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.” [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 Lyrcoris has had, she’s buried them all. I hope she makes friends with my wife. [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.” [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 Paletinus one day burst into a flood of tears. Calling his son and his neighbors around him, Paletinus said, “Alas! Alas! I have now growing in my garden a fatal 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 the wretchedness I exhibit?” “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 gentle tree. I will divide them with my neighbors. That will afford every man an opportunity of indulging the laudable wishes of his spouse.” Paletinus complied with his friend’s request. Ever after, he found this remarkable tree to be the most productive part of his estate. [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 also adds highly contrasting claims: “unusual instance of good fortune” (wives’ deaths), “gentle tree” (tree on which wives hung themselves), “laudable wishes of his spouses” (suicide), and “most productive part of  his estate” (tree serving as instrument of death). Those contrasts might serve in a vehement literary protest against women and marriage. But the application of the medieval version is a highly abstract spiritual allegory:

My beloved, the tree is the cross of Christ. The man’s three wives are pride, lusts of the heart, and lusts of the eyes. Those three ought to be thus suspended and destroyed. He who solicited a part of the tree is any good Christian.

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.

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[1] Cicero, De oratore 2.69.278, from Latin trans. Sutton & Rackham (1942) p. 409. Quntilian quotes Cicero’s text of the quip and adds:

For there {in the husband’s suicide quip} the meaning is obvious, though it is not expressed in so many words. Indeed the essence of all wit lies in the distortion of the true and natural meaning of words

Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria 6.3.88, from Latin trans. Butler (1921-22).

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.

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, from Latin trans. Swan (1894) p. 66. The subsequent quote is from id. That is an condensed translation of the moralization. Id. p. 17. 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 a 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.

[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.

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,


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