Thursday, March 17, 2005

Cicero: Life and Times of Rome's Greatest Politician

Cicero: Life and Times of Rome's Greatest Politician
by Anthony Everitt New York: Random House, 2001

If Cicero is a weak fool in need of public adoration in Rubicon, he is treated with a great deal more love and respect in Cicero: Life and Times of Rome's Greatest Politician (the title is a dead giveaway). Mr. Everitt gives us a wonderful picture of the type of life a young man from the provinces would have in the days of the Republic, and he explains what would have been a fairly typical upbringing for young men of the time, including their education, as well as their political aspirations, and the career they had to follow to achieve the summit of political life: the consulship.

That was the sight set on by Marcus Tullius Cicero. His father was a magistrate in a province nearby to Rome, and his sons, Marcus and Quintus, were taught the classic curriculum of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric, as well as the history of the Republic. This filled them with a taste for politics. For the ancient Roman, participation in politics was expected, to some degree, from all citizens. Voting was considered a sacred right of the Roman citizen, regardless of class. Even the lowliest pleb had a say in the functioning of the res publica (literally, "public matters"). For young men of the patrician class, it was expected that they would take their seats in the Senate and follow the cursus honororum, the "course of honors", which led a young man from quaestor to praetor to consul.

Cicero was well aware of the expectations on him when he entered Rome. The challenge to him was greater than that of a scion of an old patrician family, for example, C. Julius Caesar. Cicero had to establish himself in the public eye. To do this, a usual route was to achieve great military feats, as the Romans had a great love for soldiers, and valor on the battlefield. Cicero instead turned to his strength, public speaking. He took up several contraversal cases early in his career, and through spectacular successes, made a name for himself in the Forum. Through this, instead of military service, he was able to eventually ascend to the consulship. He was, as the Romans called it, a novus homo, a new man, one whose family was graced with no consuls past, one whose family had no illustrious history.

Cicero sought to use his power and influence to preserve the Republic against its internal enemies. He saw that the Republic was in danger of being torn apart by two great factions, the populares (those in the Senate that wanted to give more power to the people, and thus increase their own power, through the institution of clientela), and the optimates (those in the Senate that wanted to preserve the power and the prestige of the Senate and the Patrician class). Cicero sought to "coordinate" the different classes of the Republic, to have them working in harmony for the good of the State, as an orchestra works together to produce music. Cicero was no democrat, he believed in the right of the Patrician class to run things, but he also knew that the Plebeans were a necessary component to a harmonious state. And he sought to bring balance and peace between these groups.

As each group struggled for power, there arose three new players: M. Licinius Crassus, Cn. Pompeius Magnus, and C. Julius Caesar, the members of the First Triumverate. Mr. Everett does a creditable job showing how these three men, using the Senate, and using Cicero, achieved their objectives, and he shows how desperately Cicero fought to preserve the Republic while the Senate, led by Cato the Younger, and Julius Caesar, struggled in a political battle that would find its way to armed Civil War.

In the end, the Republic fell, brought down by the knives of the assassins, who, thinking they had saved it, ran to Cicero for approval. The years of the Second Triumverate are seen also through Cicero's eyes, and we see how he desired to mold young Octavian into the type of leader he thought Rome needed. Even to the end, Cicero sought to create that harmonious Republic that may never have existed.

This is an excellent portrayal of a powerful figure in the final days of the Republic. Mr. Everett does not seek to simply lionize his subject, he shows his weaknesses as well as his strengths, and we are left with a better sense why Cicero's name has lasted to the present.

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