A ‘New Man’ in Rome

Review: Gesine Manuwald’s ‘Cicero’

Cicero writing his letters (woodcut, 1547) / Wikimedia commons
March 7, 2015

In the winter months of 45 B.C., Cicero sank into depression.

His beloved daughter Tullia died, while pregnant, after a string of failed marriages. Cicero then divorced his second wife Publilia, who had exhibited little sympathy for his loss. He withdrew to the Italian island Astura, despondently wandering its shores.

"You will be asking me if there is no comfort to be derived from books," Cicero wrote to Atticus, a close friend, in May of that year. "I am afraid that in this situation they have the contrary effect. Without them I might have been tougher; an educated man is not insensitive or impervious enough."

Yet it was books, and writing, that always provided a refuge to Cicero in times of difficulty. He would compose some of his greatest works after Tullia’s death, before re-entering the political arena in Rome to battle the autocrat Mark Antony. Cicero was a protean, and flawed, figure in ancient Rome, acting at times as the Republic’s most ardent defender—but during periods of political strife, he became a reclusive writer and philosopher. He ultimately suffered a violent end at the hands of his nemesis Antony.

Gesine Manuwald, a professor of Latin at University College London, captures the many sides of Cicero in an impressive new survey. The book, part of the Understanding Classics series from I.B. Tauris, serves as a useful introduction for undergraduates and generalists alike. She mostly relies on the words of Cicero himself, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions about his life.

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C.) was what Romans called a homo novus, or "new man," in politics. Born in the Italian town of Arpinum, he did not have any former consuls or famous politicians as ancestors. He studied in Rome as a boy and then traveled to Greece to meet with leading rhetoricians and philosophers. Rising through the ranks of the Roman order as a lower-level magistrate and then a senator, Cicero also developed a reputation as the most gifted speaker in the courts.

Cicero mainly served as a defense lawyer, protecting those who he felt were abused by the corrupt and authoritarian practices of leaders such as Sulla. He treated legal cases as an opportunity to comment on politics, build his prestige, and espouse themes of moderation, constitutionalism, and adherence to the rule of law.

But Cicero was convinced that, if necessary to preserve the Republic, extralegal measures were justified. After his unanimous election to consul in 63, he uncovered a plot by Catiline to march on Rome with armed forces and assassinate him. He revealed the conspiracy in front of the Senate and denounced Catiline, who attended the speech and fled Rome soon afterward.

Some of Catiline’s accomplices were later caught and summarily executed. Death without trial violated Roman laws, but these killings were backed by a Senate decree and an emergency provision known as senatus consultus ultimum. Although Cicero’s support for the killings was controversial, he touted himself as a "watchful consul" who had "saved the city" without a civil war. Some accused him of vanity and self-glorification, a charge to which he was certainly not immune. But his status as a homo novus made him all the more determined to earn his reputation for greatness.

"I ask you for nothing whatsoever—except that you hold onto to the memory of this moment and of my whole consulship," Cicero wrote in his final Catilinarian Oration. "As long as that memory remains fixed in your minds, I shall feel that I am defended by the strongest of walls."

However, it was not long before Cicero was expelled from the walls of Rome. He left in self-imposed exile in 58 after Clodius, a thuggish associate of Caesar’s, proposed a bill calling for the exile of any Roman who killed another citizen without trial. Cicero’s house on Palatine Hill was set ablaze after he departed for southern Italy, and then Greece.

Cicero did eventually return to Rome, but he often stayed out of politics amid the brewing civil war between the generals Pompey and Caesar. While fretting about the deterioration of the Republic, he found solace in writing about philosophy. Cicero himself hewed most closely to Plato’s school of skeptical Academics, but he wrote works such as On the Republic and the Tusculan Disputations to introduce new generations of Roman readers to all of the Greek philosophical doctrines—even inventing terms in Latin for phrases that did not translate easily.

But in times of crisis, statesmanship came first. With Caesar’s assassination in 44 and the rise of the tyrannical Antony, he was "consulted again about public affairs."

"My time must be devoted to the State, or, rather, my undivided thought and care must be fixed upon it; and only so much time can be given to philosophy as will not be needed in the discharge of my duty to the commonwealth," he wrote in On Divination.

In Cicero’s orations against Antony, the Philippics, he summoned all of his wit, passion, and patriotic fervor to persuade Romans that Antony was a public enemy—a task at which he succeeded. Antony violated Romans’ natural right to liberty and peace, Cicero argued, and must therefore be destroyed by extrajudicial means if necessary.

Manuwald suggests that Cicero unwittingly provided a defense for the diktats of later Roman emperors by his assertion that natural law—and individual judgments of what that law requires—sometimes supersedes positive, written law, a complaint which puts on in mind of Lincoln’s famous defense of his suspension of habeaus corpus: "Are all the laws but one to go unexecuted, and the government itself...go to pieces, lest that one be violated?"

Despite Cicero’s initial success against Antony, his temporary alliance with the cunning Octavian—Caesar’s nephew, adopted son, and soon to be known as Caesar Augustus—proved shortsighted. Octavian formed the second triumvirate with Antony and Lepidus in 43, and in a wave of murders had Cicero killed. His head, and the hands that had composed the Philippics, were displayed on the speaker’s platform in the Roman Forum in a final act of vengeance from Antony.

Cicero often speculated about the likelihood of his own immortality. He wrote in his first Catilinarian Oration: "I believe the memory of my consulship will live as long as this city survives: which means, I hope, that the term of life for both of them will be eternity." Cicero expanded on the link between civic success and human immortality in The Dream of Scipio, writing that the true path to immortality, and a place in heaven, is not memorable words, but the conservation and improvement of one’s country.

But when the Republic finally died, and Cicero with it, his words—eloquent, lucid, inspiring, transcendent—did not perish with it. They exercised a great influence on the humanists of the Renaissance, 18th-century thinkers such as Voltaire and Hume, and even such American presidents as John Adams and Harry Truman.

As the Roman historian Velleius Paterculus (20/19 B.C.-A.D. 30) put it, Antony did not defeat Cicero in any meaningful sense:

You took from Marcus Cicero a few anxious days, a few senile years, a life which would have been more wretched under your domination than was his death in your triumvirate; but you did not rob him of his fame, the glory of his deeds and words, nay you but enhanced them. He lives and will continue to live in the memory of the ages, and so long as this universe shall endure—this universe which, whether created by chance, or by divine providence, or by whatever cause, he, almost alone of all the Romans, saw with the eye of his mind, grasped with his intellect, illumined with his eloquence—so long shall it be accompanied throughout the ages by the fame of Cicero.

Rome may be gone, but republican principles still hang on—in no small part due to the remarkable life of this homo novus.

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