medieval amplification of husband’s suicide quip in Cicero

Bust of Cicero, orator

Within the Golden Age of Latin literature, Cicero was the preeminent orator and prose stylist. Cicero included within his masterly text on oratory a witticism about a husband, his friend, his friend’s wife, and suicide:

Other witticisms are those that suggest a joke that is not quite on the surface; to this group belongs the quip of the Sicilian to whom a friend was lamenting because, as he told him, his wife had hanged herself from a fig-tree, and who replied, “Do please let me have some cuttings from that tree of yours to plant.”

{ Salsa sunt etiam quae habent suspicionem ridiculi absconditam, quo in genere est Siculi illud, cui cum familiaris quidam quereretur quod diceret uxorem suam suspendisse se de ficu, “amabo te,” inquit, “da mihi ex ista arbore quos seram surculos.” }[1]

Cicero today is more likely to be condemned for that “witticism” than are persons who ignore the suicide of a York University student after his university refused to allow men’s issues to be voiced. Cicero today is more likely to be condemned than persons who don’t care that a hard-working advocate for providing domestic violence services for men, frustrated with hostility to his efforts, committed suicide in despair. Cicero today is more likely to be condemned than a leading U.S. newspaper that writes about suicide without any reference to the vast predominance of men victims. Of course Cicero, who has been dead for about 2058 years, cannot defend his now-peculiar prose choice with eloquent oratory.

What Cicero wrote almost surely wasn’t marked as objectionable during the Golden Age of Latin literature. Other Roman writers produced or reproduced similar quips. A celebrated Roman writer of sexually explicit epigrams also wrote this epigram:

Fabianus, every girlfriend Lycoris has had, she’s buried them all. I hope she makes friends with my wife.

{ Omnes quas habuit, Fabiane, Lycoris amicas
extulit: uxori fiat amica meae. }[2]

Later during the Roman Empire, another writer reported a Greek philosopher’s nasty quip:

Seeing some women hanged from an olive-tree, he said, “Would that every tree bore similar fruit.”

{ ἰδών ποτε γυναῖκας ἀπ᾿ ἐλαίας ἀπηγχονισμένας, “εἴθε γάρ,” ἔφη, “πάντα τὰ δένδρα τοιοῦτον καρπὸν ἤνεγκεν.” }[3]

In the classical Greco-Roman world, men freely expressed their dissatisfaction with women and marriage in ways that are nearly unimaginable in our more repressive age. Juvenal’s Satire 6 is probably the most forceful and scintillating work of men’s sexed protest ever written. At a more mundane level, Roman men wrote graffiti declaring no further interest in having sex with women. Elite Roman men’s reluctance to marry was a matter of serious public concern. Today, even the ultimate expressive act of men committing suicide, which men do at a rate four times that for women, generates almost no public concern.

husband gets planting from suicide tree

The husband’s suicide quip in Cicero’s text was characteristically amplified in its most widely distributed medieval version. That medieval version expanded the hanging to three successive wives:

Valerius tells us that a man named Peratinus one day burst into a flood of tears. Calling his son and his neighbors around him, Peratinus said, “Alas! Alas! I have now growing in my garden an unlucky tree, on which my first poor wife hung herself, then my second wife, and after that, my third wife. Have I not therefore cause for my wretchedness?” “Truly,” said one that was called Arrius, “I marvel that you should weep at such an unusual instance of good fortune! Give me, I pray of you, two or three sprigs of that tree. I will divide them with my neighbors. That will afford every man an opportunity of allowing his wife to hang herself.” And so he did.

{ Refert Valerius, quod homo quidam nomine Peratinus flens dixit filio suo et omnibus vicinis suis: Heu, heu michi! habeo in orto meo arborem infelicem, qua uxor mea prima se suspendit, postmodum secunda, modo tercia, et ideo dolor est michi miserabilis. Ait unus, cui nomen Arrius: Miror, te in tantis successibus lacrimas emisisse. Da michi, rogo te, tres surculos illius arboris, quia intendo inter vicinos dividere, ut quilibet arborem habeat ad uxorem suam suspendendam. Et sic factum est. }[4]

The medieval version expands the suicides from one to three wives. Moreover, the one friend becomes a son and many neighbors. The medieval version expands the opportunities of wives to commit suicide to all of Arrius’s neighbors. This expansion might serve in vehement literary protest against women and marriage. But the application of the medieval version is a highly abstract spiritual allegory:

Beloved, the tree is the cross of Christ. … In this tree are hung the man’s three wives, that is, pride in life, lust of the flesh, and lust of the eyes. The man married to the world has three wives. One is the daughter of the flesh, who is called lust. Another is the daughter of the world, who is called avarice. The third is the daughter of the devil, who is called pride. But when the sinner with the grace of God clings to penance, these wives willingly have themselves hung. Avarice hangs itself with the rope of generosity, pride with the rope of humility, and lust hangs itself with the rope of indifference and chastity. He who sought a sprig is a good Christian.

{ Carissimi, hec arbor est sancta crux, in qua pependit Christus. … In ista arbore tres uxores hominis suspenduntur, scilicet superbia vite, concupiscencia carnis et concupiscencia oculorum. Homo enim datus mundo tres uxores ducit: una est filia carnis, que vocatur voluptas, alia filia mundi, que vocatur cupiditas, tercia filia diaboli, que vocatur superbia. Sed cum peccator gracia dei adheret penitencie, iste uxores voluntates suas non habentes se suspendunt. Cupiditas se suspendit fune elemosyne, superbia fune humilitatis, voluptas se suspendit fune jejunii et castitatis. Iste, qui quesivit surculos, est bonus Christianus }

European medieval culture celebrated men’s abject subordination to women in courtly love. Medieval fabliaux made fun of the physical abuse of men and men being cuckolded. Medieval men had legitimate reasons to engage in vehement verbal protests against the marital circumstances of their lives.[5] Yet from a medieval perspective, following the Christian way of the cross was far more important.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Cicero, About the Orator {De oratore} 2.69.278, from Latin trans. Sutton & Rackham (1942) p. 409. Jokes about hoping that one’s wife dies go back in Latin to no later than Plautus. Donkeys {Asinaria}, v. 901: “I wish she were dead {periisse cupio}.” See also Asinaria, v. 905, as well as Plautus’s Pot of Gold {Aulularia} vv. 155-7, and Three Coins {Trinummus}, vv. 51-65. Quintilian elaborated upon Cicero’s text:

Related to this are remarks that depend on insinuation: when a man complained to Cicero that his wife had hanged herself from a fig tree, Cicero replied “I wish you would give me a slip of that tree to graft”; what is unsaid here is understood. Indeed, the whole principle of witty speech consists in expressing things in a way other than the direct and truthful one.

{ Ei confine est quod dicitur per suspicionem, quale illud apud Ciceronem querenti quod uxor sua ex fico se suspendisset: ‘rogo des mihi surculum ex illa arbore ut inseram’; intellegitur enim quod 89non dicitur. Et hercule omnis salse dicendi ratio in eo est, ut aliter quam est rectum verumque dicatur. }

Quintilian, The Orator’s Education {Institutio Oratoria} 6.3.88, Latin text and English translation from Russell (2002). For Institutio Oratoria in a freely available English translation,  Butler (1921-22) via LacusCurtius.

Plutarch recorded a version of the quip in which men seek suicide. Timon says to the men of Athens:

I have a small building lot, men of Athens, and a fig-tree is growing in it, from which many of my fellow citizens have already hanged themselves. Accordingly, as I intend to build a house there, I wanted to give public notice to that effect, in order that all of you who desire to do so may hang yourselves before the fig-tree is cut down.

{ Ἔστι μοι μικρὸν οἰκόπεδον, ὦ ἄνδρες Ἀθηναῖοι, καὶ συκῆ τις ἐν αὐτῷ πέφυκεν, ἐξ ἧς ἤδη συχνοὶ τῶν πολιτῶν ἀπήγξαντο. μέλλων οὖν οἰκοδομεῖν τὸν τόπον ἐβουλήθην δημοσίᾳ προειπεῖν, ἵνα, ἂν ἄρα τινὲς ἐθέλωσιν ὑμῶν, πρὶν ἐκκοπῆναι τὴν συκῆν, ἀπάγξωνται. }

Plutarch, Life of Mark Anthony 70.3, from Greek trans. Perrin (1920).

[2] Martial, Epigrams 4.24, from Latin Nisbet (2015) p. 71, adapted non-substantially.

[3] Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers IV.52 (Diogenes), from Greek trans. Hicks (1925).

[4] Gesta Romanorum Tale 33, “About boasting {De iactantia},” Latin text of Oesterley (1872), English trans. (modified significantly to follow the Latin) from Swan (1894) p. 66. The subsequent quote is similarly sourced. Gesta Romanorum was probably compiled at the end of the thirteenth century.

While Gesta Romanorum was a widely distributed work, the husband’s suicide quip was also known through other works, including Cicero’s De oratore itself. Walter Map’s influential Dissuasio Valerii ad Rufinum includes a version much like the one in Gesta Romanorum, but without the allegorization. Map’s essay is lovingly addressed from Valerius to his friend Rufinus, who is planning to marry. Valerius appends to the quip an expression of concern:

Friend, I am afraid lest you should need to beg cuttings from that tree at a time when they cannot be found.

From Latin trans. Hanna & Lawler (1997) p. 136. A version of the quip with two wives committing suicide exists in the collection of sermon exempla of Jacques de Vitry. A version of the quip also exists in Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale ll. 757-64.

A early sixteenth-century French version of Gesta RomanorumLe Violier des histoires romaines, records more extensively the spiritual allegorization of the suicide quip. It describes the man “who is married to the world.” Through the grace of God and penance, he overcomes his three sins (wives). Cupidity is hung (overcome) with the cord of almsgiving, sensuality is hung with the cord of chastity and fasting, and pride, the devil-woman, is hung with the cord of humility. Brunet (1858) pp. 88-9. Swan significantly abbreviated the allegorization. Swan (1894) p. 67.

[5] Literature of men’s sexed protest historically has been misandristically misread. That tendency is evident in the historical reception of the classical suicide quips. Erasmus recounted the suicide quips of Cicero and Diogenes. He added a comment that Diogenes was “implying jokingly that he hated his wife.” The sixteenth-century Domenichi joke collection recorded Cicero’s quip and added the marginal note Empio e inhumano (“impious and inhumane”). Bowen (1998) pp. 426-7. It apparently wasn’t recorded how the author of that marginal note felt about pervasive violence against men and the large lifespan shortfall of medieval men relative to medieval women. But surely the United Nation’s current approach to evaluating gender inequality in life expectancy should today be noted as impious and inhumane.

[images] (1) Bust of Cicero, Musei Capitolini, Rome (inv. MC0589), first half of 1st century GC. Thanks to Glauco92 and Wikimedia Commons. (2) Sharing plantings from suicide tree. Image on folio 174 in Les fantasies de Mere Sote {French adaptation of Gesta Romanorum}, Pierre Gringore, printed 1518, Paris.


Bowen, Barbara C. 1998. “Ciceronian Wit and Renaissance Rhetoric.” Rhetorica. 16 (4): 409-429.

Brunet, Gustave. 1858. Le violier des histoires romaines; ancienne traduction françoise des Gesta Romanorum. Paris: P. Jannet.

Butler, Harold Edgeworth Butler, trans. 1921-22. The institutio oratoria of Quintilian. Loeb Classical Library. London: W. Heinemann.

Hanna, Ralph and Traugott Lawler, eds. 1997. Jankyn’s book of wikked wyves. Vol. 1: The Primary Texts (with translations). Walter Map’s Dissuasio; Theophrastus’ De Nuptiis; selections from Jerome’s Adversus Jovinianum. University of Georgia Press: Athens.

Hicks, Robert Drew, trans. 1925. Diogenes Laertius. Lives of eminent philosophers. London: W. Heinemann.

Nisbet, Gideon, trans. 2015. Martial. Epigrams. Oxford World Classics. Oxford: New York : Oxford University Press.

Perrin, Bernadotte. 1920. Plutarch’s Lives. Vol. 9. Loeb Classical Library. London: W. Heinemann.

Russell, Donald A., ed. and trans. 2002. Quintilian. The Orator’s Education. Volume III: Books 6-8. Loeb Classical Library 126. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sutton, E.W. and H. Rackham, trans. 1942. Marcus Tullius Cicero. De oratore. London: W. Heinemann.

Swan, Charles, trans. and Wynnard Hooper, ed. 1894. Gesta Romanorum; or, Entertaining moral stories; invented by the monks as a fireside recreation, and commonly applied in their discourses from the pulpit: whence the most celebrated of our own poets and others, from the earliest times, have extracted their plots. London: George Bell & Sons.

One thought on “medieval amplification of husband’s suicide quip in Cicero”

  1. This is now the second time my picture searching — the first time with regard to Marcolf on whom I have published a few times — has taken me to your erudite blog! I have a tiny section entitled “The Wife Hanging Tree” in my “Secret Middle Ages” (2002) and had hoped to illustrate it with the Gringore cut, but with over 150 ills already, sadly it had to be cut!

    These days (took early retirement from Sheffield Universoty 5 years ago) I content myself with the odd article [on the Mary QoS mermaid ‘placard’ in the most recent JWCI, for instance] and woth my 60+ Pinterest sites on which I see I have now posted over 3000 images which I like to ramble on about in the mere 500 characters allotted below!

    I’m guessing you either still are or were a Classicist in some university Dept? Anyway — love your stuff — please keep up the good work — I’m particularly impressed with your knowledge of the visual repertoire — as so shamefully few historians are, in my experience!

    respectfully yours,


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Current month ye@r day *