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Cicero on Stage Amid Women

Gesine Manuwald is Professor of Latin at UCL’s Department of Greek & Latin. At this year’s Festival of Culture, she will present a talk on ‘Cicero on Stage Amid Women’, which focuses on theatrical representations of Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero from the 16th century and later periods. Here, Gesine explains more about her research and what the audience can expect from the lecture.

“I’ve discovered more than 60 dramas in which Cicero is a character between 1574 and 2017, most recently the Robert Harris remake that’s just been staged in Stratford. Cicero is very well known to the audience, but this part of his reception is not well known, and it’s interesting because it tells us about how Cicero was perceived in different times, as well as about the times in which these plays were written.

“The 60 plays come from a range of countries. I found plays from all over Europe - England, France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Spain, and one from Hungary. Some are written in Latin, others are in English, French, and Italian. The type of play varies greatly. Some of the plays are by very famous authors, including Shakespeare, Johnson, and Voltaire. Some are Jesuit school dramas, which would have been performed by the children at the school as part of their education - they would have learnt the classics and therefore have an idea of what it’s about. And then there are a number of plays by hardly-known authors, where I had to do quite a lot of research to find out even when they were born.

The role of women

“What I find interesting in those plays is that Cicero is often the main character, but there are also a lot of women in these plays. In the very first play I’ve found, from 1574, the title is the name of a woman, and if you only hear the title you wouldn’t know that it’s about Cicero - it only comes up when you watch it. And there are a number of plays where women create some interesting love affairs, or some unhistorical events, for example Cicero’s daughter living much longer than she actually did, so that she can be involved in later events to make them more exciting. So, there are both dramatic reasons and other reasons that I’d like to explore in that talk, because it’s an unexpected way to look at these plays.

“Adding women to historical dramas is typical in the 16th century, you find it in operas and other dramas because it just makes the pieces more exciting. The role of the women depends on which aspect of Cicero’s life is portrayed. A very large number of plays deal with the Catilinarian conspiracy, and in that play it was a woman called Fulvia who gave Cicero some details about the conspiracy which allowed him to take action, and there was another woman who gave money to Catalina which allowed him to take some actions. So in those plays the women plays an important strategic role, and it depends on the playwright and what portrait they want to create of Cicero and Catilina.

“On the other hand, plays that deal with the end of Cicero’s life or where his daughter is still alive, can be more personal - she can be supportive of him and his political views. In reality, she died in childbirth, and the historical Cicero was very affected by that. We have letters written by him reflecting that. So, she was very important to him, but she has a slightly different role in the plays. And then there’s his wife, Terentia, who in some of the plays teases him that he’s not consistent enough or not strong enough, that gives the woman a slightly stronger role. And in just a very few of them there’s criticism of the fact that he divorced her later on.

Written out of history

“These women are generally not represented in the historical record. There are very few women from whom we have direct evidence. We have what Cicero says about her his wife, mainly in his letters, and she is mentioned by historiographers, so we have sort of records, but they’re all biased in a certain way.

“If you want to know more about Cicero, you could always start by just reading his own works, and they all exist in English translation. But he’s written a lot, so it would take you quite a long time. It’s probably easier to start with one of the standard biographies of Cicero, because they both give you an overview of his life and also his output and then one can identify particular works one might be interested in. Kathryn Tempest’s ‘Cicero: Politics and Persuasion in Ancient Rome’ is a good start, as is Shackleton Bailey’s book ‘Cicero’.