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An Intro, for students, to Cicero’s Pro Archia

March 22, 2014

Humanitas and Romanitas

An Introduction to Cicero’s Pro Archia

Adam Cooper, August 2013

I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Painting and Poetry Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.

–John Adams, lifelong admirer of Cicero, in a letter to Abigail, his wife

He was winner of a greater laurel wreath than any gained from a triumph, inasmuch as it is greater to have advanced the frontiers of the Roman spirit than those of the Roman empire.

–Plinythe Elder on Cicero

… tum, pietate gravem ac meritis si forte virum quem conspexere, silent, arrectisque auribus adstant; ille regit dictis animos, et pectora mulcet.

–Vergil on the stateman’s Auctoritas

Salve primus omnium parens patriae appellate–primus in toga triumphum, linguaeque lauream merite!

–Pliny the Elder, again, on Cicero

Humanitas–or the development of the virtues peculiar to the human being–stands at the heart of Cicero’s defense of Archias, Greek poet and teacher. Three of Aristotle’s statements on human nature can serve as a guide for understanding the Latin word: (1) “man is the animal with logos (with rational speech),” (2) “man is the polis-dwelling animal,” and (3) “all men desire to know.” To these one should add (4) that humans love to imagine and create. Humanitas includes: (1) the powers of speaking and writing logically, persuasively, and gracefully; (2) the habits needed to thrive in an ordered community (or polis), including friendship, manners, empathy, dedication to the common good, prudence in decision making, courage and generosity in action; (3) the love of wisdom (philosophia), the search for the nature and meaning of things, the courage to ask fundamental questions and think them through clearly, and a sense of wonder that simply delights to know; (4) the powers of creativity, the arts of poetry, drama, music, dance, painting, and statuary. Put briefly humanitas encompasses the excellences peculiar to the human being: liguistic, communal, and intellectual, and artistic virtue.

To be a good human being and to be a good Roman are not precisely the same thing (just as to be a good American is yet another thing). Often a tension arises between being “a good citizen” of one’s state and being a good person. But it is usually possible to succeed at being both. If any Roman did, it was Cicero. Underlying the Pro Archia is Cicero’s attempt to reconcile a universal standard of human excellence with the values of his Rome, to harmonize humanitas and Romanitas.

Archias–who possesses learning, language that is clear and beautiful, friend-winning kindness, and a poet’s meditative praise of what beauty or meaning he can see in the world–exemplifies humanitas. But his status as a Roman citizen is under attack. Why might the Greek poet have been suspect as a good citizen? The Roman genius is for politics and war. They were organizers, managers, engineers, soldiers, farmers. They knew what it takes to create order, and maintain it. They were by nature fiercely conservative (“if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”), appealing not to philosophical principles but the mos maiorum,”the way of our forbears” or, more freely, “how our fathers did things.” Public speakers and the art of oratory–practiced by lawyers and statesmen–did have their place in this society. After all, they were needed to maintain law and order. But intellectuals and philosophers were suspect, as were poets. Such men seemed to foster bookishness, idleness, even womanishness in those who fell under their spell. More importantly, they often planted the seeds of subversive ideas. Their Greekified words might be smooth, shiny, and pleasant to hear, but perils lurked beneath them like armed men in a wooden horse. Lacoon’s statement from the Aeneid sums up the common Roman attitude to Greek learning: Danaos timeo et dona ferentes. “I fear the Greeks even when they bear gifts.”

What possible benefit could a poet, especially one who only spoke Greek, ever bring to the state? Had his presence ever helped win a battle? or put more bread on the table, or more butter on the bread? Just what function did he serve? Why not get rid of him? (It would be easy enough to prosecute him for misfiled papers and strip him of citizenship, discouraging others from the empty enticements of foreign learning.) These are the doubts and questions that Cicero attempts to answer in the Pro Archia.

His case is less hopeless than it might seem. The legal case against Archias is not strong–his papers are, in fact, in order. Moreover, the power of Cicero’s own reputation is immense. He is a powerful and effective advocate who, from his youth, has won unexpected victories in the law court, exposing the injustices of powerful men at great risk to himself. At the same time, he knows intuitively when it is more prudent to compromise than stand on principle. In a dangerous city, he has not lost his head.

He is universally known as a sound man whose arguments hold water. He’s also exciting to listen to–a feisty performer who can think on his feet, turn a fine phrase, launch a devastatingly humorous series of insults at his opponent, or steal his audience’s breath away with a moving appeal for compassion, justice, or forbearance. His powerful oratory and prudent politics have made him–a man of unknown family–one of the most prominent men in the state. His consulate, in which he exposed Cataline’s plot to seize the state by intrigue and force, saved Rome from civil violence and has made him a national hero. When Cicero speaks, people listen. He has personal auctoritas: his voice immediately commands a respectful hearing because of his established public character. He has won the trust of the senate and people by consistently demonstrating wisdom, confidence, and loyalty in moments of crisis.

Moreover, right beside his suspicion with learning, poetry, and all “womanish” Greek refinements, a Roman could not but grudgingly admire the achievements of Hellas. Only the Greeks could vie with the Romans in feats of engineering, public architecture, war. What Roman could forget the career of Alexander? The Romans had always recognized that Athens was the place to learn oratory. Moreover, throughout the history of the Republic, many prominent citizens had–in the quiet of their homes–read Greek poets and philosophers with delight. Circles of influential friends had grown up, from time to time, around the foreign learning–for the sheer enjoyment of it. Greek had become the language of the educated throughout the Roman world. And often, beneath the slur a Roman cast on Greek “refinement” would lurk a deep fascination, even a repressed sense of inferiority.

The Cicero who speaks in Pro Archia has been deeply versed in Greek philosophy, poetry, history, and oratory form his youth. He not only completely lacks the Roman taste for battle but represents a new kind of Roman hero: he has rescued the Republic not by force of arms but by foresight, energetic statecraft, and sheer rhetorical prowess. He himself aptly summed up this crowning moment of his career with the phrase, arma togae cedant, “let arms give way to the toga.” He sees an opportunity, in his defense of Archias, to outline a place for Greek learning inside of Roman culture, to show that the people’s Romanitas can only be enhanced and ennobled by their growth in humanitas, and to demonstrate that a philosophical development of the intellect, imagination, and the heart can become a pillar of the Roman state.

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