A professor of classics suggests that Senator Cruz should not have quoted the ancient Roman Senator Cicero as he did.
For better than two millennia, politicians have invoked classical Greek and Roman literature to construct, defend, and challenge ideologies of power. On Thursday, November 20, Senator Ted Cruz channeled his inner Cicero and delivered his own rendition of “In Catilinam (Against Catiline)” to denounce President Obama’s planned executive actions on immigration reform. “The words of Cicero—powerfully relevant 2,077 years later,” said Cruz, who adapted Cicero’s text to fit his 21st-century American context. In quoting Cicero, Cruz reached back to Harry Truman and Thomas Jefferson, who also were avid readers of the Roman philosopher, statesman, and orator.
As a classics professor, I am on one level pleased to see the legacy of Greco-Roman antiquity alive and well, informing debate around our most pressing issues. The problem is that Cruz dangerously misused Cicero. A deeper look at the speech Cruz adapted shows that the senator not only accused the president of overstepping the constitutional bounds of his authority (a legally dubious claim), but also challenges the legitimacy of the Obama presidency, accuses the president of treason, and perhaps even advocates for his violent punishment. And in speaking from the position of Cicero, Cruz presents himself as a decidedly undemocratic oligarch. (Cruz’s speech can be read in its entirety, alongside an English translation of the Ciceronian original, here.)