FREE hit counter and Internet traffic statistics from

Friday, September 16, 2005

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

For Christmas last year I received the book Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome's Greatest Politician by Anthony Everitt and just a couple weeks ago finally finished it (not because its a long book or difficult to digest - it's an easy read at just over 300 pages).

I was originally interested in the book because my knowledge of Roman history was very limited outside of the first century CE which intersects with the New Testament. In fact, my formal school exposure to any period before that is probably relegated to reading Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in seventh grade - which I didn't like and remember only because of Shakespeare's anachronistic insertion of a clock tower and chime which didn't begin to appear until the early to mid 14th century in Italy. And of course I knew almost nothing of Cicero (106-43 BCE) other than that some Christians like St. Jerome had referred to him an enlightened or "good pagan".

Anyway, I found the book thoroughly engaging and enjoyable. Everitt writes the book in a more or less chronological style with the exception of beginning the book at the fateful Ides of March. He then paints a picture of the Rome that Cicero was born into concentrating on the tumult in the before picking up the story of his early life in Arpinium 70 miles south of Rome.

Everitt then traces Cicero's rise an orator and lawyer centered around the spiritual, legal, and political center of the Roman Republic, the Forum before moving on to his climb up the political ladder and to his Consulship in January of 63 BC. As some of you may know, before the rise of Julius Caesar the Romans elected two Consuls each year to rule jointly. The Consuls would then usually be rewarded with a choice governorship somewhere in the empire in which he could line his pockets and recover the money he spent "campaigning" (which often consisted of bribing).

Although one would think that the Consulship would be highlight of a career and the apex of the book, Everitt spends most of the book on what happened after and Cicero's dealings with Pompey, Caesar, Mark Antony, and Cato through the end of the civil war in 46 BC and the death of Cicero three years later. I won't spoil it for you but the story is a fascinating one as it brings to the forefront the complexity and barbarity of Roman politics as well as the societal stability and political checks and balances we so take for granted in our form of government. Everitt mentions again and again how something as simple as the lack of a police force changes the entire political system as mobs of supporters would be free to intimidate voters into not voting and otherwise make life difficult for candidates trying to gain office.

At the same time I was struck by how many recognizable elements there were in Roman society to our own but also how different the thought patterns of the individuals must have been. The religious life was so deeply entwined with the public life that it is hard to envision how seriously or even if much of the ruling class actually believed in the collection of rituals, superstitions, and (to the post-enlightenment mind) simply bizarre ceremonies they engaged in. It was such that the Consul would/could declare bad omens that stopped public business (often used as a political device) and the Pontiff (the Pontifex Maximus, the chief religious official and authoritative predecessor of the Pope, a title held by Julius Caesar before the civil war) was in charge of populating the calendar with lucky (fastus) or unlucky (nefastus) days in which public business was interrupted. In one scene Everitt recounts how Cicero is trying to make a decision on a course of action and so of course he has his servants slaughter an animal and then hires someone to read the entrails in order to determine what he should do. To me, it's fascinating to try and conceive of how a person who believed in this superstition, or archaic theories of medicine and cosmology for example, thought and reasoned about even the most mundane matters. Probably too much "chronological snobbery" on my part as C.S. Lewis says but still interesting...

In the end Cicero is portrayed as a sympathetic figure who usually worked for the ideals of democracy and good government while not always having the courage of his convictions (unlike Cato who committed suicide rather than accept a form of pardon from Caesar). He's also painted as a man of his times who was not above sacrificing his convictions for financial gain from time to time.

No comments: