Portrait of a civilian

Cicero and the Civil War

The Civil War presented the vast majority of Romans with a dilemma, for it was clear that joining either side or remaining inactive all had their perils. As we have seen, only a minority even among the Senate actually wanted war. The letters written and received by the great orator Cicero during these last months of peace and the years of war provide us with a remarkable insight into these times and the impact of the war on one man, his family and friends. The majority of these letters were to his long-time friend and correspondent Atticus, an equestrian who remained outside formal politics and yet seemed to know, and have friendly relations with, every prominent Roman in this period.

Marcus Tullius Cicero was a ‘new man’, the first in his family to reach the consulship. His rise was almost entirely due to his skill as an orator, for his fame came more from winning famous cases in the courts than military achievements. Almost an exact contemporary of Pompey, Cicero had advanced his career through the same turbulent decades of civil war, dictatorship and attempted coups and revolutions. His great moment came as consul in 63, when he presided over the defeat and punishment of Catiline’s conspirators. In spite of his fame, Cicero did not have the wealth, influence and client-base of a Pompey, Crassus or Caesar and would never be more than one of a number of distinguished senators. His vulnerability had been made all too clear in 58, when Clodius had forced him into exile for alleged illegal behaviour during his consulship. Although this was only temporary, it had proved that he could not rely on the support and protection of men like Pompey.

On 24 November 50 as tension grew in Rome, Cicero arrived back at Brundisium after a year-long tenure as proconsul of Cilicia in Asia Minor. This in itself was an indirect consequence of the machinations of Caesar’s opponents, for the law decreeing a five-year interval between magistracy and governorship had created a shortage of provincial governors. As a result, men like Cicero, who had been consul over a decade before and had no real ambition to go to a province, were’ required to fulfil their obligations. In Cilicia he did his best to govern well, preparing the defences in case the Parthians, flushed with their success at Carrhae, launched the expected invasion. When this did not materialise he conducted a minor campaign against the tribesmen of Mount Amanus, for which he hoped to receive a triumph. In spite of the continuing Parthian threat, Cicero left at the first legal opportunity, arriving back in Rome just in the last period of peace. As a governor he still had imperium, which he could not lay down if he wanted to be granted a triumph. In fact in the end he was only granted the lesser honour of a ‘supplication’, which was probably more in keeping with the scale of his success.

Cicero’s correspondents had kept him well informed about the impending crisis. He had always been closer to Pompey than Caesar, though Pompey’s failure to protect him from Clodius still rankled. When Pompey had been allied with Crassus and Caesar, Cicero had aided them, for instance, delivering a powerful speech in favour of extending Caesar’s initial command in Gaul, while his brother Quintus had served as one of Caesar’s legates in Gaul. Even before he reached Rome, Cicero was writing to Atticus saying that, publicly, he would vote with Pompey, although in private he would urge him to strive for peace. Caesar’s supporters he saw as wastrels, most of them young and already associated with criminal activity. Yet he realised their strength, claiming that the only thing Caesar’s side ‘lacked was a good cause, since they had everything else in abundance’. Yet already Cicero could not help wondering why this situation had been allowed to occur. Would it not have been better to have opposed Caesar when he was weaker, rather than waiting until the Senate itself had granted him honours and power, making him a far more dangerous opponent. Caesar had been allowed to win office because the Senate had not effectively opposed him when he was weak and vulnerable.

By the middle of December Cicero was outside Rome and began to realise just how divided the Senate was over the issue. The vast majority, both in the Senate and the equestrian order, wanted peace. Most were also dubious about Pompey’s intentions and what would happen once he defeated Caesar. As Cicero put it, ‘from victory (for Pompey and the Senate) will come many evils, and certainly a tyrant.’ Seeing just how strong was the desire for peace, he again wondered why they had allowed Caesar so much power if they were only going to fight him in the long run. When war finally came, Cicero’s correspondence became filled with the rumours that circulated among the nervous citizens. He could not understand Pompey’s decision to leave Rome and then not to make any effort to defend the city, seeing this as an open admission of weakness. He remained there for a few days, before retiring to the country. He corresponded with Pompey and Caesar as well as many other friends, most of whom urged him to declare himself more openly.

Cicero was the greatest orator of his day and was also a prolific author His letters, which were published after his death, provide a very vivid picture of the period of the Civil War (AKG Berlin)

Marcus Caelius Rufus was one of that wild, irresponsible generation that figured so heavily in the radical politics of the Late Republic, but he remained very friendly with Cicero, who had successfully defended him in court. During his tenure in Cilicia, Caelius had sent a series of gossipy letters packed with news and scandal from the city. Now he had joined Caesar, feeling that even if Pompey might have the more honourable cause, then Caesar certainly had the better army, which was what counted as soon as a political dispute spilled over into open war.

Pompey’s decision to abandon Italy and instead build up his power in the east dismayed Cicero along with many others. It also added to his own uncertainty, made worse because he had still not laid down his imperium as proconsul and therefore had the power to command troops. During these months his letters to Atticus were probably more frequent than at any other time in his life, and on some days he wrote more than one. Pompey’s strategy seemed misguided, and yet still he felt a loyalty to him and gratitude, even if he did not really believe in his cause. Both Caesar and several of his associates begged Cicero to return to Rome, for he wanted to summon a legitimate Senate, and the presence of a distinguished ex-consul would add greatly to its authority. There is a strange, almost unreal quality about some of these letters, as Caesar’s associates quote their commander’s letters reporting that his army has cornered Pompey in Brundisium and telling of the progress of the siege. At the end of March, as Caesar returned to Rome, he called on Cicero and in person assured him of his respect and tried to persuade him to go back to Rome. Cicero said that if he came, he would say that the Senate could not approve of Caesar taking his legions to fight in Spain or Greece, and then lament Pompey’s fate. When Caesar replied that he did not want such sentiments expressed publicly, Cicero explained that he could not go to Rome and speak under any other circumstances, which was why he chose to remain in the country.

Caesar left soon afterwards for the Spanish campaign, and Cicero began to wonder about belatedly following Pompey, or perhaps travelling simply to stay out of the conflict. Caelius marched with Caesar and in April wrote to Cicero during the march, telling him that he ought not to join the enemy, for Caesar was already gaining a marked advantage. Around the same time Curio stopped at Cicero’s villa en route to Sicily. Cicero found him as boastful and unrestrained in his speech as ever, and was disturbed to hear that Curio also believed that Caesar’s clemency was a temporary ploy and that his true nature would eventually assert itself. In the end, after continued heart-searching, he decided to embark for Macedonia and join Pompey’s army. His teenage son, also called Marcus, was already there, having volunteered to serve as a cavalry officer. What Cicero found in the Pompeian camp dismayed him, for the senators had become increasingly extreme, and spoke of extreme punishments not simply for Caesar’s partisans, but also for anyone who had remained neutral. Pompey seemed to lack his old confidence and purpose and there was little sense of unity among the commanders. Illness kept him from the field at Pharsalus where the defeat confirmed his low opinion of the army. In the aftermath as an ex-consul still possessed of proconsular imperium, Cato is supposed to have offered him command of the survivors, but Cicero declined and returned to Italy.

Caesar’s long stay in Egypt, and the lack of communication from him for months on end were incomprehensible. All Cicero wanted was for the war to end, and for at least some semblance of normality to return to Roman politics, but now that Caesar had won the war, he failed to end it utterly. Cicero waited near Brundisium for the victor to return, nervously wondering how he would be treated. In the event, Caesar proved extremely friendly, but even so Cicero spent increasingly little time in formal politics and more writing philosophical works. Part of him hoped that Caesar could guide the state and allow a gradual return to the proper institutions of the Republic. Yet the reality of Caesar’s supremacy, and the dictator’s continued reliance on the dubious individuals who had proved loyal to him in the past, steadily alienated him. Cicero was not involved in the conspiracy, although since the letters to Atticus for the months before Caesar’s death were not published it is possible that his friend was implicated in some small way, but wished to conceal this by the time that the letters were published. He had high hopes of better things after the deed and, for almost a year, once again took a leading role in politics. His respect for Brutus was considerable, even though he had seen the ruthless and unscrupulous side of his character during his own governorship of Cilicia, where Brutus’ agents had demanded four times the legal rate of interest on a loan given to the city of Salamis. Even so, he was not persuaded by Brutus when the latter argued that he should not encourage Octavian’s ambitions, lest they raise up another Caesar. Cicero saw Antony as the real enemy, and was willing to deploy any means to destroy him. He failed, and himself perished, leaving his letters, speeches and philosophical books as a permanent memorial.

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