Cicero Paper

Influence of the Roman Theater
on Cicero’s Oration Pro Caelia By
Paul M. Bushmiller
Classics 271 Prof. Steven Rutledge
24 February 1999

Cicero’s oration in defense of M. Caelius Rufus shows many substantive and stylistic borrowings from the Roman Theater, particularly the comedies of the 2nd century b.c.e. This would scarcely seem remarkable to Cicero, to employ such devices is only to make use of the tools of his trade, as a practical and practicing rhetorician. In this case using the theater as a framing device to guide his audience’s response.

So too would the judgments and emotions existing in the cultural reservoir of Greco-Roman, or Attic-Latin stage have met his division of purpose as he considered the permanent written speech, he would set down in the wake of the trial, however it was decided. Half a year back from exile and taking a case where he faced by proxy a personal enemy. Cicero wanted a note that would not only sound loudly when struck, but continue to reverberate. His message needed to rise clear of the verdict of the particular case.

Cicero was formally trained as a rhetorician - in Athens -at the Academy. To Cicero oratory was an all pervading endeavor. It was speaking to an audience for a purpose. He seems to accept the prevailing Greek definition of oratory as that division of speech concerned with legal cases and public debates (Cicero, Orator I 6, 22-23). without seeing it as distinct or separate from other speech as not to involve commonality.

In On the Orator I it is debated at one point whether oratory truly involves a comprehensive search for the good, or does the Orator merely use an appearance of the truth for effectiveness as part of a natural art or learned set of techniques (Cicero, Orator I 10, 42). Crassus’ somewhat dry answer to Scavola is to observe that the opinion of the Greeks was not to allow the rhetorician inclusion in genuine government affairs or learning (Cicero, Orator I 11, 46).

Cicero, by example of his own life takes a broad inclusive approach to Oratory. In a earlier statement we encounter words which probably reflect his own view closely: But the fact of the matter is that oratory is a much more considerable activity and depends on a far wider range of different arts and branches of study, than people imagine (Cicero, Orator I 4,16).Particularly Cicero seems interested in holding on to the orator’s special sphere - the third branch of Philosophy life and behavior of human beings which is to say, human nature (Cicero, Orator I 15, 69).

We hear of the orator’s special strength - to rouse men’s hearts to anger, hatred, and indignation (Cicero, Orator I 12,53), a not dissimilar goal to that of the dramatist. We find that a speaker’s job is to ensure that the feelings of his audience are affected just the way he wants them to be (19, 87). His Five Tasks of the orator (and to keep within the dignity of the theme) (Cicero, Orator I 38, 142-44) given in a following paragraph, are suitable instructions for any playwright or actor. Even at the beginning of On the Orator Cicero has one of his characters observe approvingly of the benefits to be gained from the less serious art on regulation of expression, voice and movement of body. Cicero has his character Antonius make an observation that the chief distinction between an actor speaking and an orator is that the actor has more leeway. He is excused if he has a bad outing - is forgiven. The orator is not. He is subjected to a more severe standard of judgment (Cicero, Orator I 26, 124). The orator must have:
... the acuteness of a logician, profundity of a philosopher, diction virtually of a poet, the memory of a lawyer, the voice of a performer in tragic drama, the gestures you might almost say of an actor at the top of his profession... a modest ration of that fail to win the slightest approval for the orator unless he commands the lot of them, a superlative degree. (Cicero, Orator I 27, 128?)

In short, the arts of the stage were so allied to the cause of the orator to make up the material of the orator’s art both in their form and extension. There is also comment toward the end of On the Orator book I concerning the point an orator makes of exaggerating everything to the good, and to the bad (Cicero, Orator I 50, 221). It is useful to compare this with an observation from a chapter in a book by Richard C. Beacham where he notes that the last decades of the republic were a time of virtuoso acting, ...hyper dramatic conflicts...and rhetoric demanding a high degree of histrionic skill (Beacham 154).

There are elements of calculated opportunism to be seen in adding an extra measure of theatrical motifs and references to Pro Caelia. The first of these may be termed the agonistic argument. Cicero is well aware that with the Ludi Meglense under way, most in attendance at the trial would rather be there than listening to lawyers. He opens with a traditional benedacto, commiserating with the court’s population for being stuck there, adding a not-to-subtle questioning as to why this case had to be tried under the Lex Lutatia di vi. A law promulgating a special court of immediate proceedings for events using violence against the state (Cicero, Pro Caelia 1,1). Cicero; however, has more in mind than mere sympathy. He knows he is in competition for the hearts and minds of the jury, his audience, against the games they would be at. If they want theater, I’ll give them theater, he seems to have decided. Those here with me won’t be the ones who have missed anything. They will count themselves as being the ones who had the best seats in town. People will look back at this and say: Pompey wasn't the only one to give Rome a Theater.1 The conceit of his strategy was to peg the corners of this case to the well known outlines of the stock situations and characters of Roman Comedy. Already by the second paragraph he has declaimed that the whole current action is being financed by a whore. At the third paragraph this whore is the recipient for the further abrogation as the third party of:Insupportable tantrums and savage malevolence. Nothing more is needed to mark her as a particular character: the Meretrix -subtype- cold, demanding, debauched, mercenary, a bitter fading courtesan. By the time an actual person brought forth in name, she is locked in to this label. His next move is far more difficult. He must try to portray Marcus Caelius Rufus as the Adulescens; a young man swept up by youthful inexperience, foolish first love, and lacking resources mental and monetary. Caelius Rufus is not that, not really. He is at least in his late twenties - this from a remark Cicero allows that he has reached the age where he can hold office. For a member of the equestrian order this would be after ten years on call to the army. Cicero builds up an argument for forgiving youthful indiscretion. Obfuscating the point and changing the subject then coming back to it admitting that youthful indiscretions Caelius didn’t have. His indiscretions large and small have mostly been in the last few years. Again he turns to his meretrix, it is in those last few years he has been her neighbor, living in an apartment building owned by her brother, P. Clodius Pulcher whom he names. This advances the plot. Cicero quoting Ennius indirectly through M. Crassus refers to his Meretrix in high style this time as the Medea of the Palatine (Cicero., Pro Caelia viii 18) source by proximity of all Caelius’ trouble. This phrase hearkening to the wife of Jason, in the Argonauts story, who kills her own children in a fit of cold fury and spite when Jason abandons her, on the occasion of the festival of the Great Mother is calculated to have maximum effect on the audience. It also functions to admit yet dismiss the well known affair between Caelius and Clodia.

Next he takes up the comments of the proceeding prosecutor Lucius Herennius who has condemned Caelius’ way of living in a righteous reproachful manner, but to apparent good effect (ix, 25). With just a few words Cicero co-opts all this effort toward his own end:

Yet here in court, on the other hand, you could not have imagined a sterner kind of uncle and moralist and tutor. He reprimanded Marcus Caelius in terms no father has ever dreamed of using towards his own son. He went on at great length about the evils of wild and intemperate living ...beginning to cause even me to tremble. (xi 25)

Herennius now leaves the stage marked as Senex iratus severus: old man, angry and stern. As a parental type - he is overblown and overreacting; however, he is also understood to be deeply concerned for his charge. Eventually, in a idealized version of the plot he comes to a forgiving rapprochement with his son. Now all Herennius’s and the other prosecutors’2 attacks work against them. Go ahead feel that way Cicero tells them, only mind that you are not singling Caelius out. Our young people are like this and they usually turn out all right (see at xii, 28, 29,30). At this point he takes up the charges emanating from Clodia. He names her directly for the first time, and does not immediately refer back to his earlier pointedly harsh treatment. Noting that if she, while officially not being involved, were to say Caelia did not steal gold from me, did not try to poison me, that case would vanish (xiii, 32). He makes a pretense of deferring to her status of a Roman Lady of noble birth, but has no intention of dealing with her or her set of charges seriously. He next pretends to slip and refer to her Brother Clodius as her husband - while making a statement that since he recognizes he has a existing quarrel with Clodius he will try to be moderate in treatment of the family. In fact the barrage against the two is getting underway. Almost every line now makes an overt misogynist stab at Clodia, by turns humorous put-downs, and comments colored to evoke disgust. All designed to leave the jury feeling very superior to this family:

...Engage[ing] in quarrels ... with a women widely regarded as having no enemies since she so readily offers intimacy in all directions (xiii 32).
Did I bring water to Rome so that you may wash yourself after your impure copulations (xiv, 34)?

This latter quote Cicero makes through what he terms some stage personage. It is the voice of her distant but most illustrious ancestor Appius Claudius Caectus. Conjured up from the shade he calls forth three other relatives: her dead husband, Q Metelus Celer whom Cicero believes she poisoned, Claudia Quinta, the Roman noblewoman who was reputed to have freed the barge bringing the Rock of Cybele (the Magna Mater whose festival the Ludi Meglense is) up the Tiber to Rome, and lastly a Vestal Virgin Claudia. In comparison to these, her nobility is symbolically stripped from her.

With a flurry of well selected quotations from Terence occurring at the thirty seventh paragraph speaking the words of the Senex severus, and gathering the characters of adulescens and meretrix together. Cicero again is able to ask the audience to consider the mild and kindly father (xvi, 37) Having once more sought compassion for his client’s dissipate ways. Cicero launches into a second detailed description of all the rumor, gossip and innuendo of Clodia’s behavior and comportment he knew or was able to find out. Only to say at end that her behavior is so bad, lewd, depraved that if Caelius were caught up in this; it was not an outrage to chastity, but mere satisfaction of appetite (xx, 49). One can only conclude the jury/audience was too entertained to care about logic or fairness at this point. The cast of characters now reduced to broad strokes, Cicero deals with the issue of the theft of Clodia’s gold in an offhand manner that necessitates staying within the confines of the story as he tells it to make sense.

The description the prosecution has previously set forth as to Caelius’ attempt to poison Clodia is retold by Cicero plainly as theatrical farce. He deliberately invites the comparison:

Take this little drama for instance - the effort of a poetess who has many such works to her credit. How badly off the play is for plot. How... lost for an ending (xxvi, 65?)....Well that is not the sort of finale a real play has. It is more the ending of a song and dance show - the type of production where nobody has been able to think of a suitable ending and so someone escapes from someone else, and the clappers sound, and its the curtain.(xvi, 66?)

The foot note helpfully names this as a reference to the Mimes. These were short stylistically simple productions of low vulgar comedy, imitative of life raw (Duckworth 14). They were very popular of largely Italian origin and were gradually pushing classic Greek comedy off the Roman stage. Cicero’s inference here is that Clodia is lowbrow and uneducated. From this point to the end Cicero merely recycles established themes. Towards the end he brings up P.Clodius Pulcher again, referring to him without naming him directly. Clodius is beyond the scope of any single member of the auxiliary cast of professional types usually turned to as villains but a pest to the state, subsuming all of them. He is described as petty, dishonest, incestuous, seditious, riotous, profane, vindictive and vendettive.

There has been a duality of purpose contained with in Pro Caelia all along. When an ambitious advocate takes a case. The case is examined for its utility towards the advocate’s ends. This case offered just such an opportunity. We can look at the purpose of the oration of one day versus the prose text of another. The case has been decided. Caelius’ freedom is now secure. Clodia and Clodius Pulcher have been checked. Cicero can re-target the enterprise from the immediate end to his primary aim. The Pulchers are to be ridiculed, actively damaged in standing, their methods censured, and Cicero’s position in Rome made secure. His closing references to Clodius Pulcher are to hold up his violent imtimidative actions -not incidentally the destruction of Cicero’s and his brother’s house and property- as evidence against them in the charge they bring.

R.G.M Nisbet in the book Author and audience in Latin Literature describes how Cicero approached his written orations. He explains that to a Roman orator not in front of a live audience - to react to - the prose composition would be a very different thing and a Fresh Occasion (Nesbit 2). Cicero was quite willing to make the more plausible points carry the less (Nesbit 15) alternately exaggerating as he advocates doing in On the Orator, or habitually dismissing inconvenient facts by turn as we see him do infuriatingly in Pro Caelia. Cicero would press to win, Nesbit says, always by the greatest degree possible. And in literary endeavors would make the strongest statement possible to his reader for his purpose (Nesbit 16).

The theatrical motif of Pro Caelia not only offered a convenient way out for Caelius whose behavior seems too reckless to be obviated by any direct strategy. It also offered a way of entertaining and rescuing his audience from missing the highlights of a holiday. It further allowed a return in spirit to the scenes of an earlier success over Clodius Pulcher, recounted in Beacham’s book at p. 159-160.

Cicero was a friend to the theater, and it was a friend to him. It represented the ideals of strong Latin adaptation of Greek learning and culture. He undoubtedly saw it as being very close to his own occupation and eminently transferable in its ability to move and direct the emotions of a audience. This is what we see him putting into practice in the Oration Pro Caelia.

Works Cited


In defense of Marcus Caelius Rufus. Political Writings of Cicero. – (from the Course Packet)

Beacham, Richard C. Later Stages and Stagings. The Roman Theater and its Audience. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ Press, 1992.

Cicero, M. Tullius. On the Orator- book I. Cicero: On the Good Life. trans., ed. Michael Grant. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.

Duckworth, George E. The Nature of Roman Comedy: A Study in Popular Entertainment. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1951

Nesbit, R.G.M. the Orator and the Reader: Manipulation and response in Cicero’s fifth Verrin. Author and Audience in Latin Literature. Tony Woodman & Jonathan Powell eds. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1992

1 By 57 bce, the date of this trial, Pompey’s theater project had been announced and I believe construction was underway - it was completed in 53 bce.

2 Contrary to the footnote in Pro Caelia selection in the course packet I would believe that the Publius Clodius named in the text is P. Clodius Pulcher I don’t what is being translated as my friend but it struck me a ironic usage (xii, 28)