Thursday, July 01, 2010

From Sparrow: Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome's Greatest Politician

Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome's Greatest Politician by Anthony Everitt
Random House Trade (2003)

About half-way through my reading of this book, I was talking with my husband, Jason, extolling this work and trying to explain how delightful an old dog I was finding its subject, Cicero. Except, you see, I was calling him "Kee-kare-roh," and that was driving Jason nuts.

"Look," he said sternly, "If you're going to keep talking to me, you need to stop saying his name like that. It's 'Sis-ser-oh.'"

"But Henry Beard said . . ."

"I know all about your 'Henry Beard' and his guide to pronouncing Latin correctly, and I don't care. In this age and time we call him 'Sis-ser-oh,' and I'm not going to listen to you any longer if you keep saying it the other way."

"May I still say, 'Iulius Kigh-Sahr'?" I meekly asked.

"No!" he thundered. "His name is 'Julius See-zer,' understand?

It is intolerable not to live among those who adhere to the classic Latin pronunciations. I died a little that night.

Ah, but Cicero lives on, no matter how you pronounce his name. And he is quite the character. Anthony Everitt has written a conversational treatment of Rome's greatest politician that never alienates the reader. In fact, the thoughts, motivations, and actions of the movers and shakers living in the last days of the Roman republic are breathtakingly modern in this presentation. Mr. Everitt has inherited something of Ezekiel's gift in taking dry bones more than two thousand years in stillness and resurrecting them into a marvelous dance of words and history.

Mr. Everitt has chosen the most dramatic moment of ancient Roman history since the suckling of Romulus and Remus on that she-wolf (oh yes, I've seen the statue replica at Caesars' Palace in Las Vegas, and, yes, it is rather off-putting) with which to open his story. It is a scene which the modern reader believes he knows well: The now familiar conspirators are gathered to enact what they see as a last desperate measure to save the Republic from a despot. Caesar enters the Theater of Pompeius with nonchalance, holding in his hand an unread message passed to him at the entry way by a friend that begged him to be on his guard, for duplicity and murder were afoot. The conspirators attack, only one dagger making a fatal wound, but, as it is in these cases, one was enough. Caesar shields his lower half from embarrassing exposure in death and sinks to the ground, his last words of wonderment and accusation on his lips, "You too, my son?"

But, what the reader may not expect is the next turn of events: Brutus, to whom Caesar's words were spoken turns to the stunned gathering of Senators, brandishes his dagger, and cries out, surprisingly, to Cicero. He congratulates the stunned statesman with the recovery of freedom upon the death of the tyrant. As Mr. Everitt writes, "Hitherto scarcely able to believe his eyes, he could now scarcely believe his ears. It was almost as if the assassination had been staged especially for him -- as a particularly savage benefit performance" (p. 6). Marcus Tullius Cicero, famed orator and superannuated politician, whose days in the limelight seemed long past was suddenly held up as the symbol of Republican values and traditional liberties. Thus began the last stage of this remarkable life, as Cicero came back into public prominence when it was one of the most dangerous times in the history of Rome to assume such prominence.

"To understand Cicero's life," Mr. Everitt writes, "which spanned the first two thirds of the first century BC, it is necessary to picture the world in which he lived, and especially the nature of Roman politics" (p. 9). What follows is a remarkably lucid description of the structure of Roman government and the personalities inhabited therein. Cicero, we learn, was a relative newcomer to the scene of Roman politics, which was dominated in a large part by the optimates, the "best people" whose ancestors had filled the Senate since the founding days of the Republic. Cicero, though an outsider to the machine, quickly rose the rungs of influence by sheer skill and hard work; yet, despite his lack of political pedigree, he tended toward the conservative system that protected the interests of the patricians, instead of those of the plebs (whose supporters were known as the populares).

The biggest boon to a biographer is first-hand information about the subject, either from the subject's journals or letters. Too few of history's most illustrious characters have left behind such tantalizing material. Fortunately for Mr. Everitt, Cicero was one of those few. Preserved for over two thousand years has been his copious correspondence with his dear friend, Atticus. From these letters, as well as Cicero's published works and contemporary accounts, Mr. Everitt has culled the cream to bring the reader into the world of both the man and the public figure. And what a man! It is difficult not to be charmed by this fascinating Roman who is presented as urbane, insinuating, sardonic, and forthright -- a man who valued highly the good of the Republic, but always had an eye on which side his bread was buttered. To his friend, Cicero was free to comment on wide-ranging topics, both personal and national in scope. This contributes to an exceptionally thorough and free-wheeling portrait of the final years of Republicanism in Rome.

Cicero turns out to be the exemplifier of both the strengths and weaknesses of that ancient governmental structure. As Rome grew into an Empire, it outgrew its limited scope of government that Constitutionalists held so dear. There was no overriding voice of authority in Rome. There were co-equal Consuls and various groups that made up the Senate and regional governments, but, by law, there was no strong central figure to keep control over the ever-expanding boundary lines that were the result of conquest. When Caius Julius Caesar stepped forward with bold leadership and a vision of empire that united and constrained divided factions, Republicans like Cicero were alarmed. Much like the loose structure of the unwieldy empire, Cicero's talents were soon outgrown when politics as usual was swept away by civil wars and tenuous peace. For Cicero was a great compromiser and flatterer, able to convince opposing sides that he was in their corner. He practically invented politics as we understand it -- a combination of charm, personality, and persuasion. In the last years of his life, when he made an unmitigated stand against Caesar's successors, Cicero's silver tongue failed him, and he fell from favor and into danger.

One of my disappointments with this book was that Atticus, Cicero's life-long friend and correspondent, remains in the shadows. I found myself curious about this man who received a steady flow of letters from Cicero, both in the stateman's glory days and exiled days; who offered steadfast friendship when it might have been controversial or dangerous to do so; whose sister was married stormily to Cicero's brother, Quintus; who was wealthy and stayed that way though many landowners were robbed of their estates to pay governmental debts; and who, amazingly, survived the final, deadly proscription that cost Cicero his life, despite Atticus's close ties to the condemned politician.

Mr. Everitt has done an admirable job in bringing Cicero to life for the uninitiated but curious Roman historian. This author is currently working on a biography of Augustus, which promises to be another intriguing glimpse of a bigger-than-life personality in the context of his culture and times. I await its publication eagerly.

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