The following post is making the rounds in favor of impeachment (thanks to my friend and former roommate Timothy Gerolami, the south shore’s biggest P. Clodius Pulcher fan and librarian extraordinaire for bringing this to my attention):
I don’t want to disagree with the contents of the quote or the sentiments of using it (our current president is certainly impeachable and likely the worst and arguably the most corrupt president in our nation’s history). But this is a demonstrably false quotation on two counts.
First, Cicero died on the 7th of December in 43 BCE. So, the date of attribution is wrong, but that is not a big deal (for me). The bigger deal is that this passage is not a translation of anything in Cicero. It is from a modern novel by Taylor Caldwell called A Pillar of Iron (1965, 661) as documented by wikiquote. Another site documents how this quotation made the leap from historical novel to political discourse via a conservative judge. (For his speech, look here. And thanks again to Timmy G. for both links.)
When we quote the past, we appropriate it for modern purposes–which is fine. But when we use false quotations we attempt to assert a modern purchase with counterfeit currency. This is not about the aptness of the quotation or the rightness of the movement. Indeed, I don’t think it matters so deeply–but it is lazy and likely harmful to use a quotation in this way .
We seem to want the appearance of antiquity and propriety without wanting to do the work it requires. This laziness is not exactly the same as spreading false information (e.g. ‘fake news’) but emerges from the same meme-crazy, superficial information culture that makes fake news inevitable. It undermines our attempts to use history to understand our present events and attenuates the credibility of the very practice.
The Romans and Greeks have lots of great stuff to say about treason, why not just quote them? If Cicero’s quotation there is not good enough, why not some Cicero on hate or the glory of killing a tyrant on the Ides of March (which he loves to talk about, even though he did not help)?
If that’s not enough, here are some others.
Cicero, Philippic 13.21
“At this point, what crime, what betrayal has this traitor not committed? He attacks our colonists, an army of the Roman people, and a general, a consul elect! He despoils the lands of the best citizens. He is the most hostile enemy who threatens good people with crosses and torture.
What peace can there be with this man, this Marcus Lepidus? No punishment would be enough for him to satisfy the state!”
Postea quod scelus, quod facinus parricida non edidit? Circumsedet colonos nostros, exercitum populi Romani, imperatorem, consulem designatum: agros divexat civium optimorum; hostis taeterrimus omnibus bonis cruces ac tormenta minitatur.
Cum hoc, M. Lepide, pax esse quae potest? Cuius ne supplicio quidem ullo satiari videtur posse res publica.
Cicero, De Haruspicium Responsis 17
“Yesterday I noticed someone muttering, and people were saying that he denied I could be endured because, when I was asked by this most unholy traitor what state I belonged to, I responded to the applause of you and the Roman knights “to the state which is impossible without me”.
I believe that he groaned at this. How should have I responded? I ask this from the very man who thinks I am intolerable. Should I have declared myself a Roman citizen?”