Phoenicians and Sardinians: Cicero’s ethnic invective in defending Marcus Scaurus (mid-first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Phoenicians and Sardinians: Cicero’s ethnic invective in defending Marcus Scaurus (mid-first century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 29, 2024,

Ancient author: Marcus Tullius Cicero, For Marcus Scaurus 38-45 (link to Latin).

Comments: This is a passage from Cicero’s defensive speech for Marcus Aemilius Scaurus (junior), former governor of the island of Sardinia (ca. 55 BCE), who subsequently faced a trial for financial exploitation. Like his defence of Flaccus (which involved Judeans in Asia [link]) and Fonteius (which involved Gauls [link]), Cicero takes particular aim at the witnesses that brought charges against the official (namely subjugated peoples) and engages in extensive ethnic stereotyping in the process. In this case, the Sardinians are characterized as a subset of Phoenicians who are further mixed with populations from Africa and they are therefore presented as completely untrustworthy as witnesses. There are moments where Cicero makes some minor exceptions to his overall smearing of this people but he nonetheless reasserts that these stereotypes are completely true for the vast majority.

In all three cases with Flaccus, Fonteius, and Scaurus, these governors were accused of financial extortion, among other things. One can readily see how such rhetoric from the Roman imperial elites or colonial power might function to legitimize not only subjugation of such peoples but thorough financial exploitation of conquered territories, even for the personal gain of a Roman governor.

For Cicero’s further characterizations of African peoples, see the passage from his letter to his brother (link).

Works consulted: Ann Vasaly, Representations: Images of the World in Ciceronian Oratory (Berkeley, CA: UCP, 1993), 191-243.


[Sardinian witnesses’ lack of credibility]

(38) I come now to the witnesses. I will not only show that there is no confidence to be placed in them, nor authority attributed to them, but I will prove that there is not even any appearance of or resemblance to evidence in them. In truth, in the first place, the minute agreement between them all destroys their credibility, which was proved by the reading of the undertaking entered into by the Sardinians, and by the conspiracy which they formed. Secondly, their desire for money, which was inspired by the hope and promise of rewards, does so too. Lastly, the people (natio) involved destroys credibility, for this people is so worthless (vanitas) that they think that the only difference between freedom and slavery is that freedom gives boundless licence to tell lies.

(39) I am not saying that these judges should never be influenced by the complaints of the Sardinians. I am not so inhuman, nor so hostile to the Sardinians, especially when my brother has only lately left their island, having been sent there by Gnaeus Pompeius to superintend the corn-markets and supplies of the island. In that office he (in keeping with his integrity and humanity) consulted their interests himself, and was in turn very popular and very much beloved among them.

(40) Let then this refuge be open to righteous anger, let it be open to just complaints, but let the path be closed against conspiracy (coniuratio), let it be closed against treachery: and this not more among the Sardinians than among the Gauls, the Africans, and the Spanish. Titus Albucius [praetor of Sardinia ca. 105 BCE] was condemned; Gaius Meguboccus was condemned on account of complaints proceeding from Sardinia, though some of the Sardinians even praised him. And in that case the very variety of their sentiments gained them the more credit. For those men were convicted by fair witnesses, and by documents which no one had tampered with.

(41) Now there is only one language and one feeling; one not elicited by righteous anger, but pretense; not excited by the injuries inflicted by this man, but by the promises and bribes of others. But the Sardinians have not always been disbelieved. And perhaps they will again be believed sometime or other, if they approach like honest men, without having been bribed, and of their own accord, and not because of the instigation of anyone else, and under no obligation to any one, and free. And when all these circumstances are united, still they may get excited and marvel if they are believed. But when these circumstances are all absent, will they still persist in forgetting who they are? Will they not look back at the reputation of their descent group (gens) and tremble?

[Sardinians descended from Phoenicians, the most deceptive people of all]

(42) All the ancient monuments and all histories have handed down to us the tradition that the descent group (genus) of the Phoenicians is the most deceptive (fallacissimum) of all. The Poenians (Poeni), who are descended from them, have proved by many rebellions of the Carthaginians, and very many broken and violated treaties, that they have in no respect degenerated from them. The Sardinians, who are sprung from the Poenians with an admixture of African descent, were not led into Sardinia as colonists and established there, but rather were driven away and put there to get rid of them.

[Apparent exceptions]

(43) Therefore, since there was never anything honest in this descent group (gens) when united, how must we suppose that its dishonesty has been sharpened by so many mixtures with different descent groups? And here Gnaeus Domitius Sincerus, a most accomplished man, my ancient and intimate friend, will pardon me . . . [text missing in the manuscript]. . . all who had the freedom of the city conferred on them by the same Gnaeus Pompeius, all of whom we now cite as favourable witnesses; and other virtuous men from Sardinia will pardon me, because I do believe there are some such men there.

(44) In fact, it is not that I don’t make exceptions when I speak of the vices of the descent group. But I am forced to speak generally of the entire descent group. Perhaps some individuals by their own civilized habits and natural humanity have overcome the vices of their descent group. The facts themselves plainly show that the majority of the descent group is completely lacking in trustworthiness, community and connection with our name. For what province is there besides Sardinia which does not have a single city in it on friendly terms with the Roman People, not one free city?

[African connection]

(45a) Africa itself is the parent of Sardinia, which has waged many most bitter wars against our ancestors, and not only in its kingdoms which were loyal to their native monarchs, but even in our very province, it kept itself from all alliance with us at the time of the Punic wars as the case of Utica proves. The further Spain ennobled by the . . . [text missing in the manuscript]. . .

. . . Wherever I turn, not only my thoughts, but even my eyes, every place supplies me with arguments to advance in favour of Marcus Scaurus. . . [remainder omitted].


Source of translation: N.H. Watts, Cicero, volume 14, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1931) for 12-14 and C. D. Yonge, The Orations of Marcus Tullius Cicero, 4 volumes (London: Bell and Sons, 1913-17), public domain, adapted by Harland.

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