The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce

A couple of friends posted this incredible video to Facebook this morning. Yesterday Sen. Ted Cruz spoke on the Senate floor against President Obama’s executive action on immigration and decided that Cicero had said it best, back in 63 BCE. In an re-worked version of the First Catilinarian, the Senator from Texas played Cicero. For the Romanist, it’s a must-watch.

The Washington Post kindly provides a version of the Cicero-Cruz speech, with the differences marked (additions are bolded:

When, O Catiline President Obama, do you mean to cease abusing our patience? How long is that madness of yours still to mock us? When is there to be an end of that unbridled audacity of yours, swaggering about as it does now? Do not the nightly guards placed on the Palatine Hill border — do not the watches posted throughout the city — does not the alarm of the people, and the union of all good men and women — does not the precaution taken of assembling the senate in this most defensible place — do not the looks and countenances of this venerable body here present, have any effect upon you?

Do you not feel that your plans are detected? Do you not see that your conspiracy is already arrested and rendered powerless by the knowledge which that everyone here possesses of it? What is there that you did last night, what the night before — where is it that you were — who was there that you summoned to meet you — what design was there which was adopted by you, with which you think that any one of us is unacquainted?

Shame on the age and on its lost principles! The Senate is aware of these things; the consul Senate sees them; and yet this man lives. Lives! dictates by his pen and his phone. Dictates! Aye, he comes even won’t even come into the Senate. He takes a will not take part in the public deliberations; he is watching and marking down and checking off for slaughter he ignores every individual among us. And we, gallant men and women that we are, think that we are doing our duty to the republic if we keep out of the way of his frenzied attacks.

You ought, O Catiline President Obama, long ago to have been led to execution defeat by command of the consul your own disdain for the people. That destruction which you have been long plotting against us ought to have already fallen on your own head.

What? Did not that most illustrious man, Publius Scipio, the Pontifex Maximus, in his capacity of a private citizen, put to death Tiberius Gracchus, though but slightly undermining the constitution? And shall we, who are the consuls Senate, tolerate Catiline President Obama, openly desirous to destroy the whole world with fire and slaughter the Constitution and this Republic?

For I pass over older instances, such as how Caius Servilius Ahala with his own hand slew Spurius Maelius when plotting a revolution in the state how the IRS plotted to silence American citizens. There was — there was once such virtue in this republic, that brave men and women would repress mischievous citizens with severer chastisement than the most bitter enemy. For we have a resolution of the senate, a formidable and authoritative decree against you, O Catiline Mr. President; the wisdom of the republic is not at fault, nor the dignity of this senatorial body. We, we alone — I say it openly — we, the consuls Senate, are waiting in our duty to stop this lawless administration and its unconstitutional amnesty.

The Post is rather impressed with Cruz’s version:

Some small tweaks! Take out a little “destroy the world with fire;” add a little “destroy the Constitution.” Lose the bit about how Spurius Maelius was murdered; reference the IRS scandal instead. A few additional displays of courtesy to his female colleagues (we’re in the 21st Century, after all), and Cruz had himself a speech.

Cruz was certainly given a great gift by the parallel between Cicero’s criticism of Catiline’s “audacity” and Barack Obama’s own use of that word. But what can a Roman historian make of this? Mary Beard has written before on the tradition of quotation of the First Catilinarian in modern politics. As so often with parallels between contemporary politics and ancient history, it is tempting to wave away the similarity with a “well, it’s more complicated than that…” and a refusal of the principle of historia magistra vitae. But it is irresistible to point out how the edits made by Cruz change the original.

Firstly, Cicero is asking for the death of Catiline: he is surprised that Catiline is still alive and brings up the extra-judicial killings of Tiberius Gracchus and Spurius Maelius. The Roman consul is asking the Senate for something similar. Now, clearly Cruz does not want Obama to actually be given the death penalty for using executive action on immigration, but it strikes me as pretty questionable to use a speech that calls for the killing without trial of your political opponent. Cruz does delete all the references to Cicero’s “solution”, but this actually leaves the speech rather empty – what does Cruz actually propose doing about Obama? The Senate should “stop this lawless administration and its unconstitutional amnesty”.

Second, it is interesting how much Cruz alters the sense in that final paragraph. Cicero brings up the example of Servilius Ahala to make the point that Romans knew how to deal with upstarts like Catiline – they killed them. Cruz changes it so that the previous action that he is passing over is the IRS scrutiny of Tea Party groups. This reverses the meaning entirely – Obama’s supposed faults replace the old Roman solution to revolutionaries. This renders an odd sense – the phrase “such virtue in this Republic” appears to refer to the IRS scandal. There is also a serious disjunction between Cruz’s complaint that the IRS mistreated Americans and Cicero’s idea in the next line that the Roman state punishes rebellious citizens more than external enemies.

Thirdly, we can see how much is lost in translation. The Perseus-sourced translation that Cruz used for the famous phrase “O tempora! O mores!” translated mores as principles.  Cruz adjusted this to “lost principles” – presumably to deny that Obama has any principle. But the Latin does not just mean “principles” – it means also “conduct”, “behavior”. So Cicero is willing to countenance that the present age has some mores, they just do not match those of old Rome. With the change, it is fascinating to see how Cruz looks even more lachrymose than Cicero.

Perhaps it’s not worth reading the speech so closely; instead, we can reach, like Cruz, for an old text, Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:

The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language. Thus Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire …

Once the new social formation was established, the antediluvian colossi disappeared and with them also the resurrected Romanism – the Brutuses, the Gracchi, the Publicolas, the tribunes, the senators, and Caesar himself. Bourgeois society in its sober reality bred its own true interpreters and spokesmen in the Says, Cousins, Royer-Collards, Benjamin Constants, and Guizots; its real military leaders sat behind the office desk and the hog-headed Louis XVIII was its political chief. Entirely absorbed in the production of wealth and in peaceful competitive struggle, it no longer remembered that the ghosts of the Roman period had watched over its cradle.

But unheroic though bourgeois society is, it nevertheless needed heroism, sacrifice, terror, civil war, and national wars to bring it into being. And in the austere classical traditions of the Roman Republic the bourgeois gladiators found the ideals and the art forms, the self-deceptions, that they needed to conceal from themselves the bourgeois-limited content of their struggles and to keep their passion on the high plane of great historic tragedy.


UPDATE: Some other posts on Ted Cruz and Cicero:

Ted Cruz: Confused about Cicero (Jesse Weiner in The Atlantic)

Ted Cruz emulates Cicero in speech denouncing Obama’s immigration plans (The Guardian)

Obama, Cruz and Catiline (Amy Davidson in the New Yorker)

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