Cicero’s Procrastinations

Today, Marcus Tullius Cicero is widely known as one of ancient Rome’s foremost lawyers, orators, philosophers, and statesmen. Born in 106 B. C., Cicero managed to establish himself in a difficult case in 80 B. C., when he – successfully – defended one Sextus Roscius of Ameria.

Lucius Cornelius Chrysogonus and  Titus Roscius Capito, partisans of Lucius Sulla, conspired to cheat Sextus Roscius, Cicero’s client, out of his property and his possessions, which he in turn had inherited from his father (for a fuller summary of the case see here). Part of the the cunning plan involved the late placement of the father’s name on a proscription list (as a result of which repossession of the deceased’s estate would have become legal).

The provincial council of Ameria opposed this plot and urged for Roscius Senior’s name to be taken off the list. It is in this context, or so it would appear, that Cicero invented a new word – a word, which has since seen a tremendous career (Cic. S. Rosc. 26; transl. J. H. Freese):

Ac primo rem differre cotidie ac procrastinare isti coeperunt, deinde aliquanto lentius, nihil agere atque deludere, postremo, id quod facile intellectum est, insidias vitae huiusce Sex. Rosci parare neque sese arbitrari posse diutius alienam pecuniam domino incolumi obtinere.

At first these men began to put off the matter day by day and defer it till the morrow, then to act more sluggishly, to do nothing, and befool the delegates; finally, as it was quite easy to see, they began to contrive a plot against the life of my client, thinking that they could no longer retain possession of the property of another while the real owner was alive.

Hipster Cicero

Cicero, Procrastinator Extraordinaire. Or not. Who knows.

This is the first instance in surviving ancient Latin sources that the word procrastinare, ‘to defer a matter till the morrow’ (from cras, ‘tomorrow’), occurs, and it is entirely possible that this is an ad hoc coinage of Cicero, as he does not use it entirely on its own, but felt the need to introduce it by the phrase rem differe cotidie, ‘to put off the matter day by day’, which essentially means the same thing, but uses words that were already well established in the Latin language.

Unlike in the modern sense of ‘to procrastinate’, procrastinare here is not an act of avoidance or delay in favour of more pleasurable tasks: it is a wilful delay in order to achieve one’s original, sinister aims.

Cicero seems to have liked this coinage. He uses the phrase procrastinare on six further occasions, four of which can be found in his next major career step, his speeches against the corrupt governor Verres of 70 B. C.

Interestingly enough, all four instances feature in the so-called actio secunda, a part of the set of speech that Cicero had prepared but never actually delivered (Verres acknowledged the hopelessness of his position and went into exile); Cicero published his material after the trial regardless, and here we find the following statements (all translations L. H. G. Greenwood):

  • At Cic. Verr. 2.1.141, Cicero says: Iste vero non procrastinat; locare incipit non proscripta neque edicta die, alienissimo tempore, ludis ipsis Romanis, foro ornato (‘Verres wasted no time; he proceeded with the tenders without any previous advertisement or announcement of the day for tendering, at a most unsuitable time, right in the middle of the Roman Games, with the Forum all decorated’).
  • At Cic. Verr. 2.2.90, Cicero says: Itaque illi non procrastinant, Sthenium statim educunt, aiunt ab eo litteras publicas esse corruptas (‘At this they delayed no longer, but promptly issued a summons against Sthenius, and alleged that he had forged an official document’).
  • At Cic. Verr. 2.4.100, Cicero says: Res non procrastinatur. Nam cum iste Catina  profectus esset, servi cuiusdam nomen defertur; is accusatur, ficti testes in eum dantur (‘His wishes were promptly carried out; after he had left Catina, information was laid against a certain slave, who was prosecuted, witnesses being secured to swear falsely to his guilt’).
  • At Cic. Verr. 2.5.102, Cicero says: Iste non procrastinat, advocat amicos statim; quaerit ex iis singillatim quot quisque nautas habuerit (‘Thereupon without loss of time he had his friends summoned to his presence, and then asked the captains one by one how many sailors he had had’).

What is noteworthy is that, in all four instances, Cicero does not only use the term in the negative (non procrastinat vel sim.), but also immediately adds expressions of temporal immediacy or urgency: incipit (‘he proceeded’) in the first instance and statim (‘promptly’) in the three following cases. This would appear to be a move to help those who are baffled by the new(ish) term procrastinare – guiding their understanding in the right direction.

After its use in Cicero’s early speeches, the term does not appear in any of his speeches or other works for almost thirty years. It resurfaces in two instances in 43 B. C., the year of Cicero’s assassination.

It is the earlier of those two instances which constitutes the verb’s preliminary highpoint, when it appears in its nominalisation procrastinatio in the sixth Philippic Oration of January 43 (Cic. Philip. 6.7.6, transl. D. R. Shackleton-Bailey et al., modified to reflect the text’s actual meaning and gist more appropriately):

Quae cum ita sint, non omnino dissolutum est quod decrevit senatus: habet atrocitatis aliquid legatio: utinam nihil haberet morae! Nam cum plerisque in rebus gerendis tarditas et procrastinatio odiosa est, tum hoc bellum indiget celeritatis.

Given these facts, what the senate decreed is not altogether remiss: the embassy carries a certain amount of bite. I only wish it involved no delay! While tardiness and procrastination are loathsome in most matters that require doing, this war particularly calls for speed.

Here, in a quote that is popular on the internet for some reason, usually stripped of its context and its syntax, Cicero calls for quick and united support of Decimus Brutus’ action against Mark Antony in the period of turmoil that followed Caesar’s assassination.

Related to the very same scenario, in a letter to Marcus Brutus of early April 43 and thus approximately half a year before Cicero’s assassination, Cicero complains (Cic. ad Brut. 1.1.; transl. D. R. Shackleton-Bailey):

non enim ignoras quanta momenta sint in re publica temporum et quid intersit idem illud utrum ante an post decernatur, suscipiatur, agatur. omnia quae severe decreta sunt hoc tumultu, si aut quo die dixi sententiam perfecta essent et non in diem ex die dilata aut quo ex tempore suscepta sunt ut agerentur non tardata et procrastinata, bellum iam nullum haberemus.

You are well aware of the importance of the right moment in political affairs, and what a vast difference it makes whether the same decree or enterprise or action be adopted before or after. If only all the strong measures decreed during this turmoil had been carried through the day I proposed them, or not put off from one day to the next or dragged out and procrastinated after action upon them had been taken in hand, we should now have no war.

After Cicero’s death, the word procrastinare and its related noun procrastinatio largely disappeared from Latin literature (and it appears to be absent from the inscriptions as well). It is occurs, however, in Fronto‘s letters (2.7.19, transl. C. R. Haines):

Hoc quod vocas interim, quanti<sper> sperabit? Si tantisper dum spirat, paulisper sperabit. Quis segeti torridae messem procrastinat? Nec non quis vindemiam maturam ac distillantem propellit? Aut sa<ne> quis tempus prorogat pomis mitibus aut floribus marcescentibus aut facibus | ardentibus? aptum soli <nas>centi verbum est interim, occid<enti> confestim.

This that you call the meanwhile, how long can he expect to hope for it? If as long as he breathes, it will be but a brief time for hope. Who delays to put the sickle to the sun-browned cornfield? and who defers the vintage when the grapes are ripe and dropping their juice? Who in fact loses time when fruits are mellowing, flowers fading, and torches burning down? Meanwhile is a word that fits the rising sun, for the setting sun the word is at once.

And finally, it features in Aulus Gellius‘ report of how Vergil did not manage to revise his masterpiece, the Aeneid (Gell. 17.10.5-7, transl. J. C. Rolfe):

Nam quae reliquit perfecta expolitaque quibusque inposuit census atque dilectus sui supremam manum, omni poeticae venustatis laude florent; sed quae procrastinata sunt ab eo, ut post recenserentur, et absolvi, quoniam mors praeverterat, nequiverunt, nequaquam poetarum elegantissimi nomine atque iudicio digna sunt. Itaque cum morbo obpressus adventare mortem viderat, petivit oravitque a suis amicissimis inpense, ut Aeneida, quam nondum satis elimavisset, adolerent.

For the parts that he left perfected and polished, to which his judgment and approval had applied the final hand, enjoy the highest praise for poetical beauty; but those parts which he postponed, with the intention of revising them later, but was unable to finish because he was overtaken by death, are in no way worthy of the fame and taste of the most elegant of poets. It was for that reason, when he was laid low by disease and saw that death was near, that he begged and earnestly besought his best friends to burn the Aeneid, which he had not yet sufficiently revised.

This is as close as it gets to the modern concept of procrastination, in academic contexts at least,  except that we still don’t hear which more pleasurable things Vergil did instead of completing his work when he still had time: the focus of the term ‘to procrastinate’ in our ancient sources consistently remains on the delay itself rather than the replacement activities.

I could – and probably should – come up with a proper conclusion here, but I fear I have procrastinated for too long already . . . . . .

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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4 Responses to Cicero’s Procrastinations

  1. chattykerry says:

    Wonderful post. I learned something new, as usual…thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. As an avid procrastinator myself, and a fan of Cicero, Fronto, and Aulus Gellius, I am glad I’m in good company! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I successfully avoided starting a boring job by reading this learned article on procrastination!

    Liked by 1 person

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