#Cicero a Hero a-No.

Impatient with Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables, I read two books on Cicero. Anthony Everett’s Cirero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician (2003) flowed pretty well, and so did Anthony Trollope’s Life of Cicero (1880). Everett moves his prose lens back and around to give context of that turbulent time, and also covers some details aside of Cicero such as the horrors of the Colosseum. This means if you are familiar with Roman history, you’re going to have to read through repeat material before the book returns to Cicero. Both Trollope and Everett go through Cicero’s court cases, the famous Verra, the rhetoric of which made him famous (as Cicero wanted). His words are indeed effective.

Fame opens the gates to power. Court rhetoric lead naturally to politics. So this part of the life of Cicero becomes the story of a politician. A remarkable strength of Cicero the political leader was his resistance to corruption. This was at a time when the state acquired funds through tax farming, leasing out to governors the power to tax. You can imagine the thievery this system encouraged. Cicero, however, was honest.

In a time of successive civil wars, in part Haves vs Have Nots ( optimates vs populares ), Cicero had a role. Class war was only a part cause. The deeper problem was the failure of the Roman Republic to have a means of growth in size without growth in instability. I did not detect any sign that Cicero sensed this. Rhetoric is strong at finding advantageous arguments, and has little role for vision or understanding that does not support the immediate goal. While he he held hopes of going back to the old ways, his comprehension of the situation seems to me limited to power, personalities and political parties. This tempers my appreciation of his prose… but maybe that’s not fair; I should just his words by what they do offer, if I can.

My main problem with Cicero was that as Consul, ruling under martial law, he captured conspirators against the Republic. What to do with them? Hold them for trial, or execute them.

Imagine the accomplishment of the Roman Republic, its hatred of the tyranny of kings, the revered assertion the right to trial of its citizens. Now imagine the Republic is under threat from within and without (the Catiline Conspiracy). You want to save the Republic. Yes, under martial law, you have the power to execute your prisoners without trial. It’s expedient, sets an example, and prevents them from doing future harm. It’s even popular, for now. But how can you not foresee that by doing so, you’re doing harm to the Republic yourself? How can you not see that this is a different kind of corruption? Julius Caesar, for one, warned against the executions. I think here again Cicero missed a chance to shore up the cracking Republic, instead putting a wedge in one of the cracks. Since some of his contemporaries understood this, I think this critique stands.

Much later, after the next wave of Roman civil wars, Cicero the politician suffered exile, adjusted his alliances to changing fortunes, and sat down to write his treatises that helped build the fame for which he’s revered today. I am still willing to try to learn and appreciate from this tradition. But I won’t forget that when tested, he chose extrajudicial execution. (I append one of Professor Sandler’s lectures on Cicero below.)



Published in: on March 9, 2018 at 8:03 am  Leave a Comment  

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