Seneca, Suasoria 6

Translated by by W.A. Edward (Cambridge, 1928). Click on the L symbols to go to the Latin text of each chapter.   

"Cicero considers whether he should beg Antony for life"



Let future generations know that the commonwealth not Cicero could bow the knee to Antony. You will have to write eulogies on Antony ; on such a theme even Cicero's eloquence will fail. Believe me, however carefully you guard your tongue, Antony will do what Cicero cannot pass in silence. If you understand aright, Cicero, he does not say "Ask for life", but "Ask for bondage". How will you bring yourself to enter this senate depleted by cruelty, recruited with dishonour? Will you have the heart to enter a senate in which you are not to see Cn. Pompey, nor M. Cato, nor the Luculli, nor Hortensius, nor Lentulus and Marcellus, nor your own particular consuls, Hirtius and Pansa? What has Cicero in common with an alien generation? Now our days are over. [2] L   Marcus Cato, alone our noblest pattern in life and in death, chose to die rather than beg for mercy - yet it was no Antony he had to petition - and armed those hands of his, to the last unstained by Roman blood, against his own noble breast. When Scipio had buried the sword deep in his bosom he replied to the soldiers who had boarded his vessel and were searching for the commander, "With the commander all is well". Triumphant in defeat he spoke like a conqueror. You yourself said, "Milo forbids me to ask mercy from the jury". Go, then, and ask mercy from Antony.


Does then Cicero ever speak without striking terror into Antony? Does Antony ever speak to strike terror into Cicero ?  A thirst like Sulla's for his country's blood arises in the state again, and under the triumvirs' spear not taxes but the lives of Roman citizens are bought and sold. By the white wax of one tablet the disasters of Pharsalia, Munda and Mutina are surpassed: the lives of consuls are bartered for gold: your own words are all that we can utter: "Alas for the degeneracy of the age!" You shall see eyes burning at once with cruelty and pride : no human countenance shall you see, but the very visage of the Fury of civil war : you shall behold those jaws that devoured the wealth of Cn. Pompey, that brawny chest, that gladiator's strength of frame : you shall see that spot before the seat of justice which lately as master of the horse, for whom a belch would have been a disgrace, he had defiled with his vomit. Will you fall as a suppliant there and beg for life on bended knee? With that tongue that saved the state will you utter humble words of flattery? Shame! Even Verres when proscribed died more gallantly.


Remember Cato whose death you extolled: do you think anything in the world so precious that you should be indebted to Antony for life?


If you think of the people's desire, the people's grief, no matter when you die, you die untimely. In the light of your services you have lived long enough: but looking to the wrongs inflicted by Fortune, and your country's plight, you have lived too long : as regards your works and their memory you are destined to be immortal.


 You may know that for you longer life is not expedient, if you live only by Antony's reprieve. Will you then keep silence while Antony issues his proscriptions and mangles his country? Shall not even your groans be free? I had rather the Roman people mourned Cicero in death than in life.


What Charybdis so rapacious as he? Charybdis, said I? If Charybdis ever was, she was only one monster: scarcely, by heavens, could the sea itself have gulped down so many diverse things at once. And you would snatch Cicero from this madman's rage?


We rush from strife to strife : victors abroad we are butchered at home; at home an intestine enemy gloats upon our blood. Since this is the plight of the Roman people, who does not think that Cicero must die? Your prayers to Antony will be shameful and in vain. In no obscure tomb can you be shrouded from men's eyes : your virtues will not perish with your life. Undying Memory, the guardian of human achievements, which makes great men's lives immortal, will make your name sacred to all generations. [6] L   All that will pass away is the frail, perishable body, subject to disease, liable to mischances, exposed to proscription : but the soul, of birth divine, which knows neither age nor death, freed from the heavy bonds of the flesh, will hasten to its familiar home among the stars. Yet, if we regard your age and the number of your years, which gallant men never reckon, you have passed sixty, and your life cannot but seem too long since by lingering you survive your country. We have seen civil war raging through the whole world, and after the stricken fields of Italy andPpharsalia, now even Egypt has drunk its fill of Roman blood. Why should we be wroth that Antony may do to Cicero what the Alexandrian eunuch did to Pompey? So miserably they perish who flee for refuge to the unworthy.


He was doomed to die who only supported your motion. The whole list of the proscribed is but the prelude to your death : the one {Lepidus} permits the proscription of a brother, the other {Antony} of an uncle: what hope have you? Those bloody deeds have but one object - the death of Cicero. Recall to mind, I pray you, all those your eloquence defended, all those your power protected, recall your consulate itself, the greatest of your services: then you will understand that Cicero may be constrained to die but never to beg for life.


The triumvirs act the king : they parade before us the luxury of their revels, a cookshop stocked with the tribute of the world. Antony himself, haggard with wine and watching, lifts his drowsy eyes to the heads of the proscribed. The reproach of "worthless creature" no longer meets the case.


Latro arranged this suasoria thus: Even if you can obtain life from Antony it is notworth while to ask it ; secondly : you cannot obtain it. In the former part he laid it down that it was dishonourable for any Roman, all the more for Cicero, to ask for life: here he introduced examples of those who had died of their own accord ; next he said that further life was worthless to him; and, without liberty, more grievous than death. Here he described all the bitterness of the servitude that was in store for him. The pledge would not be kept inviolate. Then after saying, "Something in you will offend Antony, some deed, some word, your silence, or a look:" he concluded thus: "You will hardly win his favour".

[9] L   Albucius's arrangement was different: firstly, he said that Cicero must die even if no one proscribed him (here he inveighed against the age). Then, he must die of his own free will, since he would have to die, even if he did not want to: he had roused deadly hatred. Cicero was himself the chief  motive for the proscription. He was the only rhetorician who dared to say that Antony was not alone in his hostility to him. In this passage he expressed the following : "If not a personal enemy of each, you are obnoxious to them all"; and the following which was much admired: "If, Cicero, you ask mercy of one and obtain it, you will be the slave of three".  

[10] L   This was the arrangement of Cestius: "For you death is expedient, honourable and necessary, that in freedom and with honour untarnished, you may put the crown upon your life". Here he expressed the daring idea: "that you may be  numbered with Cato, who could not be a slave though Antony was not yet tyrant". Marcellus expressed this idea about Cato still better: "Have all things changed so utterly with the overthrow of the Roman people that one should debate whether it is better to live with Antony or die with Cato?" But let us return to Cestius and his analysis of the argument. He said death was expedient to avoid physical torture : Cicero would not merely die if he fell into the hands of Antony.  When he had described here the mockery and the insults that would be heaped on him, the scourgings and tortures, he gave expression to a sentiment that has been much admired : "By heavens, Cicero, when you come to Antony you will beg not for life, but for death". [11] L   Varius Geminus thus arranged the  arguments: "I should exhort you, if you must in any case  choose one of the alternatives, death or entreaty, to die rather than beg for life": and he included all the arguments used by the others : but he added a third, he exhorted him to flee. He said here was M. Brutus, there C. Cassius, in that place Sex. Pompeius : then he continued with that appeal which was admired in the highest degree by Cassius Severus, "Why do falter? The free state too has its triumvirs". He went on to survey rapidly the regions he might go to. He instanced his defence of Sicily, his excellent administration of Cilicia in his proconsulate, his student days in Asia and Achaia, his services to the kingdom of Deiotarus, the benefits he had conferred on Egypt, where they were not forgotten, and which was now doing penance for its treachery to Pompey. But most of all he urged him to go to Asia and Macedonia to the camp of Brutus and Cassius. And so Cassius used to say that where others had declaimed, Varius Geminus had given genuine counsel.  

[12] L   Few have declaimed on the other side. No one dared to exhort Cicero to entreat Antony for life. They judged Cicero's spirit well. Geminus Varius declaimed on the opposite side also. He said: "I hope I will persuade my dear Cicero to be willing to live. Those lofty sentiments he uttered long ago do not weigh with me - 'No consular can die untimely, no wise man in misery'. He holds no office now. I know well the character of the man. He will do it: he will ask for mercy. As regards servitude he will make no objection to that. He is quite used to harness. Pompey and Caesar both broke him in. You see in him a slave grown old in service." And he added many other jests as was his manner. [13] L   He arranged his arguments thus: Cicero would not be dishonoured in begging for mercy: he would not even beg in vain. Firstly he said it was not disgraceful to beg mercy of a countryman who had defeated you. He instanced the numbers that had petitioned Caesar, he mentioned Ligarius. It was quite right that Cicero should give satisfaction to Antony, since Cicero had proscribed him first, and had judged him a traitor. It is the wrongdoer that always makes reparation: he should beg boldly for life: his petition would not be for his own sake, but for his country's: for him personally his life had been long enough : for his country all too short. In the second part he said personal enemies usually grant these petitions: Cicero had forgiven Vatinius and Gabinius, and had defended them on their trial. Since he was one of three, Antony would be more easily induced not to allow one of the other triumvirs to deprive him of so handsome an opportunity for clemency. The cause of Antony's resentment might be that Cicero did not think him  worth entreaty. [14] L   When he had described the dangers of flight he added that Cicero must be in subjection no matter where he went. He would have to endure the violent temper of Cassius or the arrogance of Brutus, or the folly of Sex. Pompeius.

Since I have chanced on this suasoria I do not think it irrelevant to point out how each of the historians has treated the memory of Cicero. All are agreed that Cicero was not cowardly enough to petition Antony, nor foolish enough to hope that his petition would be successful. We must make an exception of Asinius Pollio, who showed persistent hostility to Cicero's reputation. Thus he gave the rhetoricians a subject for a second suasoria. The rhetoricians often declaim on this subject: "Cicero deliberates whether he should burn his speeches, since Antony promises him life on these terms". Anyone can see that this is a stupid fiction. [15] L   Pollio means it to be taken for truth. This is what he said in the speech he published in defence of Lamia.


"And so Cicero never hesitated to deny the authorship of the speeches against Antony, in spite of the passion with which he had delivered them : and he promised to write many times that number with far more care, in direct contradiction of them, and even to deliver them in public". Pollio made other accusations still more dishonourable, and it was quite evident that the whole story was so false that even Pollio had not the courage to insert it in his historical writings. Certainly those who heard his speech in defence of Lamia say that he did not make the above statements but concocted them afterwards - for he could not support the lie, since the triumvirs knew the truth.

[16] L   I don't want to vex you, my young friends, by passing from rhetoricians to historians. I shall make amends to you, and perhaps cause you after reading these extracts to approach with greater favour the solid truths of history: if, however, I cannot achieve this purpose directly I shall be compelled to cheat you at the first sip, just as we do with children when giving them medicine. So far is Livy from stating that Cicero intended to retract that he says Cicero had no time ; here is what he says :

[17] L   LIVY

"Marcus Cicero, shortly before the arrival of the triumvirs, had left the city, convinced, and rightly, that he could no more escape Antony than Cassius and Brutus could escape Caesar: at first he had fled to his Tusculan villa, then he set out by cross-country roads to his villa at Formiae, intending to take ship from Caieta. He put out to sea several times but was driven back by contrary winds. At last since he could no longer put up with the tossing of the ship, as there was a heavy ground swell, he became weary of flight and of life, and returning to his villa on the high ground, which was little more than a mile from the sea, 'Let me die' says he, 'in my own country, which I have often saved'. It is quite true that his slaves were ready to fight for him with bravery and fidelity: but he ordered them to set down the litter, and quietly to suffer the hard necessity of fate. As he leaned from the litter and kept his neck still for the purpose, his head was struck off. But that did not satisfy the callous brutality of the soldiers: they cut off his hands too, reviling them for having written something against Antony. So the head was brought to Antony and by his order was set between the two hands on the rostra where he had been heard as consul, often as consular, where in that very year his eloquent invectives against Antony had commanded unprecedented admiration. Men were scarce able to raise their tearful eyes and look upon the mangled remains of their countryman".

[18] L   Bassus Aufidius, too, had no doubt about Cicero's spirit, and that he not only submitted bravely to death, but courted it.


"After he saw the armed men Cicero slightly drew aside the curtain of the litter and said: 'I go no further: approach, veteran soldier, and, if you can at least do so much properly, sever this neck'. Then as the soldier trembled and hesitated, he added : 'What would you have done had you come to me as your first victim?'"

[19] L   Cremutius Cordus also says that Cicero debated whether he should go to Brutus or Cassius or Sextus Pompeius, but every course displeased him except death. 


On seeing the head and hands of Cicero Antony was delighted and displayed them on the rostra, saying that his share of the proscription was now complete, for he was not only sated but glutted with the blood of his countrymen. And so in that spot to which he had often gone attended by a huge throng, which shortly before had lent its ears to those devoted speeches by which he had saved the lives of many, with what a mournful change his mangled remains raised aloft were seen by his countrymen, the head drooping and the lips sprinkled with gore, he who but yesterday was the leader of the senate and the glory of the Roman name, now a source of profit to his assassin. But especially the hearts of all melted to tears and groans at the sight of the right hand nailed beside the head, the right hand that had wielded that divine pen. The murder of the other victims stirred only private grief, Cicero's death alone plunged the whole state into mourning.


"Meanwhile slipping out from the other side of the villa Cicero was carried in a litter through the fields : but when he saw Popillius approaching, a soldier well-known to him, remembering that he had defended him, his countenance brightened. But Popillius to gain favour with the conquerors made haste to do the deed and cut off his head. In that last moment of his life there is nothing to be censured in Cicero's conduct. Popillius, regardless that he had shortly before been defended by his victim, carried the head to Antony". Here Bruttedius meant to describe the pitiful sight when the head was set on the rostra, but the greatness of the task overwhelmed him. [21] L   "But when the head was set on the rostra between the two hands at the command of Antony, and when the citizens saw it in that place where so often his eloquence had been heard, with groans and tears all did honour to the great man who was dead. No dead body lay on the rostra: no customary eulogy was pronounced to the assembled citizens, but they told the story of his life to one another. There was no spot in the forum but was marked by the memory of some famous pleading of his: no one who had not some service to acknowledge rendered by Cicero: certainly this service to the state was known to all - that he had postponed that wretched time of slavery from the days of Catiline to those of Antony."

Whenever historians describe the death of a great man they usually sum up his whole life, and pronounce a sort of funeral oration. This was done once or twice by Thucydides, and adopted in a very few instances by Sallust; Titus Livius generously applied it to all great men : subsequent historians have done it much more freely. This is the "epitaph", to use a Greek word, that Livius wrote for Cicero:


[22] L   "He lived sixty-three years, so that even if he had not died by violence his death cannot seem untimely. The rich products of his genius were amply rewarded; he enjoyed long years of prosperity: but his long career of good fortune was interrupted from time to time by serious disasters - exile, the ruin of the party he championed, the sad and untimely death of his daughter. Of all these disasters he bore as became a man none except his death. A true judgment might have found this less undeserved in that he suffered at the hands of his enemy no more cruel fate than he would himself have inflicted had he been equally fortunate. Yet if one weighs his virtues with his faults he deserves a place in history as a truly great man, and another Cicero would be required to praise him adequately." With that impartial judgment with which he weighs all men of genius Titus Livius has rendered the amplest tribute to Cicero.

[23] L   It is not worthwhile to quote the eulogy pronounced on Cicero by Cremutius Cordus. There is hardly anything in it worthy of Cicero, not even the following, although it is passable.


"He thought that private animosities should sometimes be forgotten, political feuds should never be decided by force of arms. He was a man conspicuous not merely for the greatness but also for the number of his virtues."


''So died M. Cicero, the born saviour of his country. He long defended and guided it, but in his old age at last it slipped from his grasp, injured by this one mistake that he approved of  no other course to save it than the removal of Antony. He lived sixty-three years, always attacking some political opponent, or the object of attack, and nothing was rarer in his experience than a day on which it was to no one's interest that he should die." [24] L   Pollio Asinius too, who described the gallant death of Verres whom Cicero impeached, is the only author who paints the death of Cicero in grudging terms : yet even in spite of himself he does him ample justice.


"His numerous and imperishable works make it superfluous to recount the genius and industry of this great man. Nature and happy chance were alike his servants, since he preserved his handsome features and robust health into old age. His life fell fortunately on a time of long peace, in the arts of which he was accomplished, for when justice was administered with antique rigour, there came into being a very large number of accused, very many of whom he successfully defended, and so secured their friendship. He was very fortunate in his candidature for the consulship, and in the god-given chance of doing great deeds in it with wisdom and energy. Would that he had been able to endure prosperity with greater self-control, and adversity with greater fortitude! For whenever either had fallen to his lot, he thought it could not change. Hence arose those violent storms of unpopularity, and hence his personal enemies had greater confidence in attacking him: for he invited enmity with greater spirit than he fought it. But since no mortal is blessed with perfect virtue, a man must be judged by that virtue on which the greater part of his life and genius has been based. And I should not have thought that his end was to be pitied had not he himself thought death so great a misfortune."

[25] L   I can assure you that there is nothing in Pollio's historical works more eloquent than this passage which I have quoted ; in fact he seems not then to have extolled Cicero, but to have entered into rivalry with him. Nor do I say this to deter you from the desire of reading his histories. Indulge your desire and you will make amends to Cicero. Yet of all these eloquent men none has lamented the death of Cicero in better terms than Cornelius Severus.


"And the heads of great-hearted men, the lips almost breathing still, lay low on their own rostra: but all eyes were irresistibly drawn to the countenance of Cicero in death, as if that head lay there alone. Then come back to the minds of men the great deeds of his consulate, the host of conspirators, the discovery of the guilty pact, and the stamping out of the sin of the nobles: the punishment of Cethegus is recalled, and Catiline disappointed of his unholy desires. What had availed the favouring throngs, his years full of honours, or his polished and accomplished age? One day swept away the age's glory, and, smitten with grief, silent and sad, fell the eloquence of the Latin tongue. Once sole protector and saviour of the distressed, ever the illustrious leader of his country, champion of the senate, of the forum, of the laws of religion and of the ways of peace. The voice of the free state fell dumb for ever under the savagery of arms. His countenance defiled, his grey hairs sprinkled with blood unholy, his noble hands that wielded that mighty pen, his countryman in his triumph threw down and spurned with haughty feet, nor regarded slippery fate and the gods. In no lapse of time shall Antony wash away this stain. The gentle victor had not done this with Emathian Perseus, nor with thee, dread Syphax, nor when Philip was the foe: in the triumph over Jugurtha all mockery was absent, and fierce Hannibal, when he fell to our wrath, yet carried his limbs inviolate to the Stygian shades."

[27] L   I shall not rob our countryman of a good line that inspired this much better one of Cornelius Severus :

Silent and sad fell the eloquence of the Latin tongue.

Sextilius Ena was a gifted rather than a learned man, unequal as a poet, and no doubt sometimes showing the defects that Cicero ascribes to the poets of Corduba, "who have something thick and foreign in their utterance" { pro Archia, 26 }. He intended to read aloud in the house of Messala Corvinus this very poem on the proscription, and had invited Asinius Pollio. In the beginning he read this line with much approval :

We must weep for Cicero and the silence of the Latin tongue.

This roused Pollio Asinius who said : "Messala, you may do what you like in your own house: I do not intend to listen to a man who thinks me dumb". And with this he rose and went out. I know that Cornelius Severus, too, was present at that recital, and clearly he was not as vexed with this line as Pollio, because he too composed a line better indeed but not unlike it. If I end here I know that you will stop reading just there where I left the rhetoricians { § 16 }: and so to make you willing to turn over the roll to the end I shall add a suasoria similar to the last.

Suasoria 7 →

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