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Classical Contextomy

Classical literature has played a role in political rhetoric in the United States since the country’s founding. In defense of the First Amendment, John Adams directly quoted the Roman historian Sallust when he called the English government “a venal city, ripe for destruction if it can only find a purchaser.” Such references to Greek and Roman antiquity still prevail today; classical literature is often invoked as a “timeless” authority. Political monuments, ensigns, and other symbols commonly employ excerpts from classical literature, operating on the logic that a quotation’s perceived “timelessness” enhances its emotional message. Examples are the myriad state mottos that directly quote or paraphrase from classical literature – Colorado’s “nil sine numine” (“Nothing without providence”) is adapted from Virgil’s Aeneid, North Carolina’s “esse quam videri” (“To be, rather than to seem”) from Cicero’s De Amicitia. The classics are also frequently invoked to caricature politics in terms of “timeless” human nature. In Romer v. Evans (1992), litigants argued over the interpretation of Plato’s Laws, particularly of his word tolmēma, to determine whether the Ancient Greeks considered homosexuality natural. These two common ways of employing classical literature, though seemingly harmless, often engender another tendency: to take the classics egregiously out of context.

The temptation to displace out of its original context what seems a “timeless” authority, and to skew it so as to convey whatever emotional message, is often irresistible, especially since few are actually aware of that context. In these cases of contextomy, a view to the original context often renders the quotation utterly meaningless, and even counterproductive. The classics – like the Bible – are not blank slates on which to project whatever agenda one brings to them. It is silly at best and dishonest at worst to invoke antiquity inaccurately as an authority.

A famous case of well-meaning but lazy contextomy is the quotation of Virgil in the 9/11 Museum in New York. Its Memorial Hall quotes from the Aeneid – “No day shall erase you from the memory of time” – which the museum interprets as suggestive of  “the transformative potential of memory” and thus as appropriate to honor the victims of the attack. The inscription is made with the actual steel of the towers, and is surrounded by blue watercolor drawings which represent each of the victims. Virgil’s words seem at first glance suitable here, but, when taken in context, actually speak nothing to the museum’s ethical message. In book IX of the Aeneid, the poet does not mean an ambiguous “you.” He is rather addressing specifically the Trojan soldiers and Nisus and Eurylas, who have just ambushed enemy soldiers and, in a graphic scene of carnage and gore, slaughtered them in their sleep. In attempt at escape, the pair is killed, and the enemy parades their two heads on spears. Virgil is honoring the valor and loyalty of the two soldiers killed in a military undertaking. His message is clearly inapplicable to the civilian victims of a large-scale domestic terrorist attack. The museum intends to honor the victims for the tragic loss of life – far from Virgil’s intention of praising the bravery of butchering an enemy. Helen Morales, a classics professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, points out that the quotation in its original context “is more applicable to the aggressors in the 9/11 tragedy than to those honored by the memorial.” The museum seemed to have recognized this when it removed the word “Aeneid” from the bottom of the inscription.

The notion that the museum director employed in defending the museum’s choice – that the quote can be divorced from “the specific narrative of the classic story or its characters” – is misguided. If one endows a quotation with any meaning one wishes, the quotation ceases to mean anything. In such cases its emotional message is not “timeless,” but rather just the invention of whoever quotes it; it is effective only by the audience’s ignorance of its original context.

Partisan political rhetoric is often guilty of the same error — take Ted Cruz as an example. In a 2014 speech to the Senate protesting immigration reform – which his YouTube channel titles “The Wisdom of Cicero is Timeless” – he delivers the opening of Cicero’s In Catilinam with few modifications, one of which was the replacement of Catiline’s name with Obama’s. The senator nobly calls for an end to Obama’s “unbridled audacity”; he laments, “shame on the age and its lost principles!”

Ted Cruz finds such language befitting of Obama and of his executive actions on immigration reform. It was not immigration reform, however, about which Cicero was worried when he delivered the original speech. In 63 BCE, the Roman senator Catiline, dejected by his loss of the consular election the previous year, formed a conspiracy against the Roman senate. He plotted to massacre the nobility, to burn parts of the city, and to stage a revolution to topple the republic. Cicero, then consul, discovered the conspiracy, and, by his four speeches now called the Catilinarians, won over senatorial support against Catiline. Clearly the comparison of President Obama to the domestic terrorist Catiline is silly. There is no justification for Cruz’s implicit accusations of treason and violence, whatever one’s political views. Cruz seems to rely on his audience’s ignorance of the speech’s historical context; with knowledge of that context, the audience would deem Cruz’s words  – comparing executive action with treasonous and murderous insurrection – ridiculously hyperbolical and overly inflammatory. Jesse Weiner, visiting assistant professor of classics at Hamilton College, also makes the point that Cicero’s response to Catiline was – in what was afterwards considered an unlawful breach of his consular authority – to inflict, without a trial, the death penalty on Catiline’s conspirators. Cruz surely does not mean the parallel of himself with Cicero to extend this far. Cicero’s wisdom may be timeless, but it is not universally applicable.

In quoting from an old source, it is always tempting to take whatever sounds deep and to apply it inappropriately. The misrepresentation of historical figures, moreover, is not limited to the classics. But cherry-picking from their quotes can have dangerous consequences – for instance, the contextomy of Charles Darwin’s writing by creationists as a rebuke of evolution. It is of great ethical importance to represent historical writing and speech accurately, and, to this end, context is indispensable.

About the Author

James Flynn '20 is the former Section Manager for the Culture Section of the Brown Political Review. James can be reached at