How Cicero Uses Humour as a Persuasive Technique in Philippic II - by Frances Davies

The Philippics are a series of 14 speeches written by Cicero following the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE. In these speeches, most especially in Philippic II, Cicero mounts an invective (a vicious verbal attack) against Mark Antony in order to create a comprehensive character assassination of the statesman. In Philippic II, Cicero uses humour as a persuasive technique to appeal to as many different Roman citizens as possible; normal citizens and senators.


Context of Philippic II

There are many ways in which Philippic II stands out from the other Philippics. Firstly, it marks the point of no return for Cicero – he has made an initial attack on Mark Antony in the Senate, to which Mark Antony has made a counter-attack. Philippic II is Cicero’s response to this and is noticeably more vicious in tone. With this speech, Cicero is declaring political war on Mark Antony.

From the bust now in the Vatican, Vatican City. Mark Antony.
From the bust now in the Vatican, Vatican City. Mark Antony.

Cicero’s main aim in the Philippics was for Mark Antony to be declared a hostis (an enemy of the State) by the Senate and to prevent him from being seen as a successor to the assassinated Caesar thereby leading the Republic back towards a one-man-rule.


The second main way in which Philippic II was different from the other Philippics is that it was never read out in the Senate, but was instead prepared by Cicero as a ‘political pamphlet’ designed to be circulated to, and read by, as many Roman citizens as possible. Thus, through this speech, Cicero is speaking not just to senators but also to all Roman citizens and therefore has tailored his style to appeal to this wider audience.


Use of humour

In Philippic II, Cicero systematically addresses different parts of Mark Antony’s character to show that he is wholly unsuitable as Caesar’s successor and that he is a danger to the Republic and the City of Rome.


Cicero characterises Mark Antony as a man who likes to revel in excessive behaviour, whether this is excessive drinking, gambling or partying, in order to mock him and show that he does not possess the characteristics of self-control and morality that Cicero (and general Roman opinion) believed were necessary for a Roman statesman. In Philippic II section 101, Cicero asks two rhetorical questions designed to make the readers laugh, specifically laugh at Mark Antony and his inadequacies: medico tria milia iugerum: quid, si te sanasset? rhetori duo; quid, si te disertum facere potuisset? (You gave your doctor three thousand acres, what would you have given him if he had cured you? You gave your tutor of public speaking two thousand acres, what would you have given him if he had been able to make you eloquent?). Skill in public speaking was highly prized as a necessary attribute for a politician in Rome at this time and so Cicero’s jibe hits right at the heart of what the Roman citizens were looking for in their leaders. These exclamatory rhetorical questions are amusing (echoes of this humour are still used today) but there is a definite sting in the tail.


At the beginning of section 105 in Philippic II, Cicero compares Mark Antony with a well known and revered scholar Marcus Varro, whose villa Mark Antony had now bought (although Cicero disputes the lawfulness of this). Cicero contrasts 'the laws of the Roman people, the memorials of our ancestors, the consideration of all wisdom and all learning' that were associated with Marcus Varro, with the 'voices of drunken people' and the 'prostitutes walking round with mothers of families' that Cicero seeks to associate with Mark Antony. Through the use of this stark contrast, and the vivid descriptions ('the pavements were swimming with wine; the walls were dripping'), Cicero is building a strong and negative picture of Mark Antony in the minds of his readers. The reader is supposed to laugh at Mark Antony as a fool who falls far short of the quintessential upstanding Roman citizen and to distrust him as irresponsible and rash.


In the political language of the time, Cicero is showing that Mark Antony has too much ‘levitas’ (frivolity) and not enough ‘gravitas’ (seriousness) to be taken seriously as a leader of Rome. Cicero is making a powerful and devastating political point but is delivering it with entertaining and humorous language.


Stock Characters from Comedy

Cicero uses ‘stock characters’ (stereotypical characters that are often found across different plays; an example of a stock character from Western fairy tales would be the ‘wicked step-mother’) from Roman Comedy to further underline his point that Mark Antony is unsuitable as a serious political leader. Throughout Philippic II, Cicero portrays Mark Antony as a ‘miles gloriosus’ (the brash soldier) which is a character Cicero’s readers would recognise from Comedic plays of the time.


Mark Antony was a successful military commander, and therefore the premise for the characterisation would make sense in the minds of the readers. The miles gloriosus is also associated with excessive drinking, and in Philippics II section 63, Cicero memorably describes in revolting detail an occasion when, whilst conducting official business, Mark Antony vomited in his lap “wine mixed with chunks of rotten food” as a result of excessive drinking the night before. In these comedic plays, the miles gloriosus is not the hero, but a figure of fun and, therefore, by associating Mark Antony with this stock character, Cicero is once again using humour to assert that Mark Antony is not worthy of respect or suitable to be a leader of Rome.


Conclusion

Cicero uses humour not only to make his ‘political pamphlet’ appealing and engaging to as wide an audience of ordinary citizens as possible but also to ensure that his readers are laughing at Mark Antony and therefore reducing him in their minds to a figure of fun. Cicero successfully attacks Mark Antony by showing him to be too reckless and irresponsible and not worthy of the seriousness of high political office. The use of humour may make Cicero’s argument seem less aggressive, but in actual fact, it is a calculated and extremely powerful persuasive technique designed to utterly destroy the reputation of Mark Antony; his reputation is annihilated to the point where ultimately Cicero must pay for his attack with his life.

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