For anyone wanting a picture of Roman life during the chaotic upheavals of the late Republic, this collection of Cicero's forensic (ie law-court) speeches provides a close-up view. Cicero gives us oratory that was literally a matter of life and death, together with a vivid impression of law (and lawlessness) during Sulla's 'proscription' era - essentially, the nightmarish period in which political opponents were ruthlessly executed.
The most brilliant and dramatic defence speech is undoubtedly the first of the four contained in this somewhat uneven volume: 'In defence of Sextus Roscius of Ameria'. It is impossible not to admire the courage and skill of the young Cicero - a raw 26 year-old in 80 BC when this celebrated trial took place. As he explains at the outset, only he offered to undertake the defence of Roscius, the alleged parricide, since no-one else dared to incur the wrath of the criminal gang who had powerful backing - via Chrysogonus, Sulla's favourite - stretching up to the dictator himself. Cicero is understandably respectful of Sulla, but, as Michael Grant points out in his excellent and concise introduction, Sulla had many individuals murdered anyway just to gratify the whims of his supporters. These were dangerous times, with cut-throat assassins aplenty. All the more audacious, then, is Cicero at points in the speech like this, where he has fun at the expense of the prosecutor, Erucius: 'I began my speech. But at the same time I was able to watch how he [ie Erucius] went on joking and made no attempt to concentrate - until I suddenly let drop the name of Chrysogonus. As soon as I uttered that name, Erucius immediately started to attend and seemed overcome with amazement.' As did many others in the courtroom, probably.
As well as the brutality of Roman life during this period, we find evidence here of the rhetorical skill of trained orators like Cicero, together with fascinating insights into ordinary Roman provincial life. We can also note the horrific punishment meted out to those found guilty of parricide/patricide. This involved being sewn live inside a sack together with a dog, a monkey, a cockerel and a snake, then hurled into the River Tiber! Harsh justice, you might say. Above all, it gives a unique insight into the workings of the Roman legal system, in which the perceived motive of the suspect and the rhetorical skills of the advocate assume greater importance than witness statements, circumstantial evidence and other aspects of the legal process considered of crucial importance today. In Cicero's capable hands, and Grant's fluent translation, such rhetoric is often spellbinding. Only tedious genealogical details occasionally lead the attention astray, notably in the most famous speech here: 'In Defence of Aulus Cluentius Habitus'. Generally, though, this is an entertaining and illuminating book.
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So much analysis has been done about the classical times, that I won't even bother to talk about things, that bigger brains than mine have expressed rather better.
A lot of the things said or written by the Greeks and Romans surround us still, either through modern adaptations or simply because those were acute observations of human nature - and that hasn't changed in two millennia.
The reason Cicero's defence speeches at murder trials sound so relevant now is because they use the same sort of devices modern court room dramas adopt. The same arguments heard about motives, proof of crime, and its intent.
It's like Ally McBeal set in 69 BC. Well, not quite but you get the steer. Plus my favourite novelist Robert Harris has written a Trilogy on Cicero's life. The novels intersect these speeches perfectly.
This book was a fascinating read. Refreshing and simple, yet incisive and insightful. Loved it!
It should be noted straight up that this is a compilation of 4 of Ciceros speeches, specifically during murder trials. There are other penguin volumes provided for his other surviving speeches.
These speeches do provide an interesting view on the conduct of criminal justice in the Roman republic. It is a lot different to what we would describe as law and justice in our more enlightened age. The words and arguments are delivered in an engaging fashion. A weakness is that the details which must be dealt with can be overwhelming, particularly the fractured family tree of Cluentius.
Having said this, if you are seriously interested in Roman history, then this is worth the time reading.
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