Cicero by Anthony Everitt
- After Netflixing HBO’s “Rome,” it’s time to find out who this guy was really
- 359 pages (325 pages, excluding Source, Acknowledgements, et cetera)
In the HBO series “Rome,” Cicero got some of the best dialogue, but it wasn’t always entirely clear who he was in the political mix. I’d heard of Cicero and knew that he wasn’t a fictional character, but I couldn’t have given a cogent sentence about his place in history. The entire TV series threw a spotlight onto how little I knew about one of the most significant spans of Western history: the decades immediately before the birth of Christ, when the Roman Empire was at its pinnacle.
The Times: First Century B.C.
What made this book interesting to me was that Cicero disliked Caesar’s ideas and felt threatened by him. Today, we have a tendency to look upon Julius Caesar as a hero, to assign moral value to his military and political brilliance. True to the tradition of history being written by the victors, Caesar is often seen as a man who took on the fat and happy establishment to improve the lives of average Romans, particularly his veterans. Cicero, however, saw him as a megalomaniacal threat, a single man who would demolish a carefully balanced system of government with the expectation that his own judgment was superior to that of the public.
Prior to Caesar’s rise to power, the [Roman] Republic functioned as an oligarchy, but an elected one. Within the Senate, two elected consuls held the most power, but only for one year. No single man could legally assume ultimate power, at least not indefinitely, which is what Caesar aimed to do. Cicero acknowledged – and even discussed in his book about the Roman government – that one could assume the title of Dictator in times of military turmoil, but this title should have been both temporary and rare. Romans like Cicero, Republicans, took pride in the fact that Rome didn’t have a king, but rather an elected Senate. Numerous checks and balances existed to limit the powers of individuals within the Senate. To permit Caesar to assume his sought-after role of Dictator for Life would have been un-Roman. Cicero could only take a dim view of Caesar’s ambitions, despite liking the man personally.
Cicero had come to power as an outsider, an educated young man born to a well-off but not wealthy family from outside the Eternal City. Just about any male from the Roman upper crust did a stint in the military and then in the Senate (alternatively, one could attain prominence in the religious leadership, but really politics was the key to power). Even young Cicero, not much of a physical specimen even in his prime, did his bit in the military for the sake of his future professional credibility. The Republic allowed talented commoners like him to be elected into the Senate – although most positions required access to real money, which Cicero didn’t have until many years of successful law practice – and he loved the government that allowed him to achieve his elevated standing.
Cicero’s books and published speeches give us political rhetoric, but his surviving private correspondence offers personal insights about the stakes for major players of the time. He dined with Julius Caesar as well as Caesar’s Republican opponents. He advised Caesar, courted Roman General Pompey, and confided in his personal letters to his friend Atticus what a threat he considered Caesar and how politically inept Pompey. He met and was impressed by young Octavian, who would go on to be Caesar’s heir, but considered Mark Antony unrefined (as many who knew him did).
Senior Roman statesman Cicero wrote prolifically about his observations. His private correspondence, from which author Everitt draws extensively throughout the book, reveals a sarcastic wit and an anxious personality. Cicero’s lengthy survival in difficult political times such as these depended on his ability to notice what’s really happening and to make a solid judgment of the characters surrounding him. However, his emotions do get in the way. Anxiety and depression seem to color his analysis in some letters. Published speeches, some made in the courtroom and others in the Senate, reveal the same wit. Sometimes, the sarcasm he couldn’t hold back got him into trouble…leave Rome and let things blow over for a while kind of trouble. Published speeches appear to have been a favorite tool of Cicero’s, but he wrote books, too, on a range of subjects: philosophy, law, politics, even poetry (the poetry tended not to be especially well-received by his peers).
I don’t pretend serious interest in philosophy or even detailed knowledge of Roman history. Honestly, Cicero and I will part company now that I know who he was: I don’t share his love of Greek philosophy, poetry or idealized Roman government. I do feel this book plugged a hole in my knowledge of world history, however. Reading about Caesar’s rise to power from the point of view of a Roman citizen with a front-row seat offered a more personal perspective on these events than a standard history text might have done.
Image: The Roman Forum, by Shilona, courtesy of Pixabay.com.