In this biography Anthony Everitt brings to life the world of ancient Rome in its glorious heyday. Cicero squared off against Caesar and was friends with young Brutus. He advised Pompey on his botched transition from military hero to politician. He lambasted Mark Antony and was the master of the smear campaign, as feared for his wit as he was for exposing his opponents' sexual peccadilloes. Brilliant, voluble, cranky, a terrible gossip, and a genius of political manipulation, Cicero was Rome's most revered politician, one of the greatest statesmen of all time. Accessible to us through unguarded letters written to his best friend, Atticus, Cicero emerges as a witty and resourceful political manipulator, the most eloquent witness to the last days of Republican Rome.
Cicero was a life-long devotee to Republican government (and thus an opponent of Caesar, who nevertheless lived to tell his tale for several reasons: Caesar was reknown for his leniency, Caesar enjoyed Cicero's wit, and Cicero himself was a successful manipulator of people in general and alliances in particular). Cicero longed for power, but always played a secondary role in Roman politics. As Everitt observed, "Julius Caesar, with the pitiless insight of genius, understood that the constitution with its endless checks and balanaces prevented effective government... [but] for Cicero [the solution to Rome's crisis of inaction and inefficacy] lay in finding better men to run the government and better laws to keep them in order." How well Eliot's Prufrock unintentionally captures Cicero!
"No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool."
Cicero never understood that he was wrong, nor passed by an opportunity to tout his own insight, influence, and value. Eventually Cicero was put to death after Octavian put Cicero's name on a proscription (a posting of people wanted dead by the leadership. All property was then confiscated and turned over to the state after the killer was rewarded.) Everitt brings Ancient Rome to life as if we were contemporaries of the protagonists. Excellent book that only makes the reader want to know more.
Drawn from Cicero's letters of correspondence with his friend Atticus and various modern sources, Everitt deftly recreates a vivid chronicle of Cicero's life and restores him to the pantheon of our common past.
To help readers understand the political infrastructure of the Roman Republic, Everitt begins with a chapter that explores the fault lines of the Republic that gave rise to all the seditious movements and military melee and thus inevitably led to the decadence. Cicero and his contemporaries helplessly inherited a self-constraining, self-defeating political system that inculcated the virtues of fortitude, justice, and prudence. Such inwardly unsound gesture was implemented to thwart any overmighty citizen seizing power.
The very same precautionary measure ironically pushed the Republic to the verge of hostilities and wars. The yearlong co-consulship, the lack of a prosecuting service and the continuous class struggle between the Patricians and People manifested venality, bribery, and collusion among officials.
In his portrait of the tenuous political situation, Everitt delineates Cicero as a man who was born and lived at the wrong time, or rather, the cruel times had dragged him along. Not a single day passed did Cicero not to worry about his opponents and those whom he had testified against with his instigation. Cicero thwarted and put down collusion and conspiracies, acted in defense and won acquittal of Roscius convicted of parricide, challenged the dictatorship of Sulla and the decadence of his regime. During his consulship, Cicero pursued the sedition of Catilina and thwarted his attacks on the Senate. Cicero vehemently opposed Julius Caesar and his despotic attempt to form a new Roman government. Even though Caesar took a liking of Cicero and looked up to him, Cicero asserted his preference for Pompey in the First Triumvirate and supported Pompey during Caesar's reign to restore Rome back to republicanism. In the remaining days of Caesar's dictatorship, Cicero remained a thorn to Caesar until his assassination.
Everitt's account also leaves readers in awe of Cicero's merits. Cicero had administrative gifts and oratorical skills of a very high order that none of his contemporaries could deploy. In a society where politicians were also expected to be good soldiers, Cicero was preeminently a civilian, a philosopher, a writer (Cicero admitted his physical weakness and nervousness) and this makes his success all the more remarkable. Cicero ceaselessly advertised and spread anti-war sentiment. He devoted his whole life, through his influence as a statesman; to negotiate a republic made of a mixed constitution. Cicero, when his career ended, must be in searing pain as he no longer entertained hopes that the Republic will be restored. Everitt deftly pointed that for the long years Cicero was a bystander in the working of Rome was not due to his lack of talent but a "surplus of principle." The republic collapsed around his neck as he tried to find more able men to run the government and enacted more efficient laws to keep these men in order.
Behind the political success laid Cicero's internal struggles. From Everitt's account, it seems the only people whom Cicero engaged in an emotional bonding were his daughter Tullia and his best friend Atticus. His divorce of Terentia (on the basis of her thoughtlessness and financial mismanagement) and his failed marriage with Publilia brought him nothing but loneliness. When Tullia died from a miscarriage, Cicero was completely devastated and read every book that the Greek philosophers had to say about grief. Atticus recounted his friend's grief as something of a new intensity too raw and too astonishing to be publicized. His rabid disagreement with Quintus, who heaped all the blame of his ill behavior on Cicero and switched to Caesar, pricked his heart. All the unfulfilled dreams led to Cicero's drastic change in personality that he was willing compromise his beliefs to stay in power and to exercise unscrupulous methods to restore the republic.
Everitt's book astutely captures the success, struggles, uproars and the spirits of truly the greatest politician of Rome. The book is up to the par of Boissier's Cicero and His Friends and Cowell's Cicero and the Roman Republic. Recommended.
What emerges, generally, is amazement that the Roman state functioned at all. It is a complicated history of influence peddling, corruption, constantly shifting alignments of convenience among the main players and those who wished to become main players such that me who were allied at one point could very easily be killing each other in another, laws made and unmade, people banished and goods confiscated only to be returned to good graces under the next administration or whim of the Senate, constant tensions between the Senate (the optimates or aristocracy), the people (populares), the armies whose allegiance usually went to the highest bidder under various generals, the equites or business class, and popular generals such as Caesar and Pompey whom the Senate constantly feared as potential usurpers of power.
Cicero's family is described as "a relatively undistinguished provincial family far from the center of events...linked by marriage to leading aristocratic clans and ultimately to senior personalities in Rome". So, without generations of luminaries to rely upon, Cicero had to make his own mark, and he chose to do so as an orator, particularly in the law courts. He practiced and studied rhetoric, made his mark in the law courts (where a clever and articulate presentation could carry the day regardless of the facts), and he was widely acknowledged as the pre-eminent orator of his time. He had his turn as Consul and played key roles with the leading political actors of his time. He was an outstanding administrator and in his foreign assignments showed himself to be honest as well, in sharp contrast to other governors or administrators who invariably saw their positions as a licence for personal gain.
Cicero was a staunch defender of the Republic, hence his opposition to Caesar despite the fact that they got along well on personal terms. His defense was, however, a blind one in that he saw no need for change or reform...all would be well if the tenets of the Roman constitution were upheld and respected. He did not see that the intricate web of checks and balances, underpinned by the corruption and constant maneuvering of political power interests, was in fact a major weakness.
Cicero was often vain, and pilloried for such, in his constant attempts to keep his name and his works in front of people that mattered, though in his personal correspondence with Atticus, he often made fun of this. He was not physically brave, and recognized it, nor did he try to insert himself into military matters when he might have. He did, however, show considerable calm and courage in his own death when he was beheaded when intercepted on a roadway when he was trying to get out of Italy.
All in all, a well written and very entertaining book.
Cicero was described as a defender of the republic, and a brilliant orator, but most of all, a politician. He waffled, he did character assassinations. But compared to the relative chaos that was Ancient Rome, he stands almost as a beacon. One wonders, once Republic became Empire, how the state managed to survive for so long.
A very interesting book, and recommended for those with any interest in Roman history.
Read Nov 2006