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Cicero in the Collections

Some of our favourite Roman items, recently rediscovered in our collections while Imperium has been on the stage in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Madeleine Cox

The Royal Shakespeare Company's recent production of Imperium, adapted from Robert Harris's Cicero trilogy, has given us the opportunity to discover surprising and exciting rare books and Roman items in our collections. We created a display of these for our recent Winter School adult learning course, and wanted to share them with our blog readers too! Here are our favourites, put into context with extracts from the Cicero trilogy.

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Plutarch's Lives, 1612

1. Plutarch's Lives, 1612

Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Lives provided Shakespeare with the source stories for all of his Roman and Greek plays, including Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus and Timon of Athens. First printed in 1579, this edition was printed by Richard Field, another native of Stratford-upon-Avon who had made his name and fortune in London.

Here are a few of Plutarch's almost gossipy remarks on Cicero and his life:

'Further, it is reported, that there appeared an image to his nurse, that did prognosticate unto her she gave a childe sucke, which in time to come shoulde doe great good unto all the ROMANES.'

Plutarch on Cicero before he visited Greece, exercised, travelled, studied and learnt to be an eloquent orator:  

'In deede Cicero was dogge leane, a litle eater, and woulde also eate late, bicause of the great weakenesse of his stomacke: but yet he had a lowde voyce, though it was somewhat harshe, and lacked grace and comelynesse. Furthermore he was so earnest and vehement in his Oration that he mounted still with his voyce into the highest tunes: insomuche that men were affrayed it would one daye put him in hazard of his life. [...] he was immediately esteemed above all the other Orators and pleaders in his time, and did excell them all.'

Cicero, a fine Tawnter:

'Truely pleasuant tawntes doe grace an Orator, and sheweth a fine witte: but yet Cicero used them so commonly, that they were offensive unto many, and brought him to be counted a malicious scoffer and spightfull man.'

After the defeat of the Catiline conspiracy:

'the people did wayte [...] with great cryes of praise, and clapping of handes in every place he went, and called him Savior, and second fownder of ROME.'

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The Five Days Debate at Cicero's House in Tusculum

2. The Five Days Debate at Cicero's House in Tusculum

This is a 1683 edition of Cicero's work considering life and death. Let's see what Robert Harris tells us about this in the third novel of the trilogy, Dictator:

'I had no answer. His proposition was irresistible. I was curious to see how he would manage it. And so was born what is now known as the Tusculan Disputations, upon which we started work the following day. From the outset, Cicero conceived it as five books:

  1. On the fear of death
  2. On the endurance of pain
  3. On the alleviation of distress
  4. On the remaining disorders of the soul
  5. On the sufficiency of virtue for a happy life […]

'Cicero would rise in the darkness and read in his library by lamplight until the day had broken; later in the morning he would describe to me what was in his mind and I would probe his logic with questions; in the afternoon while he napped I would write up my shorthand notes into a draft […]

'Cicero decided to cast the work in the form of a dialogue between a philosopher and a student.

'They are the summation of all that Cicero had come to believe after the battering of recent years: namely, that the soul possesses a divine animation different to the body’s and therefore is eternal; that even if the soul is not eternal and ahead of us lies only oblivion, such a state is not to be feared as there will be no sensation and therefore no pain or misery; that we should think about death constantly and so acclimatize ourselves to its inevitable arrival; and that if we are determined enough, we can teach ourselves to scorn death and pain, just as professional fighters do.'

In the fifth book he goes on to say that a human can only train for death by leading a life that is morally good – don’t desire too much, be content with what you have and self-sufficient. Do none harm and accept life as a loan from nature.

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Roman lamps

3. Lamps

These were widely used in Roman times but were not as cheap as candles. They contained a wick made of linen (or sometimes flax or papyrus) and were filled with plant oil. In Rome, olive oil was generally used. Lamps could be set on a flat surface in the home or carried as a portable light source. In Imperium: Part 1, Tullia is seen carrying a similar lamp.

Lamps also served a symbolic purpose and were buried in tombs and graves along with pottery, jewellery and other gifts as well as being used as votive offerings to the gods and goddesses in temples and sanctuaries.

These lamps are part of our handling collection, used in our Time and Place sessions for Key Stage 2 children.

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Cicero’s Letters to Friends, Book 2, Letters 13-16 (to M. Caelius Rufus), pages bound in the back of Mulcaster's book on the "Training up of children"

4. Leaves of Cicero's Letters bound in Mulcaster's 1561 book on educating children

This book has part of a Cicero text bound at the back. We’ve identified these as parts of Cicero’s Letters to Friends, Book 2, Letters 13-16 (to M. Caelius Rufus). They look to be late C.16 with early French substituted for sections originally in Greek. The vellum binding of the book is actually so neat it appears to be much later (C.19), but it is a mystery how and why the Cicero pages came to be in here. It seems likely they have been with the book for all of its life. Perhaps the original owner of Mulcaster’s work thought Cicero’s letters to be useful. There are too many to suggest they were used for binding the original.

We have Cicero’s freedman Tiro to thank for the survival of his letters, which provide a remarkable insight into the thoughts, professional and personal life of keen politician in the most dramatic period of Roman history.

'I guess it must have been about a month after our retreat to Tusculum that he sought me out one morning and told me he would like to review his old letters.[…] I had preserved them all, however fragmentary, incoming and outgoing, over more than three decades, and had sorted them by correspondent and arranged them on rolls chronologically. […]

'For more than a week he relived his life, and at the end he had recovered something of his old self. "What an adventure it has been," he mused, stretching out on the couch. "It has all come back to me, the good and the bad, the noble and the base. I truly believe I can say, without being immodest, that these letters add up to the most complete record of an historical era ever assembled by a leading statesman.  And what an era!"[…]

' “It will be of immense interest a thousand years from now," I said, trying to encourage his new good mood.

'[…] Beginning that day, he concentrated what remained of his strength on the task of ensuring his papers survived.[…] Three complete sets of the collected letters were produced. Cicero kept one, Atticus another and I the third.  I sent mine down to my farm, along with locked boxes containing all my shorthand notes recording thousands of meetings, speeches, conversations, witticisms and barbed remarks, as well as the dictated drafts of his books.  I told the overseer that it all should be hidden in one of the barns and that if anything happened to me he should give it to Agathe Licinia, the freedwoman who owned the baths of Venus Libertina at Baiae.'

pp.487-488, Dictator.

The book itself is an interesting one, including an early mention of getting children to play football! Richard Mulcaster (1531-1611) was a scholar, classicist and patriot. Born in Carlisle, he became a headmaster, running two prestigious London grammar schools: Merchant Taylor’s School (1561-1586) and St. Paul’s School (1596-1608). He promoted the enrichment and extension of the English language through poetic and dramatic activities and saw his role and that of his students as one of service to England. He saw the child and his needs as the starting point of education and suggested that teachers should observe their pupils and plan accordingly, taking into account the interests of the individual. He was firm, but kind, advising that excessive punishment could be detrimental to learning and progress.

Anglo-Saxon Brooch with carnelian from a Roman ring
Anglo-Saxon brooch containing an oval carnelian from a Roman seal ring of Cupid milking a goat

5.  An oval carnelian from a Roman seal ring, set in an Anglo-Saxon brooch

Carnelian stone was used for seal rings as hot wax doesn’t stick to it. In antiquity, engraved gemstones were often meant to reflect the personal characteristics of the wearer. Like the Egyptians and the Greeks, the Romans believed that the carnelian was endowed with magical powers capable of warding off the evil eye.  In Imperium (Book 1 of Robert Harris' trilogy), Cicero gives Tiro his ring to take as proof that he is acting on his authority.

This brooch was excavated at Alveston Manor and was found in a grave alongside a number of similar items. It was found on the shoulder of a woman and perhaps held a cloak in place. It dates to the late 6th or early 7th century. There are extensive archaeological finds at Alveston Manor including a Saxon settlement site and cemetery and Bronze Age pits.

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A selection of Roman items from our archaeological collections

We looked out a selection of items for the Winter School, including a stone slingshot, a chariot chain, a pair of tweezers and some coins.  

6.  Duck brooch

A particular favourite was the duck brooch, not a flat design of a duck as we might find today, but a 3D 'floating duck'.  A bronze brooch in the form of a floating duck. Excavated from the site of the Romano-British settlement at Tiddington, near Stratford-upon-Avon.

Roman duck brooches have been found from Yorkshire down to Suffolk, yet whilst other birds hold religious significance for Roman and Celtic populations, it is not known why a duck was so popular. Chicken brooches have been found in a wider area, but to a lesser extent, despite cockerels being linked with the worship of the god Mercury. It could be that it indicates the worship of a hitherto unknown native British water deity.

c. AD 44 - 410

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Mortaria

7.  Mortaria 

The Romans frequently used herbs, spices, sauces and relishes in their cooking and needed a means of preparing these to add to dishes.  The mortarium was a hand-thrown bowl, wide and deep enough for herbs and spices to be ground without spilling out, with a thick rim to avoid breakage and sometimes a flat spout to allow pouring. The grit-roughened interior was created using flint or quartz. Mortaria first appear in Britain before the Roman conquest, suggesting that there were people, whether British or immigrants who enjoyed Roman cuisine, just as there were British aristocrats who eagerly imported wine from the Roman world.

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Samian ware

8.  Samian ware

Samian ware or Terra Sigillata was made in the first and second centuries in south, east and central Gaul (modern day France and Germany).  It can be plain, but many items are highly decorated with plants, animals and figures. Vessels were decorated by the addition of separate clay figures or plaques, cutting into the vessel with a metal tool or using a potter’s wheel. It might include deer, bears, dogs or hares; or else figures such as Bacchus and Diana. Some of the decoration relates to contemporary architectural ornament, with egg-and-tongue (ovolo) mouldings, acanthus and vine scrolls and similar motifs. Samian ware was relatively expensive and only tended to be used for the presentation of food.

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Marcus Tullus Ciceroes three bookes of dueties, to Marcus his sonne, 1558

9.  Marcus Tullus Ciceroes three bookes of dueties

This is the book that Cicero is writing during the last book of Robert Harris' trilogy:

He undertook a kind of farewell progress south through Italy, saying goodbye to all his properties and reliving old memories, until eventually we reached Puteoli at the beginning of July – or Quintilis, as he still defiantly insisted on calling it. He had one last villa he wished to visit, along the Bay of Naples in Pompeii, and he decided he would leave on the first leg of his journey abroad from there, hugging the coast down to Sicily and boarding a merchant ship in Syracuse[…]. He took his mind off the voyage, which he dreaded, by trying to decide what literary composition we should undertake while at sea. He was working on three treatises simultaneously, moving between them as his reading and his inclination took him: On Friendship, On Duties and On Virtues. With these he would complete his great scheme of absorbing Greek philosophy into Latin and of turning it in the process from a set of abstractions into principles for living.

p.391, Dictator

10.  Cicero's Opera

Fifty-eight of Cicero’s speeches have survived in whole or substantial form. The collection of his letters includes nearly eight hundred letters written by him, and nearly another hundred written to him. This impressive two volume work from 1555 has four sections:

Vol. I. Rhetorica
Vol. II. Orationes (Speeches)
Vol. III. Epistolae (Letters)
Vol. IV. Philosophica

'In the summer evenings I sit on the terrace with Agathe, my wife.  She sews while I look at the stars. Always at such moments I think of Scipio’s dream of where dead statesmen dwell in On the Republic:

'I gazed in every direction and all appeared wonderfully beautiful. There were stars which we never see from earth, and they were all larger than we have ever imagined. The starry spheres were much greater that the earth; indeed the earth itself seemed to me so small that I was scornful of our empire, which covers only a single point, as it were, upon its surface.

‘ "If only you will look on high" the old statesman tells Scipio, "and contemplate this eternal home and resting place, you will no longer bother with the gossip of the common herd or put your trust in human reward for your exploits. Nor will any man’s reputation endure very long, for what men say dies with them and is blotted out with the forgetfulness of posterity."

'All that will remain of us is what is written down.'

pp.503-504, Dictator

Cicero's works and writings remain with us, were known by Shakespeare and remain with us here in the collections of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, which seems pretty amazing when you consider the time that has passed.

We look forward to exploring more of our collections as we create displays for this year's upcoming events.  If you would like to attend one of our ever-popular courses for casual learners, take a look at our leisure courses page.  We have Living Shakespeare courses in May, June, July and September and Winter School in January 2019.


With special thanks to Jessie Petheram, Nicola Hawley and Andrew Thomas, and to staff at Cambridge University Library who offered advice on the Mulcaster volume.

This book also proved helpful in shedding some light on the duck brooch:

Dress and Ideology:  Fashioning Identity from Antiquity to the Present, Marzel and Stiebel, Bloomsbury, 2015.

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