In Philippic II, Cicero(106 -43 BC) wrote a rebuttal to Mark Anthony’s scurrilous attack on him. This was not the Shakespearean Mark Anthony but the real-life historical Marcus Antonius, debauched, lascivious, drunkard Marcus Antonius. The Marcus Antonius who was unfit for office. It was written as if delivered at the Senate on 19 September, but in fact it was never delivered. Cicero wrote 14 Philippics in all, taking as his model Demosthenes speeches against Philip II of Macedon. Demosthenes’ aim was to defend the freedom of the state against an aggressor who threatened it. Cicero’s Philippics were in the same vein and might easily have been titled In Antonium (Against Anthony).
This passage has echoes in today’s world
How many days you carried on your disgraceful orgies in that villa! From eight o’clock in the morning there was drinking, gambling, vomiting. Unhappy house, ‘how different a master’ although how was Antonius its master? How different an occupant, then! Marcus Varro kept that house as a retreat for study, not as a den of vice. Think of the things that used to be discussed, contemplated, and written down in that villa in former times: the laws of the Roman people, the records of our ancestors, every branch of philosophy and human knowledge. But while you squatted there (you were not its master), the whole place echoed with the shouts of drunken men, the paved floors were swimming in wine, the walls were soaking, free-born boys consorted with prostitutes, and whores with ladies of rank. People came from Casinum, Aquinum, and Interamna to pay their respects, none was admitted. That at least was correct: after all, the insignia of rank were becoming tarnished in the hands of so shameful a person.
And as for the matter of character and being self-serving, even though the circumstances are different from ours, and the contingencies superficially dissimilar, but in essence the underlying impulse, the desire for power at all costs is clear to see. Marcus Antonius’ aim was to crown Caesar with a diadem, to name him King, and in doing so, to destroy the Republic. And Cicero has this to say
You threw yourself as a supplicant at his [Caesar] feet. What were you begging for? To be a slave? You should have requested that role for yourself alone, you whose manner of living since your early years showed that you would submit to anything, would happily accept servitude. You certainly had no right to make the request on our behalf, or on that of the Roman people […] But now, now, I am not in the least surprised that you disrupt the peace; that you detest not merely the city, but even the light of day; and that you spend not just all day but every day drinking in the company of the worst of brigands. After all, in peacetime, where can you go? What place can there be for you amid those very laws and courts which you tried your utmost to abolish by means of king’s tyranny?
If a man were utterly ruined by debt and poverty, and he recognized that he was a worthless but impulsive character, then he [Caesar] was quite happy to have him as one of his friends. Since your qualifications in this respect were unimpeachable, orders were given for you to be elected consul and as Caesar’s colleague.
There’s nothing new under the sun. This contemporary parade of ineptitude and incompetence, masked as it is by underserved self-confidence and propped up by other people who ought to know better has been played out several times in the past. But so too the repeated signals of decay, of a corrupted spirit with all the odours of putrefaction but yet the surprising failure to recognize what is blatantly obvious. Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927-2014) approaches this subject in his short story ‘One Day After Saturday’. This is not a story about corruption as such, but it cannot be a coincidence that it follows another story ‘Montiel’s Window’, set as all the other stories, in Macondo, with Colonel Buendia in the background.
First Jose Montiel who had grown rich in the time of terror and in less than a year had become the richest and most powerful man in town in the wake of the arrival of the first Mayor of the dictatorship. His death was soon followed by the ruin of his estate. His wife said to herself ‘I told you Jose Montiel…This is an unappreciative town. You are still warm in your grave, and already everyone has turned their backs on us’.
It is the plague of dead birds in ‘One Day After Saturday’ that introduces this capacity of people to ignore, give excuses for, and carry on, regardless of portentous events.
“The birds!” she exclaimed.
“The birds,” the Mayor concurred. “It’s strange you haven’t noticed, since we’ve had this problem with the birds breaking windows and dying inside the houses for three days.”
His Reverence, Anthony Isabel …the bland parish priest who, at the age of ninety-four, assured people that he had seen the devil on three occasions, and that nevertheless he had only seen two dead birds, without attributing the least importance to them. He found the first one in the sacristy, one Tuesday after Mass, and thought it had been dragged in there by some neighbourhood cat. He found the other one on Wednesday, in the veranda of the parish house, and he pushed it with the point of his boot into the street, thinking Cats shouldn’t exist.
He noticed that something was happening with the birds, but even then, he didn’t believe that it was important as to deserve a sermon. He was the first one who experienced the smell. He smelled it Friday night, when he woke up alarmed, his light slumber interrupted by a nauseating stench, but he didn’t know whether to attribute it to a nightmare or to a new and original trick of the devil’s to disturb his sleep.
He witnessed the marvellous revelation that a rain of dead birds was falling over the town, and that he, the minister of God, the chosen one, who had known happiness when it had not been hot, had forgotten entirely about the Apocalypse […] He tried to remember if there was a rain of dead birds in the Apocalypse, but he had forgotten it entirely.
So, it is the same with the revelations of parties, of revelry, of drink and conviviality, all fourteen of them or is it seventeen? And does it matter? And the smell of corrupt flesh, is that too my imagination, our imagination? And I quite forget whether that was in the Apocalypse portending something or the other. An augury perhaps, of the end of something or is it the beginning?
Photos by Jan Oyebode
2 thoughts on “For the Sake of God, Go!”
A powerful expression of the times being so far out of joint that the historical and literary analogies that come to mind are ones of end of days, for the Roman Republic in debauched excess or for the world as the decaying flesh of falling dead birds pollutes the very intake of breath,
Yes and as ever Cicero always true to himself, always able to speak with moral authority and fearlessly. Femi