Book Review: Cicero

Cicero: The Life And Time Of Rome’s Greatest Politician, by Anthony Everitt

It is a remarkable achievement that Cicero was during his time and ever afterward viewed as being among Rome’s greatest citizens and politicians despite some of the major liabilities that he had to deal with, which included his own personal vanity and lack of physical courage, the fact that he was strictly a politician and not a recognized military leader at all (which was a major shortcoming in his times and in Roman culture as a whole) and that he was in the anomalous spot of being a “new man” from a provincial family but also one who supported the traditionalists of the Senate, even if he was only a moderate conservative himself. Cicero’s reputation rests nearly entirely on his character as a supporter of the Senate who was nonetheless willing and able to back moderate reforms to preserve the republican regime as a whole as well as his powerful rhetoric in his speeches to the Senate and in his philosophical writings, which served to translate key Greek rhetorical and philosophical concepts into an enriched Latin. And if this is enough to give someone a claim to fame, Cicero certainly deserves to be remembered fondly by anyone who has recognized his linguistic skills or used derivations of terms that he turned into Latin.

This book is between 300 and 350 pages long and it divides the story of Cicero’s life and background into seventeen chapters. The book begins with a preface, chronology, and maps. After that comes a look at the fault lines in Italian society that marked Cicero’s early childhood and set the path for much of his life (1), while also noting the ambition that he and his brothers got from their father (2). This leads to a look at Cicero’s first experiences in the forum and in politics (3) as well as his political rise and foreign postings as he rose in the course of honor (4). His struggle against Catalina (5) and the revenge taken by pretty boys with populist connections (6) that led to his exile (7) follows. Then there is a look at the ideal constitution (8), the drift towards civil war between Caesar and Pompey (9), and the strange madness (10) of defeat that led Cicero to need to pacify Caesar to avoid martyrdom (11). Then the author discusses Cicero’s philosophical investigations (12), the violence of the killing of Caesar (13), and Cicero’s dealings with Octavian and his attempt to split Octavian and Mark Anthony (14). After this comes the conclusion, with Cicero’s civil war (15), his death (16), and some postmortum reflections (17), after which there are sources, acknowledgements, and an index.

Cicero’s fame as Rome’s greatest politician rests on several interrelated grounds. For one, he lived at the end of the time where Rome could be expected to have great politicians, and even during his life it was increasingly fatal to have political ambitions in an age where proscriptions eventually destroyed most of the senators, and eventually even Cicero himself. The fact that Cicero was appreciated after his death by people like Augustus (who, alas, did not push for saving his life very hard) certainly helped him have a good reputation throughout history. The advice that Cicero gave about improving one’s rhetoric was remembered through history, but the fall of the Republic did make it more difficult for rhetoric to be connected too closely with power, especially as the course of the Roman Empire made emperors increasingly militaristic in nature and frequently hostile to the cultural capital that existed within philosophers and politicians who were able to think but not string enough to command the loyalty of increasingly powerful and restive troops. Cicero’s inability to combine the martial and the political skills had been one of the factors that led to his own demise, and it was an increasingly difficult problem in Roman history and then Byzantine history after him.

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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