Friday, November 29, 2013

Cicero: The Speeches by Cicero -- Translated by N.H. Watts

Book fanatics find themselves as subject to impulse buying as any other shopper.  While visiting Blue Bicycle Books in Charleston, SC, I stumbled upon a slim volume I had been thinking about reading recently – The speeches of Cicero, perhaps the greatest Roman orator.  I was particularly interesting in reading “Pro A. Licinio Archia Poeta Oratio” or “The Speech on Behalf of Archias the Poet.”

According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, Marcus Tullius Cicero, sometimes known as Tully, was born 106 bce in Arpinum, Latium (now Arpino, Italy.  He died Dec. 7, 43 bce, in Formiae, Latium (now Formia).  He was a Roman statesman, lawyer, scholar, and writer who vainly tried to uphold republican principles in the final civil wars that destroyed the Roman Republic.  His writings include books of rhetoric, orations, philosophical and political treatises, and letters.  He is remembered in modern times as the greatest Roman orator and innovator of what became known as Ciceronian rhetoric.

My interest in “The Speech on Behalf of Archias” stemmed from his defense of the value of writing, literature, and poetry.  In the brief introduction to this speech, the editor, N.H. Watts comments,

"This speech, slight and unimportant in its occasion and its subject, has attained, by reason of an irrelevant digression artificially, yet withal most artistically, grafted upon it, to a fame and popularity which few of its author’s weightier and profounder efforts have gained.  For it contains what is perhaps the finest panegyric of literature that the ancient world offers us: a panegyric which has been quoted and admired by a long series of writers from Quintillian, through Petrarch, until today, when it has lost none of its luster; and which inspired a great Elizabethan scholar and gentleman to write of poetry that it 'holdeth children from play and old men from the chimney corner; and, pretending no more, doth intend the winning of the mind from wickedness to virtue'” (2).

My copy, published in 1923 and reprinted in 1965, will, I hope, add to this string of uninterrupted admiration through this humble blog.

Aulus Licinius Archias, was born c. 120 bce, in Antioch, Syria (now Antakya, Turkey).  He was an ancient Greek poet who came to Rome, where he was charged in 62 bce with having illegally assumed the rights of a Roman citizen.  He was defended by Cicero before a court of inquiry.  Apparently, Archias was caught in a political struggle involving Pompeii.

I have so many wonderful passages underlined, I hardly know which to quote, but here goes a few of my favorites:

Cicero said of himself, “I am a votary of literature, and make the confession unashamed; (…) my devotion to letters strengthens my oratorical powers, and these, as they are, have never failed my friends in their hour of peril” (21).

Also, “…let me assume that entertainment is the sole end of reading; even so, I think you would hold that no mental employment is so broadening to the sympathies or so enlightening to the understanding.  Other pursuits not to all times, all ages, all conditions; but this gives stimulus to our youth and diversion in old age;  this adds charm to success, and offers a haven of consolation to failure.  In the home it delights, in the world it hampers not” (25).

And, “Holy then, gentlemen, in your enlightened eyes let the name of poet be, inviolate hitherto by the most benighted of races!  (…) savage beasts have sometimes been charmed into stillness by song” (27).

Finally, “Many great men have been studious to leave behind them statues and portraits, likenesses not of the soul, but of the body; and how much more anxious should we be to bequeath an effigy of our minds and characters, wrought and elaborated by supreme talent?” (39).

The other speeches are no less worthy of quotation – particularly his speeches delivered after his return from exile to the Senate and the people, the speech delivered before the College of Pontiffs, and his response to the soothsayers.

These speeches present a gold mine of literature, references, and threads which can be followed in many directions.  5 stars!

--Chiron, 11/9/13

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