Colophon: What Cicero Said


Next fall the third-semester Latin class will read Cicero’s first speech against Catiline. After spending about half the semester putting the text under a microscope, making sure we can account for every word and construction, we’ll take a 50-minute class period and read the speech aloud, going in turns around the room (Yes, LATN 0201a-f13, I’m talking about you; consider yourselves warned!).

That will be our version of what this photograph captures: an all-out extravaganza of a production about famous moments in Cicero’s life, from his attack on Catiline, to the trial and execution of Catiline’s fellow conspirators, to Cicero’s banishment for the high-handed treatment of these Roman citizens, and on to his joyous recall from that exile. As the photo shows, in 1910 the cast included more than 100 students. Some 1,500 people saw the drama, which was in Latin and ran for three hours. The Latin class will have fewer than a dozen students, and we will be our own audience.

Those lower numbers might make one lament “O tempora! O mores!” (Oh the times! Oh the behavior!) as Cicero did. This may be his most famous phrase. It seems to have been a personal favorite, employed in at least four speeches between 70 BCE and 45 BCE. In other words, Cicero was pretty much always ready to see decline.

My own view is less alarmist. Of course I’d love to have the entire College community spend months working up and presenting in Latin a drama based on late-Roman republican history, but I will thoroughly enjoy poring over one speech with dedicated students and then performing it even in the confines of a classroom.

Cicero’s sarcasm, hyperbole, and elaborate personifications (at one point he pretends to be Italy, reproaching him for letting Catiline go unchecked) make the speech lively and fun. You know that you are reading a great work of literature when you laugh out loud at two-thousand-year-old jokes.

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