O tempora o mores!

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Cicero throws up his brief like a Gentleman, by John Leech, from: The Comic History of Rome by Gilbert Abbott à Beckett.

O tempora o mores is a Latin phrase that translates literally as Oh the times! Oh the customs! but more accurately as Oh what times! Oh what customs![1] It is often printed as O tempora! O mores!, with the addition of exclamation marks, which were not used in Classical Latin.

The phrase was used by the Roman orator Cicero in four different speeches,[2] of which the earliest is the speech against Verres of 70 BC. But the most famous instance is in the second paragraph of his First Oration against Catiline, a speech made in 63 BC, when Cicero was Consul or head of state, denouncing his political enemy Catiline. In this passage, Cicero deplores the sorry condition of the Roman republic, in which a citizen could plot against the state and not be punished for it.[3] The passage in question reads as follows:

O tempora, o mores! Senatus haec intellegit, Consul videt; hic tamen vivit. vivit? immo vero etiam in Senatum venit, fit publici consili particeps, notat et designat oculis ad caedem unum quemque nostrum!

O times! O morals! The Senate understands these things, the Consul sees them; yet this man still lives. He lives? Indeed, he even comes into the Senate, he takes part in public debate, he notes and marks out with his eyes each one of us for slaughter!

Cicero is frustrated that, despite all of the evidence that has been compiled against Catiline, who has been conspiring to overthrow the Roman government and assassinate Cicero himself, and in spite of the fact that the Senate has given senatus consultum ultimum, Catiline has not yet been executed. Cicero goes on to describe various times throughout Roman history where consuls have killed conspirators with even less evidence, sometimes – in the case of former consul Lucius Opimius' slaughter of Gaius Gracchus (one of the Gracchi brothers) – based only on quasdam seditionum suspiciones, "certain suspicions of insurrection" (Section 2, Line 3).

Cultural references[edit]

In later classical times Cicero's exclamation had already become famous, being quoted for example in Seneca the Elder's Suasoriae:[4]

tuis verbis, Cicero, utendum est: 'o tempora! o mores!' videbis ardentes crudelitate simul ac superbia oculos!

It is necessary to use your words, Cicero: 'O times! O morals!' You will see eyes burning at the same time with cruelty and arrogance!

Martial's poem 9.70 also makes reference to the 1st Catilinarian oration:

dixerat 'o mores! o tempora!' Tullius olim,
sacrilegum strueret cum Catilina nefas

Once Tullius had said 'O morals! O times!'
when Catiline was plotting a sacrilegious sin

In modern times this exclamation is still used to criticise present-day attitudes and trends, sometimes jokingly or wryly. An aquatint print of 1787 by Samuel Alken after Thomas Rowlandson in the British Royal Collection entitled O Tempora, O Mores! shows two old men surprised to find three drunken young men asleep round a table.[5]

Edgar Allan Poe used the phrase as the title and subject of his poem, "O, Tempora! O, Mores!" (1825?), in which he criticized the manners of the men of his time.[6] It is pronounced by a drunken poet in the 1936 movie Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. The expression is used in the play (1955) and movie (1960) Inherit the Wind, a fictional account of the Scopes Trial, when it is uttered by the cynical reporter, Hornbeck, referring to the town's backward attitude towards enlightened thinking (here Darwin's theory of evolution). The musical comedians Flanders and Swann used the term when Flanders proclaimed "O tempora, O mores - Oh Times, Oh Daily Mirror!" (1964).[7] It is also one of several Latin phrases found in Asterix and Obelix comics published in the 1960s and 1970s.

In November 2014, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas used the opening of Cicero's 1st Catilinarian on the U.S. Senate floor, with only a few words changed, to criticize President Barack Obama's use of executive orders.[8] In his version of the speech, which follows the translation of C. D. Yonge,[9] Senator Cruz translated the phrase O tempora! O mores! as 'Shame on the age and on its lost principles!'

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ottenheimer, I. & M. Latin-English Dictionary 1955
  2. ^ In Verrem 2.4.56; in Catilinam 1.2; de Domo sua 137; pro Rege Deiotaro 31.
  3. ^ Susan O. Shapiro (2005) O Tempora! O Mores! Cicero's Catlinarian Orations: A Student Edition with Historical Essays, note on Cat. 1.2.
  4. ^ Seneca the Elder, Suas. 6.3.
  5. ^ Rowlandson, O Tempora, O Mores!.
  6. ^ Poe, Edgar Allan (2006). Fiction and poetry : complete and unabridged (Complete and unabridged. ed.). New York: Barnes & Noble. pp. 5–7. ISBN 978-0-7607-8221-7.
  7. ^ Flanders, M and Swann, D At the Drop of Another Hat (after the track All Gall) 1964.
  8. ^ Bump, Philip (November 20, 2014). "Ted Cruz goes Peak Senate in opposition to Emperor Obama". The Washington Post.
  9. ^ M. Tullius Cicero. The Orations of Marcus Tullius Cicero, literally translated by C. D. Yonge, B. A. London. Henry G. Bohn, York Street, Covent Garden. 1856.