Friday, April 15, 2016

Cicero, Roman Statesman and Orator: Born, 106 BC. Alive, 1965 AD?

Posted By on Fri, Apr 15, 2016 at 10:00 AM

  • Illustration from Wikimedia image
It's always wise to remember, if a quote is too perfect to be true, it probably isn't. Examples abound on Facebook and in viral emails. And occasionally you can find an example in the Star's Letters to the Editor.

The Star's editorial staff should have caught this one, and if they decided to publish it anyway, at least they should have included a note under it. The last letter in Friday's Star has a quote the writer states is from "Cicero, 55 BC." It's a beaut. And it's a phony.
“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 will become bankrupt. People must again learn to work instead of living on public assistance.” 
That perfect-for-conservatives quote should have set off the editors' crap detectors—light flashing, sirens screaming. All it takes is a quick internet search to find the words didn't come from Cicero. The top three Google hits name the source. It's from a 1965 novel, A Pillar of Iron, by Taylor Caldwell. And even there, it's different from what's in the letter. The lines in the novel aren't spoken by Cicero. They're the fictional words of another character, Antonius, paraphrasing Cicero, meaning the wording in the Star "quote" had to be tweaked a bit. And the last sentence is a reworking of Caldwell's words, mainly for the purpose of replacing the Caldwell/Cicero/Antonius phrase, "the mob" with a more acceptable "people."

But I guess I shouldn't be too hard on the Star. Louisiana Representative Otto Passman read the phony quote into the Congressional Record in 1968. It appeared in a letter in the Chicago Tribune in 1971. And if you go onto the Forbes website, the bogus quote is at the top of the "Thoughts on the Business of Life" page.

According to a number of sites, there is an actual Cicero quote that Caldwell probably built on to create the passage in her novel: “The arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed, lest Rome fall.” The problem is, it's not nearly as sexy. Nothing about refilling the treasury, reducing public debt or getting people off the public dole. (BTW, I wasn't able to locate this quote on anything that looked like a scholarly site, so I can't be certain it's accurate.)

Bonus Bogus Lincoln Quote: In 2011, our once-state-senator Al Melvin put up a series of tweets quoting Lincoln making all kinds of conservative-friendly statements. The problem is, the quotes were made up in 1916 and 1917 and had been debunked long before they got into Melvin's hands. They were being quoted so often by Republicans over the years that the RNC warned its speakers, "Do not use them as Lincoln’s words!" Reagan, apparently, didn't get the memo. He included them in a speech at the Republican National Convention.

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