Monday, 16 January 2017

Ancient Voices in a Modern World: Marcus Tullius Cicero

There are a few voices from the ancient world that still reverberate in our own times, and few more so than that of Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC). Cicero lived, as arguably we do today, in "interesting times" (a phrase used by the British statesman, Joseph Chamberlain, at the end of the Nineteenth Century, and again by his son, Austen, in 1936, to describe the anxieties of an age in which uncertainty appears to be the only certainty: the "Chinese curse" on which it is supposedly based is almost certainly a myth). In Cicero's case, he was living through the final years of the Roman Republic, fearful of the onset of a tyranny that he would not, in the end, live to see: for, whilst the historian (or, for that matter, the historical novelist) looks back on past uncertainties with the luxury and benefits of hindsight; those who live through such an age can only guess at where the winds of fortune might blow them.

Cicero, Musei Capitolini, Rome. Photo: Jose Luiz (licensed under CCA).

Many of us in Europe, the United States, and the Commonwealth, have grown up with the idea that we live in "democracies," and associate the birth of democracy not with Rome, but with Athens. That is certainly where the word (meaning government by the people) has its origins, but a time-traveler from ancient Greece or Rome would not recognise our systems of governance as "democratic."

The "golden age" of democratic Athens had long since ended when Cicero, as a young man, visited the city to study philosophy, politics and rhetoric. This "golden age" had, arguably, lasted for less than a century (480-404 BC), and the Athenian model of democracy was widely seen as a failed political experiment. Whilst in Athens, Cicero read Plato's Republic and Aristotle's Politics, both of which identify democracy as a dysfunctional form of government. He also read the works of the later Greek historian, Polybius (200-118 BC), who argued that, in practice, most political systems of his day (he was thinking, in particular, of the Roman system, which he admired) combined elements of different theoretical systems, such as democracy, monarchy and aristocracy.

Cicero returned to Rome intent on putting into practice what he had learned. The "aristocratic" element of the Roman constitution was represented by the Senate, but, as he was not an aristocrat by birth, he did not have an automatic seat there.

The Curia Julia in the Forum of Rome, one of several buildings in which the Senate meetings were held. Photo: Giovanni Dall' Orto (reproduced with permission).

The rather limited "democratic" element was represented by public assemblies, and by opportunities for a few men to gain admittance to the Senate by election, as Cicero did.

A Roman elector casting his vote, denarius of C. Cassius Longinus, 63 BC. Photo: Classical Numismatic Group (licensed under GNU).

The "monarchical" element was represented by the Consuls, elected, in each case, just for one year, with two serving at any one time, so that they could act as checks and balances on one another. Cicero served as Consul in 63 BC. This was the highest office under the Roman Republic, the equivalent of a modern presidency.

A Roman Consul, accompanied by Lictors. Photo: Classical Numismatic Group (licensed under GNU).

The Rome of Cicero's day was deeply divided along lines of wealth. On the one hand, aristocratic military commanders such as Julius Caesar, Marcus Licinius Crassus, and Pompey the Great, returned from their foreign campaigns with almost unimaginable wealth in plunder and slaves: their veterans typically had far greater loyalty to them than to the Roman state, and organised themselves into competing mobs in support of the political ambitions of their respective commanders. On the other hand, many ordinary Romans lived in desperate poverty. With the crumbs from their own tables, and promises (however empty) of more to follow, Populares, such as Caesar, Crassus and Pompey, sought to recruit the poor to their cause.

Marcus Licinius Crassus, believed to have been one of the richest men ever to have lived. A property speculator, and a political ally of Julius Caesar, he played a key role in putting down the slave rebellion of Spartacus. Photo: The Louvre (image is in the Public Domain).
Propaganda cups handed out by political candidates to potential voters with gifts of food or drink. One is inscribed with the name of Cato (a representative of the Optimate faction), the other with the name of Catiline (one of the Populares). Photo: Salvatore Falco (licensed under CCA).

Cicero, in company with Plato, Aristotle, and Polybius, was no democrat. He feared the mobs, and the power of brute force that they might lend to a potential tyrant. What he was, above all, was an advocate of constitutional government; of the idea that the political process (as defined by precedent - the Roman Republic did not have a written constitution) was at least as important as political outcomes. Through his written treatises, De Re Publica ("On the Commonwealth" - from which we take our word "Republic"), and De Offiiis ("On Duties"), this idea has arguably had more influence on modern systems of government than the direct democracy of Athens in the Fifth Century BC. This idea, however, carries its own dilemmas, as Cicero learned to his cost.

Cicero's De Officiis was the second book to be printed in Europe, after the Gutenberg Bible. This is King Henry VIII's personal annotated copy, printed around 1500. Photo: Folger Shakespeare Library (licensed under CCA).

When, during the course of his Consulship, he had to face down an attempted coup d'etat, led by a Senator named Catiline, he acted swiftly to execute the conspirators, without the formality of a trial. Although he had the support of the Senate in doing so, he must, as an experienced lawyer as well as a politician, have known that he was acting unconstitutionally, and he was subsequently exiled. Neither his books, nor those of Plato, Aristotle or Polybius, provide a satisfactory answer to the question as to when, and under what circumstances, a constitutional ruler may be justified in acting outside the constitution. Catiline had already violated the constitution: both by assembling an illegal army, and camping it outside Rome; and by entering secret negotiations with a foreign power (the Gaulish Allobroges tribe), which Cicero learned of through his network of spies.

On his return from exile, Cicero cautiously welcomed the assassination of Julius Caesar, but this "liberation" did not follow the course he might have wished to see. Power was seized by one faction after another, each of them backed by the sort of armed force he had always feared. He himself was seized by forces loyal to Mark Antony, and his head and hands (the instruments of his oratory) displayed on the Rostra (speakers' platform) from which he had denounced Catiline to the Roman people.

The Rostra of the Roman Forum. Photo: O. Mustafin (licensed under CCA).

Yet when, in the modern context, we think about Mark Antony, we almost inevitably remember the fictional speeches scripted for him by Shakespeare, many centuries after his death, whereas, in Cicero's case, it is his own words that echo down to us through the centuries:

"Quo usque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra? Quam diu etiam furor iste tuus nos eludat? Quem ad finem, sese effrenata iactabit audacia?"

"When, O Catiline, do you mean to cease abusing our patience? How long is that madness of yours still to mock us? When is there to be an end of that unbridled audacity of yours, swaggering about as it does now?"

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. I love Cicero, we should hear more about him. He's also very quotable.