Ancient History & Civilisation


The World of Cicero

Suppose I manage to make even Caesar who is riding on the crest of the wave just now a better citizen, am I harming the state so very much? Why, even if I had no ill-wishers, even if I had everyone’s goodwill (as I ought to have), there would still be as much to be said for healing unsound bits of the body politic as for amputating them. But look at the facts: the Senate has been deserted by the knights… our leading men think they are touching heaven with their finger tips if the bearded mullets in their fishponds are feeding out of their hands, and they neglect everything else. Don’t I seem to you to be doing enough of a service if I contrive that those who have the power to do harm do not wish to do so?

Cicero, Letters to Atticus 2.1 (c. 3 June 60 BC)

Like Pompey, Marcus Tullius Cicero was a novelty on Rome’s political scene. So far from triumphing while a non-senator, he had no senators or Roman magistrates in his family and warfare was not exactly his talent. He was born (like Marius, oddly) at Arpinum, a hill-town about eighty miles south-east of Rome in the same year as Pompey, 106 BC. He was a ‘new man’, with family roots in the local gentry but without a funerary mask worth dwelling on in his family’s halls. Yet he has been described byan admiring modern scholar, as ‘perhaps the most civilized man who has ever lived’.1

Nowadays, Cicero is better known for his vanity and self-obsession, his poor political judgement and his way of referring to the mass of Roman citizens as ‘dregs’ or ‘cattle’, to life in the provinces as ‘insufferable tedium’ and to the Greeks of his era as shifty and lightweight. But there is far more to him than these quick stereotypes: he is the Roman whom we really feel we know in these turbulent years.

Like others of his class at this time, Cicero was excellently educated, first at Rome (where he studied oratory in the grand houses and law, too, at the feet of great older experts) and then for a few years in Greece, including six months or so at Athens while he improved his Greek and his grasp of philosophy. One of his fellow students in Athens was of central importance throughout his life, Pomponius (known also, and better, as Atticus), whom Cicero, a few years his junior, had already befriended in Rome. On and off, from the early 60s BC, Cicero wrote brilliant, personal letters to Atticus, who saved them in his household, whence copies have miraculously come down to us. Atticus was a man of similar social class to Cicero, but he chose to remain a knight (eques) and avoid a public career. Like Cicero, he preferred the traditional establishment line in politics, but was discreet about it. He was famous for his excellent old-fashioned taste, even down to the ‘period’ furniture in his houses. Like Cicero, he loved books and literature and he was Cicero’s mentor in the choice of furnishings and Greek works of art. Unlike Cicero, he maintained real friendships with Romans of high noble family and contrived always to slip away from political crises or to remain friends, a charming neutral, with both sides.

Unlike Atticus, Cicero was to become the outstanding Roman orator. With a typical perversity, Hadrian is said to have disagreed, preferring the bumpy Latin of the elder Cato. He was, quite simply, wrong. Oratory first made Cicero’s name: in Rome’s political arena, the best way for a young hopeful to make a public mark was to prosecute a superior successfully. After some early successes, Cicero embarked in August 70 on his famous prosecution of the corrupt governor Verres (it was interrupted by the days of newly offered public games which were the gift of the triumphant young consul Pompey). In August 70 the Senate’s monopoly of the law courts was about to end, but Cicero’s attack was a glittering success: it was backed by about eight weeks’ fact-finding in Verres’ province of Sicily. As a speech for the prosecution, it is a rare survivor, one of only two among Cicero’s subsequent surviving speeches, but it shows similar merits to his many speeches for the defendant. Cicero could command so many different tones: a clear and concise narrative of detail or rolling rhythmical periods or hilarious wit and extreme invective. Before juries he is the master of the confiding style which attempts to lead the jurors’ attention away from a case’s weaker points. He remains a brilliant model for any practising barrister who happens to be widely educated. What we now read was usually polished by Cicero’s hindsight for publication, and, where he is least convincing, it is because the gap between the style and Cicero’s true commitment is too great. But there are political classics too, the speech in defence of feckless young Caelius with its wonderful sketches of the carefree, luxurious life of the young about Rome and the speech on behalf of Milo, a man transparently guilty of murder but defended by Cicero with brilliantly misleading logic in a court where hostile soldiers stood by to intimidate him. Cicero is often criticized as lacking courage, and he himself admitted this weakness, but he was brave when embarking on this case and brave, too, in his final year of political activity.

In his sixties, when political ‘liberty’ was denied to him under Julius Caesar’s dominance, Cicero turned to writing theoretical works on the history and practice of oratory, of religion and of philosophy. The results are tributes to his long-amassed learning and are fundamental to our grasp of Roman intellectual life. Cicero was always inclined to a conservative position. Intellectually, he rejected the claims of divination by which individuals claimed to be able to discover the future and the will of the gods. But he was a firm upholder of the traditional civic religion which was handed down as the customs of Rome’s ancestors. He was therefore overjoyed to be appointed an augur, or official Roman diviner, in 53 BC, although this public job involved the taking of omens which, intellectually, he did not believe in. Among the various types of Greek philosophy, Cicero always inclined to the sceptical style. His letters show how varied were the philosophical tastes of his Roman contemporaries, a generation for whom the language of philosophical ethics and enquiry was now a part of educated life, so different from a century earlier. Cicero’s philosophical scepticism was of the old-fashioned type, at ease with his natural conservatism.

These speeches and treatises are among Cicero’s claims to a civilized mind. Above all, that claim rests on his letters. They are unique survivals, written across some twenty years and sent to and from this leading Roman who was not always writing for publication. At one level they show us Cicero’s tastes and lifestyle, his love of books, his views on his slaves, his family(including his beloved daughter and his irritable brother), his many houses and what they meant to him. We see him distraught with grief at his daughter’s death in her early thirties,2 his falling out with Terentia, his own wife of thirty years, writing fondly about his trusted Tiro, the slave-secretary whom he freed, or regretting the behaviour of his most recent son-in-law, Dolab-ella. Cicero owned no fewer than eight country houses in Italy, although farming was never one of his interests and hunting did not interest him at all. Moving between them, he had none of a country squire’s attachment to one ‘home’, but he did appreciate the solace these places offered, their woods and setting and their ‘refuge’ from public turmoil. But he had several houses in Rome, too, culminating in the fine house on the Palatine hill above the Forum which was such a statement of his social arrival. Its previous senatorial owner had had it designed as a mansion overlooked in the public gaze (privacy was not a priority of socially prominent figures in the world of Rome).3 Cicero borrowed hugely in order to buy it, in an age when smart house-prices had inflated tenfold in sixty years.

The letters also show us Cicero’s vacillating moods, veering between elation and despair. They show his concern for promising young protégés (which could be rather stifling), his refusal ever to be idle and his exceptionally cultivated mind. In June 59, during Caesar’s controversial consulship, we find him down in his country house at Antium (Anzio), busily engaging with a projected work on geography, to be based, of course, on Hellenistic Greek masters, and fretting that the subject was too difficult to be presented attractively. We hear about his wife Terentia’s forests, his access to friends’ private libraries (Atticus’ library was his mainstay) and his constant blend of public and scholarly life. It is the life of a very rich Roman, but it is one which is immediate and civilized to many of our tastes, whereas the lifestyle of a Pericles or a Demosthenes has left us no such letters (they never wrote them) and is lost, apart from anecdotes.

Cicero is also the one Roman father whose relationship to a daughter can be followed at some length. As ‘family father’, paterfamilias, he had her legally in his power, but he nonetheless expressed extreme affection for her as his ‘haven’ and ‘repose’ from public difficulties, a source of ‘conversation and sweet ways’. When she married for the third time, aged only twenty-six, her husband was not, in fact, of Cicero’s own choosing. Her opinions thus weighed with him more than law and custom might otherwise lead us to expect. But in loving her, he also, typically, loved himself. She was ‘the most loving, modest and clever daughter a man ever had’, and there by ‘the image of my face and speech and mind’.4 Both the affection and the self-reflection are distinctly Cicero’s, and we probably would not find them to this degree in other contemporary fathers.

But there is more to these letters than evidence of ‘social life’ at large. They have a wit, an oblique bearing on great public events and a superb line in caustic comments and personal jokes. Unashamedly, they revel in the failures of their contemporaries, immortalized by Cicero’s gleeful nicknames, ‘the Pasha’ (Pompey, lord of the East), ‘Little Miss Pretty’ (his hated Clodius, one of whose names meant ‘handsome’), ‘Ox-eyes’ (Clodius’ promiscuous sister Clodia) and many more. They show us, like nothing else, what liberty meant in a senator’s world, and they leave us secretly longing to join in. Better still, they are one man’s view on events around him which he is so often interpreting as he personally wants them to be. There is a marvellous gap between Cicero’s understanding, so often self-centred, and the reality which we can attribute with greater plausibility to the big fish among whom he swims. His judgement of character is often so wonderfully wrong, not least through his tendency to over-interpret his own importance to other people. Yet there are also the sharp judgements when his hopes have failed or are not at issue; these remind us that he, too, was not totally deceived.

His career had an unforgettable path, navigating the contests over ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’. In the 60s BC he could start by swimming with the populist tide, speaking up in 66 for Pompey’s extended command in the East or defending a populist tribune in court. But it was a populism tempered by professed respect for the establishment, and in 64, in an undistinguished race, the establishment backed the biddable Cicero’s campaign to be a consul. He was successful for January 63.

In preparation, his younger brother Quintus had sent him a ‘little notebook’ on electioneering, a classic text on the strategies by which a candidate could succeed at Rome. ‘Nearly every day, as you go down to the Forum,’ Quintus states, ‘you must repeat to yourself “I am nouveau ; I am after a consulship; this is Rome”.’5 One should strike a balance between the cultivation of the noble and influential and attention to one’s popular image, in the city, throughout Italy, and even in big households where Cicero (his brother warned) should take care that the slaves will speak well of him. Lacking family connections, Cicero did indeed take the trouble (as his brother advised) to learn about the size, location and nature of each important man’s property in Italy. When he travelled byroad, he was said to be capable of speaking familiarlyabout the owner of each estate along his route. Such people would come to Rome and prove to be especially important in ‘fixing’ the assemblies for elections and legislation. Quintus’ handbook assumes the existence of all sorts of fascinating ‘fixers’, the ‘distributors’ (who paid bribes to blocks of potential voters), ‘companionables’, four groups of whom were already ‘obliged’ to Cicero, and ‘men of outstanding influence, who have from you, or hope to have from you, control of a voting tribe or a century… for, in these days, experts in electioneering have worked out, with all possible keenness and resources, how to get what they want from their fellow tribesmen’.6 Quintus’ advice applied to elections, but the people who could ‘fix’ a voting-tribe for an election could also, surely, fix one for the separate ‘tribal’ assembly which passed laws. Quintus also assumed that men would fix the ‘harangues’, or addresses, to the people. He had one cardinal tip for his brother: do not discuss political matters in the streets or in a public ‘harangue’. When dealing with ‘the people’, cultivate ‘a memory for names, an ingratiating manner, constant attendance, generosity, publicity, a “fine show”, a promise of advantage in the state’.7 In classical Athens, a Pericles or Demosthenes did not lead their fellow democrats by such classic ‘Italian’ arts.

The year of the consulship, 63, was the very summit of Cicero’s career. It was a time of acute social and political tension, much of it traceable to the effects of Sulla’s reforms and the decade of reaction. Those whom Sulla had settled on farms in Italy had become beset by debt and the uncertainties of their continuing title to their land. Further up the social scale, Sulla’s reforms to the Romans’ political career-structure had intensified the race for high political office: ever more competitors left the starting-stalls, but less than half of them would be elected praetor, the first major obstacle to their progress. There were also the demoted senators, keen to re-emerge and regain the eminence which a ‘black mark’ from the censors had lost them. Specifically in 63, there were the uncertainties over the absent Pompey’s intentions and the fears of popular violence in Rome (grain was still scarce and the people’s ‘clubs’ had just been banned, in 64). First, Cicero artfully opposed a populist bill for allotting lands to yet more settlers in Italy, and then, in the autumn, he flushed out what he judged to be the seditious designs of a desperate noble, Catiline, who was heavily in debt himself after his electoral failures to win a consulship. Open rebellion was raised separately in Etruria and further plotting was uncovered in the city, including (according to Cicero) plans for arson, which certainly terrified his urban audience. Whatever the rights of Cicero’s judgement, there was a real danger of murder, forcible abolition of debt and an armed coup. Conspirators were arrested, but in the Senate in December Cicero presided as consul over a fateful decision to execute the citizen-prisoners under arrest. Contrary voices were heard, especially Julius Caesar’s, but the sentences went ahead although they violated the basic rights of Roman citizens to ‘appeal’ and, since Gaius Gracchus, to have a public trial on a capital charge before the people. It was no excuse when Cicero promptlymisclassified the victims as ‘public enemies’. It was also unfortunate that several of them were linked by ‘friendship’ to the absent Pompey.

Basking in his success nonetheless, Cicero circulated the details of his interventions in prose and in verse, in Greek and in Latin. But his moment of triumph was immediately darkened by his treatment of citizens under arrest: he had allowed the principle of ‘liberty’ to be infringed. Enemies attacked him as a ‘tyrant’, activating profound beliefs about justice and legality in the Republic. We can watch, through Cicero’s letters, how the glory of his own inflation was brusquely brought down. Early in 62 he wrote to the absent Pompey, setting himself up as the great man’s equal, the future adviser at his side. Pompey did not even answer.8 In 63 Cicero had antagonized the powerful Crassus (arguably, the enmity went deep) and had also crossed the preferred path of a major rising star, young Julius Caesar. In late 62 he added the enmity of the forceful Clodius, not least by denying an alibi which Clodius wanted to plead to save himself in a scandalous cause célèbre at Rome. Having used Cicero, the nobles then stood apart from their embarrassing ‘new man’. The consulship had given Cicero a seniority in the Senate, but his constant praising of his own achievements and the mess with which he became identified removed him from the centre stage.

Of the four keys to political success at Rome, Cicero had only one: he was a superb orator, but his military capacity was minimal, his finances insufficient, and his connections with noble friends and family non-existent. Nonetheless, he looked socially upwards, hoping to be taken ‘up’ rather than constructing a circle of similar new men and helping them to rise with him. In late 60, as new groupings formed, we can read him actually believing that Julius Caesar would be looking to him, Cicero, to reconcile great Pompey with Crassus and to help events to go more smoothly. Indeed, Julius Caesar liked Cicero: he liked his wit and his literary talent and valued his skill as a speaker. But politically he never kept him on the inside track. Pompey, too, recognized how Cicero had helped him earlier in the 60s, but the two of them were never serious friends. Crassus, basically, detested him.

For the next year, 59, these three big men agreed an ungentlemanly deal whereby they would advance each other’s political needs. Cicero emerges from his letters as gloriously slow to realize the existence of this deal,9 and, when he eventually speaks out against the three of them in fury, within hours the threat of his enemy Clodius is loosed by them against him. Neither Caesar nor Pompey would intervene to save him. In March 58 he preferred to leave Rome for a voluntary exile rather than wait for Clodius, now tribune, to prosecute him. He wandered away from the Rome which was his life-blood, reduced to absolute misery and the possibility of suicide. In Rome, with program-matic irony, Cicero’s enemy Clodius promptly demolished Cicero’s proudly acquired house on the Palatine and consecrated its site as a temple to Liberty. The ‘Liberty’ was the people’s ‘freedom from’ harassment, infringed by Cicero’s presiding over citizens’ executions in December 63.

By September 57 Cicero was back again, as Clodius’ star waned and Pompey, especially, regained his nerve and realized Cicero’s potential uses as an orator (Pompey was a poor speaker). But return came at a price: Cicero had promptly to speak up for Pompey’s interests and once again, in 56, he was completely deceived about the three big men’s intentions. He was left unaware of the renewal of their ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ until it had happened. As a result, his ignorant stirrings of independence were quickly silenced by them yet again and he found himself obliged to co-operate, or else to risk his life; co-operation meant delivering the most humiliating speeches in defence of his former public enemies, the political friends of the dominant three. For Cicero, the one bright ray in these speeches was the occasion to hark back to his own consulship in 63: its reception was the event from which he never recovered psychologically.

Cicero’s reactions to this chequered political course are the most vivid witness to the value of freedom for the psychology of a senatorial participant. It certainly did not mean the freedom of democracy, but it did mean ‘freedom from’ the dominance of others and ‘freedom for’ senators like himself to exercise authority and dignity, while retaining ‘equality’ among their own peer group. The artful domination by the three big men, Caesar, Pompey and Crassus, was a disaster for him, second only to exile, that fate as bad as death. In 54 he wrote to his brother: ‘I am tortured, tortured by the fact that we no longer have a constitution in the state or justice in the courts. Some of my enemies I could not attack; others I have defended.’ And above all, ‘I am unable to give a free rein to either my opinions or my hatred. And Caesar is the only man who loves me as I wish.’10 But this ‘love’ was only a love professed by Caesar in absence. Caesar (we can see) had other ambitions, and Cicero was not at the heart of them.

One resort for Cicero was to withdraw and write works of ideal political theory. From 54 onwards Cicero was engaged with writing an ideal Republic and books of Laws, works which conspicuously failed to address the realities and evils of the contemporary Republic in Rome. As a self-made man, he was the champion of the establishment view of the state: it involved the supremacy of the Senate, as opposed to the unvetted sovereignty of the people’s assemblies. The Senate’s decrees, he wrote, should be binding and the Senate should be ‘master’ of public policy: senators should also inspect the votes which the people would otherwise cast. The secret ballot was a disaster: senators should supervise voting and grant only ‘the appearance of freedom’ so as to preserve the ‘authority’ of the ‘good men and true’.11 His ideal state did leave a role for the people’s tribunes, but its vague ideals of ‘concord’ between the senators and knights and an enlightened ‘moderator’ as the head of state were completely irrelevant to the real crises of his beloved Republic. The Republic’s problems were rooted in the power of military commanders and their followers and the social and economic disorders which made their gangs and armies relatively easy to retain.

His other response to the dynasts’ pre-eminence was to write an ‘inside story’ of events since the mid-60s.12 Sadly the work is lost to us, although Cicero read bits of it aloud to Atticus and compared its tone to the most malignant of previous Greek historians, Theopompus, the contemporary of Philip and Alexander the Great. But we do know that in it he blamed both Crassus and Julius Caesar for political plottings which we would otherwise hesitate to ascribe to them: plans for a coup in 65 (Crassus, he believed, had been particularly active in this) and the backing of the desperate populist Catiline in 63. Was his book only embittered gossip, distorted by his hindsight? It is one of the books from antiquity which we would dearly like to recover, for it may well have told the truths which Cicero was afraid to state elsewhere, as well as airing yet more conspiracy theories which would be extremely entertaining to study.

In 51 BC a discontented Cicero found himself sent east to a miserable province, Cilicia, in southern Asia Minor (although Cyprus was included, together with more territory in southern Asia). Through his letters, we have our first prolonged view of a Roman governor at work abroad, applying justice to the local affairs of his province.13 Cicero went on the customaryassize-tours round the province’s main towns; he issued the usual ‘edict’ on taking office and chose to base it, wisely, on the edict of an admired predecessor, the lawyer Scaevola. In general, he wished the Greek-speaking locals to settle their disputes between themselves, but if he found that these disputes involved Romans or foreigners or points of importance under Roman law, he would judge them on the lines of the Roman praetors’ edicts at Rome. By such piecemeal decisions, the Romans’ own laws on such topics as inheritance or defaulting debtors would come to apply to subjects outside Rome: there was no single act or decree imposing them.

Despite Cicero’s complaints, provincial duties were a better alternative for him than political life at Rome. Cicero lived for his Republic, and pined without it, yet his life and incomparable letters were to encompass its ultimate crisis. Back in 59 BC Julius Caesar had offered Cicero a responsible post on his staff abroad so as to escape from the political storm which was then brewing round him. Even Atticus had advised him to take it. It was a typical act of graciousness, the ‘clemency’ which Caesar would publicize to his Roman audience. But as Cicero now observed, this ‘clemency’ was insidious: who was Caesar to deign to pardon the likes of us?14 On that question, the history of ‘liberty’ and ‘justice’ would now depend.

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