Ancestors

Miriam Griffin

  • Cicero the Senior Statesman by Thomas Mitchell
    Yale, 345 pp, £22.50, May 1991, ISBN 0 300 04779 7
  • Cicero the Politician by Christian Habicht
    Johns Hopkins, 148 pp, £17.50, April 1990, ISBN 0 8018 3872 X

His genius prospered in its works and its rewards. He himself enjoyed good fortune for a long time; but during this prolonged happiness he was intermittently dealt severe blows: his exile, the collapse of his political cause, the death of his daughter, his end so sad and bitter. Of all these reverses, he bore none as became a man except his death, and that seems not altogether undeserved to the fair-minded because he suffered nothing at the hands of his victorious enemy more cruel than he would have inflicted had the same opportunity been his. But if we weigh his defects against his virtues, he was a great man who deserved to be remembered and who needed a Cicero to sing his praises.

This balanced epitaph on the statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero ends with a tribute from a great author of Latin prose to the greatest that Rome ever produced. Livy was one of the first to raise Latin historical writing to the level to which Cicero had already brought Latin oratory, epistolography and didactic exposition. By the time that Livy was writing, the republican form of government for which Cicero had lived and died was gone. In its place was the disguised monarchy of Augustus, who had achieved his first successes with Cicero’s support and then repaid him by acquiescing in his murder. Augustus, however, was determined that Cicero should pay for his political mistakes with his life alone, and not with the thing he most valued, his posthumous reputation. It was Cicero’s murderer, Mark Antony, whose statues and monuments he destroyed; the works of Cicero, whom Augustus described as ‘a learned man and a lover of his country’, he thought appropriate reading for his own grandson. Cicero’s published speeches and his philosophical dialogues and essays – in which he included his treatises on rhetoric – ensured him continuous renown as a stylistic model and as a political and moral thinker in Late Antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Christianity managed to accommodate his sceptical paganism, absolute monarchy his republicanism. Swings of fashions away from his symmetrical periodic style spared his repute as a thinker, until he became the culture hero of the Age of Reason, the champion of free and rational religion and politics.

The admiration of the American Founding Fathers for the hero of the Old World gives added point to the harsh remark of the young Karl Marx in 1839, that Cicero ‘knew as little about philosophy as about the President of the United States of North America’. The 19th century was, in fact, to question and change the valuation of centuries. Cicero’s conservative defence of the ancestral political order and social hierarchy of Rome fell victim to the belief in human progress, and to theories of history that supported a demand for change in the living conditions of the less privileged orders of society. Cicero’s presentation of Roman upper-class etiquette as a code of moral duly ran counter to romanticism and individualism. His avowed indebtedness to the thinkers of ancient Greece, to Plato and Aristotle and the philosophers of his own youth, fell foul of the new cult of originality and the new Hellenism.

The founders of modern Classical scholarship repaid their debt to their best informant on post-Aristotelian philosophy, on Roman Republican history, and on Roman political thought and practice in general, by demoting him to the status of a mere source. Cicero’s own works they attempted to remove from intellectual history, just as they tried to remove Cicero himself from the centre of the Roman political scene. In particular, the great Theodor Mommsen, who saw in Caesar the kind of inspired leader that Germany needed to take her forward to a unified state, poured contempt on the Dictator’s most effective posthumous critic. In his History of Rome which won him the Nobel Prize for Literature, he wrote of Cicero: ‘As a statesman without insight, opinion or purpose, he figured successively as democrat, as aristocrat, and as a tool of the monarchs, and was never more than a shortsighted egotist.’

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