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.’

Even the more generous verdict of Livy shows that the vicissitudes of Cicero’s political career offer plenty of scope for adverse criticism, especially as he is the only figure in Classical Antiquity whose spontaneous and unguarded reactions to events are preserved. Cicero’s letters were not published by him, or indeed in his lifetime, and many of them, especially those to his close friend, the wily and sagacious Atticus, reveal to us those periods of hesitation and wavering, those moments of weakness, cowardice and bitterness, that obsession with glory and success, which other Romans experienced and even wrote about in intimate letters, but which were kept hidden from strangers then and now. Modern scholarship has behaved as if it resented its dependence on the copious information, unparalleled in detail for any other period of Greek or Roman history, that Cicero provides. It has used its new techniques for recovering history from non-literary sources and for reconstructing the family relationships of obscure aristocrats, to try and recover an unCiceronian view of the Roman Republic. Not because he had any illusions about Caesar or Augustus, but because he wanted to discount the propaganda of the victor of Actium and see the Roman Revolution as it looked to the loser, Ronald Syme wrote about Cicero in the ironic and hostile tone of Antony’s partisan Asinius Pollio: ‘Cicero was a humane and cultivated man, an enduring influence on the course of all European civilisation: he perished a victim of violence and despotism. The fame and fate of Cicero are, however, one thing: quite different is the estimate of his political activity when he raised up Caesar’s heir against Antonius. The last year of Cicero’s life, full of glory and eloquence no doubt, was ruinous to the Roman people.’

More recently, Cicero has started to regain the limelight. The general hostility in the West to military dictatorship, whether right or left in posture, compounded by the recent swing towards political conservatism, has no doubt played a part. One can adduce, too, the greater role conceded by professional historians to the importance of individuals and their ideas. There is also a growing scepticism, among Roman historians in particular, about the power of prosopographical analysis in terms of factions to render Republican politics any more intelligible than older interpretations in terms of party politics. As regards cultural history, the Roman period is no longer seen as a mere running-down of Hellenism. We all know now that there was philosophy not merely after Aristotle, but even after Posidonius, and that the Romans did not just copy Greek sculpture and architecture but also transformed them.

Thomas Mitchell’s detailed and fully documented account of the last twenty years of Cicero’s life, which aims to combine the story of his career with ‘a comprehensive discussion of the political ideas and events that helped to shape it’, is thus timely and welcome. It is the sequel to his Cicero: The Ascending Years of 1979, and its greater bulk reflects the balance of the material for the earlier and later parts of Cicero’s life. Though there has been a great deal of interesting work done on Cicero recently, there has been no complete study on this scale in English. The authoritative biography in German by Matthias Gelzer was written over twenty years ago, though it is still unsurpassed for its accuracy, its mastery of detail, and its coverage of every aspect of Cicero’s life and thought. Like the best of recent Ciceronian scholarship, which is acutely conscious of the history sketched above and consequently eager to provide a just and balanced picture, Mitchell’s book treats Cicero’s theoretical ideas as part of his political life and times, and measures him by the standards of his own society and the scale of his own contemporaries. Books like Erich Gruen’s The Last Generation of the Roman Republic (1974) and Elizabeth Rawson’s Intellectual Life in the Late Roman Republic (1985), by describing the landscape around Cicero, have made this easier to do. But they have also provided negative proof that the only way to produce a coherent narrative of the late Republic is to follow, like Gelzer, the biographical thread of one or more of the great figures of the period.

Principally because of the more than eight hundred items of correspondence to and from Cicero that survive, he is the only person in Classical Antiquity who could serve as the subject of a biography in the modern sense. For him one can establish a detailed chronology, record his moods and deliberations, trace his relations with his wife and family, estimate his library and his wealth, assess his business acumen and verify his political prognostications. Marcus Aurelius has left a private record of his spiritual experience. but one carefully selected by its subject for use in self-instruction. Others like Pliny provide us with letters, but only those written or selected for publication by the author, with the aim of impressing and instructing others.

Mitchell has not, however, written a complete biography. As his title suggests, his book is about Cicero’s career as a statesman, including his political and moral ideas in so far as they were relevant to that career. The account is unaffected by the current vogue for social history: Cicero’s relationship with his devoted slave Tiro, whom he retained as his secretary after freeing him, earns two pages; Cicero’s involvement in the education of his son and nephew receives half a page; his relations with Terentia are treated mostly from the financial point of view; his second wife is barely mentioned. On the other hand, Cicero’s motivation in political situations is perceptively explored. The book covers the twenty years after Cicero’s moment of triumph in 63 BC, when, as a man who could boast no ancestors who had held office in the Capitol, he achieved the highest office. No ‘new man’ had reached the consulship for thirty years. Cicero’s sensitivity to aristocratic snobbery, his bitterness at the reluctance of those he now felt to be his peers to give him credit for his achievements and the effect on him of Pompey’s charm, are invoked to explain Cicero’s failure to resist the high-handedness of Caesar and his associates in 59 BC and his quiescence after his return from exile. Mitchell explains, without excusing, the flabbiness of Cicero’s upper lip during his exile, which he spent comfortably with friends and which lasted only about sixteen months. He shows how the collapse into disgrace of the honoured position Cicero had so carefully and arduously built up over so many years, and its effect on his family’s prospects, filled him with despair and remorse.

Both Mitchell and Christian Habicht note Cicero’s practice of eventually blaming himself for his mistakes, however much he had originally blamed others. Habicht’s pithy Cicero the Politician has a lot in common with Mitchell’s study of the ‘senior statesman’, for, as Thomas Brackett Reed observed, ‘a states-man is a successful politician who is dead.’ Both concentrate on Cicero’s later years, and both rightly point to the reality of Cicero’s political importance, as demonstrated by the desire of Caesar, as Consul and as Dictator, to have his support, and to silence, if he could not harness, his oratory when absent from Rome. Both trace the ineffectiveness of Cicero’s later career to the distortion of Roman politics by Pompey and Caesar, whose domination inhibited the activities of other senators as well. Both admit that Cicero had no solution to the problems of the Roman state and little understanding of the social and economic tensions of his age. However, as the history of German scholarship demonstrates, admiration of Cicero is difficult to reconcile with admiration of Caesar. Mitchell, like Habicht, blames Caesar not only for overturning the traditional government out of personal ambition, but for having nothing beneficial to offer the state, indeed for having nothing but short-term solutions to immediate problems. As Mitchell puts it, no radically new social or economic order was being signalled.’ Yet Caesar’s legislation, sandwiched between hard-fought bouts of civil war, showed more awareness of the problems of Italy and the Empire than Cicero’s lengthy treatises: it was the government of Rome that defeated him. As one of his close associates said, ‘if Caesar for all his genius could not find a way out, who now will find it?’ How could he find it, while men like Cicero were still alive, men who thought the ancestral constitution was the best that could be imagined?

Mitchell rightly sees Cicero’s last stand against Antony, not as a fanatical act foreign to his character, as Syme claimed, but as another crusade, like the one he had waged against Catiline, against a villain out to destroy the ancestral constitution: the removal of this villain would revive the Republic as the glorious act of tyrannicide had mysteriously failed to do. But whereas Habicht admits that Cicero at times of crisis was culpably willing to ignore proper constitutional procedures and to take refuge in sophistries like ‘domestic enemies’ or ‘the welfare of the people is the highest law,’ Mitchell, while describing him as ‘ruthless and uncompromising and willing to bend or overstep the law if circumstances required it’, calls him ‘a pragmatist, not a legalist’. But it was the ‘unbending legalist’ Brutus (an Academic, not a Stoic, as Mitchell makes him) who correctly identified Octavian as the real enemy of the Republic.

To some of the standard scholarly problems Mitchell contributes briskly and sensibly. The romantic picture of the crusading tribune Clodius is replaced by a judicious picture of a young ambitious aristocrat in league with Pompey and Caesar for their mutual benefit – which included sending Cicero into exile. Mitchell could have strengthened his argument by noting Clodius’s active collaboration with them after the ‘Conference of Luca’, at a time when he had his eye on the higher magistracies for which popularity with the mob would not be enough. He adduces chronological considerations to diminish Cicero’s role in provoking that conference, but is less convincing when he denies that Cicero’s claim to have invaded the citadel of the ‘first triumvirate’ was a boast that he had come close to breaking it up. Cicero’s failure to mention his initiative in writing to his brother is said to ‘defy explanation’. But non-political factors, like his brother Quintus’s temper and his own aversion to abrasive encounters, render Cicero’s silence perfectly intelligible, for Quintus had given pledges for Cicero’s good conduct at the time of his recall.

One of the key points of 19th-century German criticism was that Cicero opportunistically shifted from popular to conservative politics when he reached the consulship Twentieth-century German scholarship first vindicated Cicero’s essential consistency as a conservative politician and then went on to insist that the political principles he consistently followed were those set out in his theoretical works. Mitchell rightly accepts this interpretation, and, in sketching those political principles, combines the evidence, of the treatises with that of the speeches, so as to suggest a total consistency here too. This does scant justice to Cicero’s skill as an orator in adapting his arguments to the particular case.

Take Mitchell’s claim that ‘Cicero shared the racial prejudices of most of his country men, believing that the Romans were a morally superior race, whose moral values, institutions and general way of life were unmatched by any other society.’ When Cicero is defending a Roman governor on a charge of extorting money from the Gauls, he refers to their barbarous rites and disregard of civilised religion; other cases call for attacks on the barbarism and moral inferiority of Africans or Greeks. But when Cicero wants to urge on his peers more respect for Roman religion, he writes of Rome’s conquests: ‘However well we think of ourselves, we have not in fact excelled the Spaniards in population, or the Greeks in accomplishments, or indeed the Italian and Latin peoples in the understanding native to this land and its peoples. But in piety and religion ... in that we have excelled all peoples and nations,’

Even in handling the theoretical works, one must remember that Cicero adhered to the philosophical school of the sceptical Academy which allowed him to pursue whatever argument appeared to him most convincing on each particular issue on each particular occasion. Discussing justice in On the Commonwealth, he appears to endorse the views of the speaker who argues, in Aristotelian fashion, that nature gives dominion to the best and that subjection of inferior to superior is both just and advantageous to the weak. In his On Duties, however, he infers the obligations of an imperial power towards its subjects from the Stoic notion of a natural bond between all rational beings. Finally, ‘racial prejudice’ is not an accurate way of describing the Roman conception of their own superiority: it was not seen as an inherent superiority, but as one conditional on the maintenance of ancestral virtue and religion. Cicero writes that the Greeks in their heyday had been able to govern themselves and others; Caesar admired the valour of those Gauls who had been untouched by the civilisation that was softening the Romans themselves. The discussion in On the Commonwealth distinguishes imperial dominion from that of masters over slaves and likens it to that of fathers over children. This conception of superiority, like Macaulay’s notion that ‘what the Greek and Latin were to the contemporaries of More and Ascham, our tongue is to the people of India,’ has within it the seeds of its own destruction: the ruler is obliged to show his superiority by conferring benefits and rewarding emulation. The Romans were consistent and made their deserving subjects Roman citizens.

The problem of comparing Cicero’s moral standing with that of his contemporaries is complex, since we usually know most about their doings from Cicero himself and hear their voices only in rare letters to Cicero. Mitchell is confident that he far exceeded the standards of his contemporaries in governing his province. Certainly Cicero’s description of the activities of his predecessor in Cilicia, and his deadpan allusion to the inequity of Roman rule in writing to the Senate, support that conclusion. But that does not mean that he was alone in valuing upright and honest conduct in the provinces. Both he and Atticus believed that glory was to be won by good government, and Cato praised Cicero before the Senate for the virtues he displayed in his province. Even if most Romans paid no more than lip service to their code, it is important to recognise that Cicero was not alone in acknowledging its existence.

Mitchell’s conception of Cicero’s treatises as providing traditional views with a ‘humanising and rationalising veneer drawn from philosophy’ has the merit of suggesting that Cicero did not keep Greek theory in a separate compartment of his mind but made a great effort to analyse the ancestral code and relate it to philosophical morality. But it gives little impression of the pleasure and excitement Cicero clearly found in this intellectual and literary effort, or of Cicero’s essential honesty in following the thread of a philosophical argument even when it meant criticising the actions of the ancestors, the revered maiores. In On Duties he tries implausibly to equate the traditional legalistic procedures for declaring war with the philosophers’ demand that war be waged only as the last means of achieving peace: he finishes, however, by advocating more than the traditional generosity to those who surrender (which Caesar boasts of practising) and by condemning the sack of Corinth by the maiores a century before.

Cicero’s hopes for improvement centred on education and on a re-introduction of the standards of the past. Yet, as dusk fell on the Roman Republic, it was Cicero the outsider who gave to its traditional political ideas and to its aristocratic code of conduct their most eloquent and enduring expression.