and Pompey in the mid-50s, and under Caesar’s dictatorship.  His proposals of honors for those dynasts brought him prestige by association, as did Messalla’s proposal, and it suited the dynasts in every instance to have an eloquent, high-ranking senator to plead their case. 

In Cicero’s Republican orations, I suggest, Messalla and other orators of the early principate thus found a paradigm ripe for adaptation to new political circumstances, already evolved to suit to a mode of political discourse in which the eloquence of the orator and the power of a citizen primus inter pares offered mutual benefits of prestige and dignity to both parties. I conclude that the paradigm of the orator as a public figure did not change overnight in the period of transition from Republic to principate but developed slowly and constantly, as each individual orator adapted his speaking persona to new circumstances.  Thus, an Augustan orator could plausibly continue to look to Republican precedents for political self-expression.