The Speech on Behalf of Archias the Poet
This speech, slight and unimportant in its occasion and its subject, has attained, by reason of an irrelevant digression artificially, yet withal most artistically, grafted upon it, to a fame and popularity which few of its author’s weightier and profounder efforts have gained. For it contains what is perhaps the finest panegyric of literature that the ancient world offers us: a panegyric which has been quoted and admired by a long series of writers from Quintilian, through Petrarch, until to-day, when it has lost none of its lustre; and which perhaps inspired a great Elizabethan scholar and gentleman to write of poetry that it “holdeth children from play and old men from the chimney-corner; and, pretending no more, doth intend the winning of the mind from wickedness to virtue” :—“haec studia adolescentiam acuunt, senectutem oblectant, secundas res ornant, adversis perfugium ac solacium praebent, delectant domi, non impediunt foris, pernoctant nobiscum, peregrinantur, rusticantur.”a
Cicero undertook his defence of Archias’ impugned
citizenship in 62. As an orator he was at the zenith of his powers, and as a statesman, by triumphantly baffling Catiline’s conspiracy in the previous year, he had been lifted to the height of his prestige, and had been definitely marked out as the supporter of order and senatorial tradition as against the forces of anarchy and innovation. It was in Pompey, whose triumphs over the pirates and Mithridates had made him the most powerful figure in the state, that the hopes of these were centred. Cicero had given them a handle against himself by his violation of the letter of the constitution in having had the conspirators executed without trial; and their aim was to establish Pompey as dictator, and then, by applying their handle, to bring down Cicero, and with him the whole fabric of senatorial government of which he was the avowed protector.
Prominent among Pompey’s senatorial opponents was L. Licinius Lucullus, who had returned to Rome in 64, after a series of brilliant victories in the East. The fact that he had been supplanted in his command by Pompey exacerbated the mutual antipathy between them. The senatorial party looked to Lucullus to protect them against the encroachments of one who threatened to make himself a despot, and a sort of political guerilla broke out between the partisans of each.
The prosecution of Archias was an episode in this campaign of petty vexation carried on by the Pompeians against the Luculli. It was the fashion among the Roman aristocracy to adopt and patronize a tame poet or philosopher, usually a Greek, and this was the relation in which Archias stood