2005-06-12: Cicero


The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician (2001)

by Anthony Everitt (1940-)

This book was recommended by one of the progressive bloggers, perhaps Steve Clemons or Josh Marshal.

As the subtitle indicates, it covers two subjects: Cicero’s life, and the political times in which he lived. A lot happened in his lifetime, and he was a big influence in his time. More or less coincidentally, Cicero’s voluminous correspondence was preserved, and complements his more formal writing. Together, his works had an important influence in preserving the Greek ways of thought for many centuries.

The book itself is quite interesting, opening with the assassination of Caesar. Cicero played no part in the conspiracy, and yet Brutus, brandishing his bloody dagger, hailed Cicero as the natural beneficiary of its effects. Cicero seems to have been miffed that he wasn’t included in the plot.

I found the book interesting for its descriptions of the political strains of the transition from the Roman Republic to the Empire. The constitutional norms had begun to break down in the century before Cicero, but he was a strong proponent of restoring the former forms. The new approach, founded on naked force and disrespect for traditional governmental and family values, could not be stopped by rhetoric and appeals to logic and foresight.

Cicero was not from a family with a tradition of influence in politics, but through application and thoughtfulness he advanced himself. Without a traditional power base or an illustrious past to support him, he was obliged to continually promote himself; in this effort he made himself somewhat of an object of ridicule. Generally fond of topical witticisms, and enjoying the typically cruel joke at the expense of someone else’s reputation, he had a tendency to alienate those who might forgive and later support him. Most dangerously, he incurred the ire of Octavian, which eventually contributed to his proscription and death.

Of course, we can’t know if we are in a transition such as Rome experienced in Cicero’s time. If we are, the parallels in breakdown of political comity and appeal to the baser natures of the people are available for detailed comparison.

Everitt mentions the excellent sources available for this period, but also alludes to the missing information. Apparently the exact nature of the Roman ‘constitution’ is not certain. In addition, certain parts of Cicero’s own record are missing, perhaps censored in the period following his death, during which Octavian became Augustus.

I would like to look a bit into Cicero’s letters, and perhaps some of his later philosophical writings. Everitt recommends the Loeb Classical Library. He also mentions Polybius as a source on the Roman constitution, and the portion of Appian’s history covering the period from Tiberius Gracchus to Caesar’s assassination. Cornelius Nepos wrote about Cicero’s friend Atticus.


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