Cicero’s Pro Caelio (and some Catullus)

Cicero may have been a pompous self-important ass, but he was also the world’s greatest rhetoricians, and the incandescent brilliance of his forensic oratory is often both mesmerising and amusing.

I was lead to the Pro Caelio while contemplating Catullus’ Poem 58 (surely one of everyone’s favourites!):

Caelius, our Lesbia, Lesbia herself,
That Lesbia, whom Catullus loved
More than himself and all his friends,
Now on street-corners and down back-alleys
Jerks off the grandsons of great-hearted Remus.

Now if we follow tradition in identifying Lesbia with Clodia, then it seems reasonable to identify Caelius here with the Caelius Rufus of the Pro Caelio (though some have denied it), who also had an affair with Clodia, which is largely the subject of Cicero’s speech. So what light, I wondered, might the Pro Caelio shed on this mysterious woman? – And how does this match Catullus’ portrayal? And how did Roman society work anyway in the late Republic? Who knew who, and what side was everyone on?

Cicero is defending Caelius Rufus on two charges: a) that during his affair with Clodia, he borrowed gold off her in order to pay some slaves to murder a certain Dio of Alexandria; and b) that he attempted to procure poison in order to murder Clodia. Roman society had no concept of state prosecution; all cases were private matters and therefore prosecution tended to be politically motivated (by which I probably mean, helpful to prosecutor’s / defender’s reputation; beneficial in establishing the right political connexions – least of all any concept of public service). Cicero maintains that these charges are nonsense (he certainly makes a masterly case, but then he would make it seem that way), and that in fact the prosecution, instigated by the Clodii faction (the notorious Publius Clodius himself is one of the prosecutors), was only brought about because Caelius Rufus has been prosecuting them over some other matters (against his advice, Cicero adds, no doubt because in defending Caelius he doesn’t want to alienate those he’s defending him against, who are probably also at times useful friends and allies). Anyway, he makes his case, which includes a great farcical scene in a bath-house, and wins.

It’s only in the latter part of the speech that he actually gets to these issues however; a lot of the early part of the case is basically concerned with the character of young Caelius Rufus, whom the prosecution seemed to have characterised as something of a skirt-chasing hell-raiser; to which Cicero responds that there’s nothing wrong with this – in moderation; – we were all a bit like this when we were young; and anyhow, Caelius is just a nice boy who’s been led astray by an evil woman – which leads him to his extended character assassination of Clodia.

He starts upon Clodia (as he says) gently, in order to build her character in his audience’s mind (not, of course, that they wouldn’t have known her anyway). First he brings in one of her famous dead ancestors, to wonder why it is she was acquainted with this Caelius Rufus at all since he wasn’t related to their family, and has him bang on about the historic virtuousness of the Claudii and the Metelli (into which latter family she’d married; – they were serious aristocracy the Metelli, not of course that the Claudii weren’t) (“Was it for this that I broke the treaty which was concluded with Pyrrhus, that you should every day make new treaties of most disgraceful love?” moans her ancestor). Then he takes on the guise of her younger brother for much the same effect, before coming out with this quiet breath-takingly brazen piece of rhetorical imputation:

I am not saying anything now against that woman [Clodia]: but if there were a woman totally unlike her, who made herself common to everybody; who had always some one or other openly avowed as her lover; to whose gardens, to whose house, to whose baths the lusts of every one had free access as of their own right; a woman who even kept young men, and made up for the parsimony of their fathers by her liberality; if she lived, being a widow, with freedom, being a lascivious woman, with wantonness, being a rich woman, extravagantly, and being a lustful woman, after the fashion of prostitutes; am I to think any one an adulterer who might happen to salute her with a little too much freedom?

Later on in the speech, once Cicero feels the audience knows their woman, he’s quite happy to call her a whore and a prostitute without any such formalities of deceit, as if this was what everyone knew all along.

Let’s put it slightly differently however: she was a woman who used her beauty to sleep with young men she fancied, until she got bored of them and dumped them. Isn’t this exactly the arc of Catullus’ poetry about her / his relationship with women in general? Usually, it seems to me, Catullus is frustrated in love. But still I don’t think we should take Catullus’ poems in the manner of a verbatim account, just as we shouldn’t believe Cicero when he suggests Caelius Rufus was an innocent dupe whom Clodia was leading astray; I’m sure they both knew perfectly well what kind of person she was from the beginning; and so I’m inclined to read Catullus’ poem as written by a lover pretending to commiserate with another lover about a revelation of the true nature of the woman they both love when in fact both of them were perfectly aware of this in the first place, laden at the same time with a feigned vituperative bitterness.

Catullus also wrote a poem about Cicero (poem 49), which is open to almost any interpretation:

Most eloquent of the grandsons of Romulus
As many as are or ever were, Marcus Tullius,
And as many as there ever shall be,
The greatest thanks to you gives Catullus,
The worst poet of all –
As much the worst poet of all,
As you are the best patron of all.

Again, we sense some sarcasm in this poem. No doubt Catullus doesn’t believe himself the worst poet of all (that was more like Cicero’s crown, with his famous epic about his own consulship and how he defeated Catiline); but what is implied about Cicero’s patronage? What does the poem really mean? And is the any significance in him talking of the grandsons of Romulus (Romuli nepotum) here and the grandsons of Remus (Remi nepotes) in the poem? Is there a connexion between the two poems? Are they even connected to the Pro Caelio? Cicero was certainly a patron to Caelius Rufus. And he wasn’t a grandson of Romulus – both Cicero and Catullus were outsiders in Roman society.

In the end, Catullus just drives you mad.

(I know you want to ask: does Cicero go on at all about Catiline in the Pro Caelio? Yes; yes he does. But it’s not his fault. You see, the prosecutors – I imagine, for a laugh, because they knew Cicero would be defending the case – alleged that Caelius was a great friend of Catiline’s and a party to his conspiracy).

On Synthetic and Analytic Languages

The passage I wanted to talk about (see post below) was this one:

The injunction against split infinitives, for instance, is a consequence of the weird fact that English grammar is modeled on Latin even though Latin is a synthetic language and English is an analytic language.49

49A synthetic language uses grammatical inflections to dictate syntax, whereas an analytic languages [sic, at least in my edition] uses word order. Latin, German, and Russian are synthetic; English and Chinese are analytic.

For a start, I’d just like to make clear something David Foster Wallace doesn’t entirely (though he makes some amends in the next sentence). When he says “English grammar is modeled on Latin”, he isn’t meaning the grammar itself; he’s meaning so-called grammatical rules, like not having split infinitives or not ending sentences in prepositions. (Oddly, DFW is in favour of splitting infinitives (I’d noticed this already in the book and was preparing to pick him up on it), because he feels the rule’s derived nonsensically from Latin; but he’s against ending sentences with prepositions, presumably because he doesn’t realise it has precisely the same justification).

(Also – another aside – it is the fact that English “grammar” is modeled on Latin that causes the injunction against split infinitives, rather than it having anything to do with synthesis or analysis.) [ed. This is technically incorrect. It is the fact that DFW misuses the terms synthesis and analysis that led me to make this statement].

But anyway, I started wondering to myself about this distinction between synthetic and analytic languages, and when it comes down to it, I really don’t think there’s all that much in it.

For instance, the other night I asked a German friend, since she spoke a synthetic language, whether it was true she could construct sentences in any order in German, that word order could be played about with in this manner. – Being asked a question about an aspect of Germanness, naturally she became defensive: – her reply: “Well, you can play around with word order in English too”. (You see, Germans are just like us). I was prepared to concede this, since (as an idle “writer” who spends most of his so-called time “writing” merely re-ordering English sentences) I’d thought of it before, and tried to dismiss it as a point to come back to. – Anyway, we were drinking, and perhaps that wasn’t the best subject for a conversation anyway…

So I’d thought I’d try Latin instead. – I thought for once I’d avoid poetry (which is never the best for deriving grammatical rules) and have a look at some prose. So I took up some Cicero; – but found his rhetorical flourishes perhaps a little too extreme. I needed something simple and plodding. So I turned to Caesar’s Gallic War.

Here’s the opening of Caesar’s Gallic War

a) In Latin:

Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres, quarum unam incolunt Belgae, aliam Aquitani, tertiam qui ipsorum lingua Celta, nostra Galli appellantur. Hi omnes lingua, institutis, legibus inter se differunt. Gallos ab Aquitanis Garumna flumen, a Belgis Matrona et Sequana dividit. Horum omnium fortissimi sunt Belgae, propterea quod a cultu atque humanitate provinciae longissime absunt, minimeque ad eos mercatores saepe commeant atque ea quae ad effeminandos animos pertinent important, proximique sunt Germanis, qui trans Rhenum incolunt, quibuscum continenter bellum gerunt.

b) In English

Gaul is a whole divided into three parts, one of which the Belgae inhabit, another the Aquitani, the third those who in their own language are called Celts, in ours Gauls. These all differ among themselves in language, institutions and laws. The Garonne river divides the Gauls from the Aquitani; the Marne and the Seine divides them from the Belgae. Of all these, the strongest are the Belgae, because they are furthest removed from the civilisation and humanity of the province, and merchants mix less with them and sell them less things which encourage effeminacy; and they are next to the Germans, who live across the Rhine, and with whom they continually waging war.

I’ve marked in bold where I’ve had to change around word order in English to make sense of the Latin word order (I’ve avoided noting changes of Latin phraseology, and those based on Latin’s superior succinctness – though this is derived in part, I guess, from its syntheticness).

Now, it doesn’t seem to me that there’s much of a difference there in the language’s supposed usage or not of word order as an indicator of meaning. The vast majority of the passage (and all Latin) can be rendered into English without changing the word order in the slightest.

It’s equally obvious that the words affected are always the same: – they are always the verbs, and the subjects of those verbs (and possibly the objects too – there just aren’t any examples here); – and this, of course, should be no surprise to anyone.

In fact, for someone claiming that Latin words can be in any order in a sentence, it is noticeable how many times in Latin prose (like in German, or so I recall) the verb is anchored at the end of the sentence (by which I really mean clause), with its subject somewhere close in the vicinity. – If word order doesn’t matter, then why?

The major exceptions to this are:

  1. The verb “to be”, which (as always) acts strangely: – in technical terms, the verb “to be” causes the subject and the object to be in apposition: – that is to say, the object is the subject; and in terms of a synthetic language, both are in the nominative case
  2. Verbs which are more for performance than actually part of the meaning of the sentence: – for instance, Cicero begins the speech I was looking at “Credo ego” / “I believe” – cf. this to the Spanish “yo creo que” / “I think that”, which is used much like English “Well … “, as a pause at the beginning of a sentence (listen to a Spanish footballer being asked – in Spanish, obviously – questions about the game he’s just played, and see if it’s not the first thing he comes out with).

What the difference between synthetic and analytic languages (or, at least, Latin and English) boils down to, I feel, is this: –

English tends to structure the cores of its sentences:

Subject – verb – object

Whereas Latin tends to structure them:

Object – subject – verb

[ed. This view needs more investigation!]

[The only real difference perhaps is the dropping of the accusative.]

All other parts of the sentences in both languages (in Latin, anything in other cases (though in Latin – AS IN ENGLISH – the genitive must always be next to the word it depends on / adjectives will be close by their nouns), in both all adverbs, prepositional phrases etc.) are (more or less) entirely moveable. Latin can – it’s true – create some nice effects which English can’t, particularly by a sort of adjectival wrapping – but there are (no doubt) unwritten rules limiting these too.

Perhaps, you will say: – but the difference is that Latin could structure its sentences in weird ways if it wanted to. – Yes, but the thing is, it tends not to, and I sense there’s a (grammatical) reason behind this. (My German friend’s answer to this was that, Yes, there were certain pretentious German writers etc.). Which brings me back to why I spend so much time as a “writer” fiddling about with the minutiae of sentence structure. It’s because, to me, for whatever reason, by whatever incomprehensible rule of the language, the sentence doesn’t sound right – and that this is something deep down in EVERY language, which is dependent upon word order.

(Oh yeah, there was a whole other section I was going to write – the opposite of this – about how English uses grammatical inflections absolutely everywhere – there just so familiar that you can’t see them. But I’ll save that for another time).