One disturbing thought kept recurring as I read Anthony Everitt’s engrossing historical biography, Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician: Is George W. Bush, the mush-mouthed leader whom American scholars love to ridicule for his black-and-white reductionism, a modern-day Cicero?
With page after page, the evidence kept mounting: On Page 182, Everitt interprets Cicero’s thoughts as the power-stripped politician frets over the First Triumvirate and its manhandling of the Roman constitution: “There had been a decline in moral standards and a corruption of old habits of responsibility in public life,” the author writes. “All would be well if only there were a return to traditional values…” Hello, Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
Two pages later, Everitt says Cicero’s constitutional writings “reveal a humane conservatism.” Can you say “compassionate conservative”? On Page 254, Everitt again raises a righteous flag when pronouncing, in Cicero’s stead, that “the collapse of the Republic was evidence of the failure by statesmen to apply moral values to their conduct.”
Then there’s the overarching mission of Cicero’s life. The brilliant Roman politician, philosopher, and orator spent practically all his adult years defending a constitution that created, essentially, a slightly democratic oligarchy. Kind of like rich businessmen calling the shots for questionably elected presidents.
It is, of course, absurd to seriously consider Dubya a latter-day Cicero. The president probably can’t even pronounce the Latin phrase Laudandum, ornandum, tollendum, let alone know that this cheeky quote from Cicero—an implied threat to a powerful politician—led to his death. But that’s the beauty of Everitt’s handling of his subjects: he examines Cicero and his times from so many perspectives that the reader is bound to find modern-day equivalents. Sometimes, Everitt even makes the comparisons explicit:
Rome in Cicero’s day was a complex and sophisticated city, with up to a million inhabitants, and much of its pattern of life is recognizably familiar, even at a distance of two millennia. There were shopping malls and bars and a lively cultural scene with theater and sport. Poetry and literature thrived and new books were much talked about. Leading actors were household names.
Cicero is Everitt’s first biography; the subject may seem a bit strange for a British author, however grounded in “the classics in school,” whose professional life has mostly revolved around more modern European arts and culture. But his reading list is authoritative: He appears, of course, to have perused most of the major biographies on Cicero, but more important, he has analyzed (and in some cases, translated) the orator’s still-extant letters. These, particularly his missives to longtime friend Atticus, serve as the basis for much of the book (which was released last year in Britain under the title Cicero: A Turbulent Life).
The biography checks in, minus the sources and index, at 325 pages, which is admirably reader-friendly by contemporary standards. (By comparison, Edmund Morris’ Theodore Rex is more than 550 pages, not including notes, and it covers only seven-and-a-half years of Roosevelt’s life.) But Everitt’s seemingly impressive restraint mostly reflects the paucity of primary sources. Whatever the reason, Cicero is a relatively quick and lively read.
Everitt hits all the appropriate high points in Marcus Tullius Cicero’s life: his birth to a rural aristocratic family in 106 B.C.E. (we even learn, in one of those factoids sure to make the rounds of Cambridge bars, that Cicero’s cognomen means “chickpea” in Latin), his early interest in law and rhetoric, his constant honing of his oratorical skills despite a nervous personal constitution, his rise through the Roman government to a consulship in 63 B.C.E, his dealings with the traitorous Catilina, his refusal to join the First Triumvirate, his exile, his political and philosophical writings, and his contradictory relationships with both the doomed Julius Caesar and the dictator’s hand-picked heir.
All of these elements you’d expect, but Everitt also employs a device usually reserved for long-form crime stories: Kill the victim twice. Cicero begins with a gripping account of Caesar’s assassination, on the Ides of March, 44 B.C.E.—which the author returns to late in the book, after he has established the political, social, and financial grounds upon which the coup was justified. As befits the device, the storytelling is compelling, practically hard-boiled in its language:
Caesar kept twisting from side to side, bellowing like a wild animal. He was cut in the face and deep under one flank. The assassins accidentally stabbed one another rather than their target and it almost looked as if they were fighting among themselves. Then Brutus wounded Caesar in the groin. The dying man grasped, “You too, my son?”
Using Caesar’s assassination as bookends in his biography is more than just a plot ploy to Everitt. Caesar, from the author’s point of view, believed in things that Cicero could not stomach: war, the populares (those who favored a populist point of view, as opposed to the optimates, who supported the Patrician aristocracy), and most important, the end of the Roman constitution. In fact, it was Caesar’s apparently unconstitutional title, dictator for life, that led to his downfall. Caesar represented the one idea that Cicero spoke so eloquently against his entire life: the fall of the Roman Republic.
The author doesn’t quite serve as an apologist for Cicero’s sometimes confusing actions in trying to save the Republic, but it’s obvious that Everitt, in a case of cross-millennia admiration, wants to clear up what he views as history’s misconceptions. One of the main myths Everitt wants to dispel is Cicero’s “reputation for vacillation and compromise”—in other words, the idea that Cicero was willing to sell out his beliefs when it was expedient.
The main case in support of this contention is Cicero’s backing of Caius Julius Caesar Octavianus, Caesar’s teenage grandnephew and the hand-picked heir to the fallen dictator’s fortunes. The conspirators in Caesar’s assassination apparently did not have a plan in place once the dictator was dead. Even worse, they decided not to kill Mark Antony, Caesar’s closest political ally. Given Antony’s sway over the powerful military (which held no love for the Roman Senate and its precious constitution), Cicero decided to throw his lot with the surprisingly Machiavellian Octavian, whose admiration for the constitution ultimately proved hollow.
With little evidence at his disposal, Everitt falls back on Cicero’s much-vaunted political smarts to justify the orator’s support for Octavian and his relentless condemnations of Antony, all of which contributed to the fall of the Republic: “He was too experienced a politician to have taken such a risk without having prepared the ground carefully; something must have happened in December to allay his fears [about Octavian] and allow him to enter into a firm alliance.”
Such comments could easily lead a careful reader to suggest that Everitt’s a hero-worshiper. While the author doesn’t refrain from criticizing Cicero—particularly on the home front, where Everitt suggests there was a “surprising emotional coldness at the heart of his domestic life”—on the whole his portrait of the man is sympathetic, almost to the point of a Hollywood manipulation of the reader’s emotions. Not only does he dismiss Cicero’s penchant for bragging (“Privately, he mocked himself for ‘a certain foolish vanity to which I am somewhat prone,’” the author writes), he also defends the embarrassing period when Cicero did all the legal heavy lifting for the First Triumvirate. “This was not his most glorious hour, but he was taking the only action likely to keep him in the game,” Everitt comments.
Regardless of what you think of his attempts at character reform, Everitt displays a gift for plotting. Ostensibly a chronology of events from roughly 106 to 43 B.C.E., the biography’s narrative makes sense mostly because Everitt offers insightful (though disputed) interpretations of Roman life, politics, and history.
Everitt also shows an appreciation for the complexities of personality, even if he tends to be overly forgiving. Whether discussing the scheming Catilina’s failed attempts to secure power or Cicero’s wife’s mysterious ways with money, or even the malevolent Clodius’ constant use of violence to control state affairs, Everitt is more interested in understanding his cast of characters than in condemning them. His interpretation of Clodius’ vicious street gangs, which patrolled the policeless streets of Rome, is telling:
Beneath the eccentricity of his [radical] politics probably lay a basically conventional ambition to climb the political ladder, reach the Consulship and make a fortune from misgoverning a province. In that sense, there was no material difference between him and his hot-tempered brother…who stood on the other side of the political fence and was a leading conservative.
Hmmm, a political outsider who’s really after power and fortune…Doesn’t that sound familiar? Everitt’s book offers a wealth of opportunities to connect the dots between centuries, particularly if you have a bent toward contemporary politics.
But does the book hold your attention otherwise? For the most part, yes. The chapter following Caesar’s assassination (the second telling) starts to drift into a tedious breakdown of political factions, but the penultimate chapter—on Cicero’s gruesome beheading—offers the same shameful fascination as one of those real-life cop shows.
Can you find a better source on Cicero’s life? Almost certainly. (In fact, the reviewer for the New York Times, a published author on Roman history himself, dismisses a good deal of Everitt’s scholarship.) But can you find a more readable one? I doubt it. CP