For better than two millennia, politicians have invoked classical Greek and Roman literature to construct, defend, and challenge ideologies of power. On Thursday, November 20, Senator Ted Cruz channeled his inner Cicero and delivered his own rendition of “In Catilinam (Against Catiline)” to denounce President Obama’s planned executive actions on immigration reform. “The words of Cicero—powerfully relevant 2,077 years later,” said Cruz, who adapted Cicero’s text to fit his 21st-century American context. In quoting Cicero, Cruz reached back to Harry Truman and Thomas Jefferson, who also were avid readers of the Roman philosopher, statesman, and orator.
As a classics professor, I am on one level pleased to see the legacy of Greco-Roman antiquity alive and well, informing debate around our most pressing issues. The problem is that Cruz dangerously misused Cicero. A deeper look at the speech Cruz adapted shows that the senator not only accused the president of overstepping the constitutional bounds of his authority (a legally dubious claim), but also challenges the legitimacy of the Obama presidency, accuses the president of treason, and perhaps even advocates for his violent punishment. And in speaking from the position of Cicero, Cruz presents himself as a decidedly undemocratic oligarch. (Cruz’s speech can be read in its entirety, alongside an English translation of the Ciceronian original, here.)
Cicero delivered “Against Catiline” to the Roman Senate in 63 B.C., against a background of martial law, high treason, and the specter of civil war. After losing an election to Cicero for Rome’s highest office, consul, Catiline conspired to murder Cicero and attempt a coup d'état. The consul discovered the conspiracy, declared martial law, and denounced Catiline to the Senate—a triumph about which Cicero never tired of reminding his peers and readers. (Catiline went into exile and soon after died in battle with the army he had mustered.) The speech is canonized as a rhetorical masterpiece and remains widely taught in Latin curricula today.
At one level, the political enmity between Catiline and Cicero maps rather well onto Obama’s proposed immigration reforms and broader Republican criticisms of the president. Catiline was an advocate for the poor, who called for the cancellation of debts and openly backed land redistribution. Some of Catiline’s support may well have come from slaves. Cicero, in contrast, issued a law banning such populist gestures. Thus, Obama’s attempts to ease the threat of deportation for illegal immigrants marginalized from the political process (as well as initiatives like the Affordable Care Act and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act) are somewhat Catiline-esque. Cruz is a Cicero, working to protect the prosperity, power, and legal privilege of the lawful establishment.
The basic power relationships at play between Cicero and Catiline, however, are deeply disquieting when applied to Cruz and Obama. Cicero was the state’s high executive. In casting Obama in the role of Catiline, Cruz unsubtly suggests that the sitting president was not lawfully elected and is the perpetrator of a violent insurrection to overthrow the government. But don’t take it from me: Cruz explicitly accuses the president of being “openly desirous to destroy the Constitution and this Republic.” In effect, he accuses the president of high treason. Regardless of one’s views on immigration reform and the Obama administration at large, this is dangerous rhetoric.
To adapt Cicero’s “Against Catiline” to his contemporary context, Cruz tweaked and replaced many of Cicero’s words and phrases. The speech becomes more disturbing when one considers the words Cruz writes over—what classical scholars and papyrologists call palimpsests. For the well-trained reader, lurking beneath Cruz’s already inflammatory words are suggestions that Obama, Cruz’s modern-day Catiline, “should long ago have been led to execution,” marks members of the Senate for death, and seeks “to destroy the whole world with fire and slaughter.” Dangerous words indeed.
Let’s return to that line about Obama openly desiring “to destroy the Constitution and this Republic.” Cruz positions himself as the defender of the Constitution, the state, and—by extension in our American context—democracy. But Cicero was no proponent of popular sovereignty. In “On the Republic (De re publica),” Cicero describes the lower classes as “insane” and very explicitly blames the decline of Athenian power on its democracy. Through his spokesperson Scipio, Cicero offers that “these democratic pleaders do not understand the nature or importance of a well–constituted aristocracy.” Cicero vehemently advocates for maintaining a rigid class system and for restricting the access of the lower classes to the political process. Cicero allied himself with the “Optimates” (“Best Men”), who wished to preserve the aristocracy’s power by limiting the powers of popular assemblies.
Is Cicero really the best symbol to defend our Constitution? The next time Senator Cruz feels inspired to deliver a public reading on the Senate floor, he might be on safer ground if he returns to reciting Dr. Seuss.