On March 4, 1841, about an hour and a half into the longest inaugural address in American history, President William Henry Harrison turned from his clause-by-clause celebration of the Constitution to warn of the lessons posed to the American republic from ancient Rome: “[T]he senate continued to meet in the temple of liberty to talk of the sacredness and beauty of the Commonwealth and the people assembled in the forum, not as in the days of Camillus and the Scipios, to cast their free votes for annual magistrates or pass upon the acts of the senate, but to receive from the hands of the leaders of the respective parties their share of the spoils.”
If the Roman history seems a bit much, consider that President Harrison’s speech was about an hour shorter than intended, thanks to Daniel Webster, who dissuaded the new Chief Executive from submitting the citizenry to a legion-by-legion account of the Roman armies. What Harrison’s inaugural nevertheless reveals is how intensely earlier generations of American politicians took to heart the lessons of the Roman Republic.
You can get a taste of what this fascination must have been like if you follow the oratory of Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), for whom any amendment, procedural vote, appropriations debate, or quorum call is a dandy excuse to expound on ancient history. For example, during a 1999 House-Senate conference, Byrd instructed dazed listeners on the triumph of Scipio Africanus over Hannibal in 202 B.C., bolstering his case for loan guarantees for the steel industry with highlights from the life of Emperor Majorian. Sadly, neither the majority of today’s politicians, nor the bulk of its journalists, has anything like the knowledge of Roman history that any educated citizen would have possessed a century ago. (My own knowledge comes in more or less equal measure from Gladiator, Spartacus, Ben-Hur, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.)
So it is that in our time, the name Cicero is more likely to evoke an Illinois community noted for its laid-back approach to matters of public probity than one of the most influential voices of the last 2,000 years. It is the goal of first-time author Anthony Everitt to rescue Marcus Tullius Cicero from his recent descent into obscurity, and to celebrate the great Roman politician and orator who has become “an unknowing architect of constitutions that still govern our lives,” and whose oratorical style “can be heard in the speeches of Thomas Jefferson and William Pitt (not to mention Abraham Lincoln and, only half a century ago, Winston Churchill.)”
Everitt has his work cut out for him. He seeks to encapsulate some 65 years of Roman history during which the Republic buckled and ultimately collapsed under the weight of economic crises, plots and counterplots, civil wars, and successive generations of military men who held the republican form of government in minimum high regard. He also aims to give as rich a glimpse as possible into the life and thinking of Cicero–a task considerably aided by the fact that Cicero’s lifelong correspondence with his friend Atticus has survived the ages. Moreover, Everitt seeks to show “how unrecognizably different a world the Roman Republic was from ours,” but also that “the motives of human behavior do not change.”
He succeeds admirably on the latter mission; reading this book is a dispiriting lesson in the eternal power of pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed, and sloth. But this success comes at a price: Far from kindling an admiration for Cicero as the noblest Roman of them all, Everitt succeeds–unwittingly, I suspect–in painting a vivid portrait of a vain, temporizing figure of towering self-importance, whose hunger for flattery and position undermined his professed goals for the republic and ultimately cost him his life.
From his earliest days (he was born in 106 B.C.), Cicero was determined to make his mark as a public figure. For someone outside the Roman aristocracy who was by nature unsuited for a military career–he was, in fact, something of a physical coward–that meant a career as an advocate, a lawyer, where success in pleading the case of a litigant led to a measure of fame and a foothold on the ladder to political power. For Cicero, the “main chance” came in 80 B.C., when he defended Sextus Roscius on a charge of murdering his father–almost certainly a frame-up concocted by the real killers. His defense consisted in large measure of a sustained attack on the character of one of the complainants:
He comes down from his mansion on the Palatine Hill. For his enjoyment, he owns a delightful country place in the suburbs as well as some fine farms close to the city. His home is crammed with costly gold, silver and copper Corinthian and Delian dishes And just look at the man himself you see how, with his elegantly styled hair, and reeking of perfume, he floats around the Forum you see how superior he feels himself to be to everything else, that he alone is wealthy and powerful.
Indeed, along with actual assassination, character assassination was part and parcel of Roman politics. Accusations of promiscuity, drunkenness, and homosexuality were commonplace (and, if the surviving rhetoric of the times is to be believed, “family values” had a very different meaning back then). When it came to such charges, Cicero was both accused and accuser. In one of his famous “Philippics” attacking Mark Antony, he said, “You assumed a man’s toga and at once turned it into a prostitute’s frock. At first you were a common rent boy; you charged a fixed fee, and a steep one at that.” So much for the lamentations bemoaning the loss of civility in our coarser times.
Beyond the personal assaults lay a far more serious matter, one that would drive Cicero’s entire public life: how to achieve a stable, just republic. In Cicero’s view, a harmonious state was much like a concert. “A state is made harmonious,” he argued, “by agreement among dissimilar elements. This is brought about by a fair and reasonable bleeding of the upper, middle, and lower classes, just as if they were musical tones.” It was this approach that made Cicero such an important figure so many centuries after his time. This notion echoes in the theories of John Locke and other Enlightenment figures, and also in the American Founding Fathers’ struggle to shape a government of checks and balances. But in his own time, as seen through Everitt’s capsule history, Cicero’s vision seems like the hopeless fantasy of an Esperanto enthusiast.
At root, there were no effective checks and balances in ancient Rome–not in reality. Theoretically, the competing interests of the upper and lower classes reached a kind of equilibrium through an array of forces: the Senate and the assembly; tribune and praetor; consuls who governed for one year only. But in reality, Everitt tells us, mob rule was commonplace, and new rulers consistently cancelled the edicts of older ones, often bringing criminal indictments that reached back years, even decades. Ambitious politicians spent fortunes to win approval through gaudy theatrics and gladiatorial displays, while subsidizing grain to support the lower classes (the famous “bread and circuses” some of us may dimly remember from high school civics).
Indeed, much of Cicero’s public life appears to have been spent imitating King Canute, seeking to roll back the tide of disorder by preaching the virtues of Republican rule. He apparently succeeded, during his tenure as Consul in 63 B.C., in defeating a conspiracy to overthrow the republic. But when later challenges emerged in the form of Pompey and Caesar, Cicero found himself trapped between his hunger for approval and political influence and his principles. His ultimate refusal to join the First Triumvirate forced him into exile. Fifteen years later, when Caesar’s adoptive son Octavian joined forced with Mark Antony to uproot the last vestiges of the republic, Cicero’s rhetorical attacks on Antony led to his state-sanctioned murder.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Everitt’s account is how unappealing a portrait Cicero paints of himself. He apparently wrote numerous accounts of how utterly splendid his one-year reign as Consul had been, driving his contem- poraries to distraction. His letters to Atticus and others reveal how dazzled he believed others to be by his wit and wisdom. “I recalled the weak and weary Senate to its old traditional vigor,” he once boasted. “That day, my energy and the course I took brought to the Roman people the first hope of recovering their freedom.” (Today, a “close aide” to Cicero would leak such a judgment to Bob Woodward.)
Moreover, Cicero could not control his mouth (or his pen). Again and again, he was unable to resist the clever jibe, aimed at foe or friend. His fate may, in fact, have been sealed when Octavian got wind of a nasty crack aimed at him by his supposed ally Cicero, thus making him less inclined to veto Mark Antony’s death sentence against him. Had C-SPAN and its ubiquitous boom mikes covered Roman politics, no doubt Cicero wouldn’t have lasted a week.
Cicero’s human failings point us to a greater failure of insight–and to his lasting achievement. Cicero believed that the republic could only be saved by better men, imbued with the virtues of prudence, restraint, and loyalty to Republican ways. The utter disaster of such wishful thinking prompted leaders, nearly 2,000 years later, to look to a different answer: to mechanisms that would recognize that “men are not angels” and restrain power despite human nature’s worst instincts. Taking Cicero’s words to heart, they forged a republic that, so far, has proved impossible for a Caesar to destroy.
Jeff Greenfield is a CNN senior analyst. His books include The People’s Choice and Oh Waiter! One Order of Crow! Inside the Strangest Presidential Election Finish in American History.