"In defense of Caelius", trial in which Marcus Tullius Cicero defended Marcus Caelius Rufus against a charge of murder and conspiracy against the state

In 62 B.C., Marcus Tullius Cicero finished off his year as consul of Rome by executing without trial several senators involved in the alleged conspiracy of L. Sergius Catilina. Later in that same year, he continued his private career as orator by speaking against P. Clodius Pulcher in the trial of the Bona Dea affair; In short, Clodius had disguised himself as a woman to take part in the rites of the good goddess and sleep with one of the participants. He was caught, charged, and acquitted. Four years later, in 58, Clodius took his revenge; he enacted a bill in the senate which made the execution of citizens without a trial punishable by exile, made the bill retroactive, and forced Cicero to flee to Macedonia in March of that year, adding salt to the wound by burning his house to the ground and consecrating the spot as a temple. Cicero, with the aid of friends still in the senate, finally returned the next year, in 57. The speech marks his triumphant return into the arena of Roman politics and his revenge against the Clodians.

There were 5 separate charges against Caelius: inciting riots in Naples, violence against Alexandrian envoys in Puteoli, the property of Palla, the attempted murder of the ambassador and famous philosopher, Dio of Alexandria, and the attempted poisoning of Clodia Metella, the sister of Publius Clodius and the infamous Lesbia from the poems of Catullus.

Shortly before the trial, the Egyptians had sent a group of some 100 ambassadors to Rome. At the time, King Ptolemy Auletes had been deposed, and had fled to the protection of the senate, who recognized him as the official ruler (it helped that Ptolemy Auletes, "the flute-player", promised to recognize a deed handing sizable chunks of Egypt to Roman rule). The ambassadors, of course, were sent to plead their case before the senate and prevent a possible Roman conquest. As soon as they arrived at Puteoli, they were ambushed by men hired by King Ptolemy. The group slowly made their way to Rome, under constant attack and slowly dwindling as the majority became discouraged and turned back, until only Dio and a few others were left. A few weeks after he arrived, he too was dead, murdered while staying at a friend's house.

Publius Clodius Pulcher brought official charges against Marcus Caelius; the first three named above were tied to events of the ambassadors' trip to Rome. It was then alleged that Caelius attempted to poison Clodia, to cover his tracks after borrowing money from her for the murders.

The trial began on the 3rd of April, 56 B.C., at the beginning of the festival of the Ludi Megalenses. Normally, all business was suspended, but since the charges involved conspiracy against the state, treason, it took place anyway. Cicero begins the speech:

If there should be any man among us today, ignorant of our laws, our courts, and our customs, he would be amazed, wondering what atrocity so great, in these days of public festivals and games, when all other business in the forum is suspended, should push this trial forward; nor would he have any doubt that the case being argued involves so great a crim, that the state itself would collapse if it were neglected

Cicero's tactics in the oration are brilliantly simple. Rather than address any of the actual charges, he assaults the character of the prosecution. All of the charges, he says, have been trumped up by Clodia, Caelius' spurned lover, that Medea of the Palatine, that 4-pence harlot. That woman, he claims, from such an illustrious family, with such a long and noble background, has sold her traditions for wicked debauchery and brought disgrace to her ancestors. The family that had once built the Via Appia now staged drunken orgies. One of the greatest moments of the trial, Cicero stands before the jury, and pretends to speak in the voice of her ancestor Caecus ("the blind"), covering his eyes with his arm:

...(Caecus), who, if he could see her now, would act and speak thusly: "Woman, what business do you have with Caelius, what business with this boy half your age, what business with this stranger? Why do you lend him money as if he actually belonged to your family, or do you, filled with such hatred, fear his poison?Don't you remember your own father, your uncle, your grandfather, your great-grandfather before, your great-uncles and ancestors, hear the voices of those famous consuls? Don't you remember your marriage to Quintus Metellus, to a most distinguished, most brave man, who loved his country, who just as he crossed the threshold excelled in the suitable virtue, reputation, and dignity of every citizen? You had married into a wealthy and distinguished family; what possible decent relationship could you have had with Caelius? Was he a friend maybe, a neighbour, or a relative of your husband? Not in the least. What drove you to do it if not reckless audacity and lust? If the images of the men of our family don't move you to shame, how about my own daughter, little Claudia, the model of domestic humility in the glory fit for a woman, or the virgin and Vestal Claudia, who embracing her proud father could not be swayed to sin by some wretched Tribune of the Plebs

The speech continues with its shameful but wickedly effective character assasination. We can learn much from this. Certainly, Clodia gained a nasty reputation at least in part because of her fierce independence. After her husband died, she insisted on running her household and finances alone, without help. She defied all social expectations of women for her time; Cicero can make an effective point in bringing in the memories of her docile ancestors.

The style and method of oratory reflects the process of the Roman courts. Most juries were corrupt, despite laws against bribery. Fact meant little to a case. The defendant showed up in rags, unkempt, disheveled, with his family (if he had any) in tears, prominently displayed in the audience, to evoke as much sympathy as possible. Cicero, in his prosecution of the Catilinarian conspirators, had asked the jury to remember not the laws, but the overall good of the state; technical legal codes, such as the Twelve Tables, meant little against a well-spoken oration.

In the end, after the 2nd day of the trial, Marcus Caelius Rufus was acquitted. We hear very little more of Clodia; she seems to disappear into obscurity afterwords, her reputation and status forever ruined. Cicero, with this speech, had launched the second half of his political career, and continued in politics throughout the civil wars between Pompey and Julius Caesar.

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