“With the disappearance of Latin from the schoolroom, the greatest statesman of ancient Rome, Marcus Tullius Cicero, is now a dimly remembered figured. He does not deserve this fate and it is time to restore him to his proper place in the pantheon of our common past.” So begins Anthony Everitt’s history come biography Cicero. Among those Romans in the pantheon of our common past, none have fallen so harshly as the statesman-philosopher. But it wasn’t always that case.
Even into the mid-20th century, before the de-civilization of education reached hurricane speed, Cicero was among the most eminent names in Western history. He was a statesman who had inspired the American Founding Fathers. He was lauded by French revolutionaries like Camille Desmoulins, one of the heroes of the Jacobin Club who was executed alongside Danton by the Committee of Public Safety. Humanists and reformers from Erasmus to Luther also cherished Cicero. St. Augustine quoted Cicero more than Plato.
Cicero lived during the downfall of the Roman Republic. We are familiar with some of those names. Caesar. Antony. Cleopatra. Cassius. Brutus. Octavian. Probably Pompey. Possibly Cato the Younger. Even more faintly, maybe Crassus. We are also familiar with the famous lines associated with the fall of the Roman Republic. Rubicon. The die is cast. Et tu, Brute? We may have Shakespeare to thank for much of that but the cultural spirit endures. Cicero was, of course, one of the major players in the intricacies of alliances and conspiracies that thundered the republic to its demise. For much of Western history, Cicero was a name—more than even Cassius, Brutus, and Cato—associated with the aspirations of liberty against the darkness of tyranny. He was figure as celebrated among conservatives for his humanism and fondness for compromise and the status-quo, as he was among radicals for his patriotic stand against autocratic tyranny and speeches extoling the virtues of liberty and the free man.
If Cicero is still remembered today, it is probably as a philosopher rather than a statesman. Cicero is still very much part of the classical philosophical canon, standing alongside but as a lesser luminary to Plato, Aristotle, and Epictetus. He is still faintly remembered by posterity because of the trove of letters and treatises he wrote, letters and treatises that were regarded as the pinnacle of linguistic humanistic education and moral improvement. “Ciceronian eloquence” may still be spoken of by the last generation of educators who read Cicero as part of the mandate of their education.
Cicero, however, was very much a politician and statesman. He straddled the generations. He was young enough to participate in the Social Wars between Sulla and Marius. He was older than the more famous names like Caesar, Cassius, and Brutus (and Cato) immortalized by Shakespeare. Yes, Cicero is unique in the history of Rome’s collapse because he lived through it all, not just at the twilight of the republic’s demise.
What made Cicero unique was the fact that he was a novus homo, or a “new man.” He did not belong to the aristocratic landowning class—the optimates—but, through a combination of shrewdness, realpolitik, and luck, vaulted himself to the top echelons of Roman society. He became a passionate orator and persona in the cause of the optimates. His denunciation of Cataline and saving of the republic from the Catilinarian conspiracy earned him the moniker “Father of his Country.”
Yet the man so devoted to saving the republic witnessed its downfall and, as Everitt shows, accidently contributed to its demise in a substantial way.
A shrewd politician and incorruptible administrator (by all historical accounts, Cicero—like Cato the Younger—didn’t accept bribes like most of his fellow politicians), Cicero ebbed and flowed from the heights of senatorial power to the lowliness of Roman provincial administrative politics. But just as Caesar crossed the Rubicon and marched on Rome, Cicero found himself back at the center of Roman politics to take part in the final years of the republic.
A supporter of the constitutional cause, Cicero was an oblique enemy of Caesar. However, with Caesar in control of the reins having defeated Pompey and the republican forces in Greece and Africa, Cicero also made chummy relations with Caesar as he saw fit. Caesar, too, knew it was prudent to have Cicero as a perceived friend rather than public enemy. No man, not even Caesar or Pompey, was as beloved by the public than Cicero. In fact, Everitt highlights how Cicero’s return from governing the unimportant province of Galicia was marked by whaling and adoring crowds of Romans welcoming him as if in a triumph!
When Caesar was assassinated, Cicero was kept out of the conspiracy and therefore had clean hands. Where the other conspirators, Brutus and Cassius, most famously, had to flee to Greece, Cicero remained in Rome. He kept in contact with his republican allies in the far reaches of the sprawling empire and maintained his fidelity to liberty and restoring the constitutional order abrogated by Caesar. He turned his attention to ending the dictatorial powers enacted by Caesar by going after Mark Antony. In doing so, Cicero also brought into the halls of Roman power a teenage boy who was adopted by Julius Caesar: Octavian, better known to us as Augustus Caesar—the first emperor of Rome.
Cicero believed Octavian could be shepherded as a useful figurehead for winning back moderate Caesarians to the republican cause. Denouncing Antony, Cicero played an active role in organizing the Senate’s last gambit: the destruction of Antony and his hard Caesarian forces. The consuls, Hirtius and Pansa, led a senatorial army to defeat Antony at Mutina. Having denounced Antony as a renegade and aspiring despot, Cicero reclaimed a popularity among the entire Roman populace not seen since his denunciation of Cataline. It seemed as if Cicero would save the republic once more. Until the aftermath of the Battle of Mutina fully revealed itself.
The senatorial forces had, in fact, won. Antony was driven off and fled back to Gaul. But Hirtius and Pansa were dead. The consular leadership wiped out in a month. In the vacuum, Cicero amended longstanding laws to allow Octavian to become consul. He felt that he could control the young man. How wrong he was.
By bringing Octavian into the halls of power, Cicero blundered at a spectacular level. Although committed to the republic’s restoration, by shepherding Octavian into the arena of power he unintentionally helped to bring about its swift destruction. In 43 BC, a year after the assassination of Caesar, it seemed as if the republican cause could be victorious. Then, Octavian joined forces with Mark Antony. Cicero and the republicans were all proscribed and declared enemies of the state. Cicero fled.
Loved by the people, Cicero found refuge among the populace as he was hunted down. Cicero’s death remains the stuff of Hollywood legend—should they ever make a film about Cicero. Deceiving himself that Octavian could still be reasoned with, Cicero refused to flee further though a boat was waiting for him to sail him to Cassius and Brutus. Cicero was eventually discovered and is reported to have told his captor turned assassin, “There is nothing proper about what you are doing, soldier, but do try to kill me properly.” He bowed his head to be decapitated. He was.
Cicero influenced everyone from theology to philosophy to politics to rhetoric. For almost two millennia after his death, his name was synonymous with excellence, humanism, and liberty. Now, however, he has all but vanished from Western consciousness. The ghosts of Caesar, Antony, and Octavian (Augustus) remain. But, as Everitt tries to correct in this short and readable biographical-historical drama, Cicero should be the one figure of them all we turn to more and more. He traversed the Social Wars of Sulla and Marius, the prefigurations of the republic’s collapse. He played an intimate role in trying to ward off the republic’s destruction and, as his life revealed, was a man who touched all the major figures in the republic’s final century: Marius, Sulla, Cataline, Crassus, Pompey, Caesar, Antony, Octavian, Cato, Cassius, and Brutus. Yet befitting the tragedy Shakespeare never wrote, at the height of his newfound power and popularity—and on the cusp of restoring the republic against its Caesarian enemies—Cicero suddenly found himself proscribed, condemned as an enemy of state, on the run, and killed.
There are few who can be said to have remained true to their principles through it all. Cicero was not perfect. But he was a man of principle till the very end.
Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician
By Anthony Everitt
Random House, 2003; 364pp.