Cicero also denounced the patron’s “un-Roman” excesses of lifestyle.
Taking on the current power structure was risky business for the fledgling lawyer, but Cicero scored a brilliant victory, to the approval of the crowds in the Forum. He promptly took on the powerful again in his next case, with the successful defense of a woman from Arretium who was threatened with a politically motivated revocation of her Roman citizenship.
Cicero’s skills as an advocate, together with his passion for the constitution and the republican form of government — all of which were significant factors in many of his cases — created a great demand for his legal services. Naturally, favorable results begat more cases. Success as a lawyer brought the accumulation of vast wealth — at one point, in addition to a fine house on Palatine Hill, he owned six villas.
While Cicero was the first member of his family to reach the senate, he nevertheless succeeded in advancing at the earliest possible age through the various offices of the republic. The culmination came with his election to the position of consul in 63 B.C. Christian Meier, in his 1982 biography of Caesar, calls 63 B.C. one of the most “fateful years” in the history of Rome. The constitution of the republic was under challenge and increasing stress.
What had served Rome, the city-state, for centuries was not functioning as well for a world empire. Generals, such as Pompey, and other strongmen threatened the senate’s constitutional role as well as its independence. Another disaffected group, led by Catiline, attempted a coup d’�tat, which Cicero exposed. He had the perpetrators executed (without due process), at a time when capital punishment was generally outlawed by the republic.
Cicero’s conduct (which he justified as necessary “to defend the constitution”) was to haunt him through the rest of his career — and throughout history. To avoid subsequent prosecution, he spent more than a year and a half in Macedonian exile.
After his term as consul, Cicero became a senior member of the senate for life, but failed to establish a personal power alignment — whether with Caesar, Pompey or anyone else — to materially influence events or to preserve the constitution.
After a band of senatorial assassins killed Caesar on March 15, 44 B.C., they hailed Cicero in the senate chambers, still wearing their bloody togas and hoisting daggers. Octavius (the future Augustus Caesar) and Marc Antony then waged their successful civil war and installed a monarchy. Cicero fought their victorious legions with words, delivering a series of speeches in the Forum on behalf of liberty, the constitution and the republic. Named the Philippics, after a set of speeches given in Athens by Demosthenes in opposition to Philip of Macedon, those orations are building blocks in the canon of Western political thought.
A couple of side points, here. The marketing department of Everitt’s publisher has done Cicero a disservice. The book’s jacket features a picture of the Colosseum — but that structure was dedicated more than a century after his death. Moreover, the book’s subtitle, “Rome’s greatest politician,” does not even survive a motion to dismiss: Caesar, Cato, Marius, Sulla, Octavius and Brutus all have higher claims to this title.
Still, Cicero’s surviving writings, his thought and the range of his interests — not to mention his impact on subsequent generations of thinkers and political doers — make him great. Cicero’s writings on limited constitutional government and on liberty had a profound impact on our founding fathers. He was intensively studied by the lawyers: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, among others.
For the modern reader, Cicero’s letters to his friend Atticus give an impressive view of his humanity and life. But, although he was married to a seemingly remarkable woman for 33 years, Cicero divorced Terentia and, at age 57, married a teen-ager. (Readers of Tom Wolfe’s “A Man in Full” can imagine that that divorce was not one of Cicero’s better legal moves, and things went downhill thereafter. Terentia lived to be 103.)
When his beloved daughter, Tullia, died following the birth of her third child in 45 B.C., Cicero descended into what we would call today a clinical depression. He suffered sustained weeping, loss of appetite and weight, and catatonic isolation. Cicero wrote Atticus from his house in Astura: “In this lonely place I don’t talk to a soul. Early in the day I hide myself in a thick, thorny wood, and don’t emerge till evening. When I am alone all my conversation is with books; it is interrupted by fits of weeping, against which I struggle as best I can. But so far it is an unequal fight.”
Cicero worked himself out of his depression the way he knew best — he wrote a treatise, “Self-Consolation.” That effort was one of the most celebrated works of antiquity, but is now lost.
Everitt writes that Cicero approached old age in a similarly self-reflective fashion. At age 62 he wrote “On Growing Old,” dedicating it to Atticus, who was 65, “hoping it would be useful to each of them at the appropriate time.” That extraordinary work, published first in North America in 1744 by Benjamin Franklin, is still relevant.
David McCullough states that John Adams read “On Growing Old” repeatedly; during his final years, he almost had it memorized. When Adams said, “No civilized society can do without lawyers,” he was paraphrasing Cicero’s construction: “For old men are intelligent, rational, and good at advice and discussions; without old men, then, there would surely be no civilized societies.”
Everitt also chronicles Cicero’s unusual sense of humor. Again and again Everitt reports on Cicero’s joking, quips and punning. Writing to Atticus approvingly about the consul Messalla, Cicero alluded to their apparent agreement that the other consul was a miscreant: “The other has just one redeeming vice; he is lazy.”
Unfortunately, in later life, bereft of true friends, Cicero wrote Atticus: “My brilliant worldly friendships may make a fine show in public, but in the home they are barren things. My house is crammed of a morning, I go down to the Forum surrounded by droves of friends, but in all the crowds I cannot find one person with whom I can exchange an unguarded joke or let out a private sigh.”
Cicero was executed by the forces of Antony and Octavius (now Octavian) following their civil war victory. He met his fate with dignity. Rejecting flight, Cicero had been returning to Rome. Everitt sets the scene from the perspective of Cicero’s executioner, as the latter approached the condemned man:
He had a copy of Euripides’ Medea with him, which he had been reading … . He looked terrible: he was covered in dust, his hair was long and unkempt, his face pinched and worn with anxiety. He drew aside the curtain of his litter a little and said: ‘I am stopping here. Come here, soldier. There is nothing proper about what you are doing, but at least make sure you cut off my head properly.’ … He stretched his neck as far as he could out of the litter and Herennius slit his throat. While this was being done, most of those who were standing around covered their faces. It took three sword strokes and some sawing to detach the head, and then the hands were cut off.
Cicero had been put on Octavian’s hit list, in part, because of a quip construed, maybe inaccurately, as seditious. Of course, Cicero was punning. While it is beyond my competency to explain the force of his Latin pun in English (or to explain most puns, for that matter), if you must have your head hacked off, having it done for a good (or bad) pun, as well as for championing liberty and constitutional government, makes for a hero in my book.
Wayne W. Whalen is a partner in the Chicago office of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. His e-mail address is [email protected].