Marcus Tullius Cicero? Taylor Caldwell? Otto E. Passman? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: In 2011 a host on the cable channel CNN said this: 1
Is America still the land of opportunity, or is it Rome before the fall? You decide. Cicero is believed to have said something like this in 55 B.C. “The arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and assistance to foreign hands should be curtailed, lest Rome fall.”
I have seen a popular longer version of this quote on multiple websites:
The budget should be balanced, the treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and the assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed lest Rome become bankrupt. People must again learn to work, instead of living on public assistance.
Yet, I have never seen a precise reference to the oration by Marcus Tullius Cicero containing the remark. Is this an authentic quotation?
Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Cicero spoke or wrote these words. Pivotal citations revealing the most likely origin of the statement were located by top researcher Bonnie Taylor-Blake. In 1965 the best-selling author Taylor Caldwell published the book “A Pillar of Iron” with a subtitle on the cover stating “A novel about Cicero and the Rome he tried to save”. A fictionalized version of the historical figure Cicero was the primary character in the novel.
A passage in “A Pillar of Iron” depicted the thoughts of the character Cicero while he was conversing with a man named Antonius. Note that Caldwell’s Cicero did not actually speak the following words in the novel: 2
Cicero found himself frequently confounded by Antonius. Antonius heartily agreed with him that the budget should be balanced, that the Treasury should be refilled, that public debt should be reduced, that the arrogance of the generals should be tempered and controlled, that assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed lest Rome become bankrupt, that the mobs should be forced to work and not depend on government for subsistence, and that prudence and frugality should be put into practice as soon as possible.
But when Cicero produced facts and figures how all these things must and should be accomplished by austerity and discipline and commonsense, Antonius became troubled.
In the foreword to the book Caldwell described the extensive research she performed while preparing to write the story: 3
… I translated many hundreds of letters to-and-from Cicero and his editor and publisher, Atticus, myself in the Vatican Library in April 1947, and many more from Cicero to his brother, wife, son, daughter, Caesar, Pompey, and other people, in 1962 while again in Rome, and in Greece.
Caldwell also stated that some of the excerpts from letters in the book were based directly on translations of historical documents:
As few footnotes as possible have been used, but in every place where it is written, “Cicero wrote—Atticus wrote—etc.,” the letters are authentic and can be found in many histories in libraries almost everywhere.
Nevertheless, the passage given above about the Roman budget reflected the inner views of the character Cicero as imagined by Caldwell. The words were not part of a letter or a speech.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Cicero did deliver a “Speech in Defense of Sestius” that was thematically consonant with part of the quotation under investigation. The volume “As The Romans Did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social History” from Oxford University Press presented excerpts from the speech translated into English. Cicero commented negatively on a legislative proposal made by Gaius Gracchus to “sell a fixed monthly ration of grain at a low and unvarying price to any Roman citizen”: 4
Gaius Gracchus proposed a grain law. The people were delighted with it because it provided an abundance of food without work. The good men, however, fought against it because they thought the masses would be attracted away from hard work and toward idleness, and they saw that the state treasury would be exhausted.
In 1965 “A Pillar of Iron” by Taylor Caldwell was released and it contained the earliest known version of the quotation as noted previously in this article.
In May 1966 the Louisiana Congressman Otto E. Passman employed an instance of the quotation during a congressional subcommittee hearing. The passage in the novel was modified to give it the form of a direct quote. Also, the phrase “arrogance of the generals” was replaced with “arrogance of officialdom”. In addition, Passman presented a second quote about a “special right” which was printed in the novel a few pages after the first quote: 5 6
Mr. PASSMAN, The committee will come to order.
You know occasionally in our busy and bored lives we run into interesting, well written books of history. The path that we are traveling is a complete duplication of great nations that preceded us in greatness and finally fell by their foolishness.
I would like to quote one or two items for the record. I am quoting them verbatim.
The budget should be balanced, the treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed lest Rome become bankrupt, the mob should be forced to work and not depend on government for subsistence, and prudence and frugality should be put into practice.
Cicero, 58 B.C.
There is another quotation that certainly makes you recognize that we are taking a page from history. It reads like this:
When a civil right invades a domain of the rights of all the people, then it becomes a special right of a special class.
Cicero again, 58 B.C.
In November 1966 a columnist in the Chicago Tribune reported on the remarks made by Passman and printed an instance of the statement ascribed to Cicero, thus facilitating its further dissemination. The quotation was further trimmed by a simplification of the last sentence: 7
He is impressed by the parallels he finds between the destruction of the Roman republic and present trends in our own. This selection from Cicero expresses Passman’s views on the Great Society:
“The budget should be balanced, the treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed, less Rome become bankrupt, and the mobs should be forced to work and not depend on government for subsistence.”
In 1968 Congressman Passman continued to circulate the expression which he attributed to Cicero. For example, during a subcommittee hearing he repeated the words to Secretary of State Dean Rusk with this introduction: 8
Mr. PASSMAN. All right, Mr. Rusk, I have numerous quotations from history, but I think this statement made by Cicero over 2,000 years ago, is quite appropriate to close this hearing …
In 1969 a letter from a Los Angeles resident to the editor of the Christian Science Monitor included an instance of the quote ascribed to Cicero. The letter writer acknowledged Otto Passman as the source of the statement. 9
In March 1971 a letter to the editor of the Chicago Tribune was printed that contained an instance of the passage credited to Cicero. 10 In April 1971 a critical responding letter was printed from John H. Collins, Professor of History at Northern Illinois University: 11
I shall be glad to contribute $50 to Mr. Connolly’s favorite charity if he (or anyone else) can cite chapter and verse for this alleged quotation anywhere in the known writings of Cicero.
Mr. Connolly has been taken in by the “Foreword” of Taylor Caldwell’s “Pillar of Iron.” She speaks of nine years of study and “perpetual checking of sources” but the unhappy fact is that the great bulk of her quotations are false. The particular quotation above is from page 483 of “Pillar of Iron” and is totally without documentation. A historical novelist has a perfect right to put invented conversations and anecdotes into a novel, but should not represent these inventions as authentic history.
In 1989 the Congressional Research Service published “Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations”. The saying ascribed to Cicero was examined with the following conclusion: 12
No evidence has been found to confirm that Cicero said these words, and it is almost certainly spurious.
In 1992 the popular San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen printed a version of the saying which he obtained from a reader who saw it in Brazil. This version used the phrase “public assistance”: 13
QUOTE: “The national budget must be balanced. The public debt must be reduced; the arrogance of the authorities must be moderated and controlled. Payments to foreign governments must be reduced, if the nation doesn’t want to go bankrupt. People must again learn to work, instead of living on public assistance.” No, not the words of a candidate for president. Marcus Tullius Cicero said that in Rome in 55 B.C., according to a poster on the wall of a public notary’s office in Sao Paolo, Brazil.
In conclusion, QI believes that the passage under investigation was constructed by Taylor Caldwell for her 1965 novel “A Pillar of Iron”. The words reflected the thoughts of the fictional character Cicero who was based on Caldwell’s conception of the historical figure Cicero. In the novel the character did not speak these words, and they have not been found in the speeches or writings of Cicero.
Louisiana Congressman Otto E. Passman was an important locus for the dissemination of a version of the quote because he used it multiple times while he was a member of Congress. He directly ascribed the words to Cicero.
(Special thanks to Bonnie Taylor-Blake who located the 1971 letter from Collins and found the relevant text in “A Pillar of Iron”. She mentioned her finds at the valuable Snopes website in 2008. Thanks to Ariadne who pointed out the “Speech in Defense of Sestius” in the same Snopes discussion. Also, great thanks to Professor Jonathan Lighter who saw the CNN broadcast and discussed this topic on a mailing list. Much thanks to Michael V who sent a query about this quote. Also, thanks to Lew Eigen who critically examined this quotation.)
- 2011 November 12 at 9:30 ET, Transcript for CNN cable channel broadcast, Program name: Your Bottom Line, Host of program: Christine Romans, (Excerpt spoken by Christine Romans), (Accessed CNN transcripts at transcripts.cnn.com on May 14, 2013) link ↩
- 1965, A Pillar of Iron by Taylor Caldwell, Quote Page 483, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1965, A Pillar of Iron by Taylor Caldwell, Quote Page xiv, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1988, As The Romans Did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social History by Jo-Ann Shelton, (Cicero, Speech in Defense of Sestius, 45.96, 97; 48.103), Quote Page 229 and 230, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1966, U. S. House of Representatives, 89th Congress 2nd Session, Report Number 2045, Foreign Assistance and Related Agencies Appropriation Bill for 1967, Hearings Before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations, (Remarks made on May 4, 1966 by Otto E. Passman, Louisiana Congressman), Quote Page 673, (The first quote is repeated by Passman in page 820), U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1965, A Pillar of Iron by Taylor Caldwell, (Text similar to the first quote appears on page 483 and text similar to the second quote appears on page 489), Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1966 November 16, Chicago Tribune, Foreign Aid Called ‘Stupidest’ Program by Chesly Manly, Start Page 1, Quote Page 2, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1968, House of Representatives, 90th Congress 2nd Session, Foreign Assistance and Related Agencies Appropriation Bill for 1969, Hearings Before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations, (Remarks made on May 22, 1968 by Otto E. Passman, Louisiana Congressman), Quote Page 753, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1969 February 20, Christian Science Monitor, Our Readers Write, (Cicero’s warning: Letter from Cynthia W. Ashmun of Los Angeles), Quote Page 18, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1971 March 29, Chicago Tribune, (Warning from the Past: Letter from Jerry Connolly), Quote Page 14, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1971 April 20, Chicago Tribune, (False Quotations: Letter from John H. Collins, Professor of History, Northern Illinois University), Quote Page 10, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1989, Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations, Edited by Suzy Platt, Quote Number: 795, Entry name: Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 B.C.), (A Dictionary of Quotations Requested from the Congressional Research Service). (Accessed bartleby.com website May 15, 2013) link ↩
- 1992 February 3, San Francisco Chronicle, The Monday Caenicle by Herb Caen, Page B1, San Francisco, California. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩