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244 Mass Oratory and Political Power

popularis in the public speeches against Rullus and the defense of Rabirius.
Rather than dismissing Cicero’s “strategy of impersonation” as if it were
perfectly evident that it could not work in the public forum (clearly a most
dubious assumption, given Cicero’s gifts and the pattern of rhetorical as-
similation that I have traced), a far more fruitful course will be to take
seriously what this strategy implies: that in the absence of a clearly marked
(or even simply acknowledged) ideological bifurcation, the central problem
that faced the mass audience of the contio was how to distinguish the “true”
popularis from the “false” one. With this background, I now consider how
this problem was “dramatized” in contional discourse, as well as the reasons
why this “drama” could have been so convincing.
In his dialogue On Friendship, Cicero makes his central speaker, C.
Laelius, historically the close friend and ally of the great Scipio Aemilianus,
take up the important question of how to distinguish between the flatterer
and the true friend. Laelius insists that it is possible to do so, and as befits
a senator, he uses the contio as an analogy. In the contio, “which is made
up of the most ignorant men” and is like the dramatic stage in that “there
is the most room for falsehood and illusion,” the audience “is accustomed
to distinguish the difference between the popularis, that is, a flatterer and
a weathervane, and the steady, stern and statesmanlike citizen”; even there,
truth prevails “if only it is revealed and explained.” It must therefore be
possible for wise and virtuous men, with some care, to detect a true friend.7
To illustrate his point, Laelius then cites two cases that were in recent his-
tory at the implied date of the dialogue (129 bc), in which highly attractive
popularis bills were voted down by the People after successful contional
speeches against them – that of Scipio Aemilianus, full of authority and
grandeur (gravitas and maiestas) against C. Papirius Carbo’s bill on itera-
tion of the tribunate in 130; and Laelius’ own speech in 145 as praetor –
which he modestly claims depended more on the arguments than on
authority – against C. Licinius Crassus’ bill to institute election for the
priesthoods.8 These are encouraging examples, Laelius hopefully claims, of
how the People can be made to see the error of “popular” legislation.9
The passage is sorely in need of some simple deconstruction. It revolves
around the fundamental assumption that the popularis simply “flatters” the
7 Cic. Amic. 95–97. Note esp. §95: Contio, quae ex imperitissimis constat, tamen iudicare solet, quid
intersit inter popularem, id est assentatorem et levem civem, et inter constantem et verum et gravem; 97:
Quod si in scaena, id est in contione, in qua rebus fictis et adumbratis loci plurimum est, tamen verum
valet, si modo id patefactum et inlustratum est . . .
8 Perhaps the very occasion when the orator’s position on the Rostra was reversed: p. 46 with n. 37.
9 Cic. Amic. 96: Itaque lex popularis suffragiis populi repudiata est.