And I claim a duty - I demand it as my own. I am referring to what I propose to do in that place where the people of Rome have appointed me, from the first of next January, to collaborate with them in the affairs of our state and its defence from criminal foes.
[--from Against Verres]
If one has done great services to one's country, and because of them has received shameful and jealous treatment, should one nevertheless voluntarily endanger oneself for one's country's sake, or is it legitimate, eventually, to take some thought for oneself and one's family, and to refrain from fighting against the people in power?
[from a letter to Atticus; 12 March, 49]
Time to revisit, via a Penguin Selected Works (tr. M. Grant), another of the figures who loomed large in my A-Level Classics lessons: Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE), Roman orator, lawyer, politician and man of (a great many) letters, with whom I got on rather better than Plato.
That last may seem a strange statement. As a good historiographer and social historian I'm well aware of the problems of studying a historical period through the figure of a 'great man' (or a collection of them). Yet it is the personalities of late Republican and early Imperial Rome that remain, ineluctably, the reason for my (entirely amateur) fascination with it. And, very possibly, if any single person actually came into focus within the texts I use day-to-day, I'd probably latch onto them, too - it's hard to avoid the desire to humanise history through relatable or at least imaginable individuals, especially ones who leave writings behind, however partial and sometimes deluded their perspective may be. (Of course, as a historiographer I'm actually more interested, these days, in how partiality and delusion - not to mention audience, etc. - affect the construction of historical writings than in what the writings purport to describe; but that's geekily by-the-by).
(Stick with me; I promise, no more historical theory tangents!)
More pertinently, it may seem strange because Cicero was hardly the most obviously likeable of men. Indeed, he was nothing if not a self-important, priggish snob, the sort of chap whom you imagine to have been a curmudgeon in the cradle; a Stoic by inclination and a truly great speaker and thinker, as this selection of letters, speeches and philosophical works demonstrates (in this post I'll concentrate on the first two), but one with an overinflated sense of his significance in the politics of his (turbulent) times.
The first of the letters collected here is a prime example of this tendency. It dates from the summer of 62, the year after Cicero held the consulship - a position held jointly by two men each year, and the pinnacle of the cursus honorum (the ladder of elected public offices that Roman politicians had to climb, in this period). Even of itself, this was an achievement of which he could be very proud, and was. Born into the equites or 'equestrian' class - the Roman middle class, for which read landed gentry rather than the present-day equivalent, between the patricians (upper) and the plebs (lower) - Cicero did not come from a long line of consuls (making him a novus homo, a 'new man'). Nor did he come from Rome, for that matter; he was born in a town called Arpinum, which had only been granted Roman citizenship about 80 years before.
But certain events of the year 63 had afforded Cicero an opportunity to fulfil his civic duty in a particularly dramatic fashion. A plot to overthrow the Republican government, led by a disaffected patrician named Catiline, was uncovered; it was denounced by Cicero in a series of orations, and brutally suppressed. The danger presented by the conspiracy was, in all likelihood, exaggerated, as was the role of Cicero in its suppression; said suppression (which involved the summary executions of the conspirators) was also a rather extra-legal measure that soon came back to haunt Cicero.
Nevertheless, our novus homo was evidently brimming over with pride at his great public service, his selfless salvation of the Republic, and felt that others ought to share this feeling. Hence the rather whinging tone of this first letter, written to Pompey - a powerful, patrician military commander and Cicero's sometime ally (more often, it must be said, in Cicero's fond imaginings than in reality) - who had, it seems, failed to be appropriately effusive:
I have achieved things for which I had hoped, in view of our relationship and the national interest, to find some word of congratulation in your letter. I expect you left it out in case you should cause someone offence. But I must tell you that the reaction to what I did to save our country has been universally favourable. When you come home you will, I know, realise that what I did was brave, as well as wise; and so I am confident that you will be happy to let me join you as a political ally as well as a friend - you being so much greater than Scipio Aemilianus, and myself not much inferior to Laelius!
Cicero often did not appear in the best light in his political dealings. In both his private letters and his public deeds, there is a vacillating and even cowardly side to him. A letter to Marcus Caelius Rufus, written from Cilicia (where Cicero went, belatedly and with bad grace, for his statutory post-consular provincial governorship) in April of the year 50, is telling - he is fearful, reluctant, a touch complacent, all talk and no action:
My province, on the other hand, bores me completely. This may be because the degree of distinction which I feel I have already attained in my career makes me not so much ambitious to add to it as fearful of impairing it. Or perhaps it is because the whole business is unworthy of my capacities, in comparison with the heavier burdens which I can bear and often do bear in the service of my country.
These were difficult times for the Republic, embattled by the ambitions of a series of military commanders - Julius Caesar being the main one at the time of this letter - who had accumulated too much power in the field. These generals stood at the head of large numbers of soldiers who were a) personally loyal to them and b) in need of land, preferably in Italy, on which to settle. This made them a threat to the both political institutions of the Republic - the central ethos of which was rule by a(n oligarchic) elected group rather than by a single 'tyrannical' individual/dynasty - and the great estates of this group's members. I'm not up-to-date on the scholarship, but I gather that this was one of the crucial underlying issues behind the Republic's difficulties at the time; wildcard individuals were simply better at exploiting Rome's various social tensions than the Senate was at keeping control.
While Cicero can hardly be blamed for not jumping at the chance to become embroiled in the growing rivalry (and eventually civil war) between Pompey and Caesar, there is a great deal of wait-and-see - and a great many ineffectual attempts to encourage a reconciliation between the parties - to Cicero's actions during the pivotal decades of the 50s and 40s. Even once the rivalry became open conflict, Cicero hesitated to choose sides publicly - quick to opine as to what others should do, while doing little himself. In his letters, he goes back and forth over the issue of whether to join Pompey, meanwhile maintaining at least nominally cordial relations with Caesar, for all his private disgust at the latter's policies (both too populist, and too tyrannical).
It is hard to shake the impression that Cicero had a habit of repeatedly backing the wrong horse. Conservative patrician Pompey, while clearly less likely to rock the senatorial boat than the dangerously ambitious (if also patrician) Caesar, was in many respects cast from the same mould: not a classically Republican politician, but another overmighty general who was often impatient with the Senate. Pompey was also something of a weathervane himself, indecisive to a fault. As Cicero puts it, in a letter to Atticus (his publisher, friend, and most common correspondant), from February 49:
What a disgrace! - and, consequently, what misery. For my own feeling is that disgrace is the ultimate misery, or even the only one.
Pompey cherished Caesar, suddenly became afraid of him, refused all peace terms, failed to prepare for war, evacuated Rome, culpably lost Pisenum, got himself tied up in Apulia, and then went off to Greece without getting in touch with us or letting us know anything about his unprecedented plan upon which so much depended.
[...] Pompey bids Right a long farewell.
More frivolously, Pompey was hardly a prose stylist on Cicero's - or, for that matter, Caesar's* - level. Here is the terse note he sent to Cicero just prior to the above debacle:
I was glad to read your letter. For I recognised your courage of old in the national interest. The consuls have joined my army in Apulia. I urge you strongly, in the name of your exceptional and unceasing patriotism, to come to us so that we can plan together how to help and rescue our sorely afflicted country. I propose that you should travel by the Appian Way and proceed quickly to Brundisium.
[*I always found it splendidly/cruelly ironic that Cicero and Caesar could have been, effectively, literary soulmates - there is a fun letter here in which a shellshocked Cicero describes to Atticus the evening that Caesar came for dinner, at the height of all this, during which they talked for many enthusiastic hours about books and philosophy, without any mention of politics.]
Other mistakes in Cicero's repertoire include his famous dismissal of Octavian (the boy, he felt, was a tool who could be "lauded, applauded, and discarded" ... oops), and his overjoyed embrace of the Ides of March conspirators, who in the final analysis proved little more resourceful or proactive than Pompey, dropping the ball spectacularly due to their apparent belief that killing Caesar would somehow make the Republic spring back into its old shape. As Cicero sighs, in a letter to Atticus, from April 44:
Yet come one, come all, the Ides of March are a consolation. Our heroes most splendidly and gloriously achieved everything that lay in their power. The rest requires money and men, and we have neither.
(It's notable that Cicero was not invited into the conspiracy, whether because of his low status, his propensity for vacillation, or because they all knew he would carp at them for not doing things as he thought they ought to be done - which, as his letters make clear, he did extensively after the fact. In one rather amusing reported exchange, from a letter to Atticus of June 44, Brutus' mother Servilia shuts him up, with some exasperation: "[Y]our friend Servilia exclaimed: 'Well, I never heard anyone...!' I stopped short.")
All that aside, there are times in this collection when Cicero's conduct and self-presentation is extremely admirable, even inspiring. His status as a bit of an outsider in Roman politics and high society meant that he had to work hard to be accepted by the senatorial classes, which undoubtedly produced a strong streak of political conservatism. But his lack of family connections also meant that he rose to prominence through his public speaking - and, on many occasions, he did not hesitate to attack big targets and vested interests where principle and/or political capital were at stake. He made his name, in the year 70, with the high profile prosecution of notoriously corrupt senator Gaius Verres - the opening speech of which is included in this collection.
Verres stood accused of rapacious provincial government in Sicily, but the case was widely considered to be a foregone conclusion, thanks to both Verres' remarkable capacity for bribery and his formidable defence lawyer, Hortensius. Cicero, however, was not inclined to play along:
A belief has taken root which is having a fatal effect on our nation - and which to us who are Senators, in particular, threatens grave peril. This belief is on everyone's tongue, at Rome and even in foreign countries. It is this: that in these courts, with their present membership, even the worst criminal will never be convicted provided that he has money. [...] At this very juncture Gaius Verres has been brought to trial. Here is a man whose life and actions the world has already condemned - yet whose enormous fortune, according to his own loudly expressed hopes, has already brought him acquittal! I, gentlemen, am his prosecutor, and the people of Rome are strongly and confidently on my side.
The gamble paid off, spectacularly: so fearsome was Cicero's opening speech, and the reams of evidence he had amassed to back it up, that Hortensius did not even reply. Before any of the evidence could even be presented, Verres was on his way to a speedy voluntary exile, that would last for almost thirty years. (Cicero published the rest of his case, anyway, so that everyone could admire what he would have said.)
Another instance in which Cicero put himself in the firing line with his rhetoric came after Caesar's assassination, with the public circulation of a series of speeches/tracts - the Philippics, apparently named so after the ancient Greek orator Demosthenes' condemnations of Philip of Macedon - which tore Marc Antony, Caesar's right-hand man, into very fine strips. Antony, who was distracted by one Gaius Trebonius on the Ides of March long enough for the deed to be done, was proving a considerable thorn in the side of the conspirators, driving them from the city and seeking revenge for Caesar's murder. Cicero's attitude is summed up in a letter he wrote to Trebonius in February of 43:
How I wish you had invited me to that superb banquet on the Ides of March! Then we should have had no leavings. As it is, on the other hand, they are giving us so much bother that the superhuman service you people did for the Republic is liable to some qualification. Indeed the fact that this pestilential character [Antony] was taken aside by you, excellent man that you are, and consequently owes his survival to your generosity, makes me feel just a little indignant with you (though I am hardly entitled to do so): since you left me more trouble to be dealt with by my single self than by all the rest of the world beside me.
The Second Philippic, included here, is magnificently scathing in its address to Antony ("Concentrate, please - just for a little. Try to make your brain work for a moment as if you were sober.") and deeply scurrilous ("You are a drink-sodden, sex-ridden wreck. Never a day passes in that ill-reputed house of yours without orgies of the most repulsive kind."), even suggesting that Antony is only miffed at the conspirators because they got their first, as it were:
Everyone knows that at Narbo you formed a similar plan with Gaius Trebonius: it was because of this plot, while Caesar was being killed, that we saw Trebonius taking you aside. You see - my intentions to you are friendly. I am praising you for the good intention you once had! For not having reported the plot, I thank you; for not having carried it out, I excuse you. That task needed a man.
Even when Cicero reaches his heights of self-pity or self-congratulation, there remains something endearing about him - perhaps because he is, in the end, so very human, familiar for all the distance and difference separating me from his world and mindset. (Some of which is no doubt illusory, just me seeing what I want to see, but one of the things I love most about looking at history is that tension between the exotic and the familiar). His letters, for all their bluster, are often refreshingly frank - most were not intended for public eyes, and survive only because Atticus published them after Cicero's death. It is hard to resist the despairing self-awareness - or the strength of his conviction that tyrannical authority, as he saw it represented in Caesar, must be resisted - he displays at times, as here to Atticus, in 59:
I cannot bear to write any more about politics. I am disgusted with myself and find writing about it extremely painful. Considering how crushed everyone is, I manage to carry on without actual humiliation, yet without the courage I should have hoped for from myself in light of my past achievements. Caesar very generously proposes that I should join his staff. [...] I do not know what to do. I hate the idea of running away. I long to fight.
Ten years later, after meeting a repetition of Caesar's offer, this time to join him in Rome, with refusal - hardly the expedient or self-serving choice - Cicero commented, "He asked me to think it over; I could not say no to that. So we parted. I am convinced he does not like me or approve of me. But I approve of myself, which I have not done for a long time."
Here, and in the Philippics, our 'cowardly' Cicero (see that? how I appropriate him, fondly, as 'our'?) ran enormous risks, for all that he was not wielding a physical weapon. And eventually, it got him killed. In 43, as Antony and Octavian sought to strengthen their grip on power (and make some much-needed cash for their campaigns), Cicero was named on a long list of proscribed citizens - publicly-declared enemies of the regime who were thereby stripped of their citizenship and legal protection, and who could thus be killed with impunity (and financial incentive), their estates going to the state treasury. Again, his letters show him dithering at this time, over where, or whether, to flee; he eventually did, but was hunted down on the road to the coast, and murdered.
A sad end, then. Still, even if the means were violent, the end itself was not, so Cicero maintains in the very Stoic-influenced On Old Age (excerpted here), so very fearsome:
There are two alternatives: either death completely destroys human souls, in which case it is negligible; or it removes the soul to some place of eternal life - in which case its coming is greatly to be desired. There can be no third possibility. If, then, after death I shall either lack unhappiness or even be positively happy, I have nothing whatever to fear.
So there we are. It's an interesting collection. My Latin not stretching much beyond amo, amas, amat, I can't comment on the quality of the translation - although the persistent use of terms like 'totalitarian' to describe Caesar seem very redolent of a Ronald Syme-esque perspective on Roman history (i.e. that the Emperor Augustus was an ancient version of Stalin or Hitler, something that vastly overestimates the capacity for control of the ancient Roman state, I imagine). I want to read more, particularly the letters, but I also want some recent scholarship on ol' Chickpea*: can anyone recommend a good biography?
[* My brother once told me - I think from Plutarch - that the name 'Cicero' comes from the Latin word for chickpea; one of those odd little facts that sticks in the brain. Well, my brain. And somehow seems to have transmuted into a... petname. Help?]
(who was dangerously close to making some sort of Ides/idealistic pun in the title of this post; the horror...)