Monday, April 21, 2014

Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician

An eloquent man, my child, an eloquent man, and a patriot”, was Augustus Caesar’s remark to his grandson, on Marcus Tullius Cicero. And after I have finished this book, I couldn’t but agree with him. Cicero is not just a great—or the greatest—orator in the universe, but he is also a true statesman. Cicero is not as famous as Julius Caesar or Pompey the Great, but what he did, he has done for the sake of his beloved Republic, for the country; while Caesar and Pompey did their greatness merely for satisfying their own ambition. Thanks to Anthony Everitt through this biography, we can learn much about Cicero; both his contribution to Rome and his personal life.

Everitt has interestingly started this biography by relating the famous Ides of March—the brutal murder of Julius Caesar. After Caesar died, Brutus—the conspirator leader—shouted Cicero’s name and congratulated him for the Republic’s freedom form tyranny. Caesar’s murder became, later on, a culmination point for Cicero to return to Rome’s political arena after his first fall. Soon after this opening chapter, Everitt began by describing how Rome was already in crisis when Cicero was born; and what had caused it. This is the first simple analysis I have read about how the biggest empire in the world was on the verge of ruin.

Its fault governance systems must be the one to blame; these are several examples of its ineffectiveness:
  • Republic of Rome was a state without institution; they had neither police force, nor public persecution office. These services were run by the current elected senators, which enabled them to lead the services to their own advantages. In short, they had no independent institution that could issue fair judgment for the state.
  • The Senate, who should be the advisory committee for the Consuls, was a lifetime membership (permanent); while the Consuls (the officeholders) were not. So, the Senate was in fact the ruling instrument of the Republic.
  • The complex bureaucracy was another obstacle, especially in the widespread use of veto (Consuls and Praetors could veto their colleagues or their junior’s proposals), and in too many checks and balances of a proposal. In order to restrain one’s power, Rome has created this complex bureaucracy. However, it also led to equal and individual political competition, where one could use his power to overthrow the other. In the end, they used it not for Rome’s but their own sake.

So, when Cicero was born in a countryside near Arpinum on January 3, 106 BC, the Roman Republic was already in the start of crisis. He was an intelligent child right from the beginning, and as a youngster preferred to lead intellectual than physical (military) achievements. Cicero persistently sought literary pursuits until his end of life, and he soon found that he has been born a distinguished orator. Cicero was very good in character’s assassination; his humours were often sharp and witty. Cicero was appointed Consul at 63 BC, and during his office he thwarted a conspiracy by Catilina, not with military force, but with the force of words. He was called “Father of His Country” for this, and it was his biggest achievement.

What I admire from Cicero—and made him distinguished from other famous Roman statesmen—is that he always works sincerely and consistently for the Republic. He is neither greedy nor ambitious; and his only weakness is his exaggerated boastfulness. But, I am ready to defend him by arguing that, born without traces of great ancestors, Cicero did not have any marks of family’s glory which was very important at that time. So, it makes sense that he pointed out his achievement over and over again, because it was a family pride. Moreover, Cicero reached the highest office (Consul) and became one of the most respectable Roman statesmen without money or aristocracy background. His success came merely from his own merit; his literary background and his oratory skill were on one side, while his integrity and his consistent loyalty to the Republic were on the other.

Because of his persistency in advocating Rome, he made quite a lot of opponents. The first sign of the Republic’s collapse was the rise of Julius Caesar—perhaps the most ambitious man in Rome. He has formed the first triumvirate: Caesar-Pompey-Crassus. Cicero has also been invited to join this power sharing, but he—loyal as he was to the Republic—reluctantly rejected. Later on he was banished from Rome, thanks to Clodius, and to the triumvirate who had let it pass. Cicero was desperate; during the exile he had a setback, and even suffered from mental breakdown. It is ironic that a man from outside Rome should have loved the city more than anyone else.

Cicero was finally recalled to Rome; and the city welcomed him almost like a Triumph. It was only a sign that Cicero was distinguished as an individual. He did not belong to any office, but as a personal, Cicero still had great influence. So when the established Rome was in the threat of being ruled by a dictator (either Pompey or Caesar), the Senate needed Cicero for his independence of mind. In the end, we all know what the outcome was. Nevertheless, Cicero has put his efforts to prevent it; later on he even betrayed his own principle in order to compromise with the enemy, although with a huge burden in his heart. But the Republic was finally collapsed. If only there were more conservative men in the Senate, Cicero must have had a bigger chance to succeed. But unfortunately, most of them have been slaughtered in the era of Sulla and Marius’ reign. Or if there were still some of them (like Brutus and Cassius), they were working without no method, no plan, and no thought.

It’s so pity that Cicero must fight alone for the existence of the Republic, because his enemies only thought about their own interests. Although Cicero did not succeed in maintaining the Republic, for me Cicero is still Roman’s hero; one of its best leaders. Cicero was good in administration, and so, was able to govern well. He was a great philosopher too, and the early Catholic Church even regarded him as a virtuous pagan. His thoughts about Republic were later used by American Founding Fathers.

Thanks to Anthony Everitt who has brought Cicero to us. This biography is quite an easy reading, and you would feel like reading a Roman historical tale instead of a biography. Moreover, I like how Everitt put a thorough analysis of Roman’s fault lines, in order to get a better understanding of the collapse of one of greatest empires in the universe.

A very thorough and entertaining work of history, four stars for Cicero!


I read Random House paperback edition

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