Cicero: Murder Trials

February 11, 2019

Murder Trials
Marcus Tullius Cicero
(Penguin Classics, 1975)
[80-45 BC]

368 p.

Cicero was a statesman, an orator, an amateur philosopher — and a lawyer. This volume gathers together four of his most celebrated speeches given in the context of murder trials; in each case he was speaking for the defence. The earliest dates from 80, when Cicero was just 20 years old; the latest from 45, when he had, unbeknownst to him, of course, just two more years to live.


The first speech is in defence of one Sextus Roscius, accused of murdering his father. This was a particularly heinous crime for the Romans, being an assault on the Roman virtue of filial piety, and the guilty were punished in a particularly ghastly way: by being tied into a sack with several animals (a dog, a cock, a monkey, and a snake) and thrown into a river. Cicero’s defence consisted partly in blaming the accuser for having committed the crime himself.

The second speech, in defence of Aulus Cluentius Habitus, was given in 66. Cluentius was accused of murdering his stepfather. It is an especially celebrated speech; we have a letter from Pliny the Younger to Tacitus in which Pliny judges it Cicero’s finest oration. It is also, at 140 pages in this edition, the longest of Cicero’s surviving speeches.

In 63 Cicero was called upon to defend Gaius Rabirius for a murder alleged to have occurred 37 years earlier. The victim, Saturninus, had been a radical politician who got on the wrong side of the establishment, was shut into the Senate-house and killed there, presumably on orders from opposing Senators. When the politics of Rome swung around, however, Rabirius, a senator, was prosecuted. Technically the charge was treason, not murder, and the accused faced a crucifixion if found guilty.

The political situation had changed again in 45; Caesar had ascended, alone, to the highest position in the state. A minor eastern prince, King Deiotarus, was accused of plotting to murder Caesar himself when Caesar had been a guest in his home. Allegedly, Deiotarus had a group of men waiting for Caesar to enter a certain room, at which point they planned to stab him. (Had they succeeded, the world would presumably have been deprived, many centuries later, of either Macbeth or Julius Caesar!) Cicero spoke in Deiotarus’ defence, arguing his innocence in Caesar’s own home, with Caesar sitting as judge, a difficult assignment about which Cicero remarks:

“the task of defending a man accused of murder before the very person whom he is accused of murdering seems a formidable proposition, since few people could judge a threat to their own lives without showing greater favour to themselves than to the defendant.”

Arguing Deiotarus’ long and faithful service, the implausibility of the success of the supposed plot, and Caesar’s magnanimity, Cicero succeeded in this case of convincing Caesar to reserve judgment. But this was an exceptional outcome: if one was accused of murder in ancient Rome, one could hardly do better than hire Cicero as one’s advocate; his clients were usually acquitted.


With the exception of the last, I cannot say that I found these speeches particularly riveting. In fact, as I read, and reflected as well on my experience reading Cicero’s political speeches, I came to the reluctant conclusion that I am not at all a good judge of speeches. The most celebrated examples from modern times (such as, say, the Gettysburg Address or King’s “I Have a Dream” speech) tend to be quite short, certainly by comparison with those included in this volume. High, extended oratory simply has no place in our culture today, and this lack of exposure surely at least partly accounts for the fact that I have no savour for the genre, and no great powers of discrimination.

Having said that, there were some interesting things to learn from these addresses. Perhaps the most surprising was that Cicero, as the defence lawyer, didn’t do the things we expect defence lawyers to do. He didn’t discuss testimony of witnesses; he didn’t discuss forensic evidence. In fact he dwelt almost entirely on motive, attempting to convince the audience that his client had no good reasons to commit the alleged murder. (In the speech before Caesar he added a healthy serving of flattery to his winning recipe.) This strikes us as an oddly limited way to proceed. It is also worth noting that we do not have the speeches of the prosecution in these cases, nor the records of cross-examination, so other aspects of the crime might have come out by those means.

The other peculiar feature of these speeches is how much effort Cicero devotes to constructing an alternative theory of the crime, rather than focusing narrowly on defending his client. In the long defence of Cluentius, for instance, only about one-third is actually specifically arguing his client’s innocence. These countermeasures are largely speculative in content, and no doubt contain their fair share of misdirection, the intention being not to build an air-tight case against another, but merely to raise enough doubts in the judges’ minds.

Cicero did also sometimes argue as a prosecutor. I was interested to learn that he would refuse to act as prosecutor if he thought the accused was innocent, yet he would argue for the defence regardless of the guilt or innocence of the accused, “provided he is not really a depraved or wicked character”, on the grounds that

“popular sentiment requires this; it is sanctioned by custom, and conforms with human decency.”


Of the three volumes of Cicero I have read over the past few months, this was the one I enjoyed the least. It is convenient, therefore, that this is the last of Cicero that I have planned to include in my Roman reading project. Based on this limited experience, I would say that my impression of Cicero falls somewhat short of what his reputation would seem to warrant, and this is due in large part, I expect, to the fact that I am reading him in translation. I don’t know what it is like for an Italian or Frenchman to read Shakespeare in translation, but it can’t be much like reading Shakespeare in the original. I would like to read more of Cicero, but it really would be best to learn Latin first.

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