Book review: Cicero, the life and times of Rome’s greatest politician

It doesn’t happen very often that a single book makes you seriously reevaluate a position you had held for many years, but that’s the effect that reading Anthony Everitt’s Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician had on me. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always admired Cicero, ever since I translated him from Latin back in high school. His prose is gorgeous, his intellect cunning, and — despite being an Academic Skeptic — he was also very sympathetic to the Stoics.

But I always bought the common stereotypes about him: that he was more of a lawyer than a statesman, a bit of sophist more than a philosopher, a flip-flopper who alternatively backed Caesar, Pompei, Octavian, and in the end got killed by order of the vindictive Mark Anthony. Turns out, the story is far more complex, and fascinating, than the stereotype.

Marcus Tullius Cicero was indeed both a lawyer (an advocate, as the Romans put it) and a statesman. He excelled at both, without question. His speeches in the Forum were renowned at the time, and are still studied today as excellent examples of rhetoric — understood not as an insult, but as the art of persuasion, as described by Aristotle.

His statesmanship shone through at several points of his tumultuous life. For instance, and perhaps most famously, in his defense of the Republic against the Catilinian conspiracy in 63 BCE. Everitt devotes chapter 5 of his book to that episode, and Mary Beard begins her excellent SPQR with the same. She calls it Cicero’s finest hour. 

But in fact in my mind his finest hour came near the end of his life, after he had retired and his beloved daughter Tullia had died in childbirth. In the year 43 BCE Cicero went back to public life and made a last-ditch, desperate attempt to save the Republic from tyranny by identifying and going after what he thought was the major threat to the authority of the Senate: Mark Anthony (chapter 15 of Everitt’s volume). He wrote the famous “philippics,” a total of 14 speeches condemning Mark Anthony, so-called in an explicit nod to the speeches delivered by Demosthenes against Philip of Macedon in the 4th century BCE.

It took a lot of courage and a principled mind to do this, and Cicero paid for it with his life. When later the same year the young Octavian, Julius Caesar’s adopted son, did not back the Senate and instead formed a new triumvirate with Anthony and the non-entity Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, that spelled both the end of the Republic and of Cicero. I will let Everitt tell the story (from chapter 16):

“He was reclining in a characteristic posture, with his chin resting on his left hand. He had a copy of Euripides’ Medea with him, which he had been reading. He would have been familiar with this drama of bitter revenge, in which a woman kills her children to spite her faithless husband. His eyes may have fallen on lines near the beginning of the play: ‘But now everything has turned to hatred and where love was once deepest a cancer spreads.’ … He drew aside the curtain of his litter a little and said: ‘I am stopping here. Come here, soldier. There is nothing proper about what you are doing, but at least make sure you cut off my head properly.’ Herennius [the assassin] trembled and hesitated. Cicero added, supposing that the man had already killed other victims and should by now have perfected his technique: ‘What if you’d come to me first?’ He stretched his neck as far as he could out of the litter and Herennius slit his throat. While this was being done, most of those who were standing around covered their faces. It took three sword strokes and some sawing to detach the head and then the hands were cut off. … The surviving accounts differ in detail but they all agree on Cicero’s bravery. He showed the same professionalism as the gladiators he had written about in Conversations at Tusculum when they received the coup de grâce in the arena: ‘Has even a mediocre fighter ever let out a groan or changed the expression on his face? Who of them has disgraced himself, I don’t just mean when he was on his feet, but when falling to the ground? And, once fallen, who has drawn in his neck when ordered to submit to the sword?’

It is certainly the case that Cicero was not perfect, whatever that means. Everitt often quotes Cicero’s correspondence with his close friend Atticus, which went on for many years, and which gives us a behind the curtain look at Cicero himself and at those turbulent times in Roman history. Cicero did not have a taste for war, and was not physically courageous. Which he candidly admitted: “While I am not cowardly in facing dangers, I am in guarding against them.” (ch. 10) He was also notorious for indulging in self-promotion. But here Everitt has a perfectly valid explanation. Cicero was born in Arpinum, a hill town about 100 kilometers southeast of Rome. While his family was well-to-do, they belonged to the Equestrian, not the senatorial class, and his ancestors made a living cultivating chickpeas (hence his nickname: “Cicero,” as cicer in Latin means chickpea). The notoriously snobby senators had a hard time taking seriously someone who they considered little more than a glorified country bumpkin. So Cicero had to fight hard, and to engage in a significant amount of self-promotion, in order to be heard.

Did I mention he was a philosopher, too? The impressive thing about that is that he wrote several books of philosophical investigations in a very short period of time, between 46 and 44 BCE, past the age of sixty, and while grieving for his daughter’s death (ch. 12 of Everitt’s). Indeed, he wrote philosophy in order to help himself get through the grieving process. Philosophy as consolation for life’s hardships, if you will. He told his friend Atticus that he wrote “from morning until night,” adding: 

“I cannot easily say how useful I shall be to others: in any case, for my terrible sorrows and all the various troubles that assail me on every side no other consolation [than philosophy] could be found.”

Among other essays, he wrote the Stoic Paradoxes; Academica (comparing Academic Skepticism and Stoicism: see here and here); On the Ends of Good and Evil (see here and here); the Conversations at Tusculum, on various aspects of his eclectic but Stoic-informed philosophy of life; and On the Nature of the Gods (see here and here).

Cicero’s philosophical writings were immediately appreciated in his lifetime, establishing him — only a year before his death — as a man of principle and capable of thoughtful reflection. As Everitt writes: “Sometime towards the end of his life, Caesar remarked that Cicero had won greater laurels than those worn by a general in his Triumph, for it meant more to have extended the frontiers of Roman genius than of its empire.”

Through all of this, Cicero’s reputation has always been mixed (ch. 17 of Everitt’s), but Aufidius Bassus, an historian from the next imperial generations had the following take:

“So died Cicero, a man born to save the Republic. For a long time he defended and administered it. … He lived for sixty-three years, always on the attack or under attack. A day did not pass when it was not in someone’s interest to see him dead.”

Octavian, who had essentially betrayed Cicero and let Mark Anthony carry out his bloody vendetta, later on, as emperor Augustus, visited one of his grandsons, and walked on him while he was reading a book by Cicero. The emperor took the book, stood while reading the entire text, and then said:

“An eloquent man, my child, an eloquent man, and a patriot.”
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