Tuesday, August 30, 2011


When you meet someone you haven't encountered for sixty years you shouldn't be surprised to find them changed utterly. So it is in my case with Tully, as Marcus Tullius Cicero was always referred to  by our classics master. I well remember the long feared exposure of my shaky grasp of Latin when singled out to stand up in class to read out and translate a tortuous paragraph from the Orations.

Almost a caricature of pedagogic dryness this teacher never once hinted at Virgil's epic swagger or let on that Horace was a cunning and sexy satirist. They were there, it seemed, to show that Latin was horrible and hard; with Tully the toughest of the bunch.

Horace and Virgil yielded to later reading but the idea of revisiting Cicero was like being summoned once more to stand outside the headmaster's door, awaiting reprimand or punishment.

The opposite, as Cicero himself might have said, would prove to be the case. Having riskily agreed to accompany some of the Orations with pictures (illustrations doesn't somehow seem to be the right word) I plunged anew into the once detested text.

I was amazed to find that today was two thousand years old. Same cast, same evils. The knuckle-rapping invective sometimes read like a rediscovered Pompeian copy of Private Eye: only the barmy army of religionists was missing. All the crime, corruption and political skulduggery of the age of Bush and Blair was well matched. In the Rome of today, the outrageous Silvio Berlusconi whose lifestyle and morality as a statesman were pre-echoed blemish for blemish in the Philippics against Mark Anthony.

Dissatisfied with the translations that I looked at I found my dim Latin was just enough to illuminate the wit and invention of the prose and to recognise all those verbal strategies of orators I have heard in my lifetime, from Churchill to Obama.

I took the most famous tag of all, O Tempora O Mores, as a kind of leitmotiv... the best translation (if one adds an exclamation mark) being Trollope's title The Way We Live Now. This I made into a mosaic, variously interfered with to produce O Amores, O Mores etc. Making guest appearances in the book, in addition to Berlusconi, are Fidel Castro, Mick Jagger, Catullus, Christine Keeler, Julius Caesar, Dante's Beatrice, Agatha Christie, The Elgin Marbles, Vincenza Foppa, Mussolini and a London smuggler of antiquities who shall remain anonymous.

Cicero: Orations is soon to be published by the Folio Society. Copies may be purchased in their online shop http://www.foliosociety.com/orations

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