Cicero’s Poetry.

1. Harley 647 containing Cicero’s Aratea. Illustrated with the constellations. Hyginus’ commentary to the poem contained within the body of the constellations. Images: British Library. Aries (fol. 2v), Sagittarius (fol. 6r), Eridanus (fol. 10v).

2a. Tacitus, Dialogus (21.6-7). Translated by M. Hutton, W. Peterson (1914):

As to Julius Caesar we must no doubt make allowance. It was owing to his vast designs and all-absorbing activities that he accomplished less as an orator than his superhuman genius called for; just as in the case of Brutus we must leave him to his well-loved philosophy, for even his admirers admit that as an orator he did not rise to his reputation. You won’t tell me that anybody reads Caesar’s oration in defence of Decius the Samnite, or Brutus’s in defence of King Deiotarus, or any of the other speeches, all equally slow and equally flat—unless, indeed, it be someone who is an admirer also of their poetry. For they not only wrote poetry, but what is more they sent copies to the libraries. Their verse is no better than Cicero’s, but they have had more luck: it is not so notorious (quia illos fecisse pauciores sciunt).

2b. Juvenal, Satires (10.114-126). Translated by Susanna Braund (2010):

The eloquence and reputation of Demosthenes or Cicero is what boys keep on praying for throughout the spring holidays, every boy who goes to school accompanied by a house slave to guard his narrow satchel and who still worships thrifty Minerva with a single tiny coin. But it was because of their eloquence that both orators died. It was the abundant, overflowing gush of talent that sent both to their deaths. It was talent that had its hands and neck severed. The rostrum was never drenched in the blood of a feeble advocate. “O Rome, you are fortunate, born in my consulate” (o fortunatam natam me consule Romam). He could have laughed at Antony’s swords if everything he said had been like this. I rank his ridiculous verses above you, immortal Philippic, next to the first on the roll, with your distinguished reputation.

2c. Plutarch, Life of Cicero (2.3-5). Translated by Bernadotte Perrin (1919):

And although he showed himself, as Plato thought a nature should do which was fond of learning and fond of wisdom, capable of welcoming all knowledge and incapable of slighting any kind of literature or training, he lent himself with somewhat greater ardour to the art of poetry. And a little poem which he wrote when a boy is still extant, called Pontius Glaucus,  and composed in tetrameter verse. Moreover, as he grew older and applied himself with greater versatility to such accomplishments, he got the name of being not only the best orator, but also the best poet among the Romans. His fame for oratory abides to this day, although there have been great innovations in style; but his poetry, since many gifted poets have followed him, has altogether fallen into neglect and disrepute.

2d. Catullus, poem 49. Translated by Peter Green (2005), cf. Pro Caelio wk 5:

Sweetest-spoken of Romulus’ descendants,
past or present, Marcus Tullius, and all who
may yet follow in the distant future — 
warmest thanks to you herewith from Catullus,
who’s the worst of all poets, by as much the 
worst of all living poets, as yourself are
best of all courtroom lawyers for your clients.

2e. Caroline Bishop, “pessimus omnium poeta: Canonization and the Ancient Reception of Cicero’s Poetry,” ICS (2018), pp145-146:

‘After this, there is a marked decline in allusions to Cicero’s poetry, and Seneca mentions contemporary mockery of it alongside mockery of other antiquated figures like Ennius and Hortensius, a sign that it was now considered thoroughly out of date (De Ira 3.37.5). From this point on, most references to the poetry cluster around its two most infamous and mockable lines, “oh fortunate Rome, reborn in my consulship” (o fortunatam natam me consule Romam) and “let arms yield to the toga” (cedant arma togae). It is significant that these are both lines whose critical reception Cicero discusses in his prose works, suggesting that imperial authors may not have read the poetry at all—and that they were, in a sense, taking Cicero’s word for the badness of his poetry.’

3. Chronological table of Cicero’s poetry:

Ciceronian poem date  what remains evidence
Translation of Aratus’ Phaenomena (Aratea) 80s BCE (Prognostica added c. 60 BCE?) 480 lines in mss.; c. 90 lines quoted by Cicero quoted by Cicero in De Nat. Deor. 2.104-114 (45 BCE); smaller self-quotations in other Ciceronian works.
Pontius Glaucus, Nilus, Uxorius, Alcyones, Limon, Thalia Maesta 80s BCE trace quotations and titles in later sources (see Courtney 2003: 149ff.)
An epic on his consulship (De Consulatu) 60 BCE  78 lines quoted by Cicero in De Div. 1.17-22 (44 BCE).
An epic on his own exile (De temporibus suis) 56-54 BCE lost references in Q.fr. 2.7.1 (Feb. 55 BCE), Q. fr. 3.1.24 (Sept. 54 BCE), Fam. 1.9.23 (Dec. 54 BCE). See Harrison 1990.
An epic on Caesar’s expedition to Britain 54 BCE lost Q. fr. 3.7.6.
An epic poem on Gaius Marius (Marius) uncertain date 13 lines  quoted by Cicero in De Leg. 1.2 (after 52 BCE), Div. 1.106 (44 BCE).
Latin translations of Greek poetry in philosophical works (various)

4. Cicero, De Officiis (1.77-78). Translated by Walter Miller (1913):

The whole truth, however, is in this verse, against which, I am told, the malicious and envious are wont to rail. Yield, ye arms, to the toga; to civic praises, ye laurels. (cedant arma togae, concedat laurea laudi). Not to mention other instances, did not arms yield to the toga, when I was at the helm of state? For never was the republic in more serious peril, never was peace more profound. Thus, as the result of my counsels and my vigilance, their weapons slipped suddenly from the hands of the most desperate traitors—dropped to the ground of their own accord! What achievement in war, then, was ever so great? [78] What triumph can be compared with that? For I may boast to you, my son Marcus; for to you belong the inheritance of that glory of mine and the duty of imitating my deeds. And it was to me, too, that Gnaeus Pompey, a hero crowned with the honours of war, paid this tribute in the hearing of many, when he said that his third triumph would have been gained in vain, if he were not to have through my services to the state a place in which to celebrate it.

5. Cicero, De Legibus (1.1-2). Translated by Clinton W. Keyes (1928):

Quintus. That oak lives indeed, my dear Atticus, and will live for ever; for it was planted by the imagination. No tree nourished by a farmer’s care can be so long–lived as one planted by a poet’s verses.
Atticus. How is that, Quintus? What sort of planting is it that poets do? It seems to me that while praising your brother you are putting in a word for yourself as well.
Quintus. You may be right; but for all that, as long as Latin literature shall live, there will not fail to be an oak tree on this spot, called the “Marian Oak,” and this tree, as Scaevola says of my brother’s “Marius,” will Through countless ages come to hoary end. For I suppose you do not really believe that your beloved Athens has been able to preserve in her citadel an undying olive tree, or that the tall and graceful palm which Homer’s Ulysses said that he saw at Delos is the one shown there to–day. And in the same way many other objects in many different places live in men’s thoughts for a longer time than Nature could have kept them in existence. Therefore let us assume that this tree is that “acorn–laden” oak, from which once flewJove’s golden messenger of wondrous form. But when time or age shall have destroyed this tree, still there will be an oak tree on this spot, which men will call the “Marian Oak.”

6a. Cicero, De Natura Deorum (2.104-105). Translated by P. G. Walsh (1998):

At this moment Balbus looked over at me, and said: ‘I shall now cite some lines of Aratus. Your translation of them, which you made when you were still a stripling, gives me so much pleasure because they are in Latin that I can recall many of them from memory. So here goes, as illustration of what we continually observe with no change or variation:

The other stars of heaven glide swiftly on;
By day and night they circle with the sky.

A person desirous of contemplating the regularity of nature can never have his fill of the contemplation of those heavenly bodies:

The furthest point of the axis at either end
Is called the pole.

Around the pole the two constellations of the Bears course and never set.

The Greeks call one of them the Cynosure;
The other bears the name of Helice.

The stars in the second of these are visible all night long, and they are very bright:

The name we give to them’s ‘The Seven Oxen.’

6b. Astronomical chart of ‘Cynosure’, modern Ursa Minor:

7. Caroline Bishop, “pessimus omnium poeta: Canonization and the Ancient Reception of Cicero’s Poetry,” ICS (2018), pp153-154:

‘Cicero’s claim to eternal fame for the products of his innate eloquence was so strong that Seneca says that he is unaware of a single declaimer who argued the opposite side of this suasoria (i.e., that Cicero should burn his works and continue to live). Instead, Seneca says, “everyone was worried about Cicero’s books, no one about the man himself” (omnes pro libris Ciceronis solliciti fuerunt, nemo pro ipso, Suas. 7.10). In other words, the declaimers found it attractive to argue that Cicero was more valuable dead than alive because for them this was indeed the case: as a symbol of Republican eloquence, his death at the hands of tyranny only amplified his ability, through the process of canonization, to serve as a critic of such tyranny for later ages.’

8. Caroline Bishop, “pessimus omnium poeta: Canonization and the Ancient Reception of Cicero’s Poetry,” ICS (2018), pp141:

‘Alongside and in concert with canonization, a biographical tradition grew up around canonized Greek authors that reinforced their well-suitedness to the genres in which they composed. It has long been recognized that ancient biographers largely relied on an author’s own words for their portraits, whether or not those words were meant to be self-representational. But as Joseph Farrell has noted, ancient biographers were selective about the passages they considered illustrative of their subject’s character. Archilochus, for example, is unanimously represented in ancient biographies as “a mean-spirited, foul-mouthed, oversexed coward, drunkard, and brawler,” a feat that requires ignoring poems that do not support this characterization, such as his moving consolation of his friend Pericles (fr. 13 West). This is because Archilochus had become the canonical poet of blame, and by focusing solely on the iambic features of his poetry, his biographers could transform him into essentially an allegory for iambic poetry itself: someone whose character was so “iambic” that he could not help but be talented in the genre. In this way, biographers provided powerful confirmation of the idea that authors wrote in the genres to which their character was inherently suited.’


Cicero’s ‘De Natura Deorum.’

1. Harley 4662. 15th c. manuscript containing Cicero’s De Natura Deorum. White vine initial ‘C’. Image: British Library.

2. P. A. Brunt, ‘Philosophy and Religion in the Late Republic.’ Philosophia Togata I (1989), pp175:

‘Romans were certainly conscious that philosophic teaching was at variance with inherited religious practices and beliefs. For example, Varro (as we know through St. Augustine) followed an unidentified Greek thinker in distinguishing three types of theology, three ways of giving an account of the divine: mythical, natural, and political. Mythical theology was purveyed by the poets, natural by the philosophers, and political in the laws an civil customs of the state. Of course the poets told and interpreted the myths in various ways, the theories of the philosophers were diverse, and each people had its own gods and cults, though often ready enough, and none readier than the Romans to equate their own with foreign deities or to borrow from other peoples; still in Cicero’s epigram ‘sua cuique religio, nostra nobis’ (Flac. 69).’

3a. Cicero, De Natura Deorum (1.1). Translated by P. G. Walsh (1998):

There are many issues in philosophy which to this day have by no means been adequately resolved. But there is one enquiry, Brutus, which is particularly difficult and obscure, as you are well aware. This concerns the nature of the gods, the noblest of studies for the human mind to grasp, and one vital for the regulation of religious observance. On this question, the pronouncements of highly learned men are so varied and so much at odds with each other that inevitably they strongly suggest that the explanation is human ignorance, and that the Academics have been wise to withhold assent on matters of such uncertainty; for what can be more degrading than rash judgement, and what can be so rash and unworthy of the serious and sustained attention of a philosopher, as either to hold a false opinion or to defend without hesitation propositions inadequately examined or grasped?

3b. Cicero, De Natura Deorum (1.9). Translated by P. G. Walsh (1998):

A further incentive to embark on these studies was provided by the mental depression induced by the savage and crippling blow inflicted by fortune. Had I been able to devise some more effective alleviation, I should not have taken refuge in this. But I could find no better means of exploiting this plan of action than by devoting myself not merely to a course of reading, but also to grappling with the whole philosophy. The easiest way to gain acquaintance with all its constituent parts and branches is to deal with the topics fully in writing, for the arguments follow an ordered sequence in a remarkable way, each being clearly linked to its predecessor and all of them fitting closely in association with each other.

4. Cicero, De Natura Deorum (2.93). Translated by  P. G. Walsh (1998):

I cannot but express astonishment at this, that anyone could convince himself that certain solid, indivisible bodies are borne along by their thrust and weight, and that from the chance collision of these bodies is created a universe supremely embellished and beautiful. In my view, anyone who imagines that this could have happened, must logically have believe that if countless numbers of the twenty-one letters of the alphabet, fashioned in gold or in some other substance, were thrown into the same receptacle and then shaken out upon the ground, they could form the Annals of Ennius made immediately readable before our eyes. Yet I doubt if as much as a single line could be so assembled by chance.

5a. Cicero, De Natura Deorum (2.12). Translated by  P. G. Walsh (1998):

Augurs wield great authority, and we must surely grant that the soothsayers’ skill is divinely inspired. Any person observing these examples, and countless others of the same kind, would surely be compelled to admit that gods exist. People who employ spokesmen must themselves assuredly exist, and since the gods have spokesmen, we must conceded that gods exist. Perhaps it may be objected that all does not turn out as predicted. But we do not argue that there is no art of medicine, simply because all sick persons do not get better! The gods reveal signs of future events, and if individuals go astray in interpreting these, the fault lies not with the nature of the gods, but with the inferences made by humans. So there is a general agreement amongst all persons of every nation. All have an innate conviction that gods exist, for it is, so to say, engraved on their hearts.

5b. Cicero, De Divinatione (1.15). Translated by W. A. Falconer (1923):

Who could suppose that frogs had this foresight? And yet they do have by nature some faculty of premonition, clear enough of itself, but too dark for human comprehension [Cic., Prognostica]:

Slow, clumsy oxen, their glances upturned to the light of the heavens,
Sniff at the air with their nostrils and know it is freighted with moisture.

I do not ask why, since I know what happens.

Now ’tis a fact that the evergreen mastic, e’er burdened with leafage,
Thrice is expanding and budding and thrice producing its berries;
Triple its signs for the purpose of showing three seasons for ploughing.

Now do I ever enquire why this tree alone blooms three times, or why it makes the appearance of its blossoms accord with my knowledge that it does, although I may not know why.

6. Cicero, De Natura Deorum (2.70). Translated by  P. G. Walsh (1998):

So do you now realize how the admirable and useful discoveries about the natural world have resulted in the creation of false and fictitious deities? This process has given rise to false beliefs, confused misapprehension, and superstitions which are virtually old wives’ tales. We are informed what the gods look like, how old they are, what clothes they wear and what arms they bear, as well as about their family backgrounds, marriages, and kinships; all these details about them are reduced to the level of human frailties. They are even presented as being emotionally disturbed, for we are told of their lusts, anxieties, and outbursts of anger; those tales have it that they also participate in wars and battles, not merely as in the Homeric accounts where they separate and take sides on behalf of opposing armies, but also waging their private wars, for example with the Titans, and with the Giants. These idiotic narratives induce idiotic beliefs; they are utterly unprofitable and frivolous.

7. Cicero, De Natura Deorum (2.60-62). Translated by P. G. Walsh (1998):

With some justification, however, both the wisest men of Greece and our own ancestors have set up and lent names to many other divine natures because of the great benefits which they have conferred. They did this because they believed that anything which bestows some great service on the human race did not originate without divine beneficence. So they then applied the name of the deity itself to what that deity had brought forth. This is why we call corn Ceres, and wine Liber, as in that tag of Terence [Eunuchus 732]:

Ceres and Liber, if not there,
The heat of Venus do impair.

A further instance is when some concepts embodies a greater significance; its title then acknowledges that significance as divine. Examples are Faith and Mind, both of which we observe have been recently enshrined on the capitol by M. Aemilius Scaurus, Faith having earlier been lent divine status by Aulus Atilius Caiatinus. Before your eyes stands a temple of Virtue and Honor, which was restored by Marcus Marcellus, and which was dedicated many years earlier by Quintus Maximus during the war with Liguria. Need I mention the temples of Wealth, Safety, Concord, Freedom, Victory? In each case the impact of these concepts was so great that it could be controlled only by a god, and thus the concepts themselves gained the titles of gods. Desire, Pleasure, and Sexual Joy have similarly been deified; these are vicious and unnatural forces, even if Velleius thinks otherwise, for these very vices rage too fiercely, and banish our natural instincts. So these gods which spawned these several blessings have owed their divine status to the great benefits which they bestowed, and the power residing in each deity is indicated by the names which I cited a moment ago.”

8. Cicero, De Natura Deorum (2.167). Translated by P. G. Walsh (1998):

Our conclusion is that no great man ever existed without a measure of divine inspiration. We are not to reject this thesis just because a storm has damaged someone’s cornfields or vineyards, or because misfortune has deprived a person of one of life’s benefits, inducing us to consider the recipient of such misfortune as the victim of divine hatred or neglect. The gods attend to important issues, and disregard minor things.