~ Prologue ~
As eighteen-plus years have gone by since the advent of the journey of the Federal Observer, we have amassed a collection of files which we have never made available. The following is but one of said files. We are making the following available for those who have an interest in expanding their knowledge of history – something that is being ignored in the public School System in America today.
Be prepared to bookmark this addition to Le Metropolis Café, as it is lengthy, but the lessons are tremendous. Welcome to Profiles.
We begin our story of Cicero from the Preface of author, Anthony Everitt’s monumental work, The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician: CICERO. ~ Ed.
~ Preface and Introduction ~
With the disappearance of Latin from the schoolroom, the greatest statesman of ancient Rome, Marcus Tullius Cicero, is now a dimly remembered figure. He does not deserve this fate and it is time to restore him to his proper place in the pantheon of our common past.
One powerful motive for doing so is that, nearly two thousand years after his time, he became an unknowing architect of constitutions that still govern our lives. For the founding fathers of the United States and their political counterparts in Great Britain, the writings of Tully (as his name was Anglicized) were the foundation of their education. John Adams’s first book and proudest possession was his Cicero.
Cicero wrote about how a state should best be organized and decision-makers of the eighteenth century read and digested what he had to say. His big idea, which he tirelessly publicized, was that of a mixed or balanced constitution. He favored not monarchy nor oligarchy nor democracy, but a combination of all three. His model was Rome itself, but improved. Its executive had quasi-royal powers. It was restrained partly by the widespread use of vetoes and partly by a Senate, dominated by great political families. Politicians were elected to office by the People.
This model is not so very distant from the original constitution of the United States with the careful balance constitution of the United States with the careful balance it set between the executive and the legislature, and the constraints, now largely vanished, which it placed on pure, untrammeled democracy. When George Washington, meditating on the difficulty of ensuring stable government, said, “What a triumph for the advocates of despotism, to find that we are incapable of governing ourselves, and that systems on the basis of equal liberty are merely ideal and fallacious,” he could have been quoting Cicero.
Towards the end of his life Cicero distinguished himself in his battle to save the Roman Republic. Through sheer force of character he took charge of the state during the months following Julius Caesar’s assassination, despite the fact that he held no public office, and organized a war against the dead Dictator’s friend and supporter, Mark Antony. Cicero came to stand for future generations as a model of defiance against tyranny—an inspiration first to the American and then the French revolutionaries.
The triumphs and catastrophes of Cicero’s stormy career were not the end of his story, for he has enjoyed a long life after death. His speeches and philosophical writings have had an incalculable influence on western civilization throughout its history, as his great contemporary Julius Caesar foresaw.
For the Christian Fathers he was a model of the good pagan. St. Jerome, ashamed of what he felt was an excessive partiality for a heathen author, would excessive partiality for a heathen author, would undertake a fast, so that he could study Cicero afterwards. Petrarch’s rediscovery of his works gave a powerful steer to the Renaissance and by the age of sixteen Queen Elizabeth had read nearly all his works.
Cicero’s prose style left its mark on Dr. Johnson and Edward Gibbon. The cadences of his oratory can be heard in the speeches of Thomas Jefferson and William Pitt (not to mention Abraham Lincoln and, only half a century ago, Winston Churchill).
Cicero merits our attention not just for his influence, but because he was a fascinating man who lived through extraordinary times. One reason why he still speaks to us across a vast interval of time is that we know so much about him. Uniquely in the classical world, hundreds of his letters survive, many written to his dear friend Atticus. I challenge anyone who reads them not to warm to his nervous, self-regarding, generous personality. He was an introvert who led the most public of lives, a thinker and intellectual who committed himself to a life of action. We see him live his life from day to day and sometimes from hour to hour. We follow the spectacular narrative of the fall of the Roman Republic through the excited, anxious eyes of a participant who twice held the reins of power and who did not know how the story would end. Here is someone who dined with Julius Caesar, detected the incorruptible Marcus Brutus in a financial scam and helped put a stop to a sexual escapade of the teenage Mark Antony. In Cicero’s escapade of the teenage Mark Antony. In Cicero’s correspondence, noble Romans are flesh and blood, not marble.
The last years of the Republic present particular difficulties for the biographer. Events come into sharp, close focus and then suddenly pull back into a fuzzy long shot. There are years about which little is known and all there is to go on are books or summaries of books by late and only variably reliable historians. Then all at once we are in the company of Cicero and his bête noire Publius Clodius Pulcher as they stroll down to the Forum together one morning; we listen to their conversation and hear Cicero making a tasteless joke at Clodius’s expense. The letters to Atticus are a unique repository of firsthand information, but when Atticus is with Cicero in Rome the picture breaks up.
Posterity should be grateful that he spent as much time as he did in Athens or on his estates in Epirus. It has often been possible to smooth the lumpiness in the historical record, but where the detail is missing there is no point in trying to conceal the fact.
I have referred to all those who appear in this book, other than Pompey, Mark Antony and Octavian, by their Latin names (except for passing references to writers such as Livy, Horace, Plutarch and Sallust). So far as places are concerned, I take a more relaxed line; it would sound odd to talk of Roma or Athenae rather than Rome or Athens. Other places’ names retain their Latin forms to avoid giving too anachronistic an impression (so, for example, I prefer Antium to Anzio and Massilia to Marseille). One of the complications of the history of this period is the large number of bit players. This is compounded by the fact that the Romans tended to call firstborn males by the same given name as their own; I have sometimes not identified people who make only a single appearance.
Some Latin terms have been retained on the grounds that there are no reasonably close English equivalents. These include imperium, the offcial political authority to rule and to raise troops; equites, the wealthy social class below Senators, which included businessmen, Italian provincial gentry and aristocrats, usually young, who had not yet entered on a political career (the singular form is eques); amicitia, which could mean more, or less, than friendship, being a form of mutual indebtedness among equals; clientela, the mutual indebtedness between social superiors and inferiors; optimates, a common term for the aristocratic constitutionalists in the Senate; and populares for their radical, populist opponents.
Some guidance on the value of money may be helpful, although it is a vexed and difficult topic. The Roman unit of account was the sestertius or sesterce. Four sesterces equaled one denarius, a silver coin. A bronze coin, the as, was worth one tenth of a denarius (the word means a “tenner”). A talentum (talent), was worth 24,000 sesterces. It is almost impossible today to ascertain the real worth of Roman money and its relation to the standard of of Roman money and its relation to the standard of living. As a very rough-and-ready estimate, one might say that 1 sesterce would be worth about $1.50, or perhaps a little more.
My greatest anachronism has been to use the Christian chronology. Until the late Republic the Romans dated years according to the names of Consuls. Atticus and other antiquarian scholars established, or at least decided, that the city had been founded by Romulus in 753 BC and thenceforward that year was used as the point of departure for chronology. So Cicero was born in AUC (ab urbe condita or “from the City’s foundation”) 648, not 106 BC, and Caesar’s assassination took place in AUC 710, not 44 BC. It seemed to me, though, that the reader would find this more confusing than helpful.
Wherever possible I allow Cicero to tell his own story, often quoting from letters, speeches and books. Scattered through them are characterizations of his contemporaries, memories of his youth and political analysis. His courtroom addresses bring back to life the social and moral attitudes of ordinary Romans.
Sadly, what cannot be conveyed is the quality and contemporary impact of his Latin; not only do his melodious periods, which have the grandeur of classical architecture, fail to translate well, but his style of oratory is a vanished art. When quoting from Cicero’s letters or other ancient texts I have been guided by published translations and am grateful for permission to quote them. They are listed at the end of this book under them. They are listed at the end of this book under Sources. However, I have translated a few texts myself. Cicero peppered his correspondence with Greek phrases; these are usually rendered in French.
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This book is an exercise in rehabilitation. Many writers from ancient times to the present day have seriously undervalued Cicero’s consistency and effectiveness as a politician. Too often tactical suppleness has been judged to be indecisiveness. His perspective was narrower and less imaginative than that of Julius Caesar, but Cicero had clear aims and very nearly realized them. He was unlucky, a defect for which history has no mercy but for which historians are entitled to offer a discount.
More generally, I shall be happy if I have succeeded in showing, first, how unrecognizably different a world the Roman Republic was from ours and, second, that the Roman Republic was from ours and, second, that the motives of human behavior do not change. Concepts such as honor and dignitas, the dependence on slavery, the fact that the Romans ran a sophisticated and complex state with practically none of the public institutions we take for granted (a civil service, a police force and so forth) and the impact of religious ritual on the conduct of public affairs make ancient Rome a very strange place to modern eyes. But, as we feel the texture of their daily lives, we can see that its inhabitants are not alien beings but our neighbors.