Book Review: Selected Political Speeches

Selected Political Speeches, by Cicero

When one is looking for a book by Cicero that explains why it is that he remains a vital and important figure in political rhetoric despite having lived more than 2000 years ago and despite his various personal flaws and shortcomimgs as a republican figure, the way he navigated the late Roman Republic has some obvious relevance for us today as our own period is not too dissimilar from his own. This ought to, of course, make anyone who is a friend of responsible and free government reflect upon the way that republicans fail through government failing to meet the needs of the people and then unscrupulous people seeking to dominate government while others pander to the people in order to increase their own power. By the time that Cicero was politically active the Roman Republic was likely beyond saving, but Cicero gave it his best effort anyway, and this book is testament to the way that he sought to encourage and cajole and encourage the Roman leaders of his time to “do the right thing” over and over again, even as his speeches reveal some of the essential problems of the Roman regime of his time, problems that are very relevant to us at the present time as well.

This book is reasonably sized at a bit more than 300 pages. It begins with an introduction that sets Cicero’s public speaking and political career in its proper and melancholy historical context. After that the book contains seven main speeches. First, there is a praise of the command of Cnaeus Pompeius in support of the Manilian Law and the expansion of the Roman Empire into the Middle East (1). After that there is a look at his four speeches against Cataline (2) during his consulate that marked the high point of his power as a practical politician in defense of the Republic. This is followed by a series of defenses, defending the poet Aulus Licinus Archias (3), then Marcus Caelius Rufus (4), and finally, and most controversially, the thuggish but patriotic Titus Annius Milo (5), who was convicted and avoided judgment by fleeing the jurisdiction of the Senate. After that there is a speech showing Cicero’s support of Marcus Claudius Marcellus (6) , and then his first and ultimately fatal philippic against Marcus Antonius that led to his prescription and death (7). After that there are some appendices, including a key to technical terms (i), suggestions for further reading (ii), and maps (iii), as well as an index of personal names.

In reading this book, one is reminded of the fact that republican government has always depended to a large extent on the cultivation of the art of rhetoric. Where it is necessary to build a large consensus of people to support something, one needs to have a certain power of words to encourage people to work together and cooperate, unless one is to leave such cooperation to only the baser instincts of corrupt crony capitalism, which is also something that can motivate more corrupt and decadent regimes. Cicero’s rhetoric, which was not always successful even if it usually managed to carry the day, reveals the sort of political problems of the late Roman Republic in ways that we can see in our own days, including the need to defend some unsavory political characters (like Milo, for example), because their violent deeds are necessary to counteract even more unsavory violence by corrupt and partisan politicians who abuse their power to support their friends or make life difficult for their enemies. Ultimately, of course, Cicero was unsuccessful and his hostility to the work of Marcus Antonius led to his being put on an enemy list and gruesomely executed for his service on behalf of the late Republic. But even after his death, long after his death, his rhetoric reminds us of the words which are sometimes necessary to make a brave attempt to save what is worth saving, namely the hope of good and responsible government.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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