March 17, 2002
Piling On: Nicholas D. Kristof and M. Tullius Cicero

More unfinished business: In a New York Times op ed last Tuesday, Nicholas Kristof wrote an article boldly titled "Cicero Was Wrong". Some of it has already been trashed by the VodkaPundit and James Bowman (scroll down), but perhaps a Latin teacher can add some perspective. I was particularly struck by the following passage:

Even the Romans fretted about the issue, with Cicero offering his famous dictum: Oderint, dum metuant - Let them hate, so long as they fear.

(Actually, Cicero seems to have been no better at crediting his sources than modern historians are; he apparently stole the line from Accius's play "Atreus.")

Cicero's view seems to be gaining ground among many Americans . . .

Cicero did not "steal" the words from the tragic poet Accius, he quoted or alluded to them more than once, and every one of his ancient readers knew what he was doing, because it was Accius' most famous line. If you do a Google search on "to be or not to be", you will get "about 75,100" hits. Some attribute the phrase to Shakespeare, some to his character Hamlet, some mention both, some neither, but I think it is safe to say (without, of course, having read them all) that not one of these sites is attempting to plagiarize Shakespeare. All either quote him or allude to him by working the words into a new context.

In quoting Accius' words, Cicero sometimes mentions him by name, for instance in his First Philippic, one of the orations that got him killed. There he accuses his bitter enemy Mark Antony of following Atreus' dictum and severely criticizes him for it, offering the assassination of Julius Caesar (just a few months before) as a warning of what happens to those who prefer to be feared rather than loved. (The Latin and a not-very-good English translation are here. The translator turns Accius' three words into seventeen, which may be a world record for prolixity and expansion. As usual, all the good translations are still in copyright.)

Mythological excursus: Atreus was the father of Agamemnon and Menelaus and father-in-law of Helen of Troy. To punish his brother Thyestes, he chopped up his nephews, cooked them, and fed them to their father. At the end of the feast, he brought in their heads and hands on a covered platter, just to gloat. He had already mixed their blood into the wine. You can read the whole story in Seneca's most gruesome tragedy, the Thyestes. It's odd that Hollywood, always hungry for new plots and never squeamish about violence, hasn't jumped on this one.

Anyway, we know more about Cicero than any other ancient author, from his orations, his philosophical and rhetorical treatises, his bad verse, and over a thousand of his own letters, plus more written to him, most of them (the letters, I mean) never meant for publication. Although only about half of each of his main political works, the Republic (De Re Publica) and the Laws (De Legibus), survives, we can be quite sure that Cicero's political beliefs and practices had no resemblance to Atreus'. To simplify greatly, Cicero was a conservative, Atreus a psychopath. It was Caligula who, according to Suetonius (scroll down to section XXX), took oderint, dum metuant as his motto. Perhaps Kristof has mixed up Cicero with Caligula, or Machiavelli (especially chapter XVII).

Posted by Dr. Weevil at March 17, 2002 10:10 PM