Cicero, by W. Lucas Collins
As I have read some reviews for this book, I wonder if they read the same book that I did. Seeing the book criticized for having a too laudatory view of Cicero, I wonder how a book that comments extensively on Cicero’s vanity and indecisiveness and lack of manliness, the fact that his reputation was thought greater before his immense debt to Greek philosophy and rhetoric was better known, and the fact that the book compares is style of speaking to the French (not a generally flattering context from a 19th century Brit), I do not see this book as any effort to whitewash the flaws of Cicero at all. That said, the book does comment quite honestly and kindly on Cicero’s virtues and present him as a great man in a turbulent time who perhaps could not have saved his life save by exile, but could have been a man far more worthy of emulation had he been of a more honest and discerning character.
The structure of the book is notable–it begins with a chronological account of Cicero’s family background and life, looking at his provincial background, his education, his early success, his rapid political rise, his turbulent time as consul with the Catiline conspiracy, and then his death in the aftermath of Caesar’s assassination at the end of the Roman Republic. The book then examines such areas as Cicero’s letters to friends, politicians, family members, and even a beloved and honored slave who was eventually freed, attempts to give a fair-minded and balance praise, along wit an attempt to be just to his religious context and temperamentally ironic ways, as well as his philosophical efforts, which were mostly translations of Greek models. The book also comments at some length about Cicero’s tendency to be a devil’s advocate and avoiding taking a strong stand on debates about the immortality of the soul or of the contrast between stoics and epicures that was common in his time, and also, it should be admitted, in our own as well.
In many ways, Cicero was an admirable man. He was intelligent, quick-witted, creative, and patriotic. His immensely candid personal correspondence reveals a chatty and gossipy sort of spirit that enjoys friendly dinner conversation, and also a certain pettiness and political bias that are certainly common in our own times as well. Paradoxically, the same candor that gives us a knowledge of Cicero’s virtues also allows us to see his vices, and he was well-supplied with both. Cicero, with his vanity and prickly personality, sounds like someone who would have been a charming dinner companion but was a weak reed to lean on to protect one’s republic. It was not through lack of effort that he failed to defend a corrupt republic, but rather because the Republic could no longer be saved. The book is well-written, charming, and more than a little bit gossipy itself, but it is a chilling look at the fate of a republic that is on its last legs in the schemes of demagogues and the frustrated longings of the hoi polloi.