The Orator's a Wit

"I should as soon call Cicero a WIT!" (Sorry Jane Austen!)


Ancient PUN-age!


And no, nothing to do with the Carthaginians, because they were PUN-ic (get it? oh never mind!).


Cicero gives us our two quotations for today. Cicero was fond of a good pun (if that isn't a contradiction in terms) and here is one from his first great public speech, pro Roscio Amerino (always a special place in my heart as my A Level set text). it shows Cicero at his very best. Roscius was on trial for the murder of his father. Cicero uses two main strands of argument: Roscius was of good character and this was shown by his father's high opinion of him, rebutting the claims of the prosecution. The other, is a brilliant piece of deflection. That Roscius has been a victim of people who have abused the current political system. The dictator Sulla had instituted proscriptions upon his return to Rome in 82 BCE. In short, killing people on the list was a gruesome free-for-all with the reward of the victim's property promised to the killer. Cicero convinced the jury that Roscius' greedy cousins Magnus and Capito has inserted the Elder Roscius on the list, without Sulla's knowledge, killed old man Roscius and then framed his son.


At section 80 of the speech, Cicero is painting a picture of the frequent occurrence of murders at the time and he makes the following pun:


eosdem fere sectores fuisse collorum et bonorum


[are we unaware that during these times] these same men have been the cutters of necks and property.


He plays on the meaning of 'sectores' as both 'cutter' and 'purchaser of confiscated goods'. A good way of capturing this in English is to translate as 'cutthroats and cutpurses'.


The second, which Professor Mary Beard also used when arguing that Cicero was the funniest Roman, comes from pro Milone. Cicero defended Milo against the charge of killing Clodius, the violent and populist politician, who was Cicero's sworn enemy and responsible for his exile in 58 BCE.


Cicero, it seems, was asked when Clodius died. Cicero replied 'late'. The joke being that Clodius was murdered late in the day, but should have been murdered far sooner in Cicero's opinion.


Reminds me of the sarcastic modern retort: 'couldn't have happened to a nicer person!'

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