Immigration reform in the United States remains in the headlines. Recently, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz commented on the subject. On Nov. 20, President Obama declared his intention to take executive action to defer deportation of certain undocumented residents. In response, Cruz invoked in the Senate “the words of Cicero, powerfully relevant 2,077 years later.” What followed was an adaptation of one of the most famous Latin speeches of antiquity: Cicero’s first speech against Catiline on Nov. 8, 63 BCE.

 

On that day, Cicero declared to the Roman Senate that a dangerous politician, Catiline, sought to overthrow the state. Catiline, he said, was preparing to attack Rome with a force of landless desperadoes. Cicero’s goal was to turn the senators against Catiline and force Catiline to flee Rome and join the revolutionaries. In this way Catiline would betray his guilt and justify an aggressive response. Cicero’s opinion was clear. He stated: “You ought to have been executed a long time ago, Catiline, by order of the consul, and the very destruction that you have been planning against us ought to have been brought upon you.” The speech proved effective. Catiline fled Rome for the rebels, a battle followed in which Catiline perished and the Senate executed his followers in Rome without trial.

Cruz selected this speech for several reasons. First, we should note that his intention was not to call for physical violence against Obama, his modern Catiline; he (or an aide) edited out these portions of the original speech. Rather, Cruz used it to criticize what he sees as executive overreach, describing Obama as “openly desirous to destroy the Constitution and this Republic.” He also perhaps criticized the substance of the president’s proposal, calling it “unconstitutional amnesty.” All the while, he appropriated a voice from antiquity to lend authority to his views.

While this strategy is effective, it remains problematic. One may leave aside tortured elements of the equation (for example, Obama in his office is more akin to Cicero, who was consul). More disturbing is the application of such a violent speech against him. The violence has been excised, but it remains a speech that casts the president as public enemy. Whether intentionally or not, it fits the pattern of a long series of polarizing attempts to alienate Obama — attempts that are dangerous, having the potential to encourage extremists.

Antiquity, however, does have wisdom to offer us in this debate. A more appropriate comparison involves Roman citizenship practices. Relatively speaking, Rome’s tendency to integrate aliens into its state was impressive. In the Republic, this involved granting some level of citizenship rights to various groups within Italy, sometimes including the ability to vote. The culmination of this integration came after the Republic. In 212 CE, the emperor Caracalla awarded full Roman citizenship to all free men of the Roman empire. To be sure, Rome was less generous in this regard in the 100s BCE, and the result was tragic. Having borne the military burdens of Rome’s imperial expansion, most Italians resented that they were still without full Roman citizenship at that time. This resulted in a civil war in 90-88 BCE. The war was unnecessary, and ultimately Rome awarded full citizenship to the Italians. There are differences between our modern situation and antiquity, but it is easy to imagine that a similar frustration for undocumented immigrants in the United States may result in a resentment that could take aggressive forms.

Finally, we must point out an irony in Cruz’s invocation of Cicero. Cicero was from Arpinum — not Rome. A town east of Rome, Arpinum was granted full Roman citizenship in 188 BCE. Though Cicero delivered his speech later, that decision was vital for him. It later allowed him to run for political office in Rome, enter its Senate and become consul. Cruz has selected an excellent example of what a progressive immigration policy can produce.

 

Sarah Evans, Hunter Huntoon and Michael Macken are students of classics at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University. Jason Schlude is assistant professor of classics in the schools’ Department of Languages and Cultures. They recently facilitated a discussion of this topic at the Eugene J. McCarthy Center for Public Policy and Civic Engagement; it can be viewed http://tinyurl.com/Cruz-Cicero.