TWO OLD FRIENDS, NOW GETTING ON IN YEARS, WERE looking forward to meeting each other again. The year was 46 B.C. and Marcus Terentius Varro, the most prolific author of his day, was on his way to his country house a few miles south of Rome. A shrewd, practical man, Varro was no deep thinker, but he did try to know all that was known. His neighbor Marcus Tullius Cicero was a great public speaker, whether in the law courts or in the political bear pit of the Senate House. Self-regarding, eloquent, and sensitive, Cicero was vinegar to Varro’s oil. For all that, they liked each other, largely because they shared the same interests. One of these was a passion for Rome’s past.

By a happy chance, a few of Cicero’s letters to Varro have survived the bonfire of time. In one note, Cicero urged Varro to hurry up: “I am coming to hope that your arrival is not far away. I wish I may find some comfort in it though our afflictions are so many and so grievous that nobody but an arrant fool ought to hope for any relief.”

The “afflictions” Cicero had in mind stemmed from a civil war among Rome’s governing élite. Leading personalities were at risk of losing life and limb. What were they to do, they asked themselves anxiously, in an age when the Roman Republic, the ancientworld’s lone superpower, omnipotent abroad, seemed bent on destroying itself at home?

MOST OBSERVERS OF the day thought that the rot had set in a century or so previously. Rome’s conquest of Greece and much of the Near East released unimaginable quantities of gold, not to mention that human gold, uncounted numbers of slaves. Wealth flooded into Rome, which became, in effect, the capital of the known world and grew into a multicultural melting pot and megalopolis of up to one million souls.

This was the unintended consequence of winning an empire, and it is perhaps no accident that the serious study of Rome’s past began at about this time. To men like Varro and Cicero, the once tough, socially responsible, resourceful, and plain-living Roman was being softened and subverted by the Oriental vices of greed, luxury, and sexual license. The city’s constitution had served it well for centuries. A lawmaking citizens’ assembly balanced a small ruling class of nobles. But for this system to work effectively a capacity for compromise and reasonableness was essential—and now this capacity had been lost.

The crisis came when Cicero was a young man. In 82, the Republic’s bloodbath of a civil war, which was waged on and off for fifty years, reached its first horrific climax. Soldiers were forbidden to enter Rome, but a vengeful and ambitious general, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, led an army of Roman citizens into the city and conducted a massacre of his opponents.

The uncertainty about who was to be a victim paralyzed high society. Eventually, a young man plucked up his courage and approached Sulla.

“We don’t ask you to exempt from punishment those you have decided to kill, but at least free from suspense those you have decided to spare,” the young man said.

“I don’t yet know whom I’m going to spare.”

“Well, then, at least make clear whom you’re going to kill.”

Sulla took the point, and saw to it that from time to time whitewashed notice boards were put up in the Forum, Rome’s central square, on which were written the names of those who were to die. There were no formal executions, and anyone who chose to was permitted to carry out killings, and qualified for a handsome reward upon the production of a severed head. A victim’s estate was forfeit. The process was called a proscription (the Latin for “notice board” is proscriptio).

SULLA’S OBJECT WAS to eliminate his opponents, but his supporters often took the opportunity to settle private scores or to enrich themselves. One hapless property owner complained, “What a disaster! I’m being hunted down by my Alban estate.”

Cicero, an ambitious lawyer in his twenties, had direct experience of this cruel and fraudulent behavior. In his first criminal case, he courageously exposed the activities of a member of Sulla’s circle, a Greek former slave named Chrysogonus. He revealed a plot to pretend that a dead landowner had been proscribed; this allowed his estate to be confiscated and sold at a knock-down price to Chrysogonus.

At some risk to his personal safety, Cicero drew an unforgettable portrait of a ruthless fixer on the make:

And look at the man himself, gentlemen of the jury. You see how, with hair carefully arranged and smeared with oil, he roams around the Forum, accompanied by a crowd of hangers-on who (humiliatingly, he implied) are all Roman citizens. You see how he despises everybody, how he considers no other human being to be his superior and believes that he alone is rich and powerful.

Luckily, the authorities left Cicero alone, and it may be that the general had not been aware of the advantage men like Chrysogonus were taking of a confused situation.

Sulla was not simply a mass murderer; he was also a thoughtful politician. He introduced reforms designed to strengthen the powers of the ruling class and to ensure that nobody else would be able to copy his example and hijack the state at the head of an army. They failed, and the careers of politicians loyal to the constitution, such as Cicero and Varro, were thrown off course by a succession of would-be Sullas, the last of whom, Gaius Julius Caesar, launched the civil war that brought down the Roman Republic. Caesar’s victory meant there was no longer room for them on the public stage.

How was a patriotic Roman to respond? As far as Varro and Cicero were concerned, there was no alternative but to withdraw into a life of scholarship. In particular, this meant writing histories of Rome, or composing political treatises, or becoming an antiquarian.

“Only let us be firm on one point—to live together in our literary studies,” Cicero told Varro in April:

If anyone cares to call us in as architects or even as workmen to build a commonwealth, we shall not say no, rather we shall hasten cheerfully to the task. If our services are not required, we must still read and write books on the ideal republic.

Varro certainly did pursue his researches. He is credited with writing a phenomenal 490 books, although only one complete work survives—a handbook on agriculture. He lived to a very great age, completing one of his most celebrated tomes, Country Matters(De re rustica), toward the end of his life. He told his wife, “If man is a bubble, all the more so is an old man. My eightieth year warns me to pack my bags before I set out on the journey from life.” In fact, he managed to survive for one more decade. Among other achievements, Varro established a chronology, which fixed the foundation date of Rome at 753 B.C.; although it contains errors, it remains the traditional time line to this day.

Varro and Cicero continued to meet, sharing black views of the current state of affairs and recalling Rome’s past glories. They visited each other in one or another of their rural or seaside villas. Cicero could be a persnickety and demanding guest. “If I have leisure to visit Tusculum,” he wrote, “I shall see you there. If not I shall follow you to Cumae, and let you know in advance, so that the bath be ready.” A little later, he jokingly threatened, “If you don’t come to me I shall run over to you.”

His admiration for his learned friend shines through the correspondence: “These days you are now spending down at Tusculum are worth a lifetime by my reckoning. I would gladly leave all earthly wealth and power to others, and take in exchange a license to live like this, free from interruption by any outside force. I am following your example as best I can.”

ROME’S HISTORIANS AND antiquarians did not regard themselves as professional scholars but, like Cicero and Varro, tended to be unemployed members of the ruling class. Their purpose was to educate the degenerate generations of their own day. They wanted to be truthful, but when they were handicapped by a lack of facts they accepted legends and were not beyond filling gaps with what they felt must, even should, have happened.

They shaped the story of Rome’s early years as they, the despairing politicians of the Republic’s last gasp, wanted it to be. It was meant as an alternative to the ruinous present. Thomas Babington Macaulay, the nineteenth-century English poet, historian, and politician, imagined that the foundation myths of Rome were originated as folk ballads, and he re-created some of them in unforgettable verse.

Better than anyone else, he has evoked the stern spirit of the Roman patriot:

To every man upon this earth

Death cometh soon or late.

And how can man die better

Than facing fearful odds,

For the ashes of his fathers

And the temples of his gods?

The tales men such as Varro and Cicero told not only illustrated lost virtue but also included horror stories of long ago, worked up if not made up, which were intended to be a dreadful warning to the wrongdoers of their own day, who were set on destroying the state. Their version of events is only loosely connected to the truth (insofar as we can discern this nearly three millennia later), but its historical unreliability is much less important than the light it casts on what a Roman saw when he examined himself closely in an idealizing mirror.

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